A few weeks ago, a few members of FEMEN were attacked in the Ukraine, one of whom was identified as "consultant of the mivement Victor Svatsky." But a new documentary Ukraine Is Not a Brothel: The Femen Story has revealed that Svatsky is not just a friend of FEMEN but in fact the man responsible for the entire endeavor.
Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is currently screening at the Venice Film Festival and is the product of Australian filmmaker Kitty Green. Per The Independent, Green uses the film to paint a nuanced portrait of the movement best known for its topless protestors, focusing on (according to IMDB) leaders Inna Shevchenko, Sasha Shevchenko, Anna Hutsol and Oksana Shachko. But that includes depicting Svatsky as the man behind it all. Green says:
It’s his movement and he hand-picked the girls. He hand-picked the prettiest girls because the prettiest girls sell more papers. The prettiest girls get on the front page... that became their image, that became the way they sold the brand.
According to Green, Svatsky was responsible for sending FEMEN members to Belarus where they faced one of their most violent backlashes at the hands of the KGB. Green describes Svatsky as "really horrible" at times, saying that he screams at the women and calls them bitches, but also that he is "fiercely intelligent":
When the Femen founder finally spoke to Ms Green, he sought to justify his role within the organisation and acknowledged the paradox of being a “patriarch” running a feminist protest group. “These girls are weak,” he says in the film.
“They don’t have the strength of character. They don’t even have the desire to be strong. Instead, they show submissiveness, spinelessness, lack of punctuality, and many other factors which prevent them from becoming political activists. These are qualities which it was essential to teach them.”
Mr Svyatski insists to Ms Green that his influence on the group is positive. However, when he is asked directly whether he started Femen “to get girls”, he replies: “Perhaps yes, somewhere in my deep subconscious.”
One of the women interviewed explains that Svatsky's role amongst his fellow FEMEN members is very complicated, saying, "We are psychologically dependent on him and even if we know and understand that we could do this by ourselves without his help, it’s psychological dependence."
If any one had truly been paying attention to the individuals and not the body of FEMEN, Svatsky's role in the group was obvious, so on that note, FEMEN has accomplished exactly what they wanted. In 2011, while doing research for her Fulbright, Sophie Pinkham interviewed Svatsky and FEMEN member and Anna Hutsol, who had previously taken credit for founding the group. In that exchange, Svatsky introduced himself as a "volunteer" for the movement who was feminist because, in his words, "Why not be a feminist?":
A person who understands the situation of women in Ukraine, in Europe, who understands, who delves into it, who doesn’t just use [women], but perceives [them] as people, can’t not be a feminist. It’s enough to see women as people—you’re already a feminist….I think it’s normal, it’s not nonsense. All my best friends are women.
In the interview, Svatsky speaks openly about his goals for the movement with Pinkham, and his comments indicate that he doesn't see his focus on female appearance as incongruous with FEMEN's goals:
We make activism not just a hobby, but an element of women’s sexuality. That is, we demonstrate that beauty is not possible without activism. That there is no passive beauty. We have a lot of supermodels, supermodels in Ukraine, in America. She’s beautiful, but whatever. You understand what I’m talking about. A stringbean. She went out, walked by the podium, sat down…whatever!
We show that activism is charm. Activity is charm. It’s charming to not be indifferent. It’s a communication skill. It’s a lot. Inactive girls can’t be sexy on principle. Even sexuality—it’s activity. A specific one, but activity. And social activism is the highest form of a person’s activity. It makes him a complex, complete, full, finished person.
Hutstol agreed with him:
If a woman’s body, her sexuality is used against her, why shouldn’t she use it herself? You noticed correctly—we’re cunning, we use this, it’s our foundation.
Pinkham questioned this logic, asking if Hutsol and Svatsky felt that it was "contradictory" that FEMEN became "successful by using women’s bodies, even though you’re against their sale", an assertion the pair denied:
You say that beautiful girls are synonymous with sale. Beauty is not synonymous with sale. If you’re beautiful, that doesn’t mean you have to sell yourself. There doesn’t have to be any contradiction in this. Absolutely none. On the contrary—we hypertrophy beauty, we build it up, and we say it’s not for sale. That’s the secret. There’s not much contradiction in it…
If all contemporary cultures are built on the erotic, all cinematography, show business, ads, why doesn’t the erotic have political potential, social potential? That’s what we’re exploring. And there’s no crime in that. On the contrary, we’re doing the right thing—we use women’s sexuality as women’s weapon, women’s instrument…
A woman’s sexuality has always been used against her. Who was burned for witchcraft in the Middle Ages?
AH: Beautiful women.
VS: Beautiful women! Beauty has always been punished. “Don’t be born beautiful”—that’s a Slavic saying. “Don’t be born beautiful, be born happy.” Beauty and happiness never went together in the minds of our ancestors. And we show that beauty can be happy. That it can be attractive, that it can be a tool to influence social problems.
AH: For us, beauty is the foundation of women’s lives. It’s the principal thing.
When FEMEN has promoted themselves, they've done so without Svatsky, like in the book they cooperated on with journalist Galia Ackerman about the movement in France. On their site, they rely heavily on imagery, with pages and pages of images of the women protesting, topless of course. Every photoshoot from any press coverage of them up there as well. On their birthdays, some of the most high-profile women get their own slideshows devoted to them. And in the trailer for Green's film, a shadowy figure in a rabbit mask doesn't appear until the end, laughing maniacally. Is it Svatsky?
Every movement has creators, founders or "puppet masters." The ones that don't fail to gain attention and traction. But with the knowledge of who of FEMEN's true organizer is, the group's story has turned from one that was about women (however complex and contradictory they were) running their own movement to a narrative of a group that's been seen in many protests (most recently during Occupy Wall Street) that haven't been focused on women. Women relegated to the background. Does it make what they've accomplished less impressive? No, but it certainly closer fits the narrative that we're used to.
Images via Getty/Femen