“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.
From street protests to humanitarian aid: do grassroots activists get enough visibility during the full-scale invasion? How did lectures at the universities, zines, and feminist camps give way to helping internally displaced persons? Is the conservative turn to be expected and how do we prevent it?
In the fourth episode of the podcast “Feminists about war” our guests:
Nata — activist, author of the zine “(Un)employed”.
Zhenya Dzekun — activist, feminist (grassroots, horizontal, feminist group “Bilkis”).
“We went to the street protests? It was allowed?”
Nata: I’m Nata, I am an activist. Before the war escalated I was engaged in the vegan kitchen in Kyiv. Each week we distributed vegan meals to people who needed them, often homeless, often elderly people, and we still do it these days.
I am also responsible for the zine, self-published magazine on labour rights of women and transgender people. Nata — activist, author of the zine «(Un)employed». Such were my key activities at the time. Now they have changed a bit.
Zhenya: I am Eugenia, and I belong to the collective «Bilkis». That is a grassroots horizontal feminist initiative that was created 2,5 years ago in Kharkiv. Due to the war all of us are currently based in Lviv, aside from one member who stays in Kharkiv.
What are my responsibilities? A lot of things, mainly humanitarian aid. Before the full-scale war I was engaged in street activism, street protests, wrote dozens of texts on Instagram and gave lectures. We tried to develop grassroots horizontal feminist community in Kharkiv.
Brie: Cool! I am Brie, I’m a member of the feminist initiative «FemSolution». It’s a Kyiv-based organization that was created in the university, and at first it dealt with the university problems. We wanted to provide inclusive education, to be able to discuss feminism in the academic environment.
Our organization is almost 6 years old now, and our main focus was education. We also created some zines, queer and feminist ones, we held several camps and festivals. Due to COVID, our pace had slowed, it was harder to get together. I don’t know to what extent did the war influence it, but in recent years we were quite invisible.
Still, we sticked together and supported each other, and since the beginning of the full-scale war we began dealing with humanitarian aid. Mainly there are several people that do it, and not the whole organization, but everyone puts their own effort into what we’re doing. We help the internally displaced persons and people with mental problems.
Nata: Zhenya said that before the escalation she was involved in street activism, and it seems I forgot what these words even mean. As I was like: wow, was it even real? What happened? We went to the street protests? It was allowed?
I went to many protests as well, but I can’t say that it was the escalation that urged me to stop. Already in 2021 I missed all possible protests. First, I made a point of going to all the protests. There was a variety of topics: LGBT people, feminist protests, women’s rights, animal rights, urbanist initiatives — I went everywhere. And then it was as if someone turned off the switch, and I didn’t want to go to the protests anymore. What about your experience with street protests?
University and activism
Zhenya: Before the escalation our activist path started when Yana and I, well, that’s how we got to know each other in our university, we got along, we created our initiative, at first it was only the two of us. And so the two of us began writing posts, going to the protests together, giving feminist lectures in the university, that sort of things.
I remember our first lecture. It was called «Roasting the feminists», we named it that way so that more people would visit it. We wanted them to be interested, to be willing to engage in the discussion. And I remember us making this lecture, and making it good. We managed to fill one of the biggest lecture halls of our faculty, of our department. It was the space lecture hall, and it was filled to the brim, 70 people or so came to us. With the majority of them being white cisgender men. Just how we like it.
And of course, they were seething with anger because of our speech, they were constantly bombarding us with questions. There was a heated discussion — but I actually liked it. Now I would certainly do it differently, I would change the concept, but still, it was cool.
And then we also held lectures in the university, but nothing lasts forever: they at dean’s office didn’t like that there were self-organizing efforts, and feminist at that, on our faculty — «what even happens here?»
Our main responsibility was organizing «16 days against [gender-based] violence». In Kharkiv, for example, no one organized it. «Sphere» was in charge of Week of Women’s Solidarity on March 8. So we decided to deal with this topic, and so we began working with it.
I remember working out the details. We had a concept developed collegially, in tandem. Over the course of 16 days, each day we published stories of women or queer people that were the violence survivors. Our second daily post focused on the kinds of the violence, the ways to cope with it etc.
And the third post — it was already the report of the protest — it was an individual protest somewhere in Kharkiv. One of the activists from our group went to the street with a poster. She was accompanied by another person that supported her and could help her in case of danger.
This went on for 16 days. That was great, I remember all these protests, how we organized them… That’s it. I visited dozens of lectures and protests, including those organized by us.
We also organized a demonstration to support, to stand in solidarity with Polish women, when abortions there were completely banned. As I speak and reminisce about it, it seems like it all happened in some other life.
It feels so distant now, and things like that don’t happen now. We can’t make something creative, or conceptual… I mean we’re trying to, and there are lots of ideas we bring to life, but over the last month we have focused on providing humanitarian aid. I don’t think it is the right time for anything else.
Brie: I’d like to add that it was hard for FemSolution to exist within the university, as the university exerted pressure on teachers that came to our lectures and spoke to the activists…
“Ukraine, and it feels like the other world: no demonstrations, nothing”
Another thing about the demonstrations… FemSolution once made a protest against violence at the university, during the case with Kurinny — he was a lecturer in the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy that harassed his students and wrote bizarre sexist posts…
So we organized a protest, and a lot of the right-wing young men came — they tried to drive away the people, took away someone’s belongings… It was a total mess, it happened on the territory of the university. And then our activists who were students of the university were called on the carpet…
Not the people who disrupted our protest, not the lecturer, but the activists… We were urged to tell what happened in the university and why we were doing something about it. And after all that, we simply couldn’t stay. Our activists needed to graduate safely. Another thing about the protests… I guess, COVID was also an issue for me that prevented me from visiting the demonstrations, as I worried and didn’t visit them at first.
As of late, I don’t even know what these demonstrations are and where should you go. I don’t know, I didn’t leave Ukraine, and it feels like the other world: no demonstrations, nothing.
Nata: Yeah, I think that it may not be obvious to people that are gonna listen and watch this podcast, that the three of us are in Ukraine now.
I thought it worth clarifying this. If I recall correctly, Zhenya spent some time in Germany and came back. And I fled the country for a couple of days…
Zhenya: Yeah, I was in Germany and even joined the rallies supporting Ukraine, and it’s really interesting…. Well, you can imagine what the German community is and how it perceives Ukraine…
They share this, I would say, neoliberal approach. Even when I talked to some people that call themselves leftists, they said: «Well, we simply can’t send weapons to Ukraine». «Why?» — I asked. «The WWIII will begin». «How do you know?» — I said.
And they were like: «Nah, that’s for sure». From the predictions they make, I understood that it is the current German tendency.
We also had this curious case, when there was a huge lie-in protest near Bundestag — Ukrainians came there and lay down on the ground. After that protest, my friends and I were strolling along Berlin. Our walk accidentally led us to the Russia’s embassy in Berlin,
There we had… I wouldn’t call it a brawl, but it was a heated discussion with the policemen. Someone sticked a photo from Bucha on a stand there. There were fences everywhere, and you couldn’t just go on the territory of the embassy. It really looks like some kind of Mordor. Ordinary people can’t go inside, and there is even a separate entrance to the subway.
So, someone sticked the photo of Bucha on the stand, and a policewoman tried to take it off — and I have a funny video, where she takes it off first, then glues it back as she understands that she is being filmed.
They don’t want to see us suffering, I guess.
Nata: How do you feel in general? What changed about how you experience activism? I mean, what were you doing and what are you doing now?
I think that activism, which encompasses going to protests and some long-term projects… You don’t quite understand what to do with them… And they are quite exhausting… On the other hand, I also had a chance to work on providing the humanitarian aid over the months of the escalation and helping the army as well… For a long time it was blood, sweat and tears.
No wonder I burned out now, and now I can’t do much. How do you feel about changes in your activities?
Brie: Frankly, at first it was hard to get back to activism. I stayed in Kyiv for the first three weeks, I guess, and I was really scared, not being able to focus on what was happening.
Basically everything I did was talking to our foreign activists telling them what happened and asking how they could help. But it is really exhausting. They don’t get it, they don’t get anything at all — it was really complicated to explain for the umpteenth time about NATO, some other things.
Why are left-wing activists at war? Why am I interested in it? Why are their weapons among the things we need? It was morally hard — to constantly explain things to people that themselves live a normal life.
I am sitting in Kyiv, I mean then I was, there are constant air raid alarms, something explodes outside my window, and I have to postpone an interview with them, and they don’t understand how it is possible.
And they are like: «Maybe you can make it? We need to have it on time…» It was really hard, and over these 2–3 weeks I’ve been talking with them. I understood that I am in need of some rest, and afterwards I spent a lot of time resting… I went away from Kyiv… And for several weeks I didn’t even read the news.
And then my friends from the organization also stepped up, we began doing things together, and I began helping with humanitarian aid… Well. I think that now I have more energy than at the beginning.
Actually, we discussed it with my colleagues and realized it is different for everybody: I mean, someone could work hard right from the start, and 100 % they’re gonna have burnout after some time, and then the ones that were in the catatonic state in the beginning will continue the work of those activists.
It really worked like this. In the beginning, we worried that we were not doing enough and that we needed to start right away. And then Sveta, my friend from the organization, told us: «Don’t worry, somebody will work right now, and then you will also work».
Zhenya: And it really was the case: some of the activists ran out of steam, and others continued their work. But as the war began, I was terrified. I mean I waited for something to happen, but I relied on chance.
We managed to get to Germany, and there I began… For the first month, I was taking it slow. We stayed in touch with the community — with Bilkis, we held meetings, we wrote grant proposals, we received several rapid response grants. But when you are in, say, Germany, you can’t feel all the context.
I, for instance, didn’t feel the context. I constantly read the news, was constantly immersed in it, but I constantly felt that it was not enough and that I had to do more.
In Berlin, we even began collaborating with «Viche». I mean Yana and I, part of our team that went to Germany. Ivanka, Oksana, and Dasha stayed here and they helped with humanitarian aid here.
But I decided to come back, as it was emotionally hard for me to be there, to understand that you are surrounded by people that don’t get that your loved ones can die tomorrow, today, anytime…
That some of your family members are in the occupied territories — they just live their lives, and you think: «God, my feelings are so out-of-place here… I myself am out-of-place here…» Yeah. I also realized that we received the grant, and we have to spend the money somehow, that we need to think how to spend it — so I decided to come back.
Furthermore, I returned, Yana also decided to return, and when we got all together here, we started brainstorming the ideas, discussing how we can do it.
And it was odd, when your activism did a 180 turn, and instead of holding lectures, visiting lectures, organizing protests, going to other protests… I don’t know, handing leaflets and flyers you read and process 300–400 requests per day, and people ask for help, because they have nothing to eat. And that really alters reality and the way you perceive it.
Yes, it was tough, and afterwards I also felt that I definitely burned out, and that I have not much energy to spend on humanitarian aid. By now we spent all of our grant money on humanitarian aid for women, women with children, queer people, and little by little we began organizing cultural projects.
Tomorrow we will open the «The space of things» in Lviv: people can bring their things there, to exchange them. Our member Ivanka and I are working at the zine about activists and queer people that do or don’t domething during the war.
Just like this. That’s what we are working at. There are also going to be lectures, lots of other things. But these are future plans… Even such things help me to rest, because humanitarian aid… It’s a heavy load to carry, especially for people that didn’t do it before the escalation. Especially when… I simply couldn’t take on fewer responsibilities, all I could do was work, work, work… never stopping. As for what I’ve been doing lately — I’m giving the rest of the zines in exchange for the donations for my friend’s mom, who stays in Mykolaiv.
Nata: Even though the city is frequently shelled, since the very first days she volunteers, helps the Armed Forces and the civilians that evacuate from Kherson and the oblast. I am rather in a relaxed mode, which is OK for me, but I spent three months in Lviv, and I sorted and sent loads of humanitarian aid. I’m sick of it and I don’t want to do it anymore.
“Volunteering never ends”
Nata: Likewise, I don’t know, you both said that at some point it seemed that your volunteering or other efforts weren’t enough, and that reminded me of my therapist’s words. I guess she said them at our first meeting since the escalation.
She said that judging by the social interactions she has, people in the army are relatively OK, as they know what they are doing, their goals are clear etc. People that were evacuated are relatively OK, just like people that live their ordinary lives, that work to keep the economy going etc.
Volunteers, however, get it the hardest, as they burn out terribly, and usually these are female volunteers. I listened to the first episode of that podcast for a bit, and I heard someone saying that men and women suffer equally in this war.
While I understand the sentiment of this point — our problem is common, and so is our pain — I still think that women suffer from the double burden,
This includes women that can’t go to war for a variety of reasons, and they become volunteers as they want to work for our common victory, and volunteering never ends.
Zhenya: As for my stance, actually… it’s great that you referred to the previous episode of the podcast, while I was watching it, I also paid attention to that thing. I am actually sure, both rationally and emotionally, on all levels, that during the war these are women, children, and queer people who suffer the most…
Women are burdened with loads of work, and there is an enormous amount of women volunteering. As well as women in the army, but still, usually they say: «here are our volunteers, our defenders» while using the male forms of the nouns. And you’re like: «Ok, well».
And these are the global funds that get the most public visibility… By the global funds… I mean volunteers like… Serhiy Prytula. And everyone goes like: «Wow, yeah, he’s one hell of a volunteer! Now, that’s what we call cool!» And no one gets interested in other volunteers. So, here is the man, his credibility is high, his social capital strong. And he keeps doing what is important for him now, and that’s really great that he does it, great job.
But the work of the numerous grassroots activists dissapears and becomes invisible — it works like this.
I also think that women suffer from the war because domestic work is on their shoulders, just as usual. Even if there is an ongoing war, you can’t just stop going to work, stop cleaning, stop caring about the children. And these are women who mostly do it. I mean, women give more attention to kids.
And even if you go abroad, you take your child with you, and you are responsible for the lives of both yourself and your child. Especially if you have several children. And if you are going with your mom? Or with your mom-in-law? Or somebody else like that?
And women need to spend more of their energy. And I think even before they spent almost all of their energy. But now it seems that you need to find even more energy to spend on your family, on yourself — if you have such luxury, to spend energy on yourself.
Brie: Actually, I think that it is also important to discuss economic aspect. Women that flee the country along with their children, they often lose their jobs here, in Ukraine, and they don’t have the money to survive abroad. It’s hard to get a job both here and there — it also falls on the shoulders of women. And elderly people as well…
I also know it from personal experience, because initially we couldn’t go away as I have a granny in Kyiv to care about. You can’t just postpone that.
Nata: I think that the very way to pose the question like «Who suffers more from the war? Are these men or women? Some other group?». To compare it — it isn’t right, as everyone suffers in their own way, that’s what I think.
I actually think that we shouldn’t mark any problems as irrelevant for the time being. Because how many women joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine over the course of the last 5 months? 7 thousand, I guess.
And I know dozens of stories about women or queer people that can’t do it, even though they try to. And they can’t do it for a variety of reasons… Because they’re not men, because of their Belarussian citizenship etc. It seems like being a woman in the army is more difficult than being a man in the army. Because you have to fight bureaucracy, combat everyday sexism, there is no women’s uniform in the Ukrainian army — I’ve heard that will change soon.
Conservative turn: will it happen?
Nata: One of my biggest fears… I mean, it’s hard to imagine when and how will the war end…
But in the back of my mind there is a fear of the conservative turn when I don’t know… reproductive rights will be restricted, everyone will get a gun and… I’ll have to emigrate not because of the threat of the shelling or occupation, but because Ukrainian society will become even harder to live in.
Yeah, but I don’t have a premonition that it will happen. Maybe it’s just some kind of stereotype. Partially it is because of the belief that war always brings changes like this. I saw a petition about an abortion ban in Ukraine, because, they say, we’ll have to restore the population. But from what I’ve seen, it is not like that it evoked any positive reactions.
Brie: I’m thinking a lot about what will come afterwards. I realize that already I want to rebuild everything, I just can’t. And it seems to me that we are moving forward more quickly, in a more progressive way.
Maybe it is but my subjective opinion, but I see many people that had slept for years, as they were dead-tired from the previous years of the activism, and I see them waking up and actually caring about something, and they also can add their efforts to ours.
It’s great to see many people that I haven’t seen for years, and how we are all united. I see the progress in society as well… I read Twitter a lot, which I didn’t do before: I like the majority of tweets I am reading, it seems like it gets better, before I didn’t even want to be on Twitter.
Zhenya: Yeah, I agree with both of you. I thought about the historic shift we are making: we are now passing the laws through surveys in [a Ukrainian mobile app of e-governance] Diia. It never happened before, but now here we are, now it’s our life. I was positively shocked… And OK, I can understand why the majority of people are supporting gun rights. But it came as a surprise that they passed the law and are going to implement it in a year’s time, and that’s how they are gonna do it.
I also thought that I would have to leave the country not because of Russia as a neighbor, but because I would feel unsafe here… Because I’m genuinely scared to live in a society where people are allowed to carry weapons. Of if there would be an abortion ban. It will be horrible, that’s a fact. I won’t be able to live like this.
Brie: I wanted to add what I am also worry about regarding the abortion ban and alike — Ukrainians got to love the USA, Turkey, Poland… Yes, these are the countries that send us weapons and provide support, but it is not that Ukrainians are well acquainted with Erdoğan policy.
No one takes an interest in what the USA is actually doing, and what happens in the USA with women’s rights. In the majority of states, abortions were prohibited.
Well, it’s not that I have the kind of expertise necessary to discuss such matters… But one of the activists of the FemSolution currently resides in the USA, and she also takes parts in the protests. And it’s really hard — activists are persecuted, it’s not easy even to discuss it.
Sometimes they even feel the need to stick to anonymity — and that resonates with our experiences over the course of the past years. They have the major rollback, with the abortions and some other laws that I don’t know much about, but the problem is real — their conservative movements are gaining strength…
The majority of people I talked to, ordinary people, activists even regard the USA, Poland, and Turkey as the countries that are really great, but that’s not how it is.
Nata: Having such an enemy as Russia helps a bit to simplify the value system. I am not a big fan of the rhetorical device «homophobia = Pax Russica». I disagree with that, but still, homophobia is an integral part of Pax Russica, that is true. And now we have this guiding star that shows us the way into the bright future, reminds that
The Ukrainian society has to be inclusive, non-sexist, non-homophobic etc… Even though this is what we fight for… Maybe it is that narrative that gives me hope that the conservative turn won’t happen.
Zhenya: I once saw a couple of people in the center of Lviv that had cool T-shirts with «… Russians» written on it, just as we like it. I really liked the design, so I began to search what these T-shirts were, and I found out that it’s a brand of intolerant clothes, conservative and stuff.
So I wrote to the admin: «are you intolerant towards Russians, or towards LGBT Ukrainians as well? Cause I would like to purchase your T-shirt, but I would like to clarify your ethical position. And he responded: «Intolerant towards all… (that beautiful word which is used to describe LGBT community), so, towards all gays, dykes, and others, against this filth» and so forth…
I wrote: «So, towards these very same gays and lesbians that defend Ukraine on the battlefront?» He ignored my response. He read it, but maybe he got embarrassed… I hope it will make him reconsider his words.
Nata: Yeah, I also think it’s cool that we have a military unit that unites openly queer people and that helps to become more visible. Afterwards, Nazis won’t be able to say: there were actually us who defended the country.
Brie: But there still is the problem… Maybe it’s only an issue for me, but still… There are communities that post something, that tell the stories of LGBT people in the military, they often don’t mention LGBT leftists in the military.
And that is definitely an issue for me. I know why it happens, but God, if we are talking the identity of a person, then I don’t understand why they remove it from the texts, when a person writes: «I’m a leftist», and they go like: no, you’re an LGBT person, and that’s enough, that’s all we’re gonna say. I think that after everything is over, it won’t be easy for leftists.
Zhenya: My dear friend is now in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and she was always open as a leftist, as a feminist as well, and not only was she frequently harassed, she was outright threatened because of her being a leftist. A guy that threatened her had told that after the war «we will deal with people like you». Yeah, something along these lines.
During the full-scale war, different groups connect with each other. For instance, Bilkis now collaborates with FemSolution, with solidarity collectives, with Feminist Workshop, with some other initiatives. And us communicating more in some sort of the open space is what brings me hope that we are great, cool, really strong, and are doing well… And will be doing well in the future.
Brie: I also want to address the listeners and urge them to support smaller organizations as well as the big ones, Organizations like us (FemSolution) and Bilkis, as it is really important for us. Money goes to big funds and oftentimes it doesn’t get split into small grants. And so the smaller communities don’t get the help. That’s why girls from Bilkis and FemSolution work and volunteer.
They do a lot to help women, children, people with mental health disorders — and their work is important. But unfortunately we don’t have a lot of money, and unfortunately, we are running out of resources.
That’s why it would be great for people to donate to smaller organizations. That’s it.
Nata: I can also say that when the comrades from abroad ask me about the organizations they should donate to, I always mention three organizations: Bilkis, FemSolution and Lviv Vegan Kitchen. Because these are the organizations that handle tremendous amount of work, they are founded on women and queer people and rely on them greatly.
Zheny: And you deserve respect for that. Thanks a lot for referring to us, Nata.