Feminists of Kyiv

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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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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Feminist and Queer Defenders of Ukraine
Feminist and Queer Defenders of Ukraine