United in Courage: Sonic

United in Courage is a series of interviews conducted primarily in April 2023 by the Feminists of Kyiv team, featuring members of feminist and LGBTQ+ communities currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

We invited the participants of the series to tell us about their lives before the full-scale russian invasion and what motivated them to join the army. We also discussed the different experiences and challenges they face in the Armed Forces, as well as the sources of support that sustain their resilience in the ongoing war.

We hope that this series of interviews will mark the beginning of an anthology in which Feminists of Kyiv media will amplify the voices of women and queer people who are defending Ukraine. You can support us in this effort.

Editor and translator: Bozhena Makovska
Visual artist: 
Michael Tulsky

My call sign is Sonic. I am a 22 years old cis heterosexual woman and intersectional feminist. Before the full-scale invasion, I was involved in feminist and vegan activism. I conducted lectures in schools for girls on topics such as personal boundaries, security, and feminism. Additionally, I organised feminist film screenings and participated in protests. I also contributed to cooking vegan meals for those in need and initiated food distributions in my hometown in the East of Ukraine.

I wouldn’t say that these were big and impressive projects, although I wanted to develop in this direction. I was considering working in public service, contributing to the creation of shelters in Ukraine, or potentially becoming a local council member. I used to hitchhike a lot. I visited youth centres and discussed their approaches of combating gender-based violence and providing assistance to vulnerable groups, including homeless people. I dreamed of gaining as much expertise as possible and implementing it all at the local level, because for me, the development of the East and South is an idée fixe. I was also planning to join the army anyway.

In 2020, I enrolled in the military training department in Rivne, studying to become a mechanised platoon commander. I had thought that if I graduated from the military faculty and obtained an officer’s rank, I would go to the Joint Forces Operation, where I would be fighting in Donbas and reclaiming my home.

In 2021, I already attempted to join the army. I went to the military recruitment office and said that I couldn’t live like this anymore while someone else was fighting for our independence. This realisation had been growing within me since 2014; it seemed pointless to study while the country was at war. However, at that time, I was advised to wait, complete my military education, and make it easier for me, as a woman, to be truly involved in the war. I agreed, but with the beginning of the full-scale war, waiting became unbearable.

I joined the ranks of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in March 2022, almost a month after the start of the large-scale russian offensive, because no one wanted to take me anywhere. At that time, I was a final-year cadet at the military department and a student at Ostroh Academy, majoring in political science. I was able to complete both my studies remotely, thanks to a secondment from my military unit.

Since I was mobilised on the 23rd of March and graduated in July, I now have only a certificate of completion of the military faculty, but no rank. If I had been mobilised in the autumn, I would be a junior lieutenant now. However, at the time of mobilisation, I did not think about whether I would complete my education. It was important for me to stand up for the defence of my country.

People who studied at the military department are commonly called ‘blazers’ in the army. The majority of them lack battle experience and cannot always be effective combat commanders. Possessing an officer’s ID card wouldn’t have saved me from discrimination. Female officers are typically not appointed to roles directly involved in combat operations. Usually, they work in headquarters, in positions demanding minimal responsibility and logic, and even at the company level, they handle document-related tasks.

Any position in the Ukrainian army is inherently difficult. The crucial factor is that a person has the necessary competencies and the willingness to work in such conditions. When a battalion advances to the front, the headquarters is situated a certain number of kilometres away from the actual contact line. I am currently in the Bakhmut area. We have 18 women snipers in our battalion, and they are all on duty at the headquarters or in the permanent deployment point — because that’s what the order is. However, they are still exposed to danger. Sometimes, you may find yourself sitting in a basement when an S-300 flies in. The frontline is still the frontline, so claiming that commanders aim to protect someone is hypocritical.

This is hypocritical for several reasons. For example, I am often told that I am too young. At the same time, guys aged 18-19 are being killed. We have a woman, an experienced cartographer, but she holds a soldier’s rank. At the headquarters, instead of doing her job, she deals with paperwork and makes coffee for the commanders. It literally works like in the dumbest stereotype. Situations like this occur daily, and the struggle against such individuals persists every day. It’s important to understand that there are a lot of men working in the headquarters. They genuinely want to serve there — it’s true. All women serve voluntarily, and they are not here for what the army of the current model offers them.

The majority of the Armed Forces consist of infantry units, and my unit is also infantry. When we’re not on the frontline, we call it ‘drying off’, which allows time for both rest and self-education. People engage in training, participate in patrols and combat missions, and then take a break. The headquarters, on the other hand, operates continuously, especially now, when there are a lot of losses and a huge amount of lost property. People work without days off. Therefore, appointing women to headquarters positions is not about caring; rather, it is about distrust and the reluctance of male commanders to accept that women are fully capable of performing the same tasks as they do.

When it comes to the path of women in the military, there are very different stories. It’s not that there are no women on the front lines; they are present. However, to secure a combat position and eventually make it to the front, you need to show the highest performance in training, to impress everyone with your skills. Only then will trust be placed in you.

I had to lie when I was mobilised. When I signed up for the Territorial Defence, it was just a list of volunteers. Initially, I wrote that I was a cadet of the military department. But when I got the call and came to the formation, everything was very chaotic. No one checked anything — neither documents nor phones. They began to give us positions, for example: ‘You are a clerk’. I realised I needed to play the deception card and claim to be an officer. I understood that if I told the truth, I would be like all the other girls without military education: either a clerk, a cook, or a nurse. I was assigned to the position of a rifleman.

It was a Kyiv-based territorial defence, and when the order came that the TDF was now operating nationwide, our unit was relocated from Kyiv to another location. There we were divided again. I recall a certain major reading out surnames, and, for some reason, all the women ended up in positions at the medical unit and field kitchens. I interrupted him and said: ‘On what basis do you have no women in combat positions?’ He replied in a rude manner that he was just reading out the list and didn’t know who was a man and who was a woman. I was not on the list at all. In such a scenario, you either have to remind yourself or go back to where you came from. I chose the second option. I got into the car returning to the deployment point in Kyiv, and we drove away. I probably could have just gone home, but I didn’t want to.

I enlisted in the military unit as an officer, but informed the commander that I was still in the midst of my studies. I took a secondment to my military department, returned, and that was the end of it. I retained my position as a rifleman, which I got by deception.

Only volunteers fought in the spring and summer. During company briefings, we were asked who was willing to go to the front line, and I, along with a few others, raised our hands. But they laughed at me. Later on, I raised my hand on several occasions. I was then dispatched to a battalion situated in the village of Berestove, above Soledar. I spoke to the commander and said that I did not want to sit in the headquarters, and I needed guarantees that I would take part in combat operations. He asked in great detail about my knowledge, skills, and competences. It all sounded like it was some elite unit, and we’ll see if there’s a place for me there. But what happened was that we spent a long time in the rear. Yes, we patrolled, we worked as air defence groups. But I didn’t gain any combat experience.

Everything changed when I managed to transfer to another territorial defence battalion. We found common ground with the company commander, and as a result, he appointed me to the position of squad leader, commander of an infantry fighting vehicle that I studied at the military department. However, when we went to the east, and we are still here, it occurred that the first group left, the second group left, and I remained on patrols under fire, but not in Bakhmut itself. I asked: What’s wrong? And received the answer that the problem was not in me; it just so happened. At the battalion level, the commander asked me who I was and what I was doing here. His first phrase when he saw me was: ‘Who recruited you, fuckheads?’ Further, the chief of staff said that I reminded him of his daughter, who is also about 20 years old, and that I would never go anywhere with this battalion. Now, I am actively seeking another place for a transfer.

My desire to serve in the infantry is driven by the fact that I want to be on the front line. This is what the best of people do; it’s something one cannot help but undertake given the current circumstances. And this is a reality the greater part of society will need to confront. I believe every Ukrainian should undergo such an experience to grasp the context of the future. For instance, the processes of state-building that one can contribute to by working in NGOs, political analytics, civic activism, or journalism; t’s an experience that enables a profound understanding of the majority of people. This is the first reason.

Another reason is that, after our victory, as we join Prides and Feminist marches on March 8th, there will be veterans who will inquire where we were while they were defending our freedom. The thing is, I don’t want my freedom to be achieved at the expense of someone else’s, apart from my own. I also don’t want women in a nation that has endured war to be excluded from public discourse because they were not actively involved. They didn’t participate not because they didn’t want to but because they had no other choice. Because men were the ones who forced them into the headquarters.

Of course, it is possible to benefit the state in other ways. My point is that our predecessors fought for the rights of women to be in the army in the positions that are now available to us, for example, combat medics. Similarly, my mission may be to pave the way for women who will join the Armed Forces after me.

After more than a year of service, I realised that this fight is very important. However, the saddest thing is that with such a mission, it is not enough to be yourself and do a meaningful job. I’m unsure of the origin of this expression, but it is 100% true: a man in the army is considered normal until he proves otherwise, and a woman is considered abnormal until she proves otherwise.

War is the place where you can die or make a significant mistake, not due to incompetence, but merely because luck is not on your side. It’s not an art, a science, or a craft where you can show remarkable results solely through your effort and work. Preparing for the current circumstances, for the horrors that the russians are planning, is impossible. My biggest interest at the moment is to be of service and assistance, not to fight the patriarchy. Which is why I occasionally consider joining the military medical service to be useful where I will not be disturbed. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before.

From a legal standpoint, or on paper, women in the army have absolutely the same opportunities to serve as men. Our regulations do not include gender divisions; they treat individuals as combat units. The Ukrainian army is a scaled-down reflection of society because the vast majority are volunteers without prior military experience before the full-scale invasion. Abuse of authority, sexism, and so forth, are not perpetuated solely by those who served in the Soviet army. Instead, these actions are carried out by new officers and soldiers who embrace the system to gain acceptance within it.

I see education as a method of addressing this issue: educating personnel at all levels of the defence sector with a particular emphasis on gender equality. It is also crucial to establish a feedback system, enabling people to report problems like mine. If the command collectively shares these values, advocates for equality, and receives feedback, it will be an effective mechanism for influencing the decisions of individuals.

On the one hand, I don’t want women to go through all that. I wouldn’t wish anyone to experience discrimination or feel unwanted in the army. But I understand that the only way to resist is to become part of the patriarchal structures. The more people with a feminist perspective, women, nonbinary people, those who are discriminated by society, join the army, the quicker and more it will change. This is the only way.

As for creating separate women’s battalions, I think it’s a great idea. Probably, before I joined the Armed Forces, I would have said that it could separate us, create prejudice against women, as if we couldn’t fight alongside men. Now, I would certainly join such a battalion. It would suit me to think about how good I am as a fighter and improve my skills in modern combat systems. Women in the army should focus not on fighting sexism but on fighting the enemy.

Before the full-scale invasion, I often mentioned that you need to be conscious of your privileges. You have to understand that in some societies women don’t have basic rights. However, I’m not a fan of a gradual approach. I believe that any activist agenda should advance in its most contemporary form across all societies. Even in a society where a woman lives dependent on a husband she hasn’t chosen herself.

But now, considering the war, I wish for one thing: for the feminist community, and the world community in general, to comprehend that our struggle is not local. It is not a fight between Ukrainians and some neighbours who look like Ukrainians. No. It is a struggle between freedom and oppression. It is a battle between cannibalistic orders and humanistic values. It is a war waged by a totalitarian society against democracy.

I wouldn’t want people to read this text and think that they should cease supporting us because their donations will go not to me but to some man who said that women have no place at the front. As our victory approaches, so does the freedom of all women. The closer our victory is, the less suffering civilians, especially mothers, will have to endure. The longer this war goes on, the more women who either went to fight, or left Ukraine, or stayed, endangering themselves and their children, will suffer.

This war is a femicide. I want the global community to know that what is happening now concerns all countries, all people. Although, of course, there will never be such a level of perception. Similar to how we were able to not react to conflicts occurring in distant lands in the past. Now, somewhere far away, people are not responding to the ongoing war. But having lived through the experience of war, we develop a stronger sense of solidarity with the victims of conflicts worldwide.

The more people contribute to our victory, send aid, come out to protest, promote the message that Ukraine needs to be supported, Ukraine needs to be armed, Ukraine needs help to defeat russia, in their local communities, at work, in public services, in their home countries, the sooner the suffering of millions of Ukrainian women and girls will end.

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United in Courage: Daria

United in Courage is a series of interviews conducted and translated primarily in April 2023 by the Feminists of Kyiv team, featuring members of feminist and LGBTQ+ communities currently serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. 

We invited the participants of the series to tell us about their lives before the full-scale russian invasion and what motivated them to join the army. We also discussed the different experiences and challenges they face in the Armed Forces, as well as the sources of support that sustain their resilience in the ongoing war.

We hope that this series of interviews will mark the beginning of an anthology in which Feminists of Kyiv media will amplify the voices of women and queer people who are defending Ukraine. You can support us in this effort.

Editor and translator: Bozhena Makovska
Visual artist:
Michael Tulsky

My name is Daria, I am 23 years old, I am from Kharkiv and Sievierodonetsk. These cities, both eastern ones, have shaped my identity, and in many ways influenced my decision to go to war. Before the full-scale invasion began, I worked as a journalist and was also involved in activism, particularly LGBTQ+. I used to identify myself as bisexual and gender free. Now I’m more inclined to say that I am a pansexual person. Here, at war, it is difficult to reflect on my gender identity, so now I perceive myself simply as a human being. In general, I don’t want to think about myself in any of these concepts, categories, or labels. I just want to be.

My civic activism started in 2018, a year after I moved to Kharkiv. It was a revelation for me to discover the existence of a community centre for LGBTQ+ people in the city — the Kharkiv Pride Hub, which unfortunately closed its doors. What they were doing for the Kharkiv community was very important to me as a young activist. Then, at the age of 18, I was just discovering the movement for the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people at the level of civic position and self-awareness. I volunteered for the first time at the Women’s Solidarity Weeks, and for the first time I went to the Pride in Kharkiv in 2019.

People often ask me why I joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces, given that war is an aggressive environment. Looking back on my life, I can say that my activism and work as a correspondent hardened me; I was unconsciously preparing for war on various levels.

I grew up and spent a significant part of my life in Sievierodonetsk, Luhansk region. Now the city is under russian occupation for the second time. I didn’t seem to have the option of running away again.

Rereading the diaries I wrote a month before the full-scale invasion, I see that even then I had thoughts about serving in the Armed Forces. The tension felt in society during the escalation was affecting me. I thought that with just a little more time, I would sign the contract, but the decisive trigger was russia’s physical invasion. It was not a difficult decision for me. I understood that the sooner my friends and I go, the sooner it will be over. And if we wait for someone to stop the russians instead of us, we might never see it happen.

On 24 February 2022, I was in an apartment in Kharkiv with a person who did not live in the east and for whom it was the first day of the war. I woke up to a strange knocking and said to her: “Did you hear that knock?” She replied that it was just an old balcony. But it was not a balcony. It was the same balcony I had at home in 2014. I immediately realised what was happening, and for a second, I had a flash of despair. I wanted to sit and cry, but I decided to pull myself together and do something instead. After a couple of days, I got used to this idea, looked for options, and my friend, also a representative of the LGBTQ+ community, and I went to the Kharkiv Defence Headquarters. Later, our paths diverged, but we are both in the ranks of the Armed Forces now.

In the beginning, the Defence Headquarters was the official coordination centre for volunteers. We had weapons, support for volunteers in the form of uniforms and food. Later, the headquarters turned into the Territorial Defence Forces, and then the unit joined the Main Directorate of Intelligence. Now I serve in a different unit, but it so happened that I served in the Territorial Defence Forces, the Armed Forces, and the GUR. The service experience can be very different depending on the unit you will be assigned to. Therefore, I would advise everyone who sees themselves in the Armed Forces and plans to serve, to carefully consider the issue of choosing a unit. It affects everything from material support to mental state.

There is a problem of sexism in the military, it also largely depends on the unit. I don’t want society to put on rose-coloured glasses and assume that women and queer people already feel good in the army.

When I got to the Territorial Defence Forces, they asked me what I wanted to do. I replied that I know a little about unmanned aerial vehicles, I just need some basic practical training; I am engaged in self-education and will learn everything. And the commander said to me: “Why bring a sin on my soul, let’s make you a cook.” I had to fight for self-perception and prove my qualifications.

There are the same inappropriate statements that can be heard from different commanders. For example: “You look a lot like my daughter, so you will not go to the front line. I will do everything to ensure that you never find yourself at 0.” I’ve heard this before, both in my own direction and in the direction of other women. But I’ve never heard anyone say to a man: “Listen, boy, you look like my son, so you’re not going anywhere. You will be a secretary at the headquarters”. It’s an overused phrase, but women in the army really have to give 200% to be perceived as equal to men.

There are also various issues related to everyday life. This is what you need to prepare yourself for. You won’t always have the opportunity to solve some of your problems or simply wash yourself. I generally like to play this “survival” game, and sometimes I get pleasant impressions from it. Although, perhaps, this is a protective function of the psyche — to find something pleasant in attempts to escape an uncomfortable situation.

I am the only person in my unit who is not a cis man. I can’t say that I feel completely comfortable, but I have comrades I can trust. They’ve read my articles, they know that I am a feminist, and they respect that. I consider myself lucky to have adequate people by my side. In my previous unit, there was a situation when I received verbal threats because of my views. It was a personal dislike of me, and fortunately, it did not escalate into bullying.

There are different people in the army and you don’t have to like everyone. The main thing is that it does not turn into conflicts that can cause danger to other people. After all, it is a war and you are accountable for each other. The manner of reacting depends on the specific circumstances of each situation — there is no singular algorithm for action. But I think it is important that a few people close to you know about the conflicts that occur due to hatred or the non-acceptance of views.

I enjoy remembering how, when the invasion started, in my previous unit, a guy came up to me. I didn’t know who he was, but he shook my hand and said: “I’m sorry that we have been messing up your office.” It was related to the attacks on the office of Pride Hub and the people who were in it. I won’t attribute it to any organisation, but it was obviously some kind of right-wing radical movement. He also said, “I see that you are here, next to me, serving in this war. I respect you for that.” I was very pleased to hear this. It gave me hope that we will gradually move away from hostilities in society.

Every month I learn about another friend of mine who comes from the leftist, feminist or LGBTQ+ community and has now joined the Armed Forces. So I think that the representation of people with left-wing views in the Ukrainian army is a matter of time. I understand that this war is going to last for a very long time, and one way or another, it will affect everyone. This worries me because if all my friends go to war, there will be no one to continue our joint projects.

For example, Bilkis: last spring, they moved from Kharkiv to Lviv and were intensively involved in helping women, nonbinary and trans people in need. Now they organise pickets, cultural and educational events. I look at the activism of my friends and I am convinced that I really have something to defend. It is a big motivation to know that they are continuing our great cause.

But the war should be our common issue, not of some group of people or a region. Until we pay enough attention to the war, it will not end. Everyone should actively contribute to the victory. If it is done as part of organised structures, the result will be more noticeable.

Often, I don’t have the opportunity or the energy after a hard day to adequately represent myself on social media as a person with left-wing views or as a member of the LGBTQ+ community fighting for Ukraine. However, representation is very important. It is necessary to move away from the stereotypical notion of a military person as a burly man. Perhaps it used to be that way, but not anymore. Personally, it was crucial for me to find individuals whom I could consider role models. I believe this is what many of those who are hesitant to join the Armed Forces lack. When you see soldiers who look like you, you realise that you can do it too.

People are very tired now, and they can react harshly to things that are new to them. You should always consider this context when you do something. As well as not standing aside, it is important not to do something “about us without us”. For example, I am waiting for someone to raise the topic of channelling donations, because there are urgent needs, such as medicine, vehicles for combat units, night vision devices, and other consumables. I don’t want to count someone’s money, but it makes me cringe when I see people splurging and buying expensive branded boots for the military. It is important to talk about the expediency of using funds, and I think we should be ready for this conversation.

I often see in the media that the international community considers the war in Ukraine to be some kind of “quarrel between two fraternal nations”. This opinion is completely out of the context of the history of our centuries-long oppression by russia, the soviet union and the russian empire. This war has been going on not for a year, not for 9 years, but for much longer. And this is a very clear situation, so if you look at the history, there will be no desire to “reconcile” us. There have already been enough cases of violation of all agreements by the russian federation to understand that such methods do not work, and that such a conditional “peace” will only satisfy the interests of the aggressor.

The russians are taking all Ukrainian books out of the occupied territories and bringing in books in russian instead. This is also happening in my hometown. This leads us to the question of whether the issue is really about the territories, or whether it is about the identity of Ukrainians and russia’s attempts to erase this identity. Ukraine, and Sievierodonetsk in particular, is my home. I grew up here, I became myself here, and I will defend it.

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Feminist Lodge

26 January 2023
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translators: Bozhena Makovska, Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Feminist Lodge was founded in 2017 as a grassroots cultural and educational initiative by feminists, with the aim of supporting young women in a peer-to-peer format.

Nastya: When I was in 10th or 11th grade, I discovered feminism and it became my optics in life. At that time, “feminist” was an insulting word. I wanted to have some kind of supportive environment so that we could get together and do something cool. That’s how the Feminist Lodge was born. My friends and I came up with the project and the name for it when we wanted to give a lecture on feminism at the university. We felt the need to share what we were interested in.

Nastya. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: I met Nastya at the youth camp for feminists. I remember the motivation I had back then to create a grassroots initiative. Most of the events in Ukraine that claimed to be feminist – whether cultural, educational or any other kind – were disrupted by groups of right-wing radicals. I wanted to resist this, to fight back, to show that it won’t stop such events from happening, and in fact, there will be more of them. I wanted to engage in activism, and an opportunity presented itself when I found a circle of like-minded people.

Nastya: In 2018-2019, we travelled all over Ukraine, organising a series of screenings featuring feminist short films. It’s a great way to introduce people to feminism because, in just an hour and a half, you can showcase numerous different experiences and discuss them. We visited Kharkiv, Zhytomyr, Kremenchuk, Zaporizhzhia, and held screenings in Kyiv three times. It was an extremely exhausting project. That’s when we realised that we didn’t want to burn out. Currently, we’re considering registering an organisation to simplify our communication with donors, but we don’t want to turn our activism into a job.

Lesia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: We take extra care to ensure the safety of everyone attending our events. We have a protocol in place where we work closely with the police. While it may not align with our ideological beliefs, the safety of our attendees takes precedence over the desire to stay “true”. This algorithm worked well during the solidarity rally with Polish women, where we were able to avoid clashes with opponents who supported the ban on abortions in Poland. This is also a matter of education; those guys would not have been dragged there to “beat feminists” if they had a basic understanding of what abortion is. That’s why it’s important for us to promote feminism and discuss our activities, even now, when humanitarian work has become such a significant part of our lives.

The war has changed our focus to the basic needs of women and girls, who are the most vulnerable in a humanitarian crisis. Survival becomes a priority when basic needs are not met.

Zhenia: I joined the initiative during the full-scale war. It was the war that motivated me to take action and help people. That was such an eye-opening experience for me. You may know that the world is malfunctioning and that the system is not working properly. But when you experience war personally, you realise that the system is not just dysfunctional. It is actually designed to work this way. Wars are not some extraordinary situations; there are many injustices and oppressions in life in general. It was painful for me to come to this realisation.

Zhenia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: When the full-scale invasion began, we were shocked for the first few weeks. But then we realised that we had certain opportunities and contacts within the feminist community and that we could apply for grants and help people. Initially, we planned to collect general supplies such as medicine and hygiene products for women. We sent parcels to Kherson, Kramatorsk, and other cities. And then a post about us was published in a group, and we started receiving numerous individual requests. We decided to try and fulfil them, so we asked volunteers for help.

Zhenia: These parcels often end up in rural areas where IDPs or simply women who have been struggling to make ends meet live. Humanitarian aid typically doesn’t reach such places, so I think it’s really great that we’re able to reach out to those people.

Nastya: Big foundations like UNICEF are helpful, but only in big cities. They would never send aid to the occupied territories. Through our connections, we’ve found individuals who drive there themselves and wait in lines at russian checkpoints. The grants we received were flexible, thus we took a chance and sent some expensive medication, hiding it in a box between the pads, hoping that the russians wouldn’t steal it. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer funding opportunities like these. While we want to address immediate needs, we also need to consider what will happen when the war ends. It’s time to start thinking strategically about how we can be involved in rebuilding the country. However, the war persists, and the demand for aid is not decreasing.

Feminist Lodge. Photo by Michael Tulsky

The role of the grassroots volunteer movement in Ukraine is hard to overestimate, in fact, it is the circulatory system of the whole country. We want to add a feminist lens to this movement to meet the needs of women and girls.

Zhenia: Volunteering is how I choose to spend my free time, so I prefer to work with people who share my political views. When the struggle has a broad focus, a lot of messages are lost. What’s important to me is being part of a team that collectively identifies problems and develops strategies to solve them. I have always advocated for non-governmental organisations. I thought that institutions could solve all the problems, but now I see that grassroots activism is much more efficient and effective.

Nastya: We are all intersectional feminists, focusing on diverse experiences and acknowledging their non-monolithic nature. First of all, we try to help those people who are most vulnerable and oppressed. Humanitarian work is an example of how we put our values into practice. In our opinion, sharing, caring and solidarity look like this in the context of war. We have been actively expanding our network. For example, we’re collaborating with FemSolution and Bilkis. We are thinking about how we can move from chaotic assistance to a more structured approach. This is our strategic vision. I think there are even more challenges ahead. We have to survive, and we have more joint actions in mind.

Zhenia: With the beginning of the full-scale war, anti-colonial narratives have definitely become more relevant to us.
Nastya: Even though we were aware of the neo-colonial influence, this topic was not in the first place for us before.
Lesia: We also share the same anti-capitalist views.

Feminist Lodge. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: The month before the start of the full-scale war was like an art house film for me. You’re sitting in Karma with your friends, discussing what the war will be like. You understand that it will happen, but you don’t want to believe it. I vividly remember driving home from a feminist stand-up show in a taxi on the eve of the invasion and seeing an armoured personnel carrier. It made me reflect on how my old life, which I knew would never come back, was actually amazing. I think I used to focus on what we lacked and how to do more, better, and cooler. At that moment, I realised how much has changed in my life over the years of our activity, and that I want to preserve it to prevent our society from regressing.

Lesia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Lesia: There were a lot of different news stories that made me anxious, so I didn’t keep up with them. The only thing I did to feel better was to prepare an emergency backpack. On February 24th, 2022, I didn’t hear any explosions. I woke up at 9 am, read about what had happened in chats with my girlfriends, and then walked around the apartment and cried. It was very difficult to decide whether to leave Kyiv or stay. I was afraid that if I didn’t leave that day, I wouldn’t be able to leave the next day. Eventually, my parents decided to leave, so I got in their car and we drove to the west of Ukraine. I spent three months in Khmelnytskyi and then returned to Kyiv.

I don’t know if I’m coping mentally. It’s really tough now. I started playing computer games for the first time in my life, and I’m trying new things. I go to yoga and hike. I used to just enjoy going on hikes, but now I feel like going on a hike this weekend could help me.

Zhenia. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Zhenia: I spent four months in evacuation in Lviv and returned to Kyiv in the summer. On the first day of the invasion, I woke up at 5 am to a call from my sister. By 6, a bunch of friends had already gathered in my apartment. We had an idea to set up a survival squat, but by evening my optimism had dissipated, and my partner and I headed to the train station. We got to Vinnytsia on an evacuation train, and at that very moment Vinnytsia was being bombed.

It’s hard to recall my thoughts, but I had a sense that it wouldn’t happen to us and if it did, Europe had to act. For a long time, I had worked in the field of Holocaust studies, which is infused with ideas about “commonality against a common enemy” and the struggle against authoritarian regimes. But when Russia attacked us, government leaders started expressing their concerns, as they had already done in 2014, and as they had done with other countries – ours was no exception.

Nastya. Photo by Michael Tulsky

Nastya: Since I stayed in Kyiv after 24 February, I constantly felt like I could die any moment. I gave Lesia the password to my card so that in case of a missile attack, she could withdraw the donated money.  Every day was like my last, so I really wanted to communicate my experience. And I had this opportunity since activist networks were constantly calling for discussions. Unfortunately, some prominent feminist activists only supported Ukrainian women in words. When I told them about the facts of my life, they simply ignored them because they didn’t fit their perception of the world.

Zhenia: In spring 2022, I got involved in another volunteer initiative, and my friend and I were invited to a feminist conference in Berlin. Being there, abroad, already felt surreal. It was strange to see the white stripes under passenger planes in the sky, like “Wow! People are flying somewhere!” It was very challenging to get there, but here we are. I went to the first event of the conference, and the speaker talked about how shameful it is to involve the police when conflicts arise in the community. Another example of unworthy behaviour they mentioned was when Ukrainian queer people ask for help. “If you are vegan and queer, it doesn’t mean we are the same” — they said. We were all wearing face masks, and I thought, guys, a day and a half ago, a rocket almost hit me in Lviv. Of course, we are not the same. I couldn’t help but cry into my mask and leave. Here in Ukraine, I see that people understand what self-organisation is and how to show solidarity. Overall, one of the revelations of this war for me is that people actually know a lot.

Nastya: This experience gave me a sense of freedom and emancipated me in some way. I realised that no one has the right to dictate anything to me from a patronising position and that I have my own agency. In the past, I learned about feminism through translations of Western activists and scholars, and I always felt a sense of inferiority, as if everything was so feminist and cool elsewhere, and that we should aspire to that. Now, I want to learn more about countries that have a similar colonial experience, because even from the information I have, their struggles are fascinating. The feeling that I am not a victim, that I am helping people, and that I can do something about this situation, helps me to cope.

You can support the humanitarian work of Feminist Lodge through PayPal ([email protected]) or using the bank details found on Instagram.

Feminists of Kyiv is operated by a team of volunteers. We would like to produce more English-language interviews with feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, and other Ukrainian change-makers. You can support us with a one-time donation via PayPal ([email protected]) or on Patreon.

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Brie (FemSolution)

3 December 2023
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translators: Bozhena Makovska, Maryna Isaieva

Photographer: Michael Tulsky

FemSolution is a horizontal, intersectional feminist initiative that is currently engaged in helping IDP women, assisting victims of russian aggression from the de-occupied territories, and implementing educational projects. You can support them using these requisites.

My activism began with the trade union. While still at school, I started to identify as an anarchist. I kept up with various left-wing initiatives in Ukraine and beyond. At the age of 15, I attended a meeting of Direct Action, an organisation that originated in Ukraine in the 90s. Direct Action protects students’ rights, supports youth initiatives, and serves as a platform for them. We had weekly lectures, including ones on queer theory and feminism, and it was there that I gained most of the knowledge that I possess today. I remained actively involved in the organisation’s activities until 2019. We worked on educational projects and organised several festivals, and it was great fun. However, given that our work primarily focused on students, I lacked feminist activism.

In 2016, after the March 8th rally, I joined the newly created organisation FemSolution at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

FemSolution mostly held lectures, discussions, and readings. We had a space where we also held meetings for activists and people who were sympathetic to us. Now I understand that this was our practice of self-care and it was very supportive for activists. We were just starting to explore feminism, and many of our colleagues were studying at the sociology faculty, so they could “bring” something from there and tell us about it. Learning about how this world is structured was very informative, but at the same time painful.

We always liked the idea of creating zines, and we attended various workshops on the topic. Eventually, we decided to print our zine. We called it “La Merde” because we left stacks of them on the windowsill in the toilet to attract as many students as possible.

Inside, there was both poetry and art; we accepted any works that the authors considered feminist. During the pandemic, we also made a zine and paid the authors, but it was never released. The pandemic was a difficult time for our initiative, we hardly saw each other. I didn’t leave my house for almost three months because my mother had cancer. Now, we still want to publish that zine online.

In parallel, we are preparing two new zines. They will be thematic, it’s a new concept for us. The first zine — blackout — will contain reflections of people on their lives during power outages in the city. The second zine — the wartime zine — will be a space for different experiences of living through war. We hope that this (shared) experience will help us attract more people to the feminist community. I also see this as an opportunity to reflect reality: people are drawing now, writing texts, and poems, and it is important.

In 2017, due to repression from the university administration, we, as an organisation, had to leave the university. The story began when a girl approached us, saying that she was being harassed by her law professor. We talked to other female law students and found out that this was not the first such case. Even on this professor’s Facebook page, there were public statements that could be identified as harassment; we printed them out and posted them around the university. After that, we decided to organise a protest.

I already had experience organising protests, so I sent out press releases to create resonance and achieve success — the dismissal of the lecturer. However, almost all media outlets refused me, and only our acquaintances came to cover the event. Additionally, far-right groups came to the rally because the lecturer spread fake information that he was supposedly being dismissed because he promotes and defends the Ukrainian language. These guys harassed the participants, grabbed their backpacks, and shouted insults. We had to interrupt the rally for safety reasons, but we finally held it the next day. By then, many more students had gathered because everyone learned that 30 titushkas had invaded the university grounds the day before and attacked peaceful protesters.

After the action, our activists were summoned to the dean’s office to exert pressure. Grown men would come to our events and jot something down so that they could report it somewhere later. Most of the participants in our organisation were studying for a master’s degree at the time, and we wanted to protect them, so we ceased our activities at the university.

From that point on until the full-scale russian invasion, we organised various protests, including the “I’m Not Afraid to Act” march dedicated to the MeToo movement. We were co-organisers of feminist camps and different educational events; we like to identify FemSolution precisely as an educational initiative.

Since February 24, 2022, we have been engaged in humanitarian work. We process many individual requests for assistance and provide it whenever possible. Immediately after this interview, I will go to pack humanitarian aid for Kherson. Our packages contain hygiene products, medicines that we buy on prescription, and sometimes clothing. We currently have a large base of internally displaced women, as well as those who have lost their jobs or have been affected by the war in other ways. We have significantly increased the number of followers on social media, and this motivates us to continue our educational activities. We have already started making posts about feminism, violence, and other topics, and we have seen that there is a demand for this. Now we plan to hold meetings for IDPs in Kyiv, including sessions for psychological support.

The initiative currently has 8 active participants, and there are also 4-5 volunteers, primarily helping us collect and package parcels. Yulia leads the humanitarian direction, and everyone else supports her. Three people are currently located abroad, doing what they can to assist, such as inputting recipient data into mailing lists online. All our other activists have already returned to Kyiv. Recently, we rented an office that primarily serves as a warehouse. This space has been extremely helpful, and in the future, we hope to have our own dedicated space for hosting events.

Activists of FemSolution do not receive salaries, and all the aid we receive is spent on humanitarian aid.

We have one grant that goes exclusively to humanitarian aid. We apply wherever we can, but no matter how many grants we receive now, we will still not cover people’s requests for help. People share their stories with us, and as we read them, we realise that the need for assistance is only growing and will continue to do so. When the Ukrainian armed forces liberated the Kharkiv region, we sent aid there, and people there had no access to basic hygiene products at all.

I believe that we are doing the best we can given the number of activists, but some of us refuse to accept this and try to work even harder. Our friends have organised events in our support in Finland, Germany, and other places. I urge people to continue doing this, as we constantly require donations.

In FemSolution, I am responsible for grants, but I also work at my main job, help Kryvyi Rih miners, and develop my project — the Left Horizons summer school.

Left Horizons is an opportunity for people who care about social change to come together and talk about things that are important to them, as well as look at them from the perspective of feminism, ecology, and so on. I have been to various activist schools, camps, and lectures, and I tried to take the best from them.

The concept of the school is that the participants themselves suggest the content of the program and then choose from the schedule where they want to go that day. No one is obliged to attend all the lectures and there is no need to because all the activities are independent of each other. Communication also takes place on an equal footing: I encourage participants, if they are experts on certain topics, to share this information with others. In the first year, some people indicated in their applications topics that they did not understand but were interested in. They were able to analyse these topics on their own and explain them to others in an accessible way. In the end, everyone liked this format, so we repeated it at the next school. If people have a request to listen to lectures, but there are no experts on these topics among the participants, then I invite lecturers.

This year’s school will be announced on the project’s Instagram.

I really like the Finnish education system. I recently traveled to Finland and had the opportunity to see how it works there. I realised that I intuitively made the school based on the same principles, but there is still something to improve. The school brought together many people with very different backgrounds. For example, we had a woman who works as an accountant in a trade union, a girl from the debate community, and people who create video games… It’s cool and I’m proud of this project.

I’m a huge stand-up comedy fan. My friend from the Feminist Lodge and I share this passion and started organising screenings with discussions even before the pandemic hit. It’s fascinating to observe the evolution of this genre and to reflect on the various jokes made by women, including those that are sometimes sexist. In February, just before the full-scale invasion, my favourite stand-up show was released, and we got together with other feminist activists to watch it. Some people couldn’t attend the event due to anxiety.

We all had a feeling that something was about to happen.

At that time, I was already in a volunteer group chat room discussing an action plan, and everyone thought it was inevitable that russia would start a full-scale war against us. But to be honest, when it all started, I was in a stupor. I realised that I couldn’t get to their headquarters and do anything. Very quickly I became a person who communicated with foreigners. But I had enough strength for only two weeks of such work because it was very difficult.

I didn’t want to leave Kyiv, but I relocated to another neighbourhood as I used to live close to the Ministry of Defence. The area without military facilities where I moved to was eventually shelled by the russians, although there is little talk about it. I was worried that the shelling would lead to power cuts, so I had to trek up to the seventh floor on foot. It was hard both for me and my elderly dog. We could constantly hear explosions as the air defence system was operational. It was a huge source of stress for us. I would only go outside for two or three minutes to walk the dog near the house while my brother held the door.

During air raids, we sought refuge in shelters, and I am grateful to those who allowed us in and reacted normally to a person with a large dog. After I left Kyiv, the kindergarten where we usually took shelter came under fire.

My mom and I decided to leave the city when we finally managed to fill up the car. We were at the petrol station when the air raid alarm went off, and we had to wait for it to reopen. Suddenly, we heard a loud explosion and felt a shock wave from a shell that hit somewhere nearby. It was terrifying not being able to see anything and not knowing if the next shell would hit us. I turned to my mom and told her I couldn’t live here anymore, and the next day we left Kyiv.

The road was very difficult and took about 30 hours. On the way, in Vinnytsia, strangers kindly offered us a place to stay and also treated the dog very well. Later we reached the Lviv region and settled in Stryi. Life there was calm, almost nothing happened. We were lucky to find a place to live that didn’t cost much. I did not know if I would have a job, it was not clear what would happen next. After living in Stryi for seven months, I returned to Kyiv in October.

Kyiv is my hometown, but I never envisioned living here during the war.

The first two weeks after my return were incredibly challenging, but things have improved since then, and I’m not as worried as before. It seems to me that I have already gotten used to the shelling and accepted the situation as a whole. I feel that everything will be fine.

It’s a little sad that there is such a stagnation with activism here now. FemSolution and I are going to try to revive the community. On March 8, in collaboration with the Feminist Lodge, we’re organising a charity event where feminist musicians of various genres will perform. Additionally, there will be a tattoo corner, a lottery, and vegan cuisine. All proceeds from the event will be donated to the 93rd Brigade, where our comrades are serving. They are currently on a mission in the Bakhmut direction; they need to repair vehicles and are in great need of drones.

It is important for me to highlight the need to support Ukraine with weapons.

It’s strange to hear discussions suggesting that anti-militarism necessitates withholding armed assistance from Ukraine. While I generally support the notion that there should be no weapons in principle, as someone with anti-militarist sentiments, we cannot advocate for this while russians are killing our military and civilians.

I am also frustrated by the topic of negotiations. There are often Western opinions that Ukrainians simply do not want to sit down and talk. I believe that this format of resolving the situation is currently impossible. There were negotiations at the beginning of the full-scale offensive, but during these negotiations, russia was shelling our cities, so what kind of negotiations are we talking about?

We need weapons to defend our people, the civilian population. If you want us all to be killed, then yes, we don’t need weapons for that. Ukraine is now fighting for the war to end, and we have no other way but to deter russian aggression.

Feminists of Kyiv is operated by a team of volunteers. We would like to produce more English-language interviews with feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, and other Ukrainian change-makers. You can support us with a one-time donation via PayPal ([email protected]) or on Patreon

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2 November 2022
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Bilkis is a grassroots intersectional feminist initiative that adheres to the anti-capitalist agenda. After the beginning of the full-scale russian invasion in Ukraine, they relocated to Lviv and adjusted their activities to the humanitarian needs of women and LGBTQ+ people. You can support Bilkis using these requisites.

Yevheniia: Yana and I studied at the university and lived together in a dormitory. At that time, I was immersed in the topic of feminism as I saw in it the answer to my problem — an eating disorder. Then I realised how important feminism is politically. We observed how things were going in Kharkiv and exchanged our thoughts, and views. There was only one organisation in the city that covered the topic of women’s rights, and we thought it would be cool to do a grassroots, horizontal, anarchist initiative.

Yana: Then I had already been a feminist for a long time, but I was involved in activism only sporadically. At some point, I realised that I had to do something different, and I shared this idea with Zhenya (Yevheniia). That’s how we created Bilkis. For several years, the two of us have been engaged in online activism, holding street actions dedicated to the topic of gender-based violence. Then we decided to expand and were joined by other members.

Yevheniia: This year in March we planned to hold an interactive lecture for teenage girls (8th-11th grades). Even before February 20, we posted leaflets with invitations around the city. We had been preparing for it for a long time and booked space, but on February 24, a full-scale war began. That morning I woke up to explosions. I asked my partner what those sounds were, he replied that it must be thunder. However, two more rockets flew by and it became clear that it was not thunder. We started packing, I called Yana and offered to go to Poltava together. My father took us there by car. From Poltava, we left for Germany and spent two months there.

Ivanna: I joined Bilkis a little over a year ago. I am from Donetsk region, but I’ve lived in Kharkiv for the last three years. I met the war when I was alone in the apartment. All the bomb shelters marked on the maps of my area were closed and the keys to them were lost. I moved downtown with my friends, and there we shared a bathroom and a hallway. Then I jumped on the evacuation train that was going to Kyiv, but it was extended to Lviv. In recent months, our initiative has done many different humanitarian tasks, in which I’ve been actively involved.

Lisa: I’m from Crimea, but I’ve been living in Kyiv for the past six years. On February 24, I woke up in the apartment where my friend and I lived for six years and saw that she was standing there dressed. She said “it started” and after a few minutes she left, leaving me alone. After that, other friends started calling me, urging me to go, and I started to pack. I went to live with my relatives in the Rivne region for three months, and I had a very difficult time there because they were not ready to live together, especially during the war. At some point, I went to Lviv, met my friends here, and they offered to move in. I joined Bilkis two months ago. Humanitarian aid is currently the main focus of our activity, but we want to get back to educational projects.

Yevheniia: We were constantly in contact with all the participants of our initiative, and we continued to hold meetings and discuss the possibilities of continuing our activities.

Yana: Even before the invasion began, we had applied for a small grant, and in the first days of a full-scale war, they responded that they were ready to provide us with these funds as an emergency. This probably became a catalyst for our humanitarian work.

Ivanna: At first, we provided targeted help, got some requests from relatives and friends, and sent them the necessary things. Then on our social media pages, we shared the message that we were sending humanitarian aid kits.

Yevheniia: This activity became more structured when Yana and I returned to Lviv, got together, and discussed the action plan. But we did not expect that there would be so many requests for help. After the publication, more than a hundred people wrote to us in a few hours. It reached 300-400 messages per day. And although we are no longer accepting new requests, people still reach out to us…

Lisa: Russian aggression continues and the number of requests does not decrease. People are leaving their occupied hometowns, they have no jobs, their children need medicine, and everyone needs food and shelter. And you have to turn all these requests down because you don’t have enough resources to cover them. You read their stories and it tears you apart…

Yana: In cases where evacuation is required, we can still redirect people somewhere, and find the places to stop. But we do not direct requests for humanitarian aid to other initiatives, because their possibilities are also exhausted.

Yevheniia: We spent a lot of money on humanitarian aid, and when the money ran out, we started looking for new opportunities. Then we noticed that all those Western foundations that provided emergency support at the beginning of the invasion were no longer ready to keep on offering it. Now they require us to be officially registered and meet their usual criteria.

Yana: Currently, we are helping using the money from donations and probably will continue to do so in the future. If people keep on donating, we will buy the necessary things and close the requests. I feel exhausted from humanitarian work, I am tired of people who ask us for help, of the fact that it is necessary to coordinate it and to carry heavy boxes. I want to stop doing it because it is unbearable to do it all the time.

Yevheniia: In Kharkiv, we felt that we were building a feminist community. Such a community already exists in Lviv, this way we will concentrate on our projects.

Yana: We now have an office in Lviv, and we decided to allocate one of the rooms for a permanent free market. People can bring their things there that they don’t need or take what they want. I would like in the future for this space to also become a platform for various events dedicated to eco themes.

Yevheniia: The project that I want to host in our space is feminist poetry evening. Once every two weeks, volunteers will gather and talk about their feelings through poetry: their works, or those they like. Since the beginning of the full-scale war, I’ve started to read a lot of Ukrainian poetry. It is difficult for me to express my thoughts in my own words in a conversation with someone, but I can read a poem and understand: this is how I feel.

Lisa: I would like to manage the cultural direction. Many female painters and sculptors lived and worked in Lviv. I would like to create and conduct feminist tours telling people about women artists. I also love cinema and want to hold film screenings about women and for women, including displaced women.

Ivanna: I have a small project that has already started. Together with Yana, I created a cycling club in Lviv. We invite women and nonbinary people on bike rides and ride together. This is something completely new for me, but I’ve been dreaming about it for a long time. I’ve been a solo cyclist all my life, and now I’ve decided it would be cool to build a community open to different groups of people who aren’t cyclists. I am learning to be inclusive and sensitive, and I want to tell people that cycling is not always about competition, so you can just ride and have fun. I enjoy having a sport in my life and I would like to share it with others. In addition, I am a courier for the Lviv Vegan Kitchen. At the beginning of the invasion, I was riding a bicycle to the suburbs of Lviv, and delivering food to the vegans of the Territorial Defence. Now I deliver lunches from them to the Feministychna Maisternia shelter every day.

Yana: If we talk about what kind of help we need, it is, first of all, involvement. I would like feminists from Ukraine to be invited to discussions as experts about their own lives as often as possible. So that they can tell what is happening in Ukraine now and what challenges they are working with, even if they do not know English well or at all.

Yevheniia: We need all the possible attention to Ukraine. Especially to women, queer people, and feminist groups who stayed and keep on working in Ukraine. We need a lot of money, as without it, unfortunately, some things cannot be done within the framework of the capitalist system.

Lisa: We ask people to trust the opinion of Ukrainian feminists and Ukrainian women, and discard some of your liberal, enchanted views about Ukraine and russia. To believe what is happening to us, and maybe even treat it more rationally. Often news about Ukraine is perceived very emotionally by Western communities, but then they offer to “make friends” with the occupiers. People should realise that the problem is not solely with putin, but with the russians.

Yana: Recently, I attended lectures about Rojava and we discussed that now Turkey is starting to escalate the war again. I want countries that have resources, which are often the ones of Western Europe, as they had places to export them from, to pay more attention to all the territories where there are currently some captures or military actions. So that the people living in these countries begin reflecting on the topic of their own colonialism and self-educating on the issues of both the countries of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

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Lviv Vegan Kitchen

27 September 2022
Editor: Bozhena Makovska
Translator: Maryna Isaieva
Photographer: Michael Tulsky

Lviv Vegan Kitchen is a volunteer project that provides free vegan food to IDPs and the army in Ukraine. You can support them by using these requisites or on Patreon.

Oksana: We are sisters named Marta and Oksana. Before the full-scale military invasion of russia, we ran a small business managing a shop with handmade jewellery in Lviv. We were studying, trying something new, dreaming about something. With the beginning of the invasion, we lost our jobs and started volunteering. At first, it was chaotic: we made soups, visited lonely elderly people, and wove camouflage nets for the army. On the night of 1st March, we came up with the idea to create a Lviv Vegan Kitchen.

That night we went to volunteer at the rail station where the refugees were arriving. There was plenty of food at the station but nothing vegan. Apart from us, there were other vegans among the volunteers and all of us ate cereal bars the whole night. The next morning we went to our friends at the Vega Room cafe to talk about the idea of ​​creating a volunteer kitchen. On the way there we met a friend who is also a vegan. She and her boyfriend were in The Territorial Defence Forces at the time, and she told us that she hadn’t eaten anything for days because their pasta was mixed with meat. At that moment, we realised that there was definitely a demand for such a project.

Marta: We have been vegans since 2017 and we already had an experience of activism: we took part in various street actions from time to time, carried out thematic film screenings, and translated the film. There are few vegans in Lviv, so everyone knows everyone. Instead of closing the cafe, friends from Vega Room rented us their kitchen, and we started working with everything we needed. Therefore, without contacts in the vegan community, probably nothing would have happened, or it would have been on a completely different scale.

Now Oksana and I are engaged in communications, fundraising, and sending parcels. At first, we were also involved in the work of the kitchen, meaning we did everything. Then many volunteers joined, most of whom are internally displaced people, and now the kitchen team works in shifts. In essence, we have two areas of work: kitchen and food parcels. In addition, we are setting up our own production of bars, and we have plans to make complete vegan dry rations.

Oksana: In Ukraine, there is still a widespread stereotype that vegans are some kind of hipsters, and veganism is a fashion trend. The thing is that the vegans are mostly young people and certain communities that are not represented in the authorities or the health care system. Therefore, the standard food model is preferred. It’s unfortunate, but hunger has forced people to try vegan food. They sign up for all possible help. Sometimes, I call back on a request for a parcel that was left a month ago, and they tell me that we are the first to respond during that time.

Marta: There have been a lot of requests for humanitarian parcels and we have closed the application form for new ones at the moment. We can send about 40 parcels a week, and we have 6200 applications. For all time of this initiative, we have sent more than 800 parcels of food, of which about 50 were to the military, all the rest to civilians.

Providing the military with vegan food currently rests entirely on the shoulders of their families and volunteers.

Sometimes it’s impossible to organise the shipment at all if neither the car nor the mail can reach the location of the military. We do not know the number of vegans in the Ukrainian army, and there is no way for us to somehow interview everyone.

Moreover, not everyone is ready to openly talk about their position, especially women, who already have a hard time in the army because they are women.

We have friends in the Armed Forces and the National Guard who face sexism, and in general, the treatment of women there is terrible. No one wants to be bullied twice even for being vegan. People go vegan for a variety of reasons: some people do it for health, and they are ok with putting their healthy eating routine on pause; and there are people who do it for ethical reasons, and they would rather die than eat meat.

Oksana: I thought that there would be different kitchens, and different humanitarian headquarters and our kitchen would be aimed specifically at vegans who cannot eat elsewhere. But time passed, the headquarters stopped working, humanitarian aid was declining, and now people do not have this choice. It seems to me that in the beginning, people were more active in donating products, it was easier to transport them across the border, and when it came to the point that this activity had to be somehow structured and formalised, not everyone had the strength to do it, and enthusiasm gradually subsided.

So over time, we stopped being a vegan option, now we are just a kitchen for refugees.

Marta: Obviously, we are ready to provide food for everyone. I have never seen what we do as a promotion of veganism. I believe that now is not the time for vegan agitation. For me, veganism is the base, and then I focus on people. Many people from Western countries write to us: “Nobody is doing as much to promote veganism as you are.” Maybe we do, but it was not our intention. Now the situation is even worse than at the beginning of the invasion: people continue to arrive in Lviv, but the tents at the station are no longer waiting for them.

Marta: We are mostly supported by Western vegan communities. Sometimes there are donations from Ukraine, but they are very chaotic. Help comes in different formats: media publications, and targeted help from vegan food manufacturers and brands who send us a carload of beans or soybean meal. Also, there is a small shop in Great Britain that makes sunflowers out of glass, sells them, and sends all the money earned from it to our kitchen. There are organisations and people who support us all the time, such as Vegconomist and Lush. Someone subscribes to our Patreon, someone makes a one-time donation to PayPal. Any help is important, even reposts. For example, the owner of the vegan brand “Tofurkey “ sent us 5 packs of vitamins and we were able to close 5 requests for those vitamins.

It is not necessary to provide us with the whole truck of supplies to make help significant.

There is a list of products that we always need in the kitchen, but the needs are constantly changing. Therefore, before buying products, it is better to ask us what is currently missing. This will allow us to make food parcels more diverse and not overload the warehouse. Money is always needed: we pay for kitchen rent, utilities, warehouse rent, security, and garbage removal. All together it costs about $1,600 a month. This is a big burden for a volunteer project, especially on our scale. Sometimes we feed 500 people a day.

Oksana: There is also a need for volunteers. If someone from the team gets sick, it will be noticeable as there will be no one to replace them. Now there is no such thing as volunteer chat where people ask to give them some kind of work or ask where they can volunteer, everyone is tired. Even if 3 million hryvnias or 30 trucks with products fell onto us now, and we had the opportunity to close all requests, it would take 100 days! 100 days of continuous packing of parcels.

Marta: If it turns out that there will no longer be a need for the existence of a kitchen, we will be able to develop dry rations, or focus more efforts on delivery, and faster processing of requests. In any case, we will have something to do and someone to help. After the start of the full-scale war, my priorities changed. Now I think that there is nothing more important than helping others and that’s why I feel in my place.

Oksana: With all the support we received, I would not like for the project to end just like that. I would like it to continue and develop in other directions, at least at minimal speed.

We would like to give back to the world as much as we have received.

There are many categories of the population whose circumstances were poor even before the war. Yes, it will be much more difficult to solve these problems, but I hope that our enthusiasm, resources, as well as experience and contacts that we have now acquired, will be enough to do that.

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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 Tulsk

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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