A CHAINSAW-WIELDING blonde topless woman cutting down a cross in a city centre sounds like a scene from a peculiar pornographic film. But that is just what happened on August 17 in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv (Kyiv in its vernacular transliteration). A NSAW (not safe at work) clip of the stunt is available here.
The woman, identified as Inna Shevchenko, was a member of FEMEN, a Ukrainian feminist group known for its topless protests. The action was supposed to show solidarity with the three women from Pussy Riot, a punk collective in Russia, who were sentenced that day, as well as a protest against religious prejudice against women.
But the target was an odd one. The cross was a symbolic memorial to the victims of Stalinist repressions. It was erected during the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. It was not even an “Orthodox” cross (a loose term in Ukraine, which is home to several branches of Orthodox Christianity); it was raised by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (sometimes called Uniate) which is subject to the Pope.
The Ukrainian public was not impressed. Nor was Pussy Riot, for that matter. “We don’t strip and won’t strip,” Mariya Alekhina told the Russian paper “Novaya Gazeta”. But the show was not over, though the FEMEN activists were charged with hooliganism and the cross restored. Last week, four crosses were attacked and destroyed in Russia, in the northerly Arkhangelsk region and in Chelyabinsk region, near the border with Kazakhstan. FEMEN denied involvement, but greeted the news with enthusiasm, publishing material with the English slogan “Cut down the crosses to save Russia!” . This prompted LiveJournal, a popular Russian blogging platform, to shut down the group’s blog on Monday. Meanwhile, an as yet unknown group, “People’s Will”, has admitted to the Russian actions, saying that they were a gesture against the Russian Orthodox Church and its attack on Pussy Riot, rather than against the Orthodox faith
FEMEN's motto is “We came, we undressed, we conquered”. After it was founded in 2008, the group’s early campaigns focused on prostitution and the sex-tourism industry in Ukraine. Since then, they have protested in authoritarian Belarus – where they were they were allegedly mistreated by KGB security forces, and on Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. They were in London last month to condemn the “bloody Islamist regimes” taking part in the Olympics. Their source of funding remains obscure, which fills its members with glee.
But chopping down the cross may be a stunt too far, striking even those sympathetic with their broad message as more narcissistic than brave.