Bikinis and babas: the gender subtext of clichés about Ukraine

In a conflict situation, humiliation of the enemy is frequently gendered. Yet the quasi-Orientalist tropes through which the west views Ukraine refracts both the country’s gender inequalities and its complicated feminist movements. 

Heather McRobie
26 January 2015

The writer and translator Keith Gessen wrote last year of how western coverage of his country of birth, Russia, was refracted through the distorted prism of the west’s own obsessions in the 2000s and 2010s.  While self-identifying ‘left-wing’ writers in the west like Seumas Milne fall into the same trap as Living Marxism magazine and Harold Pinter did over Milosevic in the 1990s –an intellectually infantile apologising for an authoritarian leader just because the leader in question is “a counter-weight to the west” – Gessen pinpointed a more subtle cultural trend that is separate from but co-exists with the Putin-apologist contrarianism on parts of the western left. 

He sketched out the cartoonish depiction in much western coverage of Russia – and the former Soviet Union as a whole –over the last twenty years, shifting from Soviet-cliches to the ‘mafia state’ trope, as one that took aim not just at Putinism but at Russians themselves, blunting the complexities and realities of their experiences. 

The piece came out around the same time as the Calvert Journal ran an analysis of how the western online media treated Russia and the former Soviet Union, at least for the last decade up until 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis began: in this period, Russia was downgraded from its twentieth-century status as ‘enemy', and repositioned as the ‘slightly unhinged stepbrother’ of the west – whose excesses and idiosyncrasies (car crashes captured on dashcams, surreal wedding pictures, women lacquered with industrial-strength make-up) the liberal west was seemingly ‘allowed’ to laugh at without being accused of racism. 

dakh daughters .jpg

Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters

Cultural Russophobia and cultural Slavophobia against eastern Europeans as a whole is pervasive and transmitted by cliche and tired tropes (and, as Natalia Antonova has outlined, this thread in western thinking on Russia has in turn been disingenuously harnessed by Putin’s regime to depict the west as “Russophobic” because it does not support Putin, while in fact it comfortably coexists with Putin’s ‘eternal clash of civilisations’ worldview). 

And, as Antonova has outlined, this Slavophobia is also highly gendered.  The adverts for “Ukrainian brides” plastering most tourism websites to Ukraine draw upon a series of deeply ingrained tropes and imagery of the (European) ‘east’ in the eyes of the ‘west’.  This stretches from the sexist western fantasy of the ‘post Soviet woman’, hyper-sexual yet untarnished by western feminism, to the stock role of the ‘baba’, the old woman who, if you believed much western writing on the former Soviet Union, exists – without back-story or human complexity – solely to provide comic relief, comically bad amateur medical advice, and maternal encouragement to the young men visiting her country.  Its as though the classic patriarchal virgin/ whore dichotomy is recalibrated so the two modes become trashy/ hypersexual young women and comic ‘babas’, two options on the menu of female experience.

“Ukrainian babes and comic old babas” might have remained just another blindspot in a losing battle against the dominance of cliché, but in a war – as the conflict in Ukraine continues – these pre-existing tropes have become dynamic and loaded with power.  In an interview with The Guardian last year, Oksana Forostina, the editor of Krytyka journal, explained her frustration with the western media in which “eastern European women are caricatured and denigrated by their appearance – for wearing high heels and skirts, for example […] liberals wouldn't dare to do that to a Muslim woman who wore a veil."  

Yet the clichés of the ‘hyper-sexual, made-up Barbie doll Ukrainian woman’ is pervasive, and fuels the ‘Ukrainian bride’ industry, which, as Matthew Kupfer has noted, is particularly beloved of Men’s Rights Activist-style sexists dismayed by the west’s move towards gender equality (who, in the process, essentialise and deny the agency of Ukrainian women by transposing onto them the image of the opposite-of-western-woman, fetishised through fantasy as ‘untainted and obedient’).   

Depictions of Ukraine in 2014 brought together two strands. For reductivist tropes used to shorthand eastern Europe in the west are highly gendered. And so is conflict.  To claim that military conflict is gendered is not to view it in terms of “men versus women” or a crude assessment of who suffers more, but to make visible the gender binaries that become more rigid if a society demarcates young men as ‘soldiers’, and if this then constructs or reinforces a societal role of women as ‘carers’ and ‘subordinate helpers’. 

Extensive research has also shown that pre-existing gender inequalities – particularly the levels of domestic violence in a society – colour the severity of gender-based violence in war once the conflict begins.  In fact, academic Valerie Hudson has argued that the levels of interpersonal violence against women in ‘peace time’ are directly correlated with the likelihood of the outbreak of conflict.

Acts of humiliation

As the conflict in Ukraine develops, although women have been present on the front line on both ‘sides’, pre-existing gender roles as well as gendered tropes in the western imagery of Ukraine, have transformed and mutated to the new, militarised context.  A particularly uncomfortable example was the pictures posted of Irina Filatova, the new ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ Minister for Culture, variously topless and in a bikini, which spread around both Ukrainian and western media in May 2014. 

There were many layers to the discomfort: the fact that the pictures were taken from Filatova’s private VKontakte profile (the post-Soviet equivalent of Facebook), making them a kind of revenge-porn and an attempt to ‘shame’ a woman for being a sexual person, and the joy with which (largely male) western journalists sneered at her “trashiness” – a word, used for women, that pinpoints the moment where misogyny and class-hatred align. 

It is not an apology for the rent-a-warlord ‘leaders’ or fairground-mirror bizarre ideology of the Luhansk and Donetsk ‘People’s Republics’ to note – as, for instance, Keith Gessen did in the London Review of Books – that the alienation felt in the neglected Donbass region, which the ‘People’s Republic’ leaders were able to trammel into their agendas, stemmed from a genuine sense of being on the receiving end of a kind of ‘social racism’ by the Kyiv elite.  In a region where the average wage was around 300 Euros a month prior to the conflict, sneering at a young woman for being “trashy” – or for exercising her sexual agency in private – seemed like the eastern European equivalent of the class-loaded hate-word “chav.” 

Regional animosities were playing out as Filatova’s bikini pictures were smeared across Ukrainian social media, complete with captions about what a “whore” the woman in the photographs must be – the equivalent of middle-class southern English people sharing pictures of a working-class Glaswegian woman and gleefully exclaiming that she looked like a “slutty chav.”

Yet the western media was comfortable harnessing this spectacle and the complex power-and-powerlessness woven into it, because – transposed over from its domestic context and into the global Anglophone media – it reinforced predominant western tropes of eastern Europe, where the women are ‘trashy’, and the aesthetics are naff, but its okay for liberals to laugh at that without being accused of racism.

There was an additional layer of discomfort even for those who could smell the misogyny and class-tinged venom in the situation: Filatova is not a person whose actions as a political figure can be morally defended.  Later in the summer of 2014, she was photographed leading a march as Ukrainian prisoners of war were publicly paraded in an act of ritual humiliation – a practice, since the conflict began, that has raised concerns of violations of the Geneva Conventions’ responsibility to treat prisoners of war respectfully and humanely.

The two scenes together – unsympathetic-figure Filatova’s private bikini photographs shared around and ripped to pieces by internet commenters, then her unrepentant participation in the humiliation of others as the conflict developed – felt like an enactment in reverse of the French women who were punished for sleeping with German men during the French Occupation by having their heads shaved. The climate is created in which deliberate humiliation of the other becomes acceptable, because they have committed injustices too, because they have humiliated you, so you can use whatever you have over your enemy.  And humiliation is frequently gendered.

Yet there seemed to be a lack of introspection in western responses to these scenes.  There is much social currency – and many easy internet clicks – amongst western liberals in mocking the garish, ‘trashy’ kitsch of the former Soviet Union, but still too often an insensitivity to when this is ‘punching up’ and when it is ‘punching down’ – mocking the naff glitziness of corrupt and authoritarian ex-President Yanukovych’s palace is punching up at the powerful – is mocking the ‘trashy’ clothing choices of women in a region where the average wage is 300 Euros a month, the same?  Is using degrading gendered insults okay because there are more important things to consider and “there’s a war on”?  There is a frequent failure to maintain a consistent respect for human dignity.

poklonskaya fan art_1.jpg

'Fan art' of Nataliya Potklonskaya 

Virgin/whore – east/ west – Russia/ Ukraine  

The dark underside of humanity that comes out in Filatova’s uncomfortable role as both humiliated and humiliator also had its opposite (although also on the same pro-Russian ‘side’), in the comedic episode in early 2014 in which the Crimean Prosecutor General, Nataliya Potklonskaya, was turned into a Japanese anime cartoon by her new global ‘fans.’ Although footage shows Potklonskaya  laughed along as she is shown the cartoon depictions of herself – wide-eyed, pale and childlike – she did eventually exclaim in seeming exasperation “I’m a lawyer, not a Pokemon!” 

The anime cartoons seemed to play upon the same male western sexual fantasy of Ukrainian women as both childlike (i.e. undemanding and untainted by feminism) and hypersexual, which the multi-million pound ‘Ukrainian bride industry’ draws upon to bring western men to the country.

The ‘Prosecutor General as anime cartoon’ incident in turn became a ‘comic’ story in the global media, marrying together Ukraine’s pre-existing gender inequalities and essentialist tropes of ‘Ukrainian women’ residing in the western lens, while more complex realities remained underreported even as the world began to take an interest in Ukrainian society – such as the rates of domestic violence in the country prior to the start of the conflict.  

Yet, for all the attempts to treat the post-Soviet space as ‘comic and unhinged’, the theme of violence against women threaded through the escalating political tension, such as the incident in April 2014 in which buffoonish populist Russian politician Zhirinovsky appeared to threaten a female journalist with rape at a press conference, going on to exclaim “you women of Maidan all have uterine frenzy”, and – to her colleague – “stop interfering here, you lesbian.” 

The fact that there were almost no expressions of solidarity from global journalists seemed to point to an attitude of “that’s just how things are in the former Soviet Union, backwards and sexist”, while the exclamations Zhirinovsky chose point to what Antonina Vikhrest highlighted as the ‘tactical misogyny’ of Putin’s propaganda machine. 

As Vikhrest notes, a so-bad-its-almost-funny “documentary” aired in on the Kremlin-backed NTV channel in Russia titled ‘The Furies of Maidan’, which claimed to expose how women who were involved in the Maidan revolution that overthrew authoritarian President Yanukovych were psychologically unstable, ‘disgustingly’ masculine harridans who were “aroused by fear.”

Stirring up hatred for Ukrainians and the Maidan protests recalibrated the virgin-whore dichotomy, transposing it on to the binary of ‘Russian versus Ukrainian’ – the pure versus the dirty – making women the terrain on which delineation from the enemy ‘other’ is enacted.

Femen and Ukrainian feminism: lost in translation?

Yet although there are glaring gender inequalities in both Ukraine and Russia – and although the western lens of viewing Ukraine has been largely un-empathetic to lived female experience as it projects its own fantasies onto the country – there is also feminism.   The Kyiv-based all-female band Dakh Daughters were for many the musical accompaniment to the Maidan revolution.  And, as in Egypt in 2011, female protesters were integral to the struggle that brought down the corrupt and authoritarian government.  Societies are not monolithic or internally homogenous, but engaged in internal conversations within themselves – as much as conservative voices within these cultures erroneously seek to depict local LGBT activists, feminists, and other progressives as ‘alien’, ‘elite’ and ‘imported from the west’.

Yet when feminism in Ukraine is mentioned in the western media, one strand of the internal conversation within the movement continues to dominate the headlines – the tactics of Femen, the self-identifying feminist collective that began in Ukraine, who use female nudity ‘as a weapon’ in an attempt to draw attention to violence against women and the brutalities of patriarchy.   

There has been a significant backlash against Femen from within the global feminist movement – and many other Ukrainian feminists seek to distance themselves from the group. Most dismiss the group as ‘colonial white feminists’ or ‘racist feminists’, whose culturally imperialist crusade to ‘liberate’ non-white and Muslim women denies the agency and humanity of these women. 

Femen’s fixation on the body and intellectually infantile ‘shock tactics’ seem, at best, an erroneous attempt to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. At worst, they are an embarrassing, racist distortion of feminism, who can then be used to dismiss the legitimate social movement for gender equality.  


'Femen' logo

Whilst acknowledging these criticisms, writer Agata Pyzik has argued that Femen must be contextualised as specifically eastern European – not simply as ‘white’ (and thus ‘imperialist feminists’, in the intersectional reading) but also coming specifically out of an experience of being on the receiving end of the west’s quasi-Orientalist fetishisation of eastern European women.  Femen's fixation on the body as a terrain of protest comes from their resistance to sexual exploitation, the sex tourism of western men in post-Soviet countries that renders them ‘nothing more than bodies’, existing to please men. 

While Pussy Riot were conceptually stripped of their feminist message when they became human rights heroines in the eyes of the west, Femen have been conceptually flattened – with the strength with which other feminists understandably condemn them as ‘white feminists’ and ‘cultural imperialists’ – so that the regional-specific context from which their particular form of feminism has emerged from is lost in translation.  None of which is to dismiss the criticism that, outside of this context, their tactics are misguided and imperialist –or that other Ukrainian feminist voices are sidelined by their headline-seeking actions.

Tymoshenko as Baba Yaga

The counter-argument that’s often drawn when gender inequalities are highlighted – usually by those seeking to deny that gender inequalities exist – is to point to the ‘exceptionals’, the outliers.  “How can the country be sexist when it has had a female head of state?” is akin to saying “now Obama is President, there are no racial inequalities in America”, yet politician Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the post-revolutionary election in 2014 after being released from prison, is pointed to in conversations as proof that neither Ukraine nor the western media’s treatment of Ukraine is sexist. 


Yulia Tymoshenko

Like Filatova – or Sarah Palin, or Margaret Thatcher – Tymoshenko is not a person whose behaviour one necessarily wishes to apologise for.  Yet disagreeing with her behaviour as a public figure and her policy positions as a politician has often been seen, in both the post-Soviet and western media, as a green light to criticise her on the grounds of her gender – whilst simultaneously citing her as proof that gender inequalities don’t exist. 

In the 'liberal west', if you disagree with Obama’s position on, say, drone strikes, you would still not get behind a cartoon that depicted him in racist tropes, yet pointing out that Tymoshenko has been subjected to gendered insults throughout her time in politics (such as depictions of her as a ‘Baba Yaga’ harridan, unnaturally ambitious and vicious) is hard to sustain without being accused of defending her politics. 

It is important not to draw binaries between ‘the backwards east’ and ‘the progressive west’ in its treatment of women– one needs only look at Segolene Royal’s treatment during her campaign for the French Presidency in 2007 to know that female politicians in western Europe are subjected to sexist abuse. 

But discussions about Tymoshenko have often shown that those who claim to have liberal, progressive politics are still comfortable dismissing women they dislike as “bitches” and “hags.”  All of which is underpinned by the implication that women who hold power are somehow freakish and unnatural.  And, as in the instance of Filatova’s VKontakte pictures – if you don’t like the person, you can humiliate them any way you like.

The enemy woman

The gendered dimension of western quasi-Orientalist visions of Ukraine – in which the women, ‘untainted by feminism’, lack both human complexity and agency – has been married, in more recent depictions of Ukraine, with the binary stirred up by the Kremlin propaganda of ‘The Furies of Maidan’, in which Ukrainians and Russians are positioned as opposites, just as the patriarchal virgin/ whore dichotomy positions ‘good’ women against ‘bad’ women. 

This constellation of gender binaries in a time when identity-lines become more rigidly demarcated is reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in which the women of the ‘enemy’ ethnic group were targetted for both their ethnicity and gender – or, rather, dehumanised for being the ‘enemy’ through humiliation and violence that played out in a gendered way.  

The pre-existing gender inequalities in Ukraine, both the levels of domestic violence and the power-dynamics of western sex tourism to the country, are not priorities for a country at war – while, as the conflict develops, nationalisms are stirred that generate identity binaries, such as linguistic identity, that were previously not salient identity fault-lines.  Patriarchy and nationalism do each other’s work for one another, nowhere more so than in conflict.

Antonina Vikhrest, a Fulbright fellow researching gender issues in Ukraine, has noted that reports have emerged that sexual violence has occurred in east Ukraine as a result of the conflict, although emphasises that the primary issue at present is one of documentation, as women are often unwilling to come forward due to the social stigma of having been sexually assaulted, a problem she encountered whilst researching at centres for internally displaced persons in several Ukrainian cities. 

Vikhrest quotes Human Rights Watch’s Russia researcher Tanya Lokshina, who explained that, in the cultural context of the Ukrainian conflict, “rape is seen as something that just brings shame to a woman…so out of concern for her security, her privacy, for her future life, she stays silent.”  Moreover, the lack of training on the issue of sexual violence amongst humanitarian workers and journalists in the conflict in east Ukraine has made accurate documentation of gender-based violence more difficult. 

The new UN cross-agency Sub-Sector on Gender Based Violence in Ukraine, established in December 2014, will focus on the issue of sexual violence and the reports emerging from the conflict, but will need to begin by addressing the lack of training and gender-sensitivity amongst those working in the area affected by the conflict, which hinders accurate documentation.

Yet the important work to be done on the gendered dimensions of the Ukraine conflict lie beneath layers of quasi-Orientalist tropes in the western ways of viewing Ukraine, false binaries, and silences.  The lesson from the former Yugoslavia does not seem to have translated across -- pay attention to what happens to gender in war. 



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData