“Feminists about the war” is a series of informal feminist talks. First-hand testimonies and thoughts of women active in civic activism before and during the full-scale Russia’s invasion are equally important as reports about political decisions.
In this material, you can read the conversation in text format. Also, you can watch the podcast with English subtitles on our YouTube.
How war affected Ukrainian artists? How can we work with memory and why it’s important? Does feminism transform during the war? Why and how? Is now the moment of telling our, Ukrainian, truth?
Anna Khvyl: Hi, let’s begin our conversation. I am Anna Khvyl, a composer, a musician, and a curator. I am joined by an artist Alevtyna Kakhidze.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: You can also add that I’m an artist, I also study plants and occasionally make curatorial projects — that’s it.
Anna Khvyl: And Oksana Kazmina, who’s an artist…
Oksana Kazmina: I would probably add that I’m a movie director as well.
How it all began
Anna Khvyl: Where were you when the full-scale invasion hit in February?
I can start. A year ago I moved to Hague, Netherlands. I work at the conservatory here, and study sound-art and electronic music.
The project I’ve been working on was the sound installation for Sloviansk focusing on commemoration and sound, the connection between sound and memory. Also, I’m making research about rituals of the collective memory both at the community and state levels. This is the topic I came to work on a year ago, so in February I was here, in Hague.
I live near the International criminal court, literally 5 minutes on a bike. I wasn’t in Ukraine, but here.
Oksana Kazmina: I wasn’t in Ukraine as well. A year before February 24, I enrolled in a university in the US, so I was there. I visited Kyiv for the winter holidays and in the middle of January, I returned to the US… And on February 24 the full-scale invasion began…
Alevtyna Kakhidze: The US is present in my story as well. I spent a year constructing the memorial on my mother’s grave in my village. In 2019, she died at a checkpoint between the Russian-occupied and Ukrainian-controlled territories. I made the memorial in the fall, before going to the United States. But I managed to return. In February I was in my village Muzychi.
My dog, Bukowsky, woke us up. My husband and I went to the porch and saw Hostomel. Since February 24 I was in my village, in my house. I didn’t leave it up until April 18.
On April 18 I went straight to Venice Biennale, where we discussed what to do with art and Russian culture. I spent some time in Europe, found several gigs, and earned some money, cause now there is not so much money for culture in Ukraine.
A week ago, I came back to Ukraine. My husband and I planned to drive by Shevchenko Boulevard. We got lucky as we were ought to pass it at the exact same time… [she talks about the explosions in the center of Kyiv].
I wanted to visit the court session about Maidan (I draw court sessions about Maidan), but it was canceled. It was meant to be held at 10 AM on the left side of Kyiv at the Darnytskyi court. Yesterday it was tough for me, I mean I couldn’t do anything.
Art of remembering (about war)
Anna Khvyl: Here, in the environment of Western Europe, I am sometimes not sure how to talk about the war to make it sound less “small talk topic”. A lot of people are eager to learn about the war and some of their questions lack empathy.
This topic is relevant once again — remembering things as they were… I realized that we don’t remember World War II. Many countries tried to stay friends with Nazi Germany up until the very end. And then the reality was replaced by the image where all countries fought Nazism. However, France and the US joined the fight at the last moment. Actually, Poland was the first to stand up against Nazism, no matter how weak its chances for victory were.
Western Europeans also share the misconception that Ukraine receives a lot of support, and everything good that happens in Ukraine happens thanks to the aid we receive. Although it’s a fact that only Ukrainians are dying and fighting, no one has lent us their armies… This is briefly about my perception of my work “before” and “after”.
Now I want to focus on remembering things as they were. Remembering that at some point it wasn’t obvious if we have the right to fight against what we are fighting, in a way we are fighting.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: I like the topic about remembering you mentioned. I recently made an exhibition in Paris focused on the generations of women. I mentioned my grandma, my mom, and myself — how we three learned what is war.
I painted my grandma next to Beuys because they were both born in 1921. She went to war, and so did he, but they were fighting on opposite sides. She was wounded, and he was wounded, and they both had to find a way to deal with the experience they received.
I remembered that Beuys had a work focusing on the people that were Nazi soldiers (I don’t know if it’s right to call them “veterans”) that were left to their wounds, just as Beuys himself. He didn’t simply decide to wear a hat, his head was wounded.
He had a work called “Show your wound”. He ostensibly went around, showed his wound, and talked, talked, talked… So, I wrote a large text on Beuys and my grandma. My grandma didn’t talk about her wounds. On May 9 she always came to tell us how cool she and everything was. I remember her donning her medals.
Then she had a stroke. I took care of my grandma, carried her to the chair so that she could do everything. It was hard work like that done by Ukrainian women in Italy.
When you have a stroke and forget something, and then your memories return, they come from the far past. Memories from yesterday, today, from half an hour ago don’t come back.
So, grandma began flooding me with everything she knew about this war experience. It was horrifying — all that Aleksievich wrote about, but it was said by the person in front of you. How the commander raped the child of one of her colleagues…
My grandmother was very cool, she worked in communications. She learned how to fix a broken connection, which means she knew the physics to do it. She said that women were always the last to shower, and men were the first. And everyone was so dirty… She told me things about the war that she never mentioned on the 9th of May. When she got rid of all social control systems, she started to witness to me, her granddaughter.
Then it was my mom’s turn. Since 2014 she was staying in the city that was occupied in April 2014. Then it was liberated by the Ukrainian army (at the time it was called National Guard and not the Armed Forces of Ukraine). The city was Ukrainian from August 16 till September 20. After Ukrainian soldiers were forced to leave. Up until her death in January 2019, she stayed under occupation.
We had conversations every day. It was a sincere talk; I have a big text with pictures about five years of her life under occupation. My mother would never tell a journalist what she told me.
I am the third in this generation of women. I stayed from February 24 to April in the basement in Muzychi, I kept a diary and drew a little. A little bit… Every day I created pictures, they were scattered in publications, various collections. We all, my grandmother, mother, and I, had our own war stories.
I think that artists are the ones who can prolong memory through text or drawings. Everything erodes in some way. I read the text I created with my mother, and I feel like I’m rediscovering it. I can’t even recognize some details. It’s the same with me since February 24: when the light disappeared, how long was it gone? The diary helped to record it.
Memory is crucial, as it helps us to build the future. Unless we know what happened in the past, we can’t build something new. Our imagination is composed of memory images. You can’t come up with something new if you don’t have something to build from. I suppose we are not that cool.
Oksana Kazmina: In this semester I deliberately chose the discipline “Collective memory and collective trauma”. No way is memory a universal measurement. It’s not about “remembering everything”. Memory is always about something particular.
We extract it from the past to create something today and use it now. That’s why it’s important and at the same time dangerous. Memory can often become a tool of manipulation. For instance, to take one event out of the context… In such a huge multi-branch system that needs to keep its context.
Alevtyna, when you said that your grandma forgot something to be able to remember something else or to allow herself to speak up about “something else”. I don’t know how it happens.
In my family it was the other way around: it seems like this whole time my family has suffered from collective amnesia. My dad is Russian, and some of his relatives were in KGB. He was never a communist. Still, we never had a chance to discuss it. So, I never knew why he didn’t join the party.
My mom, on the other hand, came from a religious family from the west of Ukraine, and obviously, she never joined a party as well. But her parents, in turn, never shared their war-related experiences. My mom’s brother was a soldier in the German army.
It seems that only now I start to come closer to realizing who I am, to consider my family history in the context of the history of Ukraine.
For me, it’s inextricably related to death, and to the material artifact of the memory — the body. Due to the deaths in my family, I didn’t get to learn a lot of things, and I will never know them. All these deaths weren’t caused by the war, they happened before, but a lot was lost.
I was making constant attempts to fill this rupture. Now it suddenly acquired a greater meaning. And I begin to successfully fill in these gaps by learning Ukrainian and Russian history.
I was in the US, and unlike Europe where Anya told the war was a small talk topic. Everyone is interested in the current situation, wants to know where are you from, how it is in your city, etc. Responding certainly hurts, but on the other hand in my environment everyone kept silent. And that was so peculiar. I mean, there were Ukrainian flags everywhere, but no one talked.
I study at the university that is considered successful, posh, and great. They also take pride in being ostensibly multicultural, as there are dozens of international students, including those from Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries.
But I felt totally isolated. At some point, I simply stopped coming to lectures and leaving my room. I realized I was losing my sense of time and understanding of history. I no longer perceived history as the sequence of events that happen one after another. It all snowballed in one lump.
I decided to reflect upon myself and my identity by digging a grave at the playground. I tried to focus on the soil and the process of digging. To reduce it to the physical action, stripping of possible ways to conceptualize it.
At the end, when the grave was dug, I didn’t put anything inside. I didn’t bury anything or anyone there. But I came to the realization that there are no empty graves, and that death is not the end, as it turns into a memory. We must acquire this memory through certain rituals and procedures.
I try to understand what I am doing for that, and where I am? Maybe, I can write texts, or I should come back.
Art projects during the full-scale war
Anna Khvyl: I’ve recently created a mix set for the radio, using the music composed during the Ukrainian emigration, from the 1950s to the 1990s. Several composers, such as Bohdan Veselovsky wrote in their will: “rebury me in Ukraine”. Well, he died in Montreal.
We know that Shevchenko was reburied. Veselovsky mentioned it in his will. People want to be reburied in the place that they feel symbolically connected with. It’s like you have plans that are to be realized after your death.
Now, as I go through all these, I also feel isolated. Oftentimes, when I talk to someone, it seems that I constantly need to explain the context, I don’t have a chance to have a casual conversation like it is with you, people that I share a context with.
And I have this idea too: if I were to be buried somewhere, I want to be reburied in Ukraine. It’s not meaningless.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: Once again about my mom When I found out that she died at the checkpoint from the side of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, I did everything possible to get her body. It was brought to the village Muzychi near Kyiv.
I managed to get my house plan from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, it was difficult. I used it as a blueprint and constructed a reinforced concrete slab that resembled the picture of my house.
There are vertical marble slabs that show where the rooms and the doors are. I wrote on them my mother’s name and “Now you are here, along with the house that kept you there”. I couldn’t get there and bury her near her house, where she probably would want to be buried. That probably was the reason she didn’t leave. It was like I moved the house to the graveyard, and that’s the idea of my memorial.
I’m trying to save my energy. When I feel that it won’t lead to anything I simply remain silent. Maybe, that’s yet another story left untold… But I think that I can do something with my art.
I created my last work in Paris on the scene of Centre Pompidou. I was answering the same political questions addressing them from different positions. I chose a Tourist, a Mediator, a Fighter, and a Gardener. Their answers were obviously different. That was how I got rid of the idea that Europe is all about small talk. 45 minutes spent on stage gave me the needed time.
I gave plenty of funny answers. I wanted and allowed myself to be ironic and dare to laugh at myself. I believe that daring to laugh at yourself is liberating. It proves that you’re not a victim, but an independent person. I did everything possible to laugh together with the audience, but they were silent.
I remember being asked if there are good Russians. “Of course, there are” I answered as a Tourist. “But how do we identify them? If only we had something like the COVID test. But even COVID tests can show false negative and false positive results.” I thought it was hilarious, but no one laughed. I think it was funny, as in reality there isn’t an institution separating good Russians from bad ones.
It was a stage, scripted play, fully scripted performance. I took several blockbuster questions: are there good Russians, what do we need to do with the Russian culture, why Ukrainians don’t give up, what do we do when a country with nuclear arms acts like a terrorist state.
I had 14 questions, and I wrote all the answers from the four positions. I began writing in April and have been working on my texts until September. I memorized everything, and then Oleksiy Ananov and I played it on stage. I felt secure, I knew what to answer.
For example, the question “Are Russians guilty?”. As a Fighter, I answered: “So, our Russophobia is not strong enough, we are too sweet to Russians. But I am not a judge, I am a fighter…”
The Gardener said peculiar things “When slugs attack my lettuce, I never distinguish between slugs. Instead, I say that the slugs ate my lettuce, that there is nothing to eat for dinner…”
Anna Khvyl: Oksana, you already told us the story about grave digging. Do you want to add something about your art projects? How did the beginning of the full-scale invasion influence them?
Oksana Kazmina: I want to elaborate on the topic mentioned by Alevtyna. When the audience didn’t laugh, and silence was the only answer. Oftentimes silence was something I had to work with in the United States.
The silence was a response to my attempts to joke, to my sincere projects. But then I understood. when I asked them: it was just a fear. The silence is a fear.
People are afraid because they really don’t understand what’s going on. My groupmates, for instance, pay for student loans and search for a job, and they simply can’t understand it.
I started questioning myself, what was my goal. How should I work with the silence to break it and start getting responses? To quote Protyah, “We should understand that now we, the filmmakers, don’t have the films in our timeline. Instead, we have reality”. Now Freefilmers focus on volunteering.
One of my projects was born from this exact silence. I received several requests from people asking me to teach them about Ukraine. To come to the class, cultural fair, where Ukraine will be presented along with other countries. In a family-friendly format and of course, “no politics”.
I made a series of performances-lectures called “Contemporary History of Ukraine”. I could succumb to the primitivity thanks to the pretentious name, “Contemporary History of Ukraine”, and the lecture format itself.
I was like: “Look, that’s our country, that’s its borders, these are our neighboring countries.” “Its etymology is often falsely derived from the word meaning “outskirts”; it is often falsely called “the Ukraine”. I tried to cover all these topics.
For that project, I used Google maps. I was turning on Street View and at the same time displayed Ukrainian landscapes from a bird’s flight, when maps looked like simple lines. We could zoom in and examine what was where and who lived where. I turned on the video and audio recordings of my walks with friends when we were exploring abandoned places. Many such walks took place in Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol, places that are now partly or fully destroyed.
The project was a way to reflect upon geography and history and to understand if it’s possible and necessary to teach someone.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: I got the answer about this silence, though I don’t know if it is right. It works for people that experienced war.
I was in Kosovo, and that’s literally my favorite country. Before the trip, I took a comment from Dmytro Kuleba. I asked him what I should say (Ukraine does not recognize Kosovo) because I was going to Biennale and knew that I would be there for more than two weeks.
When I arrived, everyone hugged me: the Prime Minister, his wife, just everyone. Everyone hugged me and asked, “Can I hug you?” From there I went to Sweden, Stockholm. That very evening, I had to explain why “Glory to Ukraine” is not a Nazi motto.
Anna Khvyl: When the full-scale war began, I didn’t speak to anybody for some time. Then I came to Berlin to meet someone from Ukraine. Here in my company, there are almost no Ukrainians. Then I began to connect with people that experienced war.
I thought of a classmate with whom we had little contact. He is Syrian, and once we had a small talk. He said, “I came here just before another escalation started.” So, I commented, as I know people are commenting on me now and saying “You must be happy to be here at this time”. It’s obviously “Not exactly what makes me happy”.
I told him in a similar way at that time. As for Syria, the silence is because there are many risks of reacting wrongly, you know? To say something that puts you in a role you don’t want to be in. You don’t know how to speak, and it’s so risky that you don’t take that risk to speak about it. You just keep silent and don’t even laugh, because maybe laughing is bad. Okay, they laugh at themselves… But are you allowed to laugh as well?
“War is about the past, not the future”: Feminism during the war
Alevtyna Kakhidze: On the stage in Paris there was a question “Is it not gender discrimination that men in Ukraine cannot leave?”.
I divided my answer into four parts. The Tourist says that it odd to discuss gender equality during the war, as war is an archaic thing. Gender equality is about the future
The Mediator said, “Well, how interesting: the war was waged, and certain men are complaining that women didn’t put enough effort into fighting for gender equality.”
And the Fighter said… I talked to my friend Lesya, who is now at war. And I retold our conversation there. She said “Alevtyna, soon there will be improvements, there will be uniforms for women in our Armed Forces, there will be gender equality! It’s coming!”.
And then my husband said, “Alevtyna, take this freedom to decide whether to leave the country or not as the consolation prize. All my life I saw how your rights were violated.”
While the Gardener said, “My garden is awesome: plants have a variety of gender identification, expressing themselves in different ways, and people have a lot to learn from them. Gender discrimination doesn’t exist in Ukrainian gardens”.
War is an archaic thing. We surely can discuss gender discrimination or equality. However, we must remember that we’re at war, and it is not about the future. It’s about the past.
Oksana Kazmina: I also think that war is archaic, patriarchal, and capitalist by its nature. Bringing feminism to the discourse means instrumentalizing it and making it cater to the needs of these processes.
For me feminism is not limited to gender topics, it encompasses the topics of equality, poverty, class system, capitalism, and colonialism. I believe that many people in Ukraine and beyond its borders do this important job.
Anna Khvyl: Speaking about feminist activism, at the beginning I was disappointed by the fact that the global feminist community (that often means the Western feminist community) adheres to the highly theoretical position regarding non-violent resistance.
You’ve possibly read the manifesto that was published at the beginning of the summer. I believe there weren’t any Ukrainian feminists among its authors. But this manifest focused on the Russian aggression toward Ukraine, and feminists demanded to stop supplying Ukraine with arms. There is the idea that arms always lead to the deterioration of the situation of women. What arms are we talking about: assault rifles or air defense?
How can air defense harm women in Ukraine? How can it influence the level of domestic violence? Together with a group of feminists, we wrote a manifesto explaining why Ukrainian feminists campaign for military aid. That’s our right to resist, a basic feminist right for self-defense. When the abuser commits acts of violence, you don’t have a choice — you need to use force to defend yourself.
Oksana Kazmina: I think that it’s essential that theoretical feminism losing its practical relevance at some point. I believe the same happened in all the branches of feminism. This war made it clear how neoliberal practices have infected everything, even radical theories. It happened to left movement, to queers, examples are numerous.
I suppose that if we are to perceive feminism as the practice physical practice of making something, producing gestures, then it’s important to explain why calls to cancel Russia or Russian culture are not discriminatory. Why calling “Send us more weapon” is not aggression or violence from our side.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: I have a picture of two wars standing next to each other: the war of aggression and the war of liberation. For us, it’s a war of liberation. It’s a different thing: when you defend and liberate yourself, both men and women are going to be affected at war.
Of course, regarding the war of aggression, we won’t see Russian women in the Russian army, there just aren’t any. These are the men attacking us. There are plenty of women in the Ukrainian army. Speaking of what Ukraine is going through: both men and women are getting killed.
We have to understand that canceling the Russian culture isn’t a discriminatory act. The same is true for war: if we conceptualize war as a patriarchal concept, then once again, we must distinguish between the war of conquest and the war of liberation.
It’s important to hold onto what you perceive as truth
Alevtyna Kakhidze: After 2019, I realized one thing: my grandmother, whom I have already mentioned, spoke Ukrainian in the Donetsk region. My mother never spoke Ukrainian and neither did I. I learned Ukrainian. My brother (when the occupation took place in Zhdanivka) arrived here in June 14.
He is smart, otherwise, he would have fallen under the terrible mobilization that is going on in the so-called DNR. When Poroshenko was leaving his post, do you remember the language law? My brother came angry and offended. He was so scared that someone would force him to speak Ukrainian – he did not know it. He understood it, of course, but never practiced it.
I told him then: “Listen, have you ever thought why mom never spoke Ukrainian? When did she switch to Russian?” I don’t think my grandmother spoke another language to her child, she didn’t know any other. They always lived together, never left Zhdanivka. The story is absolutely insane.
Anna Khvyl: It’s important to hold onto what you perceive as truth. At times it may seem that there is no truth in the world of post-truth. Your opinion, another opinion…
Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, it has become clear (maybe for someone from Donetsk and Luhansk it was clear before, for me it is clear now. There is truth, and if you feel it, you have the right to act according to your experience. It gives you the confidence to speak about things, even if you know that they will not be applauded. It is important to say: Russian refugees are not refugees at all. It isn’t nice, but still, you say it.
Oksana Kazmina: One of the good things (if not the only one) for me is that I know what is right. I have no doubts, and that gives me energy. On my Facebook, I have only one Russian subscriber. That’s Artyom Chernov, a photographer. It’s interesting for me because he posts photos captured at the conscription centers.
It is interesting how people comment on the issues. They don’t really understand what is happening, they sense danger – someone runs away, someone goes to the army. The discussion remains at the level of “the poor”, they have no agency.
Something is being done to Russians, they are being dragged somewhere, they do not have their own truth or version of events. Or the realization that they are these events, they create them and can change and influence them. This was my discovery. The photographer said not to judge people who get on the buses and go to Ukraine to fight, because they are stupid and did not choose… And we do not know whether the machine gun in the hands of this man will shoot or not, how can we say that he is bad now.
There was a comment stating “No matter how hard you, Ukrainians, have it now, it’s the only the beginning for you. You need to be sorry for us because we are already screwed.”
Naturally, I don’t feel sorry for them, and I don’t think that we should feel sorry.
We have the right to speak because we have survived
Alevtyna Kakhidze: If you have the opportunity, you should dream. I have made several works (there is no time to talk about them) where I dream. It is difficult for me to say now what our victory is. But dreaming about the time when we just build, not defend, is necessary, I believe in it.
Now I think if we need a contract army or not. When it is not contract-based, there are different people – writers, women, managers… And very patriarchal or (I don’t know if I can say this word) militant. It seems to me that an army of different people has less danger of turning into a “very right-wing thing”. The context of the army is very close to the wild. War is about instincts, and survival.
We need to remember, cherish, and dream. We need to edit all the symptoms of the horrendous situation to be able to remember it.
As you say, Anna, “to be hysterical”, to say everything, even here in Ukraine. Be courageous, as you said, Oksana, to stay with your truth. With what you feel is right. And then life will show how it’ll be.
We have the right to speak because we withstood everything. I don’t want to survive in our country only to be obliged to shut up and refrain from saying what I feel and what I want.
Oksana Kazmina: The official history is being written right now, and the heroization processes are already happening. For example, “Babel” makes brief text memorials every week, remembering people who died.
There are a lot of people active in different spheres, not just soldiers. A lot of men and women, I mean that images of heroes are not limited to the images of armed men. Or if it’s a woman, she is only a worker, although she can be a hero at her work.
It is crucial to keep up to date and follow the processes of commemoration and glorification. Now, for example, there is a discussion – the architectural firm “Balbek” proposes a project of the Irpin Bridge memorial.
We need to make sure that it is not instrumentalized, that history is not written according to the same templates by some architectural firm or the Institute of Memory, which teaches how to remember everything.
Anna Khvyl: Guilt leads to silence as well, that’s what I can say about me. I don’t stay in Ukraine all the time, and I’m safer than many people.
I test my thoughts several times, which is generally a good practice – to think what you say. Even if you don’t know exactly the things you think are true.
I am glad that so many people have their own opinion. Even if you’re exhausted, then people charge you. Somebody starts speaking, you respond, and the energy is generated in the process.
Alevtyna Kakhidze: I want to thank you. I think that it’s time for me to change this city for my village. I was happy to hear from you.
Oksana Kazmina: Yeah, thank you
Anna Khvyl: Thank you, it felt nice talking to you.