Bikinis and babas: the gender subtext of clichés about Ukraine

The writer and translator Keith
Gessen wrote last year
of how western coverage of his country of birth,
Russia, was refracted through the distorted prism of the west’s own obsessions
in the 2000s and 2010s.  While
self-identifying ‘left-wing’ writers in the west like Seumas Milne fall into
the same trap
as Living Marxism magazine and Harold Pinter did over Milosevic in the
–an intellectually infantile apologising for an authoritarian leader just because
the leader in question is “a counter-weight to the west” – Gessen pinpointed a more
subtle cultural trend that is separate from but co-exists with the
Putin-apologist contrarianism on parts of the western left.  He sketched out the cartoonish depiction in
much western coverage of Russia – and the former Soviet Union as a whole –over
the last twenty years, shifting from Soviet-cliches to the ‘mafia state’ trope,
as one that took aim not just at Putinism but at Russians themselves, blunting
the complexities and realities of their experiences. 

The piece came out around the same time as
the Calvert Journal ran an analysis
of how the western online media treated Russia and the former Soviet Union, at
least for the last decade up until 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis began: in
this period, Russia was downgraded from its twentieth-century status as ‘enemy', and repositioned as the ‘slightly unhinged stepbrother’ of the west – whose
excesses and idiosyncrasies (car crashes captured on dashcams, surreal wedding
pictures, women lacquered with industrial-strength make-up) the liberal west
was seemingly ‘allowed’ to laugh at without being accused of racism. 

Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters

Cultural Russophobia and cultural Slavophobia
against eastern Europeans as a whole is pervasive and transmitted by cliche and tired tropes (and, as
Natalia Antonova has outlined, this thread in western thinking on Russia has in
turn been disingenuously harnessed by Putin’s regime to depict the west as
“Russophobic” because it does not
support Putin, while in fact it comfortably coexists with Putin’s ‘eternal
clash of civilisations’ worldview).  And,
as Antonova has outlined, this Slavophobia is also highly gendered.  The adverts for “Ukrainian brides” plastering
most tourism websites to Ukraine draw upon a series of deeply ingrained tropes
and imagery of the (European) ‘east’ in the eyes of the ‘west’.  This stretches from the
sexist western fantasy of the ‘post Soviet woman’, hyper-sexual yet untarnished
by western feminism, to the stock role of the ‘baba’, the old woman who, if you
believed much western writing on the former Soviet Union, exists – without
back-story or human complexity – solely to provide comic relief, comically bad
amateur medical advice, and maternal encouragement to the young men visiting
her country.  Its as though the classic
patriarchal virgin/ whore dichotomy is recalibrated so the two modes become
trashy/ hypersexual young women and comic ‘babas’, two options on the menu of
female experience.

“Ukrainian babes and comic old babas” might
have remained just another blindspot in a losing battle against the dominance
of cliché, but in a war – as the conflict in Ukraine continues – these
pre-existing tropes have become dynamic and loaded with power.  In an interview with The Guardian last year, Oksana Forostina, the editor of Krytyka
journal, explained her frustration
with the western media in which “eastern European women are caricatured and
denigrated by their appearance – for wearing high heels and skirts, for example
[…] liberals wouldn't dare to do that to a Muslim woman who wore a veil."  Yet the clichés of the ‘hyper-sexual, made-up
Barbie doll Ukrainian woman’ is pervasive, and fuels the ‘Ukrainian bride’
industry, which, as Matthew Kupfer has
, is particularly beloved of Men’s Rights Activist-style sexists
dismayed by the west’s move towards gender equality (who, in the process,
essentialise and deny the agency of Ukrainian women by transposing onto them
the image of the opposite-of-western-woman, fetishised through fantasy as ‘untainted
and obedient’).   

Depictions of Ukraine in 2014 brought
together two strands. For reductivist tropes used to shorthand eastern Europe
in the west are highly gendered. And so is conflict.  To claim that military conflict is gendered
is not to view it in terms of “men versus women” or a crude assessment of who
suffers more, but to make visible the gender binaries that become more rigid if
a society demarcates young men as ‘soldiers’, and if this then constructs or
reinforces a societal role of women as ‘carers’ and ‘subordinate helpers’.  Extensive research has also shown that pre-existing
gender inequalities
– particularly the levels of domestic violence in a
society – colour the severity of gender-based violence in war once the conflict
begins.  In fact, academic Valerie Hudson
has argued that the levels interpersonal violence against women in ‘peace time’
are directly
with the likelihood of the outbreak of conflict.

of humiliation

As the conflict in Ukraine develops,
although women have been present on the front line on both ‘sides’,
pre-existing gender roles as well as gendered tropes in the western imagery of
Ukraine, have transformed and mutated to the new, militarised context.  A particularly uncomfortable example was the
pictures posted
of Irina Filatova,
the new ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ Minister for
Culture, variously topless and in a bikini, which spread around both Ukrainian
and western media in May 2014.  There
were many layers to the discomfort: the fact that the pictures were taken from
Filatova’s private VKontakte profile (the post-Soviet equivalent of Facebook),
making them a kind of revenge-porn and an attempt to ‘shame’ a woman for being
a sexual person, and the joy with which (largely male) western
journalists sneered at her “trashiness” – a word, used for women, that
pinpoints the moment where misogyny and class-hatred align. 

It is not an apology for the rent-a-warlord
‘leaders’ or fairground-mirror bizarre ideology of the Luhansk and Donetsk
‘People’s Republics’ to note – as, for instance, Keith
did in the London Review of
– that the alienation felt in the neglected Donbass region, which the
‘People’s Republic’ leaders were able to trammel into their agendas, stemmed
from a genuine sense of being on the receiving end of a kind of ‘social racism’
by the Kyiv elite.  In a region where the
average wage was around 300 Euros a month prior to the conflict, sneering at a
young woman for being “trashy” – or for exercising her sexual agency in private
– seemed like the eastern European equivalent of the class-loaded hate-word
“chav.”  Regional animosities were
playing out as Filatova’s bikini pictures were smeared across Ukrainian social
media, complete with captions about what a “whore” the woman in the photographs
must be – the equivalent middle-class southern English people sharing pictures of a
working-class Glaswegian woman and gleefully exclaiming that she looked like a
“slutty chav.” Yet the western media was comfortable harnessing this spectacle
and the complex power-and-powerlessness woven into it, because – transposed
over from its domestic context and into the global Anglophone media – it
reinforced predominant western tropes of eastern Europe, where the women are
‘trashy’, and the aesthetics are naff, but its okay for liberals to laugh at
that without being accused of racism.

There was an additional layer of discomfort
even for those who could smell the misogyny and class-tinged venom in the
situation: Filatova is not a person whose actions as a political figure can be
morally defended.  Later in the summer of
2014, she was photographed leading a march as Ukrainian prisoners of war were
publicly paraded in an act of ritual humiliation – a practice, since the
conflict began, that has raised concerns of violations of the Geneva
Conventions’ responsibility to treat prisoners of war respectfully and

The two scenes together – unsympathetic-figure Filatova’s
private bikini photographs shared around and ripped to pieces by internet
commenters, then her unrepentant participation in the humiliation of others as
the conflict developed – felt like an enactment in reverse of the French women who
were punished for sleeping with German men during the French Occupation by
having their heads shaved: the climate is created in which deliberate
humiliation of the other becomes acceptable, because they have committed injustices too, because they have humiliated you, so
you can use whatever you have over your enemy. 
And humiliation is frequently gendered.

Yet there seemed to be a lack of
introspection in western responses to these scenes.  There is much social currency – and many easy
internet clicks – amongst western liberals in mocking the garish, ‘trashy’
kitsch of the former Soviet Union, but still too often an insensitivity to when
this is ‘punching up’ and when it is ‘punching down’ – mocking the naff
glitziness of corrupt and authoritarian ex-President Yanukovych’s palace is
punching up at the powerful – is mocking the ‘trashy’ clothing choices of women
in a region where the average wage is 300 Euros a month, the same?  Is using degrading gendered insults okay
because there are more important things to consider and “there’s a war on”?  There is a frequent failure to maintain a consistent respect for human dignity.

'Fan art' of Nataliya Potklonskaya 

– east/ west – Russia/ Ukraine  

The dark underside of humanity that comes
out in Filatova’s uncomfortable role as both humiliated and humiliator also had
its opposite (although also on the same pro-Russian ‘side’), in the comedic
episode in early 2014 in which the Crimean Prosecutor General, Nataliya
Potklonskaya, was turned into a Japanese anime cartoon by her new global
‘fans.’ Although footage shows Potklonskaya 
laughed along as she is shown the cartoon depictions of herself –
wide-eyed, pale and childlike – she did eventually exclaim in seeming
exasperation “I’m a lawyer, not a Pokemon!” 
The anime cartoons seemed to play upon the same male western sexual
fantasy of Ukrainian women as both childlike (i.e. undemanding and untainted by
feminism) and hypersexual, which the multi-million pound ‘Ukrainian bride
industry’ draws upon to bring western men to the country.

The ‘Prosecutor General as anime cartoon’
incident in turn became a ‘comic’ story in the global media, marrying together
Ukraine’s pre-existing gender inequalities and essentialist tropes of
‘Ukrainian women’ residing in the western lens, while more complex realities
remained underreported even as the world began to take an interest in Ukrainian
society – such as the rates of domestic
violence in the country
prior to the start of the conflict.  

Yet, for all the attempts to treat the
post-Soviet space as ‘comic and unhinged’, the theme of violence against women
threaded through the escalating political tension, such as the incident
in April 2014 in which buffoonish populist Russian politician Zhirinovsky
appeared to threaten a female journalist with rape at a press conference, going
on to exclaim “you women of Maidan all have uterine frenzy”, and – to her
colleague – “stop interfering here, you lesbian.”  The fact that there were almost no
expressions of solidarity from global journalists seemed to point to an
attitude of “that’s just how things are in the former Soviet Union, backwards
and sexist”, while the exclamations Zhirinovsky chose point to what Antonina
Vikhrest highlighted as the ‘tactical misogyny’ of Putin’s propaganda

As Vikhrest notes, a
so-bad-its-almost-funny “documentary” aired in on the Kremlin-backed NTV
channel in Russia titled
‘The Furies of Maidan’, which claimed to expose
how women who were involved in the Maidan revolution that overthrew authoritarian President Yanukovych were psychologically
unstable, ‘disgustingly’ masculine harridans who were “aroused by fear.”

Stirring up hatred for Ukrainians and the
Maidan protests recalibrated the virgin-whore dichotomy, transposing it on to the
binary of ‘Russian versus Ukrainian’ – the pure versus the dirty – making women
the terrain on which delineation from the enemy ‘other’ is enacted.

and Ukrainian feminism: lost in translation?

Yet although there are glaring gender
inequalities in both Ukraine and Russia – and although the western lens of
viewing Ukraine has been largely un-empathetic to lived female experience as it
projects its own fantasies onto the country – there is also feminism.   The Kyiv-based all-female band Dakh Daughters were for
many the musical accompaniment to the Maidan revolution.  And, as in Egypt in 2011, female protesters
were integral to the struggle that brought down the corrupt and authoritarian
government.  Societies are not monolithic
or internally homogenous, but engaged in internal conversations within
themselves – as much as conservative voices within these cultures erroneously seek
to depict local LGBT activists, feminists, and other progressives as ‘alien’,
‘elite’ and ‘imported from the west’.

Yet when feminism in Ukraine is mentioned
in the western media, one strand of the internal conversation within the
movement continues to dominate the headlines – the tactics of Femen, the
self-identifying feminist collective that began in Ukraine, who use female
nudity ‘as a weapon’ in an attempt to draw attention to violence against women
and the brutalities of patriarchy.   

There has been a significant backlash
against Femen from within the global feminist movement – and many other
Ukrainian feminists seek to distance themselves from the group. Most dismiss
the group as ‘colonial
white feminists’
or ‘racist feminists’, whose culturally imperialist
crusade to ‘liberate’ non-white and Muslim women denies the agency and humanity
of these women.  Femen’s fixation on the
body and intellectually infantile ‘shock tactics’ seem, at best, an erroneous
attempt to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. At worst,
they are an embarrassing, racist distortion of feminism, who can then be used
to dismiss the legitimate social movement for gender equality.  

'Femen' logo

Whilst acknowledging these criticisms,
writer Agata Pyzik has argued
that Femen must be contextualised as specifically eastern European – not simply as ‘white’ (and thus ‘imperialist feminists’, in the intersectional reading) but
also coming specifically out of an experience of being on the receiving end of the west’s
quasi-Orientalist fetishisation of eastern European women.  Femen's fixation on the body as a terrain of
protest comes from their resistance to sexual exploitation, the sex tourism of
western men in post-Soviet countries that renders them ‘nothing more than
bodies’, existing to please men. 

While Pussy Riot were conceptually stripped
of their feminist message when they became human rights heroines in the eyes of
the west, Femen have been conceptually flattened – with the strength with which
other feminists understandably condemn them as ‘white feminists’ and
‘culturally imperialists’ – so that the regional-specific context from which
their particular form of feminism has emerged from is lost in translation.  None of which is to dismiss the criticism
that, outside of this context, their tactics are misguided and imperialist –or
that other Ukrainian feminist voices are sidelined by their headline-seeking

as Baba Yaga

The counter-argument that’s often drawn
when gender inequalities are highlighted – usually by those seeking to deny
that gender inequalities exist – is to point to the ‘exceptionals’, the
outliers.  “How can the country be sexist
when it has had a female head of state?” is akin to saying “now Obama is
President, there are no racial inequalities in America”, yet politician Yulia
Tymoshenko, who lost the post-revolutionary election in 2014 after being
released from prison, is pointed to in conversations as proof that neither
Ukraine nor the western media’s treatment of Ukraine is sexist. 

Yulia Tymoshenko

Like Filatova – or Sarah Palin, or Margaret
Thatcher – Tymoshenko is
a person whose behaviour one necessarily wishes to apologise for
.  Yet disagreeing with her behaviour as a public
figure and her policy positions as a politician has often been seen, in both
the post-Soviet and western media, as a green light to criticise her on the
grounds of her gender – whilst simultaneously citing her as proof that gender
inequalities don’t exist.  In the liberal
west, if you disagree with Obama’s position on, say, drone strikes, you would
still not get behind a cartoon that depicted him in racist tropes, yet pointing
out that Tymoshenko has been subjected to gendered insults throughout her time
in politics (such as depictions of her as a ‘Baba Yaga’ harridan, unnaturally
ambitious and vicious) is hard to sustain without being accused of defending
her politics. 

It is important not to
draw binaries between ‘the backwards east’ and ‘the progressive west’ in its
treatment of women– one needs only look at
Royal’s treatment during her campaign
for the French Presidency in 2007 to
know that female politicians in western Europe are subjected to sexist abuse.  But discussions about Tymoshenko have often
shown that those who claim to have liberal, progressive politics are still
comfortable dismissing women they dislike as “bitches” and “hags.”  All of which is underpinned by the
implication that women who hold power are somehow freakish and unnatural.  And, as in the instance of Filatova’s
VKontakte pictures – if you don’t like the person, you can humiliate them any
way you like.

enemy woman

The gendered dimension of western
quasi-Orientalist visions of Ukraine – in which the women, ‘untainted by
feminism’, lack both human complexity and agency – has been married, in more
recent depictions of Ukraine, with the binary stirred up by the Kremlin
propaganda of ‘The Furies of Maidan’, in which Ukrainians and Russians are
positioned as opposites, just as the patriarchal virgin/ whore dichotomy
positions ‘good’ women against ‘bad’ women. 
This constellation of gender binaries in a time when identity-lines
become more rigidly demarcated is reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia in the
1990s, in which the women of the ‘enemy’ ethnic group were targetted for both
their ethnicity and gender – or, rather, dehumanised for being the ‘enemy’
through humiliation and violence that played out in a gendered way.  

The pre-existing gender inequalities in
Ukraine, both the levels of domestic violence and the power-dynamics of western
sex tourism to the country, are not priorities for a country at war – while, as
the conflict develops, nationalisms are stirred that generate identity
binaries, such as linguistic identity, that were previously not salient
identity fault-lines.  Patriarchy and
nationalism do each other’s work for one another, nowhere more so than in

Antonina Vikhrest, a Fulbright fellow researching gender issues
in Ukraine, has
noted that reports have emerged that sexual
violence has occurred in east Ukraine as a result of the conflict, although
emphasises that the primary issue at present is one of documentation, as women
are often unwilling to come forward due to the social stigma of having been
sexually assaulted, a problem she encountered whilst researching at centres for
internally displaced persons in several Ukrainian cities.  Vikhrest quotes
Human Rights Watch’s Russia researcher Tanya Lokshina, who explained that, in
the cultural context of the Ukrainian conflict, “rape is seen as something that
just brings shame to a woman…so out of concern for her security, her privacy,
for her future life, she stays silent.”  Moreover, the lack of training on
the issue of sexual violence amongst humanitarian workers and journalists in
the conflict in east Ukraine has made accurate documentation of gender-based
violence more difficult.  The new UN cross-agency Sub-Sector on Gender
Based Violence in Ukraine, established in December 2014, will focus on the
issue of sexual violence and the reports emerging from the conflict, but will
need to begin by addressing the lack of training and gender-sensitivity amongst
those working in the area affected by the conflict, which hinders accurate

Yet the important work to be done on the gendered dimensions of
the Ukraine conflict lie beneath layers of quasi-Orientalist tropes in the
western ways of viewing Ukraine, false binaries, and silences.  The lesson from the former Yugoslavia does not seem to have translated across -- pay attention to what happens to gender in war. 



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The mission of the "FEMEN" movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.

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