Feminists of Kyiv

Edward Reese

On being nonbinary, TikTok and performance about abuse

Interview held on 05 February 2021, published on 18 June 2021

Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

My name is Edward, I am a nonbinary or queer person, and my pronouns are he/they. I do not fit myself into the “male” and “female” categories. Looking at me, you might think that I am a conventional woman, but I am not. I do not accept the typical signs of masculinity and femininity as taken; for me, these are all human characteristics. I also do not segregate other people into men and women, although respecting each person’s personal and political views.

I believe that the concept of non-binary gender and everything’s queerness is an essential tool in the struggle against patriarchy.

The dividing of the world into masculine and feminine is used mainly by cisgender, heterosexual white men to maintain the existing system. The very existence of nonbinary people undermines this system. I have not read any clever books on this topic, these are personal feelings and developments of intersectional feminism. I think that someday we will come to a beautiful post-gender society, where no one will care who has which genitals and chromosomes, except for doctors who specialize in this. In my opinion, this will be the next step after the victory of feminism, when equality between men and women will be achieved. We might even see it in our 60-80s.

I’m 35, I was born in the Soviet Union. My mom has a poster that I painted when I was 4 or 5 years old. It shows a rally and two girls. One of them holds a placard that reads: “End of Perestroika and Socialism.” The world has changed a lot during my life. For most of my life, I only had a landline telephone, and some did not. Everything is developing so quickly that I believe that the formation of such a society is possible. Globalization contributes significantly to this.

I often face criticism in the LGBTQ+ community. Cis people believe that since we have not achieved marriages for gay couples yet, it’s not time for trans people to defend their rights. However, I don’t understand why we need to follow the same development path as other countries when we can take their experience, consider all the mistakes, and achieve results faster? I have worked in a trans organization and can tell that even within the trans community, there is queerphobia. They still use the term “transsexuality” and divide trans people into “real” — those who made the transition, and “fake” — those who “invented all these genders.” I do not see any queer and non-binary community in Ukraine yet, except for individual people who communicate in social networks, for example, in TikTok.

In TikTok, I create educational content in Ukrainian about non-binary to form this community in Ukraine. My audience is young people, up to 25 years old, who are already growing in the paradigm that it is possible. Under some of my videos, they thank me for making them realize they’re nonbinary. People learn something new, and it helps them to understand their identity better. I also talk about LGBTQ+ organizations that exist in different cities. Young people have a great desire to volunteer and a desire to engage in activism. Still, since most of these organizations are represented only on Facebook, they do not know about their existence. In the future, I plan to make a meeting with subscribers in Kyiv and then perhaps go on a small tour around the country. I understand that teenagers and students do not always have the opportunity to travel somewhere.

“People learn something new, and it helps them to understand their identity better.”

Sometimes I get death threats on Tiktok. It is clear that the authors of these messages are unlikely ever to move away from their computers and mothers, but I complain about such comments and once contacted a human rights organization that provides activists with legal assistance. I do not feel 100% free in Ukraine, as there are various active right-wing and conservative organizations here. But the conservative movement is just a movement, some guys who may receive money for this, and some like to beat up people — kind of a sect of violence fans. Working at Kyivpride, I see that people’s attitude in general, the nation’s one, changes over time. Thanks to this, I feel freer and more comfortable.

In the fall of 2019, I went to the Postplaylab performance school, an alternative Kyiv theatre, the concept of which is close to Marina Abramovich’s works. Previously, I hadn’t come across a performance, and with a theatre in general, but at that moment, I was experiencing a break-up and thought where I could direct my emotions. What I saw there amazed me. It was a compelling process, an absolute catharsis, and therapy. At school, they taught us mainly to work with the body, and after two weeks of training, the participants had to present the final project. All performances were individual but took place simultaneously, on the street, in the city centre. Each of us ended up with a painful story from the past.

“It was a compelling process, an absolute catharsis, and therapy.”

I decided to work with my leading trauma — the trauma of partner violence. While leaving the abuser, I secretly went to a psychotherapist and discreetly was in a psychological support group on Facebook. In this group, I wrote posts about what is happening to me. I printed out these posts, read them out loud, and threw each sheet on the ground. After the performance, I still felt that something was missing; it seemed unfinished to me. In the fall of 2020, Facebook began to “remind” me of the time when I tried to leave my partner, and I decided to continue working. I started publishing texts from a closed diary. Many of those who have had a similar experience thanked me. Some people who address me are in a relationship with the abuser and do not know how to leave. The two women in the comments agreed to discuss the divorce process with the abuser and help each other on this matter. Thus, the performance has already begun.

“It’s hard to believe when you’re not there, and it’s impossible to consider when you’ve never been there.”

When it gets warmer, I plan to bring in colleagues from the theatre for help and do something like a performative mono play. The main question I hear as a domestic violence victim is, “Why didn’t you leave?”.  Lots of affected women get it. At the same time, no one asks the rapists why do they rape and beat people. With my performance, I want to show the state of a person suffering from abuse. I go to psychotherapy, and when I talk about physical and sexual abuse, I often smile at the same time. The psychotherapist asks: “What emotions do you experience?”. Then I wonder what emotions I was experiencing at that time, and I am overwhelmed with horror. It’s hard to believe when you’re not there, and it’s impossible to consider when you’ve never been there. With scenography, sounds, and text, I want to let the audience experience it themselves.

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Marina Herz

On Pride, queer, and freedom to be yourself

15 November 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Queer for me is a rejection of the need to define myself, my sexuality, and names. The theory of sexuality does not stand up to criticism regarding the non-binary nature of sex, it does not include intersex people. For example, I was married to a man, had a relationship with a lesbian, with a trans woman, and a trans man, non-binary and agender people. Who am I? What is my orientation?

I became an LGBTQ activist in 2011 when I fell in love with a girl. At that time, I was married to a man, and I saw that my relationship with my husband and my relationship with a girl were perceived differently by society. I googled if there were LGBT people in Russia, and found an organization in my city. At first, I was a volunteer, then an activist, and later — the coordinator of the community centre. At some point, my feminist position was formed, and I created the Gerbera initiative. We were the first to organize a rally on March 8 in Tyumen, conduct seminars on violence and women’s rights, and also participated in the “Eve’s Ribs” festival for several years in a row. After I moved to Kyiv, other Gerbera participants continued to work, the initiative still exists.

Even before the law on “LGBT propaganda” was adopted in Russia, I was a living book at the festival, and some man filed a petition against me to the prosecutor’s office. I had to visit it and give evidence, even though there was not even a relevant law. For feminist activism and street actions, a file was brought against me at the Center for Combating Extremism. It was difficult to continue working in Russia. Then I was offered a place in Gay Alliance Ukraine, everything worked out successfully, and I moved. In Kyiv I felt more freedom. It’s here where my activism began to flow. However, people did not know who I was, and I needed to collect social capital again.

In 2016, I first went to Pride and felt the opportunity to be myself  — in Russia, this is basically impossible. For LGBTQ people in Tyumen, there are only two places where you can go: a club where parties are held and a community centre for events and psychological support groups. Some people go to both places, some separate. People who come to the club hide all week who they are, and only there they can relax, dance under the influence of alcohol, love each other, and be free for several hours. I was very sad to look at them and be aware of this.

Marina Herz

“It has always been difficult for me to define myself, especially as a teenager.”

I reflect a lot on masculinity and femininity. My friends pay attention that I often choose masculine patterns of behaviour, and I agree  — this is how I feel more confident. It has always been difficult for me to define myself, especially as a teenager. I remember the first grade of school when I sat at a concert in the front row, legs wide apart. It fell into the photographs, all high school students laughed at me, and my mother scolded me. To the phrase “You are a girl!” I always answered: “I am not a girl. I am Marina. Leave me alone.”

When I started to engage in LGBT+ activism, I learned about the term “agender.” For a while, I called myself an agender and non-binary person. At that time, I had severe dysphoria. I took hormonal drugs as I wanted to make the transition and undergo a mastectomy. Although the pills greatly worsened my health, and I abandoned this idea. In 2015, I learned about queer theory: I read books and went to seminars with a partner, a transgender man who suffered from his own transphobia. We began to understand the theory together. It helped him to accept himself and greatly changed my worldview. Even though now I am positioning myself as a queer person, it is important for me to voice that I am a political lesbian. I speak of myself in the feminine gender, advocate for the rights of lesbians, and the rights of women, when necessary.

I was not happy with the representation of queer and trans people at Kyiv Pride, and in 2017 I decided to go to the organizing committee to change the situation from the inside. Later, I started working at Kyiv Pride projects, first as a trainer, then as a program coordinator. This year I was responsible for the conceptual content of the Pride program. Six people stably lead the projects, but there is another vital part of the team: the volunteers, without whom there would be no Pride. During Pride Week (a series of educational events), they help us undergo first aid training and monitor safety on the march.

Now we are trying to strengthen our institutional capacity, organize a system of work. The organisation’s main goal that we elaborated on strategic planning is to increase the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in Ukraine. Kyiv Pride is one of the first public and largest LGBTQ+ events in the country. Therefore, one of our activity directions is the development of regional initiatives, in the framework of which we allocate grants and support activists, teach them how to write applications, conduct a dialogue with the police, and how to mobilize the community.

“To organize a Pride march is insanely hard. We encounter great resistance from the state and even in the LGBTQ+ community itself.”

We have to balance all the time. For example, the community criticizes us for censoring posters, while restrictions were put by the police as a prerequisite for the march. Between us, we call July “the month of the corpse” because, at that time, we are on the verge of our physical abilities and emotional resources. I myself came to Kyiv Pride because of criticism, but now I began to treat it differently: it is easy to criticize from the outside, not knowing what difficulties we are facing and what resources we have (or do not have at all).

This year, we made a paid entrance to the party for the first time because we could not pay for its organization. Donors do not support such events, but we think that parties are important for the community. It’s about freedom and self-expression. A stream of criticism fell upon us. People demanded financial reports, wrote angry posts on social networks. It was hard for me to cope with this, but I try not to lose contact with myself, my feelings, and my needs. I always ask: “How would you do it differently?”

“Queer theory is important, but this concept is not yet available to people.”

LGBTQ organizations have both sexism and misogyny. It can be challenging to agree because everyone has different agendas and a vision of work. There is no single community, even in Ukraine, and common values within it. At least I don’t believe that. Working with donors is also not easy. There are criteria, indicators, and they must be met. Sometimes I have to be more flexible than I would like, but without their support, we would not be able to cope. We live in a capitalist society where you have to pay for everything, and activists also need to eat something.

In media campaigns, the “born this way” rhetoric predominates because it’s easier to explain with it. I do not know if this is bad — I’m at a crossroads so far. When I myself became an activist and did not understand the queer theory, it was also easier for me to accept this position, and for a while, I supported it. People need stereotypes, this is how our brain works. Now Pride has become popular because it has become clear.

This year I taught the Ukrainian police, and we examined a real case — an attack on a lesbian. The attackers decided that she was a guy, began to scold her and beat her, and the police refused to accept the statement. At the training, many said: “So let her sit at home!” and “Let her find a man!” I had to explain such things that men and women are equal, that LGBTQ people exist. Queer theory is important, but this concept is not yet available to people. I don’t know what to do with it. What message can be formulated so that it does not contradict our beliefs but is understandable to people? So far, I am in search of an answer, how to be understood, and at the same time not to lose myself.

The representation of queer and trans people is still insufficient, but the situation is changing. This year, for the first time, a full-fledged trans day was held on Pride Week, the opening of the exhibition, and events dedicated to the problems of trans people. Now we are thinking about projects that can increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ people who experience cross-discrimination. For the LGBTQ military, this is, for example, the safety of a coming out. LGBTQ people with disabilities face ableism and xenophobia both within the community and society as a whole. We also had a positive experience of holding an event about Roma LGBT. I believe that visibility is one of the tools to overcome homophobia and transphobia, and it really matters to me.

“I do not want to hide who I am to reduce my expression. I want to be myself — in the urban, information space — just to be.”

Earlier, activism seemed to be an endless swamp in which I flounder but see no results. Now everything is different. I began to see changes over the past year: attitudes toward the Pride have changed, interest has grown, more and more support is coming from people and other institutions. Pride’s positioning has also changed. Our last year’s slogan, “The Land of the Free— Be Yourself”, is very close to me personally. I do not want to hide who I am to reduce my expression. I want to be myself — in the urban, information space — just to be. I plan to spend the next two years in Ukraine and continue to work at the Pride, and after two years, I do not think. I have chronic depression. Now I am undergoing treatment and taking care of myself. Not responding to work messages after eight in the evening can be difficult due to the irregular schedule, but I try to balance it. I like to walk, read books, play ukulele, and sing in my free time. Such banal advice as a full sleep and walks in nature, for me, really works.

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Olesia Onykiienko (NFNR)

On women’s electronic music scene and exploration of the sound

30 October 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

For someone I’m not radical enough to be a feminist, others consider me to be a feminist as I’m promoting women’s interests. I’m not a civic activist; my key area is music. I’m not sure I do enough to call myself like that.

I wish for a long time to create some female musical initiative, so Sasha Dolgiy invited me to lead the project Womens Sound in the Institute of Sound. This is a cultural and educational public organization created to support musicians. Institute has an interest in developing modern electronic music, opening new schools where beginners could study and practice for free.

Together with Sasha, Karina Lazaruk and other musicians, we arrange performances in different Ukraine cities, organize parties and give lectures. Sometimes we are looking for local female performers and invite them to play with us. The duration of sets varies the same as the experience of participants. If the concert is at night, we make the free donation entry fee, but mostly it’s free. One of the main goals of such events is to find each other and form a community. Women musicians in Ukraine are quite isolated, and some are afraid to begin. For example, after the lecture in Severodonetsk, few girls came to us. They told us they would like to play electronic music and develop in this area. They hadn’t seen any sense in it before, as the music scene is male-dominated. As a result, we are not only exchanging information but also providing psychological support. It’s an important part of my guidance.

Womens Sound is the exploration for ourselves and work in progress.

Some people demand from us to take a clearer position, be more radical although I don’t think we should. For me, Womens Sound is the exploration for ourselves and work in progress including the search of the language and definition of the problems which cause a small presence of women in line-ups. At the moment we are quite idealistic and open-minded, our goal is to increase the presence of women, not to separate them from men. Surely there is an issue of providing a safe space, we are ready to work with guys but we are striving to avoid psychological violence and dominance from their side. Others say: “By calling yourselves Womens Sound you humiliate and disvalue female musicians”, however Womens Sound is the sound created by women. Even if we call it female music, I don’t see any humiliation. Why everything female is perceived as less valuable?

I was born in Kyiv but went to Lviv to become a conductor. After the Orange Revolution, I had so much energy, and I hoped to immerse myself there in the culture environment. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t find associates, and there were no places to perform with sets in Lviv. I realised I didn’t want to stay there and wanted to come back home. Being in Kyiv, I decided to enter the National University of culture and arts, but at the last moment, the exam was relocated to another building for unknown reasons. A few other applicants and I got late while searching for the right building. Finally, the examiner let in only three boys who came with all the girls, and we were left outside.

Music education in Ukraine is quite conservative. In Lviv, we were taught to write by ear and afterwards were corrected. No one teaches avant-garde music of the XXth century, and nobody understands it at all; everything ends with Rakhmaninov and Debussy. However, students have a great request for that: together with the Institute of sound, we gave lectures in the pedagogical school and gathered a full hall. Despite all the difficulties, I continued playing music mostly because of my idealism, stubbornness, and naivety. Also, I felt that in music, I can express and understand much more than people in my surroundings. This feeling held me tight.

It was interesting  to process and create our own imaginative worlds.

I composed before the University, but my first job as a composer I got in the theatre when someone recommended me. After that, the theatre director moved to another one where there was no recording studio, so I’ve learnt how to record it by myself. I was very encouraged by the possibility to process and explore the sound myself; many opportunities opened up, I felt very relieved. As a child, I did not have access to music. I do not come from an intellectual family. Then there was no Internet for a long time, and I listened to avant-garde records on disks. I have an academic background, so I was not acknowledged with electronic music until I started recording it.

I started performing in 2014 in Ether. It was there where I found a community that I had lacked in Lviv. My friends and I started doing experimental hearings at the Mala Gallery. We recorded the sounds of different areas of the city, Podil, the Botanical Garden, I recorded the noise of trams, and Maxim Werner  — the current in the wires. It was interesting to process and create our own imaginative worlds. The events were in great demand. Later, in the Plivka art space, we continued the experiment: we recorded different water states, the noise of polyethylene, glass, and tearing of fabrics. Our goal was to attract “non-musicians” to experiment, record sounds, perform as they can. I’d like to return to this practice. I am interested in exploring society’s involvement in musical activity, interacting with sound, listening, overcoming the concept of “music for professional musicians.” My relatives told me: “You are not Chopin,” and I would like more people to stop so dictatorially restricting others and themselves.

Working with artists, especially regarding social issues, helps me better understand my cultural process role.

I played with different musicians. Not everyone comes out to feel each other, let their inner artists open up, and play another way. With Ira Novikova (insomnia taxxi) we get something completely different from the fact that we play separately. This is probably best described as avant-garde techno. With Ira, we also play with the Swedes Skallahavet and Birds ov Paradise.

In 2018, together with Katya Berlova, we participated in the residency of the 86 film festival in Slavutich. It was a project-intervention in the urban environment: we went down to the sewer and arranged a rave underground. Most of the time, we spent negotiating with public utilities to get permission. We did not announce the performance itself, and festival visitors simply followed the hatches’ sound and light. Similar invasion of city space Katya and I and our project Deus ex machina carried out in Dnipro: we explored the subway, which few people use. We decided to place the rave at the factory passage. I played industrial techno at 7 in the morning, and at the same time, we filmed young people on the subway who were coming back home. The works were presented in the Art Svit gallery in Dnipro.

The last collaboration, the one very memorable for me, took place last year at a residence near Berlin. We worked with a step dancer: she danced on different surfaces, for example, a cornfield with leftover cut stalks. I was looking for locations and recorded sound. In addition, we presented a video project and made a joint presentation. Working with artists, especially regarding social issues, helps me better understand my cultural process role. Musicians are an outlet for society, a portal to an interesting world. Like science fiction writers, we form an alternative reality and a different worldview: non-conformal and very freedom-loving. This skill should be trained with every performance, in every composition, in any creative act.

I see absolutely groundless doubts among original, powerful musicians, insecurity, torment, intense tension caused by psychological barriers and lack of a familiar environment. Probably, my experience of an absolute lack of support from relatives, and almost all my friends, when it was essential, the state of despair because of this, helps me to understand these girls better. I also face difficulties in the professional field as a theatre composer and musician. For example, it is especially tough with sound engineers: often, I need to take a stand, prove professionalism, or simply seek technical personnel to fulfil my decisions if they are men. I feel sick of an indulgent attitude everywhere, especially in state institutions and among doctors. For me, this is a self-identification problem that I want to work on. Back in the day, the comparison of my creative achievements with men’s ones was flattering me. Sadly, it pleased me then.

I feel sick of an indulgent attitude everywhere.

My piano teacher at the school did a great job on my self-confidence, self-presentation and complexes. I also was teaching music to children for a long time, and I know that you need to be a psychologist too. Practical things, such as technical assistance in the first performance, really help, but, in general, attention to your creativity is significant: response, request for performances, recordings, even social media coverage. I also often believe that female musicians do not trust their inner intuition or cannot find something of their own. They copy what other musicians do and can create a high-quality product but completely deprived of personality. I would advise those who are just starting to work with sound to focus on their experience and state, personal aesthetics, try to look for their language. Technical skills can always be developed.

Self-organization is almost the only opportunity to speak actively.

Even in big cities, musicians have to do it themselves: organize performances, parties, and their own communities. We work on this problem at the Sound Institute and Womens Sound. We seek funding to develop musical communities in the regions, educational events, and communications with electronic festivals in other cities. We publish Womens Sound live on Mixcloud. People can also send us tracks — you can find contacts on our Facebook. Shortly, we plan to launch a podcast and talk about female artists, invite them to the studio and discuss the challenges women face in the music sphere. At the end of October, we will present the project in Berlin, in Das Kapital. Together with Nastya Noisynth, we will perform in Prague with the Synth Library Prague – ZVUK community on November 27th. To some joint events we are invited, like in Berlin, we are still investing our money to visit friends there. There are many proposals, but now we need support from cultural institutions; the amount of work is gigantic. We want to continue working with Konstmusiksystrar and with other women’s communities. If we can get funding, we will make a festival — an educational forum with electronic music workshops, collaborations, and a residence.

When we first started doing the project, I did not think of how my life would change. Over the past year, I have made a lot of acquaintances. I’ve got more opportunities to perform, to do interesting events. And the existence of a stable active community only strengthens this, as does the demand for electronics, avant-garde music, experiments with sound. All of that makes me very encouraged as an artist.

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Valeriya Zubatenko

On gender studies, radical attacks, and relationship with her body

Trigger Warning: the article mentions violation, self-harm and eating disorders.

31 August 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

The fact of gender inequality in society I started to notice as a child, but I did not know what to call it. At school, in physical education classes, boys always went to play football, and girls were sent to “stretch out.” Once I joined the game and accidentally hit a guy in the stomach with a ball, he burst into tears and insulted me. Since then, I have been embarrassed to join them again. I was afraid of doing something wrong, spoiling everything, failing the team, so everyone would think it happened because I’m a girl and not because I’m a human being who can make mistakes.

I grew up in Zaporizhzhia, and for a long time, I had no friends, or at least I thought so. I spent a lot of time at home and entertained myself. For example, I opened a home hairdresser: made hairstyles for myself, dressed up in mother’s clothes, jumped from the closet with an umbrella because I wanted to fly. I was unhappy with my body, and people in my environment exacerbated this feeling. One of these days, I took duct tape and started wrapping it tightly around my belly to see how I would look like if I were skinny. Then my hands went numb. I could not breathe and hastily tried to find scissors. It was horrifying. I always mention this story in conversations about body-positive; that’s what beauty standards and cellulite jokes can do to a child.

As a teenager, I realized that I’m bisexual, and someday I can fall in love with a girl. I went to university and started working as a journalist in a local editorial. There I met girls who did not hide their relationship: we listened to “Night Snipers” and hung out together. Once at a concert by Diana Arbenina (lead singer of the group Night Snipers), a volunteer of the LGBT fund “Gender Z” approached us and invited us to visit them. Gender Z organized various events and games, and they also had psychological support groups for LGBTQ+ people. When I first came to them, my expectations did not coincide with reality: I thought it would be some sapphic poetry club! However, I liked the people who worked there and the way they created a safe space. I realized that I also want to do social work, help people as a volunteer, or have a permanent job in this area. There I became interested in feminism.

In Gender Z, I met my future girlfriend. We went on a date, and soon after that she went to Italy for a long time, her parents lived there. Then we started chatting all day. I was immersed in texting and, surely, my mother noticed this as we shared one PC. At that time, my mother tried to arrange my personal life and was setting me up with various men. It annoyed me a lot. The last time she did it, I could not stand it and confessed that I was chatting not simply with my friend but with the girl I love. It shocked her. I tried to explain that she was not guilty of anything that I was happy, and that was the most important thing. Mom could not accept me for a long time, and when Lena arrived, she met her coldly, with resentment. However, over time, everything worked out: mom loved Lena for her personality, she practically lived with us. After coming-out, one of my friends was kicked out of the house, so I think I’m lucky.

Valeriya Zubatenko

When I entered the Faculty of Philosophy at National Pedagogical Dragomanov University in Kyiv, I already knew that I wanted to study gender studies through philosophy. There was nothing about gender in the curriculum, so I started studying on my own and searched for information on the Internet. The first year I was not involved in activism because I did not know where to start. Together with my girlfriend, we moved to Kyiv and lived in my friend’s apartment while looking for a place. It was the time after the Maidan, quite tense period in Zaporizhzhia. People were waiting for the troops to enter the city. All our neighbours were making bomb shelters in the basements and stocking up on food. We weren’t sure whether mom could keep sending me money. Then my friend’s parents said that we didn’t need to look for anything and could live all together. Fortunately, the size of the apartment allowed it.

I did not like the way they teach at the university and did not communicate with other students. I continued to attend classes, and the rest of the time, I could not force myself to get up from the couch. All year I suffered from severe insomnia, depression and eating disorders.

No matter how much I exercised, it was not enough for me. My efforts appeared to be incommensurable with the result.

Back to Zaporizhzhia, followed by the desire to lose weight and change my life, I started to attend a ballet studio. I continued practicing it in Kyiv almost every day and achieved significant success. No matter how much I exercised, it was not enough for me. My efforts appeared to be incommensurable with the result. I was worried about what and how I eat. It seemed like I need to eat even less. For a while, I stopped drinking water. I was aware that all of this was abnormal and wrong. If I knew that someone else was doing this … I don’t know what I would do. Although I myself could not stop. Analyzing those events now, I conclude that this way, I tried to get out of codependent relationships and take control of my body. We broke up with a girlfriend, fell out with my friend, and I had to move on. Soon there was nothing to pay for a new apartment. At that time, I already had a dog, but there was neither food nor money. I was deeply depressed all over again. One of my old friends helped me a lot: he walked a dog, called me to dinner, and finally moved to me. Gradually, I began to feel better, and I got back to things I always wanted to do.

Valeriya Zubatenko

There were many sexist moments in our university, and I felt that I had to do something about it. I started talking with classmates, and one of them brought me to the LGBTQ organization, “Insight.” There I learned more about LGBT activism in Kyiv. Soon, I began engaging in activism: I wrote articles, went to events, and planned some of them at the university, including feminist readings for International Women’s Day. That’s how a student initiative, “Borsch”, was created. Initially, the title was chosen just for fun, but over time it turned into our main idea: we wanted to show well-known things from the other side, thus destroying gender stereotypes. In the Ukrainian context, borsch is associated with the image of a “women-keeper,” but in reality, it’s just a dish that everyone can cook. As part of the initiative, we provided lectures and discussions at Dragomanov University and in Zaporizhzhia, feminist readings and a cinema club. We also planned to maintain pages on social networks, but it turned out to be too resource-intensive. For the same reason, the initiative fell apart.

It was important for me that the club could function in a safe and, at the same time, open space.

After that, a teacher from the faculty of religious studies, who was aware of my activities, contacted me. She offered to create a gender discussion club, and we began to work on its concept together. It was important for me that the club could function in a safe and, at the same time, open space. This way, students and people who could not get higher education would be welcomed there. That’s why we chose the free art space “Sklo” at the university. The first club meeting already attended ultra-right group representatives. They did not hide their intention to disrupt the event and insisted on entering since we were “open.” I listened to their requirements and spoke out the internal rules of conduct in the club. When they refused to abide by them, I closed the door. That day the meeting was successful.

The next time these guys brought in elder colleagues — leaders of ultra-right organizations. They prevented us from opening and filmed everything on camera; it was already impossible to besiege them. I didn’t know if I could call the police. Students called a representative of the administration, but instead of forcing them to leave, she invited us to discuss the conflict. For an hour and a half, we listened to their demands all over again, and when it became unbearable, I declared the meeting closed. As it turned out later, someone called the police,  one of the right-wing radicals brandished a knife on the street, and then helped his friend to remove the EU flag from the university building and trample it. The patrol arrived a few hours later and did nothing.

Valeriya Zubatenko

“I hoped that the publicity would prevent them from hushing up the case, but in the end, no one was punished.”

We held the third meeting of the gender club at another university, and everything went calmly. The fourth session was transferred back to Sklo. It was the end of December 2017, few people came on New Year’s Eve; and at first, I was upset. The next moment three men in balaclavas burst into the room. I recognized two of them: the guy with a knife and his friend who tore the flag. They began to pepper-spray everybody, and several people were injured. The university security guard passively observed and allowed them to leave. I understood that I had to find out who had been that third guy so that the police could identify him. In the heat of passion, I ran after him and tried to tear off his mask, but it didn’t work out: they splattered my face, hit me with the door, and ran away. I quickly recovered and called an ambulance. A friend of the teacher took us to the police station, where we talked for a long time about everything that had happened. The police recorded this and even showed me photographs of the people I spoke about in the database. For a long time, they refused to give the case number. I had to ask friends to send media inquiries, and one of them was responded. They told me that no proof of corpus delicti had been found since I (the victim) had refused to undergo a forensic medical examination. But no one even offered me to go through it.

After that, the head of the student council publicly accused me of what had happened. They blamed me for realising that it would be so and that I had endangered the club members as I hadn’t hired private security, accused me of PR. The university administration began to put pressure on teachers and forbade us to gather. Then I threw all my energy into creating a resonance: I wrote to the Ministry articles for the media, asked human rights organizations and others to send letters to the rector. I hoped that the publicity would prevent them from hushing up the case, but in the end, no one was punished. The attackers continued to attend classes. Everyone at the university knew that they had done it, but no one condemned their actions. This was my last course, and I finished it to get a diploma.

Valeriya Zubatenko

A little later than in a year, Alyona Mamay wrote to me with an offer to become a co-curator of the exhibition “Vykhovni  Acty” (“Education acts”). I was delighted with this opportunity because, at that moment, I was exhausted by the struggle and disappointed with its results. This way, I could show the university administration that I was not giving up. The exhibition was devoted to censorship and various forms of violence in society, including right-wing radical violence. It was important for Alyona to do it in “Sklo.” The curator of the space supported this idea for some reason. We obtained the endorsement and set to work. At first, we invested personal funds in creating works by artists, and when the money ran out, we asked for help.

I negotiated with the police, and they provided security for us. We were ready for attacks, although right-wing radicals didn’t appear at the event. Instead of it, they intimidated the curator of the art space. The university administration also put pressure on her, and in the end, they decided to close the exhibition. We asked for time to dismantle the works, as parts of them were large-scale, and announced a protest rally demanding the administration to voice its position. This time we had much more support, some reporters arrived, but they were not allowed inside. Alyona and I could get to Sklo and decided to stay there until our requirements would be met. In the evening, the vice-rector responsible for placement arrived there — he insulted us, attacked the journalist of Hromadske TV, but in the end, agreed to speak at a press conference. After a while, someone took all our works to the police station, where they are still being held for unknown reasons. Despite the great resonance in the media, the press conference did not happen. Everybody at the university acted as nothing had happened.

This trip was the last straw for me.

At the end of May, “Insight” invited Alyona and me to the “Equality Festival” in Chernivtsi, with a lecture on political art, where we could talk about our exhibition. We arrived and smoothly got to the festival. Still, protesters began to gather under the building: members of religious organizations, representatives of the clergy, right-wing radicals, whose faces we already knew, and people in military uniforms. We were informed about the mines, after which the protesters entered the building. The evacuation began, during which the priest fanned us with a censer and read a prayer. He pushed me into a cloud of gas, which the ultra-right sprayed below, with the words: “Ladies — go ahead.” Police cordoned off the entrance. The private security that the festival hired opened the umbrellas, and under them, wrapped in scarves, we went outside. Opponents tried to break through the cordon, shouting to the police: “You are not real men if you protect them. Give them to us. We know what to do with them!” Someone threw a hammer in our direction, but, fortunately, no one was hurt. This trip was the last straw for me. I returned to Kyiv and ended up in the hospital with nervous exhaustion.

For a long time, I could not do anything. I tried to recover and started doing something else. That summer, the sewing cooperative “ReSew” announced the project “Dream clothes that do not exist” — a series of workshops for people from the LGBTQ+ community who find it difficult to find clothes in the mass market. I passed the selection and sewed a wedding dress. In Ukraine, I could not wear it for my own wedding — we have banned same-sex marriage, but I specially made the dress comfortable for me to walk in it every day. I also planned to embroider the inside of the hem with quotes from Hole songs, verses by Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, but I ran out of time. The whole process turned out to be much more complicated than I imagined. I had to dissolve the dress and alter it again many times. We worked for hours, I completely focused on sewing, and this became therapy for me. When I put on a dress I sewed myself, I experienced joy — now it is one of my favourites. With activism, everything is more complicated. I know that I will not see the result of my efforts, but the thought that I am approaching helps me not give up.

Valeriya Zubatenko
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Alyona Mamay

On modern art, empowerment and precariat

10 August 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

It was my first class when I got the note with the question “What would you like to do once you finished school?” I wrote: “I want to be a painter. I paint every day”. In moments of despair, I recall this piece of paper. I carry it deep in my heart.

I studied in an average school in one of the central districts of Kyiv,  although not very prestigious. My first seven years in school passed in the atmosphere of bullying – class was not an ecological one. I remember how I was bullied, but I was also partly involved in bullying other kids. After all, my parents convinced me to move further, and I entered the maths oriented lyceum as I wanted to become an architect. The new class was full, it had more than thirty kids, and most of them were boys. They got more attention as it was believed that exactly boys would become engineers. Due to these two factors, at that moment, my emotional state only got worse, and I got depressed.

After the lyceum, I entered the State art school in Kyiv. We studied six times a week and above-average school subjects there were also life drawing classes, in high school, even the nude. This school is a very respected place. In the circle of elder artists, it is considered that if you want to be a serious painter, you need to go to school at first and then to the art academy to complete the whole academic course.

In the last grade, I began to paint in oils and was preparing to enter the National Academy of Arts in Kyiv. I was already painting watercolour well, and there was a teacher who laid hope for me. My decision to switch to other direction got him quite angry; he began to paint over, spoil my works, pretending to correct them. Everybody was telling me: you won’t enter, only one year left! I entered the academy from the first attempt.

I thought that I would learn academic art and raise it from its knees! But everything is falling apart there. Professors almost do not come to lectures. All of them are older people who cannot quit the job due to a scanty pension. Almost every month, one of them dies. After the third year of studies, I wanted to choose the sacral painting course, but the professor died. There is also a problem with the models who have to sit naked in unsanitary conditions, cold classes. As the academy cannot fully pay them off, they also often do not come, and you have to paint pictures in the last few days. All of that signifies physical destruction (old furniture, horrible premises) as well as an educational. You come there, begin to draw and realise that you are surrounded by decay.

“Some of the paints I made of mortars. This all became an empowerment-practice for me.”

After a year of such studies, I started to visit a library. There I explored the works of Russian and Ukrainian avant-gardists. Reading saved me. Through avant-garde, I started to experiment in my works. I decided to make stretcher bars by myself because they cost a fortune. Some of the paints I made of mortars. This all became an empowerment-practice for me: when you are a painter and always have to bring along easel and sketchbook, make stretcher bars from handmade sawed boards, all of that gives you a chance to believe in yourself. Since then, I’ve felt that my work is not only my paintings, although everything I made by myself.

During my third year of studies, I started to read articles on precarious work and think about my future career. People who have a part-time job, freelancers, painters, designers, housewives, all of them do precarious work. They are working but often do not get paid for this, the government doesn’t know how to tax them and the status of their future pension is unknown. I realized that after graduating I’ll enter a world that is not ready to accept someone like me. That’s why I started to hang out with anarchists, leftist activists: Politychna krytyka (Political critics), Spilne (Commons) and Vector media journalists; representatives of FemSolution and later with Feminist Workshop participants. I also started to make performances and actions, make posts about them on Facebook. Together with my friend, Liza Smirnova, we created “Khvylyna dlia mista” (A minute for the city) page to cover the problems of precariat and record information about actions in support of it.

“I realized that after graduating, I’d enter a world which is not ready to accept someone like me.”

The first action took place in front of the Ministry of culture and was titled “We’ve had enough, where is the money?” It was 2016. We made a list of requests to the Ministry with chalk on the pavement. The main ones concerned the scholarship amount and absence of grants for painters. The guardian let me inside by mistake, and I tried to have an appropriate talk with the ministry staff but failed. They were either shifting the blame on the previous minister or were told that they didn’t have money for the things we asked for. Also, we figured out that there were grants for painters. However, almost all of them are given to the Painters Association, older painters who already had the reputation and therefore orders. After this incident, I gave up hoping for government support.

There were many other actions, but the event that changed my life was ‘Action in doors.” This time I decided to address local problems: I wrote critics manifest in front of the academy building and made a performance. I’m happy that there were people who agreed to help me. These were the students and also representatives of “Priama diia” (Direct action), platform “Start”, and others. Precisely on the action, I was alone. Students who joined me were endangering themselves. That’s why I think it was the right decision to assume sole responsibility. Сovered in a white sheet that symbolized a refusal to write meaningless paintings in style required by certain professors, I was sitting near the academy entrance with a manifest and distributed brochures about precarious work.

“I manifested that I won’t paint with oil until the administration of the academy won’t get in touch and make at least some reforms.”

The action stirred up social networks, journalists were inviting me for the interviews, and I told them what bothered me. Surely some people blamed me for self-promotion and desire for attention. Together with academy students, I organized educational public lectures where we invited different “non-academic” painters. I kept attending academy lectures but didn’t paint anymore. I manifested that I won’t paint with oil until the academy administration won’t get in touch and make at least some reforms. In fact, they pretended like nothing had happened and decided to expel me at the end of the year. Therefore I asked for the support of such painters: Zhanna Kadyrova, Mykyta Kadan, Alevtina Khakhidze. Mykola Ridnyi, Volodymyr Kuznetsov, Mariia Kulikovska. They wrote support letters to help me stay in the academy. The administration agreed to do it on the condition that I’ll complete all paintings, and finally, I agreed on it. I didn’t want to be a hero who quits Academy in thesis year. I had nowhere to go.

I was forcing myself to paint, and it was real violence towards me because usually, I fully participate in everything I do. It was such a traumatic experience and such a hard year that I had a nervous breakdown. One day I realized that I could no longer run, make lectures, actions, and get back to the academy.  I called my parents and asked to bring me to Pavlivka – a psychiatric hospital, where I spent the next three weeks.

There are some painters who cut themselves, starve for months, and nail their genitals to the pavement. I think the time for such performances has passed. After the hospital, I realized that I have to care about myself. I finished my degree painting and sold it to the collection of Grynyov art foundation.

After studies, I continued working on a precarious work topic and with people who helped me make public lectures in the academy. That’s how Technical Service Group (STO, also – one hundred) appeared. It combined both the designer bureau and craft production centre. All of us were making modern art, and we produced concepts one by one, like in the factory. That’s what a capitalistic system requires from a painter now – to produce works often, to exhibit them in galleries and that the price of these paintings don’t fall. I don’t think that without this permanence, one cannot be a painter; however, I feel that my works are evaluated by these rules. In the frames of the action “100 applications”, we applied for open calls, grants, resident programs and competitions. This number resulted from the title of the group. Only a few organizations approved us. Galleries refused at the last moment, which happens quite frequently. At the moment the bureau is not working.

After graduation from the academy, art institutions stopped having so much influence on my life, so I started to work with other problems like far-right radical violence in Ukraine and violence in general. At the beginning of 2018, I did action “The prayer.” At first, I drew small icons with Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka, Franko and Dragomanov. We have a custom of venerating these personalities. For example, the portrait of Shevchenko, “father of the nation”, is often hanging near the icons. At the same time, all of the above-mentioned personalities were leftists. Afterwards, there was an idea to make a prayer service. Few people stood with me in front of the Volodymyr cathedral, holding icons and imitating the singing choir. I was reading the prayer for Taras Shevchenko, Lesia and others’ defence from right-wing groups.

“We didn’t realise who we can refer to, prayer was an act of despair.”

At that moment, there were a lot of attacks, closed feminists exhibitions, and frequently it was done by the same institutions that were afraid that radicals would come to them. Enforcement officers maintained with attackers friendly relationship. We didn’t realise who we can refer to. Prayer was an act of despair. St. Volodymyr’s cathedral wasn’t just a random choice: each year, Dragomanov students are forced to come there for prayer service as their University is near it. Ironically Mykhailo Dragomanov positioned himself as a left-winger and presumably an atheist. That’s why it seemed logical to complete the circle and make the exhibition in this university.

The curator of art-space “Glass” in Dragomanov University supported my idea and offered to unite with other painters. I wrote to Valeriya Zubatenko, who had organized a gender club in this university’s philosophy department and was the one who also suffered from attacks. Together we created the exhibition “Education acts” – that’s how members of ultra-right groups call their attacks on people. However, the works covered different violations: domestic violence, maltreatment of women in society and others. This hub’s special feature is that it’s done from glass: to see the painting of Mykyta Kadan where the beating is fixed, one does not have to enter. In my opinion, it is a robust conception and good work with context and space.

“As we had been threatened previously there was a lot of police on the opening.”

LGBTQ-organisation “Insight” agreed to provide us with funds; they allowed us to pay for some painters’ works. We worked a lot, mounted everything by ourselves and were delighted with the result of our efforts. As we had been threatened previously, there was a lot of police on the opening. On the same day, the university administration decided to close the exhibition. It turned out that the group of students wrote a letter with a request to do it as the exposition “offended their religious and patriotic feelings.” The same students became a part of the university commission who reinforced the exhibition’s status as provocative. I think it won’t surprise anybody if I tell that they were also members of the extreme right-wing organisations. Finally, they dismantled all the works and brought them to the police office, where they still persist for unknown reasons.

Although this story caused a lot of stress, the fact that I had met my enemies face to face gave me energy.  Now I can definitely say that I’m a left-wing anarcha-feminist. Such experiences helped me to build my own position and don’t hesitate anymore.

Just a month ago I won the competition of Mime Wave Festival in Kyiv, and in August I will be presenting the idea of my performance in Amsterdam. The title of the performance is “How to birth”, it’s about disciplining the body, especially the woman’s. From the very childhood, girls are told how they should sit, stand, and move nicely. My family encouraged me to walk with a book on the head at home to have a better pose. The culmination of these attempts to adapt the body to particular positions is childbirth, when a woman lies in a certain manner and doctors tell her what to do. In Ukraine, it is frequently done rudely. I’ll try to create a dance based on these directions on how to move. Also, I passed the exams in Gissen (Germany). Sadly, I have to go abroad to learn such a simple thing in modern art as performance because, in Ukraine, there are no places where I can learn it in state institutions. However, I’m delighted to broaden my knowledge in this sphere, so I plan to come back to Ukraine and conduct dance workshops. I want to share my knowledge.

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Elmira Musaieva

On socialist modernism, fashion and far-right violence

21 June 2019
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

My name is Elmira Musaieva, I’m 23. I come from Dnipropetrovsk region, but I’ve lived in Kyiv for the last six years. At first, I entered the faculty of philology at Dragomanov University. This decision was dictated only by the desire to leave a small town, so soon I left the University. I worked for some time and tried to find my own way.

When I lived in my boyfriend and his mother’s flat, I found the book “Road to the Stars” by Yuri Gagarin. It had a great influence on me. I got excited about this topic and decided to enter the aerospace technology faculty at Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. I had to work hard to pass tests because I had a low level in math and physics before entering. Nevertheless, I was happy to accept the challenges, and I’m happy to be here now.

“Modern architecture reflects the science and human values decline.”

I love and study socialist modernism. I got carried away by the simple, rhythmic and space influenced forms of architects who created these buildings and the ideas they put into them. It hurts me that this architecture is not respected due to the Soviet heritage desecration. I’m fighting for the conservation of buildings and panels as I can. Fortunately, there is a group of people who also explore and preserve them.

I disagree with the statement that the cosmic cult and space industry existed only for the sake of an arms race. Certainly, the government was interested in it, but people were looking to the future and dreaming about interstellar space exploration. We lack it now. The modern architecture reflects the science and human values decline. However, I hope that the human’s nature and curiosity will keep leading us to outer space. As scientist Tsiolkovsky said: “Mankind will not forever remain on Earth.”

At the same time, I work as a model at Cat-b agency founded by my friends. They were looking for people with an unusual appearance in their surroundings. Right at that time, there was a boom on models with shaved heads. They didn’t have strict requirements: the model shouldn’t obligatory meet perfect size, but of course, it’s desirable.

I participated in a few fashion shows. I work more often in advertisements and music videos. The most impressive from the recent ones are “Mantra” by Bring Me The Horizon and “Light” by San Holo, where I played a vampire and the shooting process was quite extreme: I had to hang over the wall.

“As long as society encourages the cult of beauty, models will be required to have “commercial”, beautiful faces.”

I have to confront stereotypes based on my appearance. For example, I know that I’ll have difficulty to find a job related to my degree because I’m a woman, and on top of it, with a weird appearance. The parent’s attitude is the same: they would like to see me wearing long hair.

I often hear people shouting at me something about it in the street.

I certainly feel that fashion is becoming agender, and I think this is not just a trend. Society is changing, and requests are changing. This process will continue. Fashion is also changing but very slowly. I think that the problem resides in the global way of people’s lives. As long as society encourages the cult of beauty, models will be required to have “commercial”, beautiful faces. While we live in capitalism, brands will keep overproducing stuff several times a year and then burn everything that can’t be sold.

“We hid in the store, hoping that they would leave, but they kept following us.”

Last year I came to the march on International Women’s Day for the first time. Previously I hadn’t known about these marches, but I already had realized and positioned myself as a feminist. There were a lot of people, women and men. I made a bright poster and felt the spirit of solidarity.

After the action, my friend and I decided to go to the mall to eat. On the way, we noticed that we were being followed by a group of 7-8 guys with a characteristic appearance. I recognized one of them: he had torn up a march participant’s poster under the monument to Princess Olga. We hid in the store, hoping that they would leave, but they kept following us. In front of the shopping mall entrance, they poured green paint over me and ran away. The guards saw that and did nothing.

I published a post about this, and a few journalists contacted me. Later, I was invited to a meeting with an OSCE representative to record a case of attack. I did not file a police report as I didn’t remember the attackers’ faces, and I did not have enough strength. For a long time, paranoid thoughts were not leaving me, it was scary to walk down the street, but I did not stop writing about it on social networks.

In June, I was invited to participate in the organization of the “We want, and we walk” street action. The purpose of the action was to draw attention to far-right violence and the way right-wing organizations restrict our right to peaceful assembly (disrupt actions and marches, attack activists) and the fact that political forces support them.

“No one could guarantee us safety at the event. Police can’t always be trusted.”

On the action, I was tied with white & red tape, which is usually used to limit entry to restricted areas. On the tape, there were slogans of right-wing radicals pronounced during attacks. My mouth was also tied with a ribbon as a symbol that they are trying to silence us. Just in case, I gave my spray to the guy who was next to me. No one could guarantee us safety at the event. Police can’t always be trusted.

I really hope that the change of power in Ukraine will entail personnel changes. And then, perhaps, at least some of these organizations will lose their funding and protection. I want them also to face criminal penalties for what they did. These are not only attacks on activists, but also, for example, arson attacks on Roma camps.

“Inequality, chauvinism, racism also kill us.”

I don’t want to move anywhere. I like Kyiv. However, I want to work in astronautics, and we have no conditions for this. Both education and career in the space industry are in decay now. That’s why, probably, I will continue studies abroad where this area is more developed.

To states that are in similar positions, and to people who are fighting for their rights, I would say such a phrase as “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” This phrase is wonderful. Inequality, chauvinism, racism also kill us. We should strive for freedom from any form of oppression.

The last thing I would like to share is my mood. I do not know what waits for me in my country, but I accept changes positively. We, Ukrainians, and all humankind still have to struggle a lot. And I am ready to continue fighting for what is important for me.

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On gender-based violence in Ukraine
On socialist modernism, fashion and far-right violence