With their bare-top protests against the usual left-wing targets – strongman governments, sexism, inequality, the Church – the Femen girls of Ukraine were the darlings of the Western media in their heyday.
But after several were beaten up for protesting in Kiev ahead of a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2013, and claiming other official harassment, they took refuge in Paris.
There, two weeks ago, Oksana Shachko, one of the group’s founders, was found dead in her home. Her friends said she had hanged herself after writing a suicide note. She was only 31.
What happened, or did not happen, to make this pretty, artistic young woman so desperate? Was it inequality? Or Sexism? Or the Vatican? Or something altogether different?
Oksana lost interest in Femen soon after moving to France. According to the New York Times obituary she said it had become a conventional feminist group, without the revolutionary fervour that initially drove it. It was “empty,” she said. And certainly, there would be less to protest against in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity.
She began to construct an identity as an iconoclastic artist. As a child, her parents had her taught religious iconography and by the age of 10 she was painting murals in churches and monasteries. At 13 she decided to become a nun, but her parents talked her out of it, reports The Times.
“From this moment on I began to reflect on what religion and faith mean to a human being,” she said in a 2016 interview with the 032c, a culture magazine published in Berlin. “I found an answer, and it was atheism.”
But she couldn’t leave religion alone. In 2016 she staged an exhibition in Paris called “Iconoclast,” featuring famous religious icons altered to convey anti-religious messages: the Virgin Mary in a burqa; the Rublev Trinity with female faces, smoking cigarettes in front of empty bottles, or alternatively in burqas.
"My past from Femen totally influenced my paintings and ideas. I firmly believe that we can influence society,” she told La Parisienne at the time. “It is the continuity of my militancy but in a new form. I continue to criticize religion because the image that religion gives women is bad because it is an image of submission.”
If she abandoned religion in her early teens it would be too much to expect Oksana to have understood the dignity that Christianity brought to women, epitomised in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title, Mother of God. Nor can one vouch for the faith and religious culture of Ukrainians after decades of Soviet repression; perhaps she had good reason to look for another meaning to her life.
But what did she and her companions find? On the whole, a bunch of feminist discontents already worn threadbare in the West. The exception was an early cause, the exploitation of Ukrainian women through sex tourism, but in choosing to use nudity as a protest, Oksana and her Femenists became part of that problem. Transgressive art was a similar mistake.
There is only so much moral and emotional sustenance one can get out of being against things, not to mention desecrating them. Of course, Oksana was “for” justice and equality, but abstractions are not enough to build a life on, either. No doubt her efforts won her some admirers among the avant guard – she starred in the award winning French documentary “I Am Femen” in 2014 – but who actually valued her for herself?
In the interview with La Parisienne about her Iconoclast exhibition she said: "I love my freedom in France but it's not easy to be a refugee, to be unable to see my family, my mother. And the conflict in Ukraine does not help. I had to find new friends. Learn to live in a new society. I rebuilt my life and it's not easy."
Had she found anything – or anyone – else to love in France beside her freedom, or to reciprocate? It seems unlikely. Separated from her family, the God of her childhood, even to some extent the group she had helped to found, one gets a picture of the slight young woman as a lonely figure without a meaningful, positive vision of life.
Oksana’s tragic end holds a lesson for social justice warriors everywhere: don’t waste your youth on protest and tearing things down; decide on what you are going to build, and with whom, then build it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She appears here courtesy of a Creative Commons license.