Marianne’s Breasts

She had performed alone in the past, lunging at Patriarch Kirill, but on the morning of this protest, her heart was racing. She placed an iron stave in a tote bag, covering it with a scarf. She had on a grey hooded sweatshirt and a jacket which she planned to pull open, but otherwise wore no costume. Yana Zhdanova finds the trappings of Femen protests – flower crowns, impasto make-up – unnecessary when their message is already clear. Half an hour before Yana was due to leave, Oxana Shachko called to say she wouldn’t be able to come. Alone, in a rush, Yana used a mirror to write Kill Putin on her chest, not realising she had it the wrong way around, a mirror image. She ran to the bathroom and vomited.


On the Métro, she observed the people around her. To them, she thought, I look calm. Calm duly settled over her. As she walked through the Musée Grevin on 5 June, 2014, Yana felt a sense of inevitability. She arrived earlier than she had planned and wandered through a children’s exhibition, failing to meditate. Finally, she made her way to the waxwork of Vladimir Putin. It referred to a version of the Russian president with a shock of blond hair and a thinner face; the focus of its blue eyes was unusually soft. Putin stood amongst an improbable congress of world leaders. The walls, carpet, and curtains flanking them were red and plush, like the inside of a jewellery box. Yana was still ten minutes early, but the photojournalists she’d called were in position.


She opened her jacket, drew the stave, screamed in English ‘Fuck dictator’, and stabbed the waxwork in the chest. She had assumed the base was firmly connected to the floor, but the statue toppled to the ground, the head collapsing into fragments strewn on the carpet like a cracked egg. She had expected the museum guards to stop her, but now realised that they weren’t going to, not until she was through. They found her frightening, they would tell her afterwards. Improvising, she straddled the statue, balancing in the air above its knee, and knifed into it, slicing deep into the resin. She turned her face to the cameras. Even in those days, Yana was unable, afterwards, to watch videos of her protests: an emotion, unspeakable, resembling fear, rushed into her, and she could not bear the memory. Finally, a guard radioed for help. Yana stood. She covered her breasts. She waited.




The Porte de Sainte Cloud, at the Western end of the Parisian Seine, sits as if in a dimple outside the river’s long frown. There is a market on the Avenue de Versailles, which is set up some weekdays only to vanish by evening, leaving a series of metal frames resembling vertebrae. The residential buildings are typical of Paris’s outer districts, clayey and off-grey, built too late to be properly Haussmannian. Parisians call this kind of neighbourhood Parisian, meaning that outsiders don’t go there, and that history changes it only slowly.


When I visited Yana there in August, I hadn’t seen her in a year. The apartment was new to her. She had moved there from a squat in Clichy, an under-served suburb north of Paris. She had prepared a French lunch – omelette and salad – but in a way that was not French. The omelette was milky, she let it rise under a lid, and the salad, with raw zucchini, was salty. This was the breakfast her mother, Svetlana, whom she has not seen since leaving Ukraine, used to make. Yana cannot go home; in France, political refugees are issued a sauf-conduit to return to the countries they left under exceptional circumstances only, and for three months maximum. She was earning money by guiding tours in Russian, and the studio was expensive for her; she had found it through an online network of Parisian russ-ophones, noticing the landlord required less documentation than French ones do: pay stubs, French guarantors… There were only three apartments in this section of building, she told me, adding that the other two were also occupied by women who lived alone. In the courtyard, vines had had time to climb a wall and die. A silence without texture reached us through windows outfitted with white-painted metal shutters and typically Parisian double panes.


The apartment had the luxury of a departures lounge, out of time, belonging to no place. The only personal effects I could see were ruffled seashells laid out by the bathroom sink and two stuffed bears – one on a shelf, and one here on the table, a gift for me. Yana dresses with the care of a retired athlete, comfortably and elegantly, in monotone silk dresses and slip-on shoes. She speaks of herself calmly, as if no part of herself is hidden or unknown to her – or, if it is, she has written off that part. Yana and I often speak as friends. When I interview her, I have found it difficult to elicit concrete images or precise memories; that day, she discussed propaganda, explaining that she had devoted her life to creating her own.


Yana, who is 28, came to Paris in 2013. At the time, I was involved with the squatters’ movement there, and helped to open the squat where she would live with three other Ukrainian women who belonged to Femen, an informally organised association of feminist activists whose signature is the topless protest. By the time I met them in 2013, their protests had multiplied, growing so diffuse as to imply a mood rather than an agenda. Collectively they had lunged at Putin, Berlusconi and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, survived humiliating treatment at the hands of Bela-rusian police, and spent two weeks in a Moscow lock-up for hooliganism. Occasionally women in other countries chose to act in concert with Femen; in 2013, Amina Sboui in Tunisia posted a photo showing her bare chest, on which was written in Arabic, ‘My body is my own and not the source of anyone’s honour.’ Femen blessed these tandem actions – Yana has told me that any woman who wants to be Femen can be – and in a few years Femen chapters of varying formality and longevity had assembled in, among other places, Belgium, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and the Netherlands.


In Ukraine, Femen focused mostly on local issues, beginning with the sex industry and expanding into government corruption. In France, reinforced by local women, they set about protesting the French far-right, the Islamic State, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and bateaux-mouches (Seine riverboats) in solidarity with Greenpeace, among other things; Inna Shevchenko, the most famous of the Femen, lost an incisor while attacking a protest against same-sex marriage. In Germany, they protested Barbie. Once, they protested Ikea, which had published a catalogue stripped of images of women for distribution in Saudi Arabia. Their first protest against the situation of women in Muslim countries was also their first international gesture; in 2010, they picketed the Iranian embassy in Kyiv against the sentencing to stoning of Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani, who had been convicted of adultery. In 2012, the Turkish lingerie company Suwen, which was printing panties branded ‘Femen’, invited the women to Istanbul, where they protested against domestic violence outside the Hagia Sofia, in exchange for a publicity appearance at a Suwen store. Inna was quoted in the Turkish press as saying, ‘Also we accepted this invitation because we suggest that women wear healthy underwear.’ I find a hardscrabble charm in this: Inna would say anything to get to protest topless. Her tone changed in the years that followed as, in France, her fame ballooned; Yana and Oxana watched the drift of the group under her leadership, subsuming the French women, disapprovingly. The recent protests lack risk, Oxana told me in November 2016, and they are so self-serious. ‘It’s a little—’ she switched to French, saying wearily, ‘dure, too heavy, even ugly.’ But I am getting ahead of myself.




Inna was the first to flee Ukraine, in August 2012, after sawing apart a large cross on a hilltop to protest the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. She received a hero’s welcome and acquired a following of French women whom she began to train as activists. French leaders applauded her. In Ukraine, the Femen courted danger to agitate for values foundational to the French Republic, notably laïcité or secularism, and in France, their toplessness was not politically dangerous but rather glamorous, providing an opportunity for politicians to invoke the Revolution emptily. The artists who designed new stamps in July 2013 modelled Marianne, long-haired symbol of the Republic, on Inna’s face, prompt-ing her to tweet, ‘All homophobes, extremists, fascists will have to lick my a** when they want to send a letter.’


Three more activists followed Inna in the summer of 2013, Yana, Oxana, and Alexandra (Sasha) Shevchenko, who is not related to Inna. They were arrested regularly from 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych took office, Oxana recalled, adding that after April 2013, when five topless Femen, including Sasha, rushed at Putin and Angela Merkel in Hanover, the threats redoubled. (By then, Sasha had known to dye her hair brown for the occasion, calculating that security services across the continent may have been warned against slim blonde women.) The Femen were harassed by security services, their phones tapped; an advisor, Viktor Svyatsky, was stopped in the street and badly beaten. Police searched their offices. ‘You’re selling weapons,’ they insisted (in Oxana’s telling). ‘We have to check.’ They claimed they’d found a pistol and a grenade, and the Femen were detained and threatened with terrorism charges. An officer let them go, telling them they should return the next day for questioning. Oxana made for the French embassy, which expedited their visas. They pooled what money they had for tickets.


The sun came in, lighting a small scar at the outside of Yana’s right eye, which dates from a playground accident. She grew up in Makiivka, a city currently controlled by pro-Russian separatists calling themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic, who preside over lawless-ness and intermittent shelling. People there speak Russian and were considered, under Stalin, model proletarians, well compensated for back-breaking labour in deep mines. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the city’s industries lacked for subsidies from Moscow, and Yana grew up around people who struggled. Makiivka is a dispersed, polluted city, made up of boxy Soviet apartment blocks arranged around mines and factories, arms, metallurgy. As Yana remembers, many residents tended their own plots of vegetables, and here and there amid the buildings stood terrikons or slag heaps, piles of mining waste about the size of seven-storey buildings. At first, they steamed and smoked, then oxidised and finally hardened. At last, grass would grow.


The previous winter, she had retired from Femen, partly because of infighting and partly because, during her last protests, she noticed a stress that she had never before felt. She paused. My tape recorded someone dropping a fork. ‘When your nervous system becomes unstable,’ she said, ‘you just one day can destroy a good protest because of your fear or your nervous reaction, and you shouldn’t release yourself to do it… you should have a rest or go forever.’ Yana completed her final protest in February 2015 in Budapest, where she was sent during a visit of Putin’s to run in front of Parliament and yank up her skirt, revealing Putin Go Home on its inverse and a Russian flag painted on her mons pubis. Before that, in December 2014, she had protested at the Vatican, where she spent the night in jail after stripping from the waist up and seizing Jesus from the nativity scene in Saint Peter’s Square. And there was June 2014, at the Musée Grévin in Paris.




Yana smiled as she approached the bench to receive her verdict on 15 October 2014. Her Ukrainian friends, watching in the courtroom, would tell me they took pride in Yana’s stoicism, contrasting it to the deference they believed the French judge wanted. She knew some of them from Sunday vigils they had begun holding in solidarity with demonstrators on Kyiv’s Maidan square. They gathered at Trocadéro, at Place Saint-Michel, beside the Panthéon, at Beaubourg. I heard that even those members of this diaspora who disliked the Femen protests for religious reasons quietly approved of Yana’s action at the Musée Grévin. With this group, Yana spoke Ukrainian, though they noticed her unease in the language she rarely spoke.


Yana was found guilty of destroying the statue of Putin and of in-decent exposure (exhibition sexuelle) and fined 1,500 euros. She was also sentenced to pay the Musée Grévin 4,004 euros in damages, 1,000 of which were for ‘moral prejudice’. Outside the courtroom, cameras surrounded her. Her lawyer, Marie Dosé, told her she could  respond in English. ‘I’m laughing because it is very strange because it is the first time Femen has been found guilty of exhibition sexuelle,’ Yana said.


Their Ukrainian friends followed Yana and Dosé down the hall to the room where they filed an appeal. A filmmaker trailed the group, capturing a travelling shot. A man with a Ukrainian flag on his lapel softly sang a soccer anthem. The words, I obtained, translated to ‘Putin, dickhead.’


‘There’s nothing sexual about it,’ one of Yana’s friends said to me.


‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘It’s to show she has the right to do something with her body which is not sexual.’


Yana and I stood on the grand stone steps of the Palais de Justice. ‘I’m surprised,’ she kept saying. Drills screamed from the direction of Saint-Chapelle Cathedral, which was under renovation. The sky drizzled so lightly each drop felt like an electric shock. Dosé had barely argued against the charge of exhibition sexuelle, a sex crime, convinced it would not stick. ‘At the Musée Grévin, there is a Mar-ianne, and she is topless,’ said Yana. A waxwork based on the Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People stands near the site of Yana’s action. ‘It is very lifelike,’ she said.


After the sentencing, I scrolled through Twitter, reading headlines about Yana to her as they arose. I came upon news that a politician from Nicolas Sarkozy’s party had stopped a woman in niqab and threatened to report her under France’s anti-burqa and -niqab law. The politician had tweeted, ‘Son mépris est total ’, roughly, ‘Scorn filled her eyes.’ In Ukraine, Femen held received ideas about women in Muslim countries, could not imagine choosing to wear full-body veils, and added Islam to their list. In 2013, after Amina Sboui sprayed FEMEN on a cemetery wall in Tunisia, the leader of a conservative religious group announced on TV that she deserved 100 lashes, maybe stoning; Sboui went missing and was later im-prisoned. Femen protested in Ukraine and Tunisia, where the activists – two French woman and one German – were arrested. Sboui joined them in Paris only to leave, denouncing the group as Islamophobic. Some of the Femen, not Yana, had burned a Tawhid flag outside Paris’s Grand Mosque. As the protests were filled out by French women, they became conduits for an ambient French Islamophobia which last summer – following the harassment of women in burkinis – Saïd Boumama, author of L’Affaire du foulard islamique, la production d’un racisme respectable, characterised on his blog: ‘Caricature and the illogic have rarely defined political discourse so completely; it’s to liberate woman that we must renege her rights; it’s for the sake of vivre ensemble, polis, that we must exclude…’ In her excellent polemic against the ban on headscarves, Christine Delphy icily lays out the way in which foreign women in France, presumed inadequately self-aware, are stripped of political agency: ‘And what would be the point of discussion with the alienated and manipulated?’ The Ukrainian Femen have been these women, too. In the French press, they have been condescended to, Yana’s Grévin action likened to a comedy by the absurdist director Jacques Tati as if her message, KILL PUTIN, were supposed to be a joke. Pondering Yana’s sentencing, the French state and my torso, I perceived a trap. We had to cover up, but careful – not too much! The policing Femen executed of what they construed as the policing of Muslim women’s bodies had now been policed itself, and I saw no way out.




Some of the Femen became politically aware as girls, during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The presidential election had been rigged in favour of Viktor Yanukovych, Russian state TV’s favourite. He came from the Donbas, Yana’s region, and although he had been convicted of theft and assault as a young man, her neighbours supported him, reassured by his affinity for Russia. The emblematic image in international news was the grey face of his opponent Viktor Yushchenko who, like that abstraction ‘Europe’, represented democracy to many Ukrainians. He had promised they would join NATO and end corruption. It was said that he’d been poisoned. Sasha, who lived in the west, got the day off school to protest. Inna, who lived in Kherson in the south, was reprimanded for threading orange ribbons through her hair, imitating the braids of Yushchenko’s ally Yulia Tymoshenko. A run-off was held and Yushchenko was elected, but, by the time the girls had grown up, Yanukovych had become president again. (The uprising on the Maidan obliged him to flee in 2014.) In their Ukraine, ‘European values’ implied his opposite: the rule of law, transparency, open markets. Coalescing as Femen, they read August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism devotedly.


In France, some of their new critics were preoccupied by the strange question, often angrily posed, definitely gendered, of whether the women were ‘for real’, as opposed, I guess, to ‘only’ showing off their bodies. Performance was an eloquent dimension of Femen activism, but these writers treated it as if showmanship necessarily precluded thinking. In 2013, the year Yana arrived in Paris, the novelist Chloé Delaume, writing in French Vanity Fair, pronounced the movement ‘a fiction that feeds on the real’, ‘a contemporary fairytale’, and ‘dead’. Her invective surprised me: novelists tend to value fictions and fairytales as succour, not suspect them of tricks. In 2012, Rue89 ran the headline: ‘Bare Breasts: The Femen, A Media Phenomenon or a Feminist One?’ as if these were exclusive. In 2014, Dosé attributed Yana’s conviction of exhibition sexuelle to a rightward shift in French political discourse, which celebrated the Femen only insofar as they agreed on common enemies. ‘May I speak frankly?’ she asked me. ‘Three years ago, the Marianne on our stamp was based on Femen. It represented Marianne! The Republic! And three years ago, they showed their breasts. They did exactly what Yana did. And today, we have a prosecutor of the Republic who says, “You’re dirtying the Republic.” Femen was in fashion three years ago. Sarkozy used them to show that he was very liberal after all. Now, they’re no longer fashionable, so we decide to go after them for indecent exposure.’ Pensively, she added, ‘Very frankly, I think their actions would have been understood in France by the Surrealists. By André Breton, for example. You see? I cited that in the defence. Breton wrote, “The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”’




Appealing the case, Dosé claimed that convicting women who show their breasts of exhibition sexuelle is unconstitutional, dis-criminating against women, since men go topless freely. The law by which Yana was found guilty dates to 1791. Four years later, the law of 4 Prairial would prevent women from assembling in groups of more than five. Women’s clubs tended to the political, and in this way, the historian Mathilde Larrère told me, the French rev-olutionary government, like other iterations of the French state, ‘used macho arguments to crush political opposition, which is exactly what has happened to Femen’. Until 1810, because the law described ‘offences against the modesty of women’, the crime could not be found to have happened if only men had been present to witness it. Not until 1992 was the wording of the offence changed from ‘outrage à la pudeur’ to ‘exhibition sexuelle’. It is normally applied to people — mostly men — who expose their genitals or masturbate publically. Lawyers prosecuting Femen referred con-stantly to an old case, the last conviction of a woman for exhibition sexuelle before Yana, Dosé said, which involved a criminal guilty of wearing only a monokini while playing ping pong on a beach in Cannes. The prosecutor’s case relied on the bobbing motion of the woman’s breasts, which he successfully argued was explicit. This was in 1965. Since Yana’s conviction, several other Femen and the artist Deborah de Robertis, who sat under Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World in the Musée d’Orsay and spread her legs to mimic it, have been charged (though not all convicted) with the same crime.


A French friend told me, ‘We attack them for exhibition sexuelle because we can’t attack them for blasphemy – not any more.’


Goodwill for Femen in France fell off sharply in February 2013 when several of its members dashed into Notre-Dame Cathedral, stripped off their shirts and hit the historic bells until they were carried off, celebrating the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and protesting the Church’s homophobia. By January 2014, the women had staged additional protests against Catholicism, and Hollande solemnly condemned them as anti-religious, although they had criticised Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church for some time. In 2013 and 2014, Le Figaro, the newspaper of the Catholic centre-right, ad-opted a tone of mockery towards the group; the editors, who had named Inna a Woman of 2012, revised their opinion, while sneering columns called for that stamp to be discontinued. Figaro interviewed a legislator who was pushing for Femen to be officially classified as a cult, comparing it with Satanism. The journalists videoed a woman who had trained with Femen and defected. Though the woman answered ‘absolutely not’ when asked if she feared reprisals, they dressed her in a black parka, edited black over her face, and scrambled her voice. The day Éloïse Bouton stood trial for miming the abortion of Jesus, holding raw meat, in the Madeleine Church, Figaro reported that she had urinated in the church, which Bouton and people who watched her protest told me was a lie. Bouton, who had been topless, became the second Femen, two months after Yana, to be found guilty of exhibition sexuelle.




The day was sunny but I prepared for cold, tucking a wool sweater and blazer into my backpack. I wore running shoes, just in case. As we walked, I asked Inna, who wore heels, red shorts and sheer stockings, what had been the coldest topless protest she had braved. Minus twenty-five in Moscow, she told me.


About thirty women assembled before the gates of the Palais de Justice, which some more experienced Femen climbed. I had painted FREE YANA on my chest. Yana, Sasha and Oxana, who were feuding with Inna and Femen France, were absent. As we removed our shirts, passersby congealed into a crowd of hundreds, in addition to the wire-service reporters Femen had alerted. Tour buses slowed and their passengers used iPads to photograph us from the top decks. The camera flashes made me nervous, but Inna had instructed us to stand feet apart, hips squared, resisting the temptation to drop a hip, cross our ankles, or otherwise stand ‘like girls’ – that is, to make ourselves smaller.


Many of the Femen protests unsettled me, and I feared the anti-Islam demonstrations were dangerous: they may have emboldened those French people who already participated in discrimination against Muslims more-or-less privately. But mass toplessness was the obvious protest against a precedent rendering women who bared their breasts sex criminals. Riot police disembarked and drove us into a corner. We sat and linked elbows. As cops pried away each woman and thrust her into a van, the crowd applauded her. Inna directed us to stand. When we got to our feet, the crowd cheered. I soon felt so elated that I became suspicious of the feeling. A woman topped a cop with the floral crown she had been wearing; more cheers. A woman held by three cops thrashed in midair. An old man who belonged to a nudists’ group and had protested shirtless out of solidarity was arrested, too. He was put in a chair outside our holding cell. We rapped on the clear plastic division, gave a thumbs-up, and waved to him demonstratively.


Over two hours in the cell, the women spoke of jobs, art projects, values, protests, men and a book they were co-writing. The woman to my right told me she’d been arrested once before, for fighting. Someone asked the officers for some tissue. Several women ex-pressed desire for a beer. A woman from Ecuador asked if anyone spoke Spanish. Another told the story of a time she had lived in Burkina Faso, volunteering for a theatre company. One woman sug-gested a banner atop the Palais de Justice gate. Inna said it was not high enough to impress and asked if the top was spiked. If not, women could be sent to sit on it. Two women older than the rest of us demonstrated yoga poses, impressive half-lotuses. Asked their age, they each replied 37.


Inna said, ‘When I’m 37, I’ll walk with a cane.’ I looked at her closely. She was laughing. It had occurred to me before that though Inna and I were the same age, 24, she looked older: the developed muscles of her torso, maybe, or a toughness about her eyes.


The women said they much preferred 37 to 24.


‘Why?’ Inna asked. Her intelligence showed, I thought, in the shamelessness with which she exhibited curiosity. She listened alertly.


At 24, the women were saying, they had husbands, careers, and new babies, and now, now they no longer had such things, they could act just as they pleased, and each of them had started to feel free.




I was invited to help open the squat where the Femen would live in November 2013, by a friend of mine who was a housing rights activist and, at one point, an arrondissement official affiliated with the Socialist Party. In France, police could not throw out squatters who had occupied a vacant building for 48 hours: proprietors sued them away. My friend had found an empty building in Clichy, a suburb to the city’s North, and convened a group of men, some of whom had helped him to open other squats; some were promised rooms. They coaxed open the gate to a segmented industrial building and courtyard, finally opening a second-storey window. Inside, plaster had peeled from the walls and mingled on the floor with grime, yellow insulation and feathers. In darker rooms, metal blinds let in discrete lines of light. The slits were concavely rimmed, like handholds, allowing no view from the windows.


An alarm sounded, a high-pitched anapest.


I found a space like a garage that the others called the Hangar. Wooden platforms jutted at four levels from its walls, each rimmed with metal railings and connected with treaded metal staircases. Metal beams joined them, resembling spokes. A fantasy seized me that I stood within a giant, fragile mechanism, like the guts of a clock, which I could affect or break in a single, tiny motion. I bounced on my heels experimentally. The thin metal floor amplified the noise.


In another room, another alarm sounded, a formless waterfall of sound. One of the men climbed the ladder and pounded the alarm with a hammer until the ringing stopped and the box fell to the carpet. He dismounted and continued to strike it. A second man took his arm and gently said, ‘That won’t help anything.’



Femen arrived, wearing leather jackets, leopard-printed sneakers and tote bags. Besides Yana, Inna, Sasha and Oxana, two French activists would also live at the squat. Ignoring graffiti blazoned on the wall that read ‘Gang Bangerz’, the Femen discussed where they might hang the punching bags they used for training. By night we lined hallways with candles, wore coats. The heating would not work, and the plumbing was discontinuous. Rain resonated the semi-opaque Hangar roof, and streetlight arrived mottled by cheap blurry glass. Oxana, who is an artist, noticed the way my hair and pen cast interlocking shadows on a wall. She gently used her hands to turn my head so I could watch the shadows move.


She pulled me into the bathroom, ignoring the door, and continued to talk. She urinated and asked if I could help her lift the bucket of water we used to flush — she had recently broken both forearms while leaping over a brick wall. Men had been following her and when she ran, they gave chase. Just before that she had executed a protest in Belarus against the authoritarianism of President Alexander Lukashenko, at which six journalists had been arrested; secret police, somebody’s thugs, took Oxana, Inna and Sasha to a forest (as they reported to journalists shortly afterward) and ordered the women to strip: they had filmed them, beaten them with sticks, doused them with motor oil, green dye and feathers, and left. Inna’s iconic hair was cut off slowly, in sections. (Belarusian security services declined the BBC’s request for comment at the time. Oxana recently retold this story to me; the intervening years allow her to speak of it triumphantly.) Oxana rolled back her sleeves. I thought I saw scar tissue at her wrists. I had, at that instant, gone hours without urinating because the bathroom was so dirty. Now I wondered whether I cared enough about any cause to be beaten for it. I hoisted the bucket and poured it over Oxana’s urine, which was, I thought, the least I could do.




When Oxana was a child, she told me, a Greek man opened an iconography studio in the city where she lived, Khmelnytskyi. Her parents, devout Russian Orthodox Christians, decided he would teach her to paint icons. She was eight. The man said she was much too young, but agreed to let her take a test. Handily, she passed. He said she had a gift from God to paint icons. Oxana rapidly advanced under the Greek man’s tutelage, even though, as she explained to me, this kind of painting is difficult, demanding masterful control of wood, gold, and tempera paints.


She began to read religious books and to deepen her faith. At 12 or 13, she decided she would become a monk. She knew this decision would please her religious parents, so she did not think to ask their permission. She packed her belongings and wrote a letter of farewell, but as she was crossing the threshold her mother arrived home, early, and begged Oxana to stay, vowing her love, saying she wanted her daughter to provide her with grandchildren, which Oxana recalls as her first encounter with the hypocrisy inherent to any system of belief.


She stayed in Khmelnytskyi and began to question her religion. When she was around 14, she began to meet other young people who felt the same. With them, Oxana frequented street protests and studied philosophy. She read Marx and Lenin, and soon established that the force controlling her life was not the Russian Orthodox Church, but capitalism. (She and Inna would stand topless in the snow at Davos, chanting ‘Poor because of you!’) She joined the Communist Party. Soon, though, she began to regard its older, influential members, men, as businessmen, whom the system had compromised. At 16, she moved out of her parents’ house and began to make her living painting icons. She had met Sasha and Anna Hutsol, another founding member of Femen, through the gatherings of street-children activists; in 2008 they moved to Kyiv and became Femen. She had been the first member of Femen to take off her shirt. (‘Nudity,’ she explains in the group’s auto-biography, ‘was an allusion to our poverty.’) Eventually, Oxana left the squat, moving into a theatre where the Femen had lived, the Lavoir-Moderne. Soon after, Oxana, Yana and Sasha split from Femen France, which Inna was leading, for interpersonal reasons. Now Oxana focuses on her painting. When I visited her at the Lavoir-Moderne in 2014, she was painting a nude woman who used both arms to lift her long hair. The woman’s primping crucified her, and Oxana had added a halo of orange and creamy yellow around the head. She defined the woman’s nipples in purple and green, and used turpentine to thin blue for the background. She had dreamed, she told me, about Femen in the future. The year was 2020, and cameras surrounded them. In her dream, Oxana saw herself and the others from the vantage of the cameras. The Femen were men who had cut off their breasts. ‘But why?’ cried the journalists. ‘You are feminists! You always use your body! It has been written and written, women need to be proud of their bodies, to look like women, like girls, blah, blah, blah—’


Oxana left off speaking and flicked a lighter furiously. Her woman, I noticed, had no features. I imagined the face would be the final and most difficult piece of the work.


In Ukraine, as the women grew up, national politics claimed the bodies of its major actors as if requiring human sacrifice. Yush-chenko’s face made headlines. Grotesqueries befell it. In 2013, Yulia Tymoshenko, imprisoned erstwhile prime minister, underwent hunger strikes in solidarity with the Maidan protests. Photographed in jail, her fine-featured face luminesced; it had risen to political omnipresence in part thanks to her traditionally Ukrainian flaxen braids, which were actually fake. Many Ukrainian blondes sell their hair for global export. ‘For us, beauty is the foundation of women’s lives. It’s the principal thing,’ said Anna Hutsol, one of the original Femen, in a 2009 interview with the writer Sophie Pinkham. The third Google hit I get for Inna’s hometown is an American-owned marriage agency, Kherson Girls. In that interview, Victor Svyatsky, an early supporter who would be accused of manipulating the group, crows bewilderingly about a method they’ve developed for protests of the sex industry by which they ‘hypertrophy’ female beauty and ‘build it up’, taking it off the market. These Ukrainians have been solicited for sex work since their puberty, he says, so they are ‘treasure chests’ of experience; the group should be a ‘meat grinder’, with new women always joining. Without nuancing Svyatsky’s commodifying terms, Hutsol adds, ‘It contradicts the standard belief that beauty is ego.’ She seems to be speaking from within the tradition, not unique to Ukraine, in which a woman’s highest form of existence is sacrifice. ‘When a woman gets married in our country,’ Hutsol continues, ‘her life is completely crossed out. She doesn’t exist anymore.’ She and Svyatsky thought up Femen during a cigarette break outside City Hall, as they mocked the happiness of the new wives leaving the building. I believe the Ukrainian members of Femen had one project: resist disappearing. The slogan they developed was not kitsch but literal, felt, a threat: ‘Our breasts, our weapons’, In Kyiv Yana worked as a pole dancer, for which she’d feel fleeting shame, as her mother was religious, before reasoning that it was better than depending on a man. She laid out these alternatives without irony. They were her choices. Her body was her resource. ‘I was very scared,’ she told me recently, ‘to be dependent on one per-son who will decide how much money to give you, et cetera.’


Back then they lived in dreams, Oxana told me recently, recalling the Ukrainian happen-ings. To my mind, the most interesting of these was in 2011, when a New Zealand FM radio station conducted a contest called ‘Win a Wife!’ entitling the winner, who turned out to be a man named Greg, to a flight and twelve nights in Donetsk, where a dating agency would introduce him to prospects. Scandal erupted. Greg promised not to go. Suspecting he might anyway, Inna looked up flights from New Zealand, deduced he would have to pass through Moscow, and wandered the airport in Donetsk, stalking arrivals from Moscow, hunting Greg, her jacket open and breasts bare except for a small photo covering each of her nipples, Greg’s face. Another Femen member stood by with a sign that read ‘Ukraine is not a brothel’.


Even so, in the group’s autobiography, FEMEN, a 2013 account as-told-to the French writer Galia Ackerman, Sasha says, ‘We note with sadness that Ukrainian women themselves do not demand their emancipation.’ She sounds like some French journalists who write about burqas: a generous reading would suggest that the Femen denied entrapment by their country so vehemently, the feminism they developed imagined women out of context. Written as they entered exile by Inna, Sasha, Oxana and Anna Hutsol, but not Yana, the book is alarming in the way it discusses their mothers. Their exiles are clean breaks that the women justify in order to bear them. ‘I’d define my mother as an “ideal woman” for Ukraine… She bears her fate, like a donkey carries its load… I realised early on that I never would live like her,’ Ackerman writes as Inna, disdainful, who now writes polemic against Islam and other religions. In 2016, I asked a Ukrainian student of History about the group’s reputation in Ukraine. ‘Frankly speaking,’ she said, ‘I would say they are quite forgotten by now.’




I got the director of the Musée Grévin, Yves Delhommeau, on the phone in November 2016. He explained to me jovially that while he believed Yana should pay damages for destroying the Putin waxwork, he did not think her conviction for exhibition sexuelle should stand. His museum had pressed the charges originally, yes, but it was the state’s case now. Ahead of Yana’s hearing on 17 November, he mentioned the constitutional question, the issue of discrimination that Dosé had raised. ‘We don’t too much want to get into an argument over that,’ he said drolly.


‘But you won,’ I said.


‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, exactly.’


The French call conversations of this tenor ubuesque, after the land-mark play by Alfred Jarry anticipating surrealism. When I have not spoken French regularly for some time, what startles me the most is hearing inanimate objects called ‘he’ or ‘she’. ‘He looked much younger in those days,’ Delhommeau chuckled, adding that Vladimir Putin has since lost hair. The Surrealists, who exalted dreams and action that happened automatically, loved the Musée Grévin, which was founded in 1882 and, as of 1900, graced with a hall of mirrors. André Breton writes lasciviously in Nadja about a statue of a woman lingering near the uncanny likenesses of political figures, fiddling with her garter. Though she is inanimate and immobile, because she looks sexy he ascribes agency to her, calling her provocative: ‘the only statue I know of with eyes’, by which he means the only eyes that see.


The last time an event like Yana’s happened at the Musée Grévin was in 1939. Three Breton men decapitated and hacked apart a wax statue of Bécassine, a comic-book maid; as a 2014 headline put it: ‘the petite bretonne with her moon-shaped face, a little fat and clumsy, had been criticised for the deplorable image she projected of Brittany.’ Apprehended and questioned, the three men pretended to speak only Breton, not French. They had decided that the effigy of a woman that had been erected as symbolic of their culture did not in fact represent them, and they destroyed her.


The image of Marianne as a representative of France emerged during the Revolution. She was made a woman so as to avoid confusion for a king. Her bare-breasted depiction was just artistic precedent, for she was modelled after ancient classical conventions. In the nine-teenth century, two versions of Marianne competed for precedence in artwork and civic media like stamps. One was seated calmly, breast covered; the other held a weapon, and her robes slipped off her torso. In 1849, the Second Empire forbade topless depictions of Marianne. It is currently unsettled whether she ought to be covered – stamps and a ubiquitous bust show her shoulders-up, deciding nothing – or bare-breasted, as in Delacroix’s painting, which actually shows Liberté, not la République. In any case, her toplessness no longer shocks. After the Second World War, Marianne’s face was modelled after actresses like Brigitte Bardot. A lawsuit dogs one of the artists who supposedly helped to design the 2013 Marianne stamp; the other artist claimed that Inna had provided no insp-iration and, what’s more, that he had created it alone. In any case, Larrere told me, Marianne, first sketched when it could not be imagined that women would vote, is no symbol of female agency. ‘It was never the woman who undressed; it was an artist who undressed the woman.’


The eye gets used to the nudity. What never fails to jolt me is the moment in each protest when police or security guards seize the women. It is the signature beat of each performance. Sometimes, as when the women attacked Putin, it occurs immediately. Other times, as when they disrupted a French legislative session, they are allowed to go on yelling for a few moments before guards reach them. Black, scratchy uniforms contrast violently to naked flesh; the women’s arms appear more delicate when forced into cuffs.


In a protest that appears in two documentaries about Femen, Ukraine is Not A Brothel and Nos Seins Nos Armes (Our Breasts Our Weapons) – which was co-directed by the anti-clerical polemicist Caroline Fourest, who also wrote for Charlie Hebdo – Inna and Sasha climb atop a church bell-tower and, clinging to the bell-ropes, thrash their whole bodies to ring the bells. Sasha wears construction site-grade earphones. Men in black arrive as always. Inna is on the ground, a man grabs her, she cries out (I thought) just slightly too early and loudly.


She has cheated, I thought first. She is falsely over-reacting as if he has wounded her. She is like a footballer who dives to convince the referee he has been fouled.


Then I thought, the entire protest is a highly choreographed performance that does not particularly value verisimilitude, and the artificiality of this reaction is rightly as heightened and didactic as that of the floral crown she wears, a symbol of Ukraine and of virginity, or, of course, her bare breasts.


As I considered it, the reaction seemed less and less false, until finally it did not seem false at all. The slim nude woman hears the boot through the floor at her ear before she feels it, she sees the hand and weapon before feeling them, having suffered blows she knows to expect them, it is natural that she should flinch.


She has cheated, I thought first. She is falsely over-reacting as if he has wounded her. She is like a footballer who dives to convince the referee he has been fouled.


Then I thought, the entire protest is a highly choreographed performance that does not particularly value verisimilitude, and the artificiality of this reaction is rightly as heightened and didactic as that of the floral crown she wears, a symbol of Ukraine and of virginity, or, of course, her bare breasts.


As I considered it, the reaction seemed less and less false, until finally it did not seem false at all. The slim nude woman hears the boot through the floor at her ear before she feels it, she sees the hand and weapon before feeling them, having suffered blows she knows to expect them, it is natural that she should flinch.




The eviction case was settled against the Femen and their roommates in June 2014, but the squat was not evicted until October 2016. Such things happen in France. The decision to evict can be political, and prefectures of police, overworked in suburbs like Clichy, decide when to execute it. Yana and Oxana had moved out by then, and the French Femen too. There remained only those who had no choice but to live there. There had been news articles with ‘Femen’ in the headline after the 2014 verdict, but no journalist covered the recent eviction; I first heard about it from Yana. In the summer of 2014, I visited her at the squat. I would wait for her in the kitchen.


The squat’s common spaces were quiet. Occasionally a plane passed overhead. Salvaged cabinetry too small for the room rested on cinderblocks. In the sunlit Hangar, vines crept ten feet in three dimensions over railings and beams, sending out tendrils and flowers pregnant with zucchinis. From a factory across the street came a repetitive sound of dull metal on dull metal, as if loading materials or breaking them apart. A door to the courtyard slid open and snapped close. Apparently its mechanism overreacted. It moved at irregular intervals, startling me each time. It closed cleanly, a guillotine not a jaw.


On 7 April 2014, Donetsk City Hall had fallen to separatists. That spring, counter-protests to those on the Maidan arose in Eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas, where Yanukovych is from. On 13 April, Makiivka’s town hall fell (the two cities are almost continuous). In June 2014, the historian Serhy Yekelchyk notes, Russian weapons came over the border along with volunteers. By February 2015, according to an estimate by German intelligence (questioned in German op eds as inflated out of some anti-Putin agenda) as many as 50,000 Ukrainians had died in the Donbas. For the same period, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 5,793 deaths; through to 15 November 2016 it reports 9,733 killed and 22,720 wounded. It depends for data on the Ukrainian government, which has been accused of underreporting casualties. Many people were obliged to flee: as of May 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy of Ukraine registered over 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); reports have suggested that these are disproportionately women. Banks were shuttered. The separatists imposed curfews, martial law, curricula to be taught in Russian, not Ukrainian. Amnesty International reported summary executions of captured soldiers. At the same time, the Ukrainian government ceased providing pensions or some services, including hospitals, in this section of the country, imposing rules that prevented its residents from travelling. Through this, Yana’s mother would remain in Makiivka. The historian Timothy Snyder writes of the war in Ukraine, including the conflict in Yana’s native Donbas, as an apogee of post-modernism, for Russia’s strategy consists in saying, via propaganda, that there wasnever any such thing as Ukraine. The war is called an ‘info war’ after the way the conflict has moulded into the shapes information takes online as it pools and festers. The sep-aratists’ Donetsk People’s Republic is an imaginary state, recognised by no country. As I was scheduling an interview with Yana’s mother, Svetlana, I learned it has obliged people living there to set their clocks by Moscow time, an hour ahead of the rest of Ukraine.


Yana readied pains aux raisins for our meetings, making herbal tea her mother sent in a paper sack. In April 2014, the weekly protests she attended of Ukrainians in Paris had taken up the Donbas as their theme. On 28 March, a man with a shaved head rose during a performance at the Lavoir-Moderne, which was known for its connection with Femen, drew a knife, and stabbed two spectators, who may have until then assumed he was a part of the performance, shouting racist drivel and, as Oxana recalled, the words ‘Women need to stay clothed, not naked.’ Yana was unwavering: ‘If you make good and real things, you have to be ready to be attacked by people who don’t understand.’


I said, ‘Are you saying you have to be ready to die for the cause?’


‘Of course no one wants or is ready to die. Unless in Al-Qaeda, maybe. But to be in danger, yes.’




She was 5 when she hurt her eye. Svetlana, her mother, speaking through a translator, remembers the day clearly. Yana, lively, asked to play outside. Svetlana was busy with housework and told her to wait, but Yana insisted and Svetlana let her go alone. Another mother who was attending to her own son pushed the swing he rode so hard it struck Yana; there was a lot of blood and Yana lost some of her vision. She was taken to doctors and placed in a special kinder-garten where, Svetlana notes, all the children wore glasses, so Yana was not teased. Yana regained her sight – Svetlana remembers following all the doctor’s instructions – but Svetlana still regrets leaving her alone. She should have recognised the danger Yana courted in the outside world. It was around this time that Yana, who loved dancing, auditioned for the ballet academy and was told her injury would prevent her enrolment. She remembers standing in a hall with mirrors and a barre, but cannot remember how she accessed it, as if she had dreamed it.


Her father left Svetlana when Yana was young, and Svetlana recalls with pride serving as ‘both mother and father’ to Yana, telling me they never got any help. Svetlana sold cosmetics for Avon, arranging sales in meetings (door-to-door sales, as Americans do, were not done). She worked in marketing for a publishing house in Donetsk. Yana wanted to be an actress or, after her mother’s encouragement, a talk-show host. Svetlana told Yana she would have to go to Kyiv or Moscow to become an artist, and ruled Moscow out, considering it far away and dangerous. In Kyiv Yana pursued cultural studies and landed a job at a newspaper, to her delight. She was only 19, reporting breaking news — only horr-ible news as she recalls, fires, crashes. She thinks of this species of horror as beyond the realm of politics; in any case, she had yet to be politicised. Her grades suffered from this juggling, but Yana couldn’t help herself; she was ambitious and in Ukraine, she told me, it is at 18 that women begin to feel deeply that they are no longer young.


She lost her job at the newspaper. In 2009, she met Oxana and Sasha. There was a flu going round, and they felt politicians and journalists were whining about it continuously to escape accountability for anything else in the upcoming election. They donned the surgical masks that had become ubiquitous as bras, and, as if humiliating the political system, paraded in the street.


But Yana had to work, and at first, her dancing left her without time for Femen. The other jobs available to a young woman, she told me, were shop assistant, waiter, club promoter, restaurant hostess, sex worker. The club that brought her on was the best one in Kyiv. She had been evaluated on her technique and not only her appearance. It dawned on her that finally, she had achieved her childhood dream; she was a professional dancer. Yana arrived at the club between 8 and 10 p.m., stayed until 6 a.m., and slept until 2 or 3 p.m. Dancing demanded much of her body. Day slowed her, because she was nocturnal. Simple tasks got hard. She spent time and money to keep her hair and make-up as the club required. She needed to have her hair styled three or four times a week. The three and a half years she spent as a dancer passed almost without her notice, because she was so busy, and so tired. ‘And when I was tired of all these fucking things,’ she said, brightening, ‘I open Femen and I make topless protests against the system…’ For a time, she protested by day and danced by night, feeling like ‘a zombie’. Then, she left her job.


She asked her mother to move, but Svetlana, who considers Ukraine her ‘motherland’, would not go. In 2014 Yana told me worriedly that her mother insisted on wearing Ukrainian colours and speaking Ukrainian. Svetlana had heard of a similarly outspoken woman whom separatists bound in a Ukrainian flag for hours as they spat on her and beat her. Yana and I think Svetlana was referring to Iryna Dovhan, whose story became sensational in the international press; she had been abducted for five days, beaten, threatened with rape, forced to hear the fire of pistols beside her ears, and left standing at an intersection with a sign identifying her as a child-killer, causing passersby to inflict further violence. The UN reports on the conflict tell additional stories of violence against women by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. One woman interviewed in 2014 reported that she had been arrested for violating curfew, beaten with metal sticks and raped. Her captors called her a Ukrainian sniper. Through Skype, Yana heard the flight of missiles. Sometimes her mother called at dawn to say she had not slept for fear. ‘I don’t know what I can do because I cannot stop war,’ Yana told me in June 2014, a few days after her protest at the Musée Grévin. ‘I can just speak truth.’


On 27 October 2016, Yana’s appeal is heard. In the night of 28 October, shells strike Makiivka. All I find in English is obvious Russian propaganda, blaming the explosion on ‘Ukrainian fascists’; I try Google translating a Russian article that a friend of Yana’s in Paris, the Ukrainian journalist Anna Chesanovska, sends me. Anna tells me that the status of women in Ukraine is changing, for the army, absorbing militias with women, has revised its rules to allow women in combat roles. There had been several victims, the details made hazy by the translation and the article’s immediacy. A doctor was killed, and his 6-year-old daughter was wounded. A gas pipe exploded; parts of Makiivka had caught fire. There was a man tweeting details in English under the hashtag #Makiivka, but when I navigated to his profile, I noticed he only ever seemed to tweet breaking news about deadly explosions in far-flung countries, which made him, to my mind, unreliable.


Yana tells herself she wouldn’t help her family by returning, but her subconscious lingers in Makiivka. That month, Yana tells me she has dreamed that she was back in her mother’s house, although her mother was out in the street, somewhere in the city. Makiivka was not as it had been. It was a warscape. As is typical in dreams, although the city looked different to reality, she recognised it deeply. She knew she had to return to France, and the return would be difficult. This feeling, with her mother outside, was intolerably frightening. Recently she reminded her mother of her mother’s own war dreams, which plagued Svetlana well before the present conflict in the Donbas. While Svetlana’s dreams were informed by what she learned of the Second World War in Soviet classrooms, Yana sees the influence of Hollywood on hers, and in any case the war dreams occurred independently of political reality, like a memory in the body. The Ukrainian-Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich, who is some twenty years older than Yana’s mother, writes of a ‘genetic memory’ of war in War’s Unwomanly Face, her reportage about the 800,000 Soviet women who served in the Second World War, which Yana is reading in Ukrainian as we speak in October 2016. The women Alexievich interviews warm to speaking only slowly, with the guardedness characteristic of the gaslit. They begin by whispering and end up shouting. Since the war they have not been able to escape their economic obligations, such as caring for families, as men do in turning to drink. The women locate their selves in body parts. They mourn the braids they had to cut off, humiliated by their shorn heads as if imagining themselves dismembered. They wear men’s clothes, and the boots fit them oddly. The trousers of some become soaked in blood and stand up on their own as if starched. The hair of one woman turns grey over the course of two hours as she stands guard. When one girl returns to the front from a trip home, the other girls line up to smell her, saying that she smelled of home. The woman whose story gives the book its title speaks of the realisation that her face had changed — it was no longer a woman’s face. She cannot be accused of vanity. She was trained in the upkeep of her face, learned that virtue resided there. Gold teeth have been seized out of women’s mouths. One veteran tears up her hospital discharge papers, anticipating that her injury, if known, will prevent her marrying. Marriage will be her livelihood. She does not marry. One man tells a soldier she can restore her health only by having lots of children. Alexievich pays special attention to mothers. They experience their daughters as contiguous, as if daughters were spare body parts, available expressive space: ‘Or take another friend of mine who wrapped leaflets all around the body of her little daughter and took her around the city. The little girl would raise her arms and say: “Mummy, it feels tight… Mummy, it feels tight…” ’




I spent four hours of the day after Donald Trump’s election on Skype with Yana, checking facts about the way she stabbed Putin’s simulacrum and reflecting that a new aesthetics of resistance, in protest and literature, was necessary to confront a man to whom all those who disagree with him are ‘haters’, fuel for his own persona. At times during our friendship, I have understood the Femen protests as uniquely Ukrainian, categorically different from what we need in the United States. ‘In democratic countries, they think it’s just for fun,’ Sasha had said to me offhandedly, as we were opening the squat. ‘In other dictatorial countries, they understand what it means to run in front of Putin and say, “Fuck you, Putin.”’ Oxana and Yana were self-aware about the silliness of Femen protests, in contrast to the French women, who appeared to inhabit a state of undifferentiated high alert – the reason Yana, Oxana, and I found them so humourless. That day, talking with Yana, I thought that when a man’s swagger takes on geopolitical significance, citizens must humiliate him, and the best way may be sexually. After Sasha leapt at Putin in Hanover, she told the Guardian,


I had observed from a distance a group of suited men. The closer I got to them, I recognised the really small one amongst them was Putin. He was so puny, not like the macho pictures you see of him riding a horse bareback, or fishing bare-chested… And that was when I realised: now is the moment and started to charge… I jumped over the fence, pumping my elbows out at my sides and undressing as I ran towards him, screaming: “Fuck the dictator.”… Suddenly there I was, looking into Putin’s eyes, he into mine, just a metre between us before one of his men lunged to shield him from me, and in those seconds I was just thinking to myself: “What a funny botox face – because of all the snips and tucks it’s endured, it can’t properly express what he’s feeling.”


In his essay ‘Empire and Virility’, the journalist Tim Judah profiles a Donetsk People’s Republic member of parliament to show that the virility of Russian men is at issue for the separatists. This politician, Sergei Baryshnikov, whom these separatists have appointed to run the university in Donetsk, hopes that those whom he considers ethnically Russian will reproduce massively; all the same, as he mentions cursorily, for it is so obvious a cliché that it is necessary to acknowledge, he loves Ukrainian women. It strikes me that this is one meaning of Femen protests: ‘You want me,’ they say. ‘Here is the pantomime of our sex.’


The appeal was argued on 27 October and 17 November 2016; on 12 January 2017, the Court of Appeal in Paris overturned the decision about exhibition sexuelle, setting precedent at the appellate level that allows women to bare their breasts. The prosecution is now bringing the question of what constitutes exhibition sexuelle before one of France’s Supreme Courts, performing what’s called a pourvoi en cassation, and the outcome may reopen Yana’s case. Afterwards, Yana told journalists smilingly that it was a victory; as we walked away, she told me, downcast, that she had expected this verdict since the same charges against Femen in Lille were dropped, adding that she didn’t see why she had to pay damages for ‘moral prejudice’ at all. But the case has lasted for almost as long as Yana has lived in Paris, and lately she is tired. At last, this past December, Svetlana moved out of the separatist-held region, finding a job in another part of Ukraine.


On Facebook, she goes by the French transliteration, Iana. It’s not the spelling she prefers, but, as she tells it, a French immigration agent used it anyway, telling her the state’s rules worked that way, leaving her no document attesting to her existence as she felt it.


Hello dear Jacque
Sorry for my silence
I have been a bit died


She’d planned the protest with Oxana and Sasha, but neither questioned that Yana was the one to carry it out. Oxana visited the wax museum with her in the weeks before the June 2014 protest, mapping exits and furtively prodding the statue to gauge its composition. They checked for a metal detector. At first, Yana did not recognise Putin. It was a poor likeness, she thought. The head and neck were heavy wax, but to Yana the body felt like a Barbie doll. It was resin, but cheap plastic to her touch. She could not be sure of chopping off the head. She would stab the statue in the chest.


Image: Kate Kornberg



lives in Massachusetts. On Your Feet, a novel in translations, is forthcoming from dispersed holdings; she is also at work on a regular novel. Precarious Lease, a work of nonfiction, is forthcoming from Rescue Press.



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