With weeks of preparation behind her, a pre-dawn start that day and high on an adrenaline rush, Alexandra Shevchenko ran bare-breasted towards two of the most powerful leaders in the world confident that she would make an impact – but unsure as to just how big it would be.
"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 barechested," she said. "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.'"
Photographers at the Hanover trade fair on Monday successfully captured the strong element of surprise in the latest and most high-profile protest yet by the female campaign movement Femen. In what will likely be judged one of the most prominent news pictures of 2013, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who has just stepped out of a red sports car with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, seems to push his chest out, raise his eyebrows and purse his lips, producing a double chinned smirk, while Merkel puffs out her cheeks and frowns as bodyguards pounce on Shevchenko and her four fellow Femen members, tackling them to the floor.
It was, recalls Shevchenko, a 24-year-old business studies graduate from Khmelnitsky in western Ukraine, "a very intimate moment".
"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.'"
Shevchenko and the other women, another Ukrainian, a Russian, and two Germans, had painted the slogan "Fuck the dictator" on their chests and backs in black makeup, in both Russian and English in an ambush which she called the group's "most successful action yet".
"It was non-violent women protesting against the most dangerous dictator in the world, it got great coverage and will hopefully inspire people in Russia as well as helping us to recruit new members," she says, dressed in a black-and-white striped sweater and sipping water in a Berlin cafe two days after the event.
Shevchenko, one of the three who founded Femen in 2008, moved to Berlin from Kyiv in January to set up and front the German branch of the movement, which is slowly building up an international presence in its attempt to launch a global sexual revolt. The group, which is a strong supporter of the Russian female protest band Pussy Riot, now has chapters in France, Belgium, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, the US, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Tunisia. Femen's members describe themselves as "feminism's shock troops", and its raison d'etre is to protest against patriarchal individuals, organisations or institutions using their nakedness in what the group unashamedly describes as a militant fashion or "sextrism".
"We were invited to Germany. At first I was quite sceptical, thinking: 'What have we as feminists from Ukraine, which has no tradition of feminism, got to offer others, particularly in what we viewed in Ukraine as forward-thinking western Europe?'" she says. "But we soon realised they were extremely keen to work with us because we're completely rethinking feminism."
As it reached out to feminists in France, Belgium and Germany, the group, says Shevchenko, was prompted to rethink its ideas of Europe.
"We had a beautiful image of Europe with its democracy and human rights, but then we discovered that the salary difference between men and women is 30% – the same as in Ukraine – and that countries like Germany have legalised prostitution, the first and last form of slavery on Earth, and we realised things here are far from being rosy for women after all."
The Hanover action was, she says, the culmination of years of protests and training, the result of tactics that have evolved from action to action.
"Our protests used to consist of being at a distance from our enemies – during our first protest against Putin in 2010 we were a considerable distance from him, but now we're getting ever closer to the enemy." They are also developing their cunning, she insists. Authorities are often warned to look out for young blond-haired women when Femen is thought to be planning a protest. They stopped as many as they could from entering St Peter's Square in Rome in November 2011 although Shevchenko still successfully carried out her semi-naked protest after a sermon delivered by Pope Benedict XVI. As a result Shevchenko dyed her hair brown for the Hanover spectacle. They have also largely stopped telling the press about actions planned, in order to keep them as secret as possible.
"In our history more actions have been thwarted than have been successful," she says.
Shevchenko says the group's progress has much to do with an increased emphasis now placed on strengthening members' physical and emotional resolve. Berlin's 12 activists are regularly put through a physical fitness regime in which they learn to jump barriers, elbow their way through crowds and shout. "French girls [the group has a training school in Paris] are shy about screaming, while German girls have no problem – in fact sometimes they're too loud," she says.
Does she consider Merkel, Europe's most powerful female leader, the enemy? "In so far as she shakes the hand of the dictator, yes," says Shevchenko. "Like [Yulia] Tymoshenko [the imprisoned former prime minister of Ukraine] and like Margaret Thatcher before them, she has hardly spoken out for women's rights."
Shevchenko, who has been imprisoned five times for her activism, and was once abducted by Ukrainian secret services, says she is frequently asked to address the "apparent contradiction" in feminists using their nakedness to protest, she says.
"But what we're doing is reclaiming our bodies, taking our sexuality into our own hands, turning female sexual suppression into aggression."
She says she will stay in Germany, where criminal charges against the women are pending, for as long as it takes to get Femen Germany off the ground successfully. The group is looking for a squat where they might set up a training camp.
"I will stay until I feel that Femen Germany is a strong collective that doesn't need me any more," she says, at which point she would like to move on to Latin America. "We are on a mission," she says.
The group's focus is on Brazil which in 2014 will host the Fifa World Cup followed by the Olympics in 2016. "Prostitution is illegal there, but there's a great deal of prostitution, sex tourism and paedophilia and now the authorities have started offering courses in English for prostitutes," says Shevchenko. "The propaganda message to women is: 'You can get an education if you work as a prostitute,' while to men it's: 'It's OK to buy another person.'" There is, she insists, a lot of work for Femen to do.
Their plans to set up a branch in the UK have so far been thwarted, she says, by the ease with which protesters can be arrested and banned from protesting. "Our challenge in the UK is to find women who are not afraid to be arrested," she says.
Following their arrest in Hanover, Shevchenko and her four colleagues spent five hours in police custody. "It was very amicable," she says. "Not like being arrested in Ukraine. We drank tea and coffee with the police and talked about lots of issues." After her release the first thing she did was to call her dad, a Ukrainian military official. "It was his birthday. I said: 'Happy birthday, Dad – I've just attacked Putin.' He said: 'Uh ah. I'd better tell Mum.'"
Her parents, she says, have learned to tolerate their daughter's chosen way of life. "They love me – even if my mum, a teacher, would have wanted me to be married now and cooking borscht for my husband and kids."