Democracy Lab

'Girls, Stop What You're Doing or Die'

In Ukraine, women militants are taking up weapons on both sides of the barricades.

The folk dance reached its culminating moment. Young women with bright red boots and flower wreaths around their heads spun and jumped, dazzling an audience of passing art lovers. A year later, I still have a vivid picture of the opening of the Ukrainian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the renowned, biannual contemporary art and film exposition in Venice, Italy. Whatever feelings you might have about the hopak, the traditional Ukrainian folk dance, it was hard to resist the lure of the colorful ribbons running down from the dancer's wreaths, or the warm lipstick smiles with which the pretty Ukrainian dancers wooed their viewers.

Westerners aren't the only ones vulnerable to the charm of Ukraine's female folk traditions. Many generations of little Soviet girls grew up admiring every detail of happy Ukrainian national costumes, ironed their own ribbons, and danced to folk songs filled with romantic lyrics. Even now, Ukrainian families still value their heirloom shawls, thick cotton towels, and shirts embroidered with graceful flowers: all the handmade heirlooms passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters, to be pulled out of chests or closets on wedding days or other big occasions.

These days you won't see many Ukrainian women performing happy dances. Traumatized by the slow slide into civil war, and with Russian military forces maneuvering on the border, Ukraine is looking ahead to a presidential election that many fear will accelerate the country's fragmentation. The current split between pro-unity and pro-Russian groups is deepening, exacerbated by the casualties from fighting in the East -- and the process of polarization also includes women. The day after the horrific May 2nd fire in Odessa that took the lives of more than 40 pro-Russian demonstrators, photographs of young women with ponytails pouring gasoline into bottles for Molotov cocktails appeared on the door of the incinerated building. "They burned Odessans," the sign said.

Millions of Ukrainian women on both sides of the conflict have been caught up in intense emotions. First there was the violence of the February uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, leaving dozens dead. Then there was Russia's surprise takeover of Crimea, which meant exile and loss for many families forced to leave the peninsula, and a source of "patriotic" exaltation for many others. And now there are the victims of war in Eastern Ukraine. For all these reasons, the traditional image of the happy, flower-wreathed Ukrainian maiden is giving way to another: that of the woman warrior, a figure increasingly common on both sides of the political dividing line.

Women build barricades, pour gas for Molotov cocktails, or throw bricks at policemen -- sometimes with more passion and anger than the men. On the Maidan, some of them joined Unit 39, a largely female group within the demonstrators' Self-Defense Forces, where their tasks included persuading members of Berkut, the paramilitary police, to defect. Last month, activist Irma Krat, one of the leaders of the Maidan's female militia forces, was detained by rebels in Sloviansk. The interrogators have accused her of torturing anti-Maidan activists and killing a Berkut officer.

But the pro-Ukrainian contingent certainly doesn't have a monopoly on women militants. Since late April, leaders of the separatist movement have been calling on both men and women to mobilize and prepare for a real war against Kiev. Last weekend, a pro-Russian website issued a video that showed four masked women warriors from Lugansk declaring "a war against the junta," as pro-Russian forces refer to the interim government in Kiev. In the video, women dressed in camouflage with Kalashnikov rifles slung across their chests introduce themselves as female fighters in the Russian Orthodox Army: "We took up weapons because we're fed up," one of the women says. Apparently addressing officials from the Kiev government, she continues: "Leave. You have 24 hours." A taller woman standing next to her adds that she wants to send a "special hello" to the Maidan's Unit 39, which she accuses of killing boys from the region: "Girls, you've got a chance: Stop what you're doing or die."

So why are women preparing to risk their lives -- or to take the lives of their compatriots? During my recent visit to Lugansk, I posed the question to a group of blond, blue-eyed women sitting on a bench outside a wooden church at the back of the main camp of the pro-Russian militia. Their answer was simple: The Ukrainian authorities had sent tanks against their husbands and sons fighting for the separatist cause in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, so the women had no choice but join the militia troops, too, and fight on the side of their loved ones.

But even at moments when there haven't been obvious threats, women in eastern Ukraine have followed the call of male rebel leaders by joining violent battles against government officials. In Donetsk, women dressed up for a peaceful demonstration began throwing bricks at government representatives. Some of them were still holding balloons or children's hands when the police started firing stun grenades and gas into the crowd. The women were undeterred: they were too angry at the government. Women of all ages continued the battle until the building was seized by the militia of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk. (The photo above shows the Republic's female supporters marching during a recent demonstration in the city.) Many in the crowd demanded the public punishment of  captured officials, but the rebel militia used shields to protect their captives from the bloodthirsty crowd, which included many women.

Yet such images don't come as a complete surprise. Local contemporary artists, sensitive to any changes in the social environment, starting painting images of lost or violent women months ago. Valery Tsagolov was painting images of ballerinas in suicide bomber belts long before the conflict caught fire between pro-Russian militia and Ukrainian security forces caught. In early March, soon after one hundred people tragically died in street clashes in the heart of Kiev, the M 17 Gallery presented a painting of a young woman in a traditional Ukrainian costume with long curly hair, a machine gun over her shoulder and a grenade in her hand. Igor Pereklita, the artist, created the painting months before thousands of women joined the protests on the Maidan, as part of a show called "The Fire of Love," devoted to the idea of revolution. "Death to the occupiers from Moscow" was scrawled at the woman's feet.

The recent works of Maria Shubina, a Kiev painter famous for her solemn self-portraits, feature a girl guerilla armed with a revolver and receipts for Molotov cocktails. Shubina  display the paintings next to grenades and guns made of chocolate (no reference, she says, to Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate king currently campaigning to be Ukraine's next president). She told me that the installation is supposed to serve as a pacifist protest. It will fall to Ukrainian women, she said, to heal the wounds caused by the conflict and bring together the fractured country.

Meanwhile, Natalya Zabolotna, a Kiev museum director, is worried about the lives of her friends, the artists Pavel Yurov and Denis Grishuk, who have been held hostage in a rebel prison in Sloviansk for over a month. She reached out to the Moscow Orthodox Church. "The priests told me they couldn't help, because the violence and anger of war have flooded people's mind and souls," Zabolotna said. "Something is seriously wrong. The world has let the genie out of the bottle. Even women have taken weapons and formed militia troops in despair and fear." I can't help thinking, though, that most women in Ukraine are waiting for the guns to melt like chocolate so that they can once again open up those chests filled with family heirlooms and dance the hopak.

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Who Will Be the President of Novorossiya?

A power struggle has broken out among pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine: They're fighting for control of a country that doesn't exist yet.

No sooner had the leaders of the so-called "People's Republics" of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Odessa declared the return of "Novorossiya" ("New Russia") earlier this month than they began fighting among themselves. Though they agree that the entire southeastern portion of Ukraine should join their self-proclaimed breakaway nation, they are divided over who should lead this new government. Yet all week, leaders of the pro-Russian movement in Odessa have been bombarded with calls from concerned friends and commanders of the region's self-defense units asking the same pressing question: Who the hell is Valery Kaurov, and why are Russian news agencies calling him "the president of the People's Republic of Novorossiya"? ("Novorossiya," is the historical term used by the tsars for the south and east of present-day Ukraine, which was conquered by the Russian empire in the 18th century.)

At an Easter demonstration on Saturday, April 19, on Kulikovo Field Square in Odessa, anti-Kiev rebels voted to embrace the cause of the "Novorossiya Movement." While one of the demonstration's leaders, a short and stout 26-year-old by the name of Artem Davydchenko, gave a passionate speech from the stage before a few thousand activists, a face covered in a thick beard appeared on a laptop screen set up by a church in a nearby tent. The caller was Valery Kaurov, the Moscow-based leader of the Union of Orthodox Citizens of Ukraine -- and a former businessman who is wanted in Ukraine for his calls for separatism. At home in Odessa, his critics accuse him of "being weak" and "selling out."

Addressing a small group of his supporters who had crowded around the computer, Kaurov declared himself to be the president of the recently created Republic of Novorossiya. A few dozen of his supporters applauded and approved his candidacy -- but the majority of the protesters learned about their new "president" on the news. Many leaders attended the demonstration in defiance of possible retaliation from Kiev, which threatens jail terms for those who espouse separatism. Kaurov was more cautious: He proclaimed his leadership from Moscow, via Skype.

But Kaurov is not the only one who has attempted to seize command in eastern Ukraine. An officially registered presidential candidate in the central government's May 25 election, Oleg Tsarev, arrived in Donetsk earlier this month to lead the anti-Kiev protests there, calling for a referendum that would turn Ukraine into a loose federation that would give devolve most of the central government's powers to the regions. (He has since dropped out of the presidential race.) Tsarev's campaign platform also emphasizes making Russian an official language -- but that's not enough for many of the southeast protesters, who simply want to see their part of Ukraine split off into an entirely separate entity. As Dmitry Sinegorsky, the head of security in the rebel-occupied Donetsk administration building, said: "We should be constantly on guard to defend ourselves from phony criticism, from self-appointed, commercially interested leaders climbing to grab power." Another powerful leader, the self-appointed mayor of Sloviansk, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has made headlines by kidnapping journalists and politicians --including a group of OSCE observers. Pushilin's People's Republic of Donetsk supported the mayor's actions, saying it suspected that the OSCE observers were "NATO spies." (In the photo above, a pro-Russian activist guards a barricade in front of the flag of the so-called People's Republic of Donetsk.)

Last Wednesday, most of the pro-Russian protesters I spoke with in Odessa were concerned about how groups like the Novorossiya Movement are scrambling for power in the country's new political structures. "We're constantly on guard so that no more 'generals' can claim leadership over us," Davydchenko told me. Most protesters on Kulikovo Field either mocked or cursed the self-appointed president Kaurov: "Kaurov can self-appoint himself as an Emperor or a king -- our reaction would be the same: We'd laugh at him," one of the leaders of the Kulikovo field protesters, Yegor Kvasnyuk, told me.

In fact, as Kvasnyuk explained, a completely different man inspired the Novorossiya Movement. A tall man in gray suit, Kvasnyuk looked worn-down, his face covered in sweat. That day, a prosecutor had called him in for questioning; he could very well be facing a 15-year prison term for separatism. Walking to a kiosk to buy himself an energy drink, Kvasnyuk explained to me that the "holy" idea of Novorossiya needed "honest and uncompromising leaders." Apparently, Putin was not the first one to propose the return of Novorossiya; the first one to propose it was the key thinker of the Eurasianist conservative revolution, Alexander Dugin: "As early as last September, during a meeting in Russia, Dugin told us that Novorossiya, a sovereign republic, should have devoted, honest Russians to lead it to revive our Russian roots." Kvasnyuk spoke of Dugin highly, calling him "the greatest predictor of Russia's future."

Dugin's followers in Odessa and Donetsk knew little about series of his articles published in 1992-2006 defining his "neo-Eurasianist" theories, which describe the birth of "pure, radically revolutionary, and consistently fascist fascism." As a member of the modern Russian establishment, regularly appearing on Russian state channels, Dugin avoided radical statements in recent years, but some of his quotes and articles can still be found on the Internet, according to the Moscow-based Gumilev Center, a community of Eurasianists. "Russian fascism is a combination of naturally national conservatism and the passionate desire for true change," said one of the Center's representatives.

Earlier this month, Dugin told his followers that, in the future, journalists working for the Russian independent media -- including Echo of Moscow, Dozhd, and Novaya Gazeta -- should not be allowed to enter the territory of Novorossiya, because Dugin believes they've betrayed Russia: "Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkov republics will be a holy place for renaissance of Russian culture, Russian spirit, Russian identity." In Dugin's view, Novorossiya should be governed by "absolutely different people -- real, brave, clever, [and] able to fight for their freedom." According to Kvasnyuk, Dugin also predicted that everybody in the movement would betray Novorossiya -- that is, "everybody but Putin."

In the end, the rebels' struggle to find leaders might not even matter, because Dugin's notions of a pure Russian revival are proving to be potent enough on their own, with or without leaders.

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images