'I don't want to be liked': Inna Shevchenko, leader of women's rights group Femen, talks dictators, documentaries and death threats

 

Interviewed at the Schiller Cafe in Amsterdam during the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) late last year, Inna Shevchenko, leader of topless protest group Femen, cuts an academic figure. The 23-year-old is wearing spectacles and a jumper. She gives impassioned opinions on the political situation in her native Ukraine, the country she was forced to flee in 2012 after cutting down a holy cross with a chainsaw in a topless stunt. Granted political asylum in Paris, she is now at the helm of Femen France but speaks boldly of Femen's ambition to grow into a worldwide movement.

I notice from her Twitter account that on the day she spoke to me, she went to Amsterdam's red light district to make a topless protest against the exploitation of prostitutes. A few days later, back in Paris, she was with Femen women protesting against the "dictatorship" of Ukraine's president Viktor Yanukovych by urinating on a photo of him.

There were two films featuring Shevchenko at IDFA, both likely to come out in the UK this year. Kitty Green's Ukraine Is Not a Brothel contains the revelation, reported last year, that the Femen group was masterminded in its early years by a shadowy man, Victor Svyatski, who supposedly hand-picked the prettiest girls to front the organisation. Shevchenko makes it very clear she feels this film is already out of date. Femen has long since moved on... without Svyatski. The other film, Everyday Rebellion, positions Femen within a global wave of non-violent protest groups. She much prefers this portrayal of the organisation.

Inna Shevchenko, leader of the Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen is chased by a policeman outside Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican. Femen activists started an international topless marathon to protest against the Catholic church's views on abortion Inna Shevchenko, leader of the Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen is chased by a policeman outside Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican. Femen activists started an international topless marathon to protest against the Catholic church's views on abortion

How do you find life in Paris?

This question 'How do you find life in Paris' is not really a question for me because I live the same life in any place. I live the Femen life. It doesn't really matter where you physically are. We do the activity now in eight countries. Although I am in Paris, I am in eight countries at the same time.

But it must have been a wrench leaving Ukraine?

Of course, I will not play the hero, saying it was fine. As a 22-year-old girl, you're not expecting to leave your country suddenly, not [to be able to] say goodbye to your relatives or your mother. On a human level, it is something you don't expect to face, especially when you are 22. Emotionally, it's hard not to be able to be in the country.

When you're doing a topless protest, do you feel fear or excitement?

Although I've done a lot of them, I feel every action is a special mission – it's a short revolution that can last for a few minutes or a few seconds sometimes. When you're preparing to cut down the cross, you're concentrating on how to do it, how to commit this act. There are a lot of emotions but if you're too emotional, you cannot do anything like this. It's like going into battle. You have to know how to keep your weapons and use them at the right moment.

 

What is your attitude toward Victor Svyatski? He's an intelligent guy and he's brave...

I will never deny that he is a smart person. He was the reason why we knew each other. He was one of those smart people around us at the beginning, who were more experienced. There were a few of them. He wasn't the only one. People are wondering how he could become this dominating member of the movement. I cannot say he's a brave man. He was caught in the street and beaten up but that doesn't mean he was brave. He is not brave at all! What is this bravery? To dominate girls. These were young girls and he could dominate them. I don't call it bravery.

Are you still in touch?

Me personally, not at all. Sasha [one of Femen's founder members] is sometimes in touch. They're from the same town. The reason we are not in touch is because there was a clash between the two of us. I took the movement far from him. He was trying to come back many times but the movement was far from him.

Did he send you to Belarus?

It's a little ridiculous when I hear such things. How can you imagine that we go to such a dangerous place, doing such a dangerous action, facing torture, coming back and continuing our activity, only because the guy sent us there!

What was your experience of the Orange Revolution of 2004/5?

I was 15 or 16, studying in the school in the small town where I was born in the south part of Ukraine. For me, it was a revolution that you could see everywhere. You would go out on the street and you hear people, like the neighbours you've known for 15 years of your life, talking about something they never talked about before. You look at your mother and she is watching news that she never was interested in... I believe revolution isn't physical. It's in the mind. One of the main goals in any revolution is to change the minds of people. The Orange Revolution brought completely new ideas to my society.

Shevchenko poses with other members of Femen during a photocall at last year's Venice Film Festival (AFP/Getty Images) Shevchenko poses with other members of Femen during a photocall at last year's Venice Film Festival (AFP/Getty Images)
Were you taking part in the protests?

I was born in a region that is usually pro-Russian. Directors of the schools were forcing teachers to vote for Yanukovych, who is the President. We all knew about that. I remember that I went to school with an orange stripe on my bag. I was president of the school government. When I came inside the school, I faced the director, who made a big drama. She said that school was not the place for politics.

We had a big fight. I said to her, 'If you are saying school is not the place for politics why are you telling teachers how to vote'. Since that moment, I was never shy about expressing my beliefs. This was a revolution in the teenage mind of a 15-year-old Ukrainian girl who realised you had to be part of it. Even though we faced all those disappointments and dramas after the revolution, I believe this revolution didn't fail. It planted in the minds of people thoughts and ideas.

Why the toplessness?

It's a dramaturgy of gender reality in the world. It's not us who are famous. It is the idea that is famous. We are changing the way we talk to the world and act even though you think we are naked feminists. Two years ago, we were just taking off tops. Then, we started to write on our bodies, using them as a poster. Then we made these bodies act, facing Putin and Berlusconi.

Activists from the women's movement Femen demonstrating in the Spanish parliament against the government's conservative new abortion law, with 'Abortion is Sacred' written on their bodies Activists from the women's movement Femen demonstrating in the Spanish parliament against the government's conservative new abortion law, with 'Abortion is Sacred' written on their bodies

You've had death threats?

You get it nearly every day. I don't want to be liked by those people who have shit in their heads. I don't care if they like me.

What were your experiences of Euro 2012 in Ukraine?

The ugly part of the country came out. Every 100 metres, there were new brothels. You just see the way Ukraine is. Those crazy fans who are interested to watch football, drink beer and fuck prostitutes were all coming. Every day you go out of your apartment, you'd see there is a new club, a new brothel. By law, prostitution is illegal in Ukraine but it is on every corner. If you go to a hotel, they give you a catalogue of girls you can use and order as if they're a bottle of champagne.

Are your family proud of you?

When we were in Copenhagen for Everyday Rebellion, there was a big conference with a lot of people. I took a picture of them and I told them, 'I am taking a picture of you because I still have to prove to my mother that her naked daughter is doing something that makes sense'. I think my father is proud of me. My mother is proud [too] but she wants me to live a different life!

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain