Ukraine: “At Some Point, Everything You Do Becomes Activism”

How do you organize a cooperative in Ukraine after 2014? What’s it like to be a seamstress engaged with feminist and LGBTQ+ activism? Where are the boundaries between production, art, and activist work? The Kyiv seamstress collective ReSew talks about work ethics, migration, and self-organization in the time of war

— Until the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, did you live in Kyiv?

Tonya [they, them]: I am basically from Kyiv, but had come to live in Saint Petersburg for some time. In 2016 we left from there to Kyiv. It had become difficult to earn a living with sewing and art projects, and it was morally tough because of the political situation in general.

“At first, it seemed to us that if you are going to engage with anti-war activism, then it is worth doing so in Russia first and foremost, not Ukraine. But at some point, despair came, and we ended up in Kyiv”

Masha [they, them]: We went to Ukraine because we were invited to various events: we did presentations of our sewing project ReSew, held workshops on sewing, all while discussing political issues. For example, we visited Lviv, Severodonetsk, Kherson and other cities — we saw Ukraine, got to know the residents, the activists. Now military actions such as bombings or occupation, are happening even where we’ve been, and that hurts.

— How has your project developed in Ukraine? Has it changed somehow in connection with its departure from Russia?

Masha: In Kyiv we also wanted to do the cooperative, to sew bags and various products from old jeans or already used dense fabric. Initially, we found five people who wished to participate in it. We proceeded to plan the work and develop the idea, but when it came to practicing, renting the studio, and working at the sewing machine, it turned out that many people were not ready to invest in the work. So just the two of us remained. For the first month of the studio’s rent we took some money from the art-project fund Shvemy [Seams] which we participated in when we lived in Petersburg. Sometimes it is confused with ReSew [note: both projects are related to sewing, Masha and Tonya are involved in both].

Tonya: The sewing cooperative Resew was established in Kyiv with the goal to work, to sew clothes and textile products to order on the basis of the so-called upcycling, that is by restitching and refashioning old items into new ones. The cooperative has a horizontal structure without bosses and subordinates, it sets environmental and economic goals. Conversely, Shvemy, which began as a sewing cooperative as well, after we left to Kiev, turned into an international artist group that participates in exhibitions and festivals. ReSew, with time, evolved into something more than a cooperative. In 2018, we, along with the queer project ZBOKU began renting a two-room space together. In one was the sewing studio and in the other was a library where art workshops were conducted. This place became a community center which we worked in for a large part of the week and on the weekends or in the evening held sewing classes, film screenings, and other activities.

Masha: It is worth mentioning that at certain stages Shvemy were faced with difficulties, by being a group of four people from Ukraine and Russia. At times we were rejected by Russian institutions. At the same time Shvemy was invited to Ukraine: we presented our art projects in Mariupol, Kyiv, and Lviv.

— Could you tell me about the community which formed around ReSew in Kyiv?

Masha: Our community center became a place of encouragement and support, where people, mostly feminists and queer people, could come to socialize, hang out, do something together or for yourself. It was possible there not to censor yourself, to speak your mind about the political situation, about what is going on in mainstream feminism and mainstream LGBT-activism. There are people who will not speak their mind on social media, fearing internet bullying. In our place you could talk through the situation, understand that you were supported, that you weren’t going crazy. Sometimes what people had voiced remained a private statement and sometimes it resulted in some idea, texts, or a podcast.

Tonya: Because of our critical position against the authorities and mainstream activism, some got hurt, some experienced what is called burnout, and only a few have been able to return to activism in another form. At that time we began to practice self-care and mutual support as it is an important part of activism.

— What do you mean by an activist mainstream?

Masha: It is that activism which would favor expertise, inviting experts to speak and express their opinion on various issues. For example, mainstream feminism is focused on the image of the white cis-woman of the middle class. Their model of social change is based on the image of a successful woman, and if you don’t do well in life, it’s your own fault, you’re not trying hard enough. Their main hope is social change and legislative policy. They forget about minority groups, about the different conditions in which people live and work. Many things escape from mainstream feminism because it ignores the intersectional approach by dealing with only certain situations and problems. Take the Istanbul Convention [note: the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women], which mainstream feminism recognizes. This convention is important as an event, but what is also important is how it changes legislation in general, whether funding is provided to create provisions for women who have been victims of violence, to create shelters. In reality, who has access to these provisions, what kind of psychological help is provided, and is economic inequality really being combated? One convention is clearly not enough.

Tonya: At the same time, grassroots activists have never had the task of opposing anyone, including mainstream activism. They always coexist. The main problem is that liberal activists build up NGOs on foreign funding and eventually become more influential. In the process, they almost inevitably appropriate grassroots activist causes, simply because they have the resources and greater publicity. Financial support is crucial here.

“Grassroots activists do a lot of things out of enthusiasm, while remaining non-public or known only in narrow circles”

— Did your activist stance have any effect on the sewing business?

Masha: Initially, we did not want to make ReSew a political project, seeing that our views could affect the number of customers. But somehow or another we broadcast these views. It is no accident that our position, which has radicalized over time and became more and more queer, led to the fact that some organizations simply ceased cooperating with us.

Tonya: Inherently, a sewing commission in today’s world means doing the work and getting paid for it. When you look critically at the issue of the exploitation of garment workers, not everyone likes it because it brings extra meaning to an order. Not infrequently customers prefer to book tailoring in shops where seamstresses are paid a minimum wage a month, and they silently and quickly sew someone else’s merchandise. Organizations want to save money on finished products and say: it’s not our fault that Ukraine has cheap labor. Once we were approached by a human rights organization, asking us to sew bags for an event. We set a price of 200 hryvnia for one bag, to which we were told that they had found a shop where they agreed to work at 25 hryvnia per item. And this is a human rights organization!

Masha: In fact, we, ReSew, did not want to directly combine seamstress work and activism.

“The activism of a seamstress is manifested when she tells the customer that to sew a product below a certain rate is slave labor”

But at some point, everything you do becomes activism. For example, the big problem was that many people wanted to join the cooperative, but not everyone knew how to sew. In the fall of 2017 we conducted a sewing cooperative school. It included training in sewing skills, design, fashion modeling — going through all the stages of sewing. We also conducted discussions about what a cooperative is and what its principles are. This was done so that people could understand whether this idea is close to them. After school we were joined by two people who had worked in the cooperative long enough.

— Did the military conflict in the east of the country have any effect on the cooperative and labor relationships in general?

Tonya: Generally, since 2014 funding for social and cultural spheres has been reduced and labor legislation has changed. Many people had to register themselves as FOP [note: Natural person — entrepreneur, or status of individual entrepreneur]. Of course, you can make your own work schedule that way, but at the same time you lose social security, a regular salary, a paid vacation, child allowances, and military benefits. In fact, this is a situation of precarious labor, where workers are extremely vulnerable because they are starting to constantly change jobs, live from paycheck to paycheck, frequently change activities, work on short-term but exhausting projects. In conditions of unfavorable political climate and general confusion, the government can pass any laws. And many of the legislative changes which were carried out at the time were justified precisely by the fact that there was a war going on. The state needed money for militarization.

Masha: They talk about this well in the podcasts from the analytical center Cedos, reviewing changes in labor law, labor rights in different spheres, including in the art sphere.

— And has your activist activity been somehow affected by the military actions in the east?

Tonya: We were deeply hurt that many of the changes in society after 2014 took place against the backdrop of war and because of the war. There was a right-wing turn in politics, because the war fostered a growth in nationalism, and nationalist brigades began to appear. A situation has emerged where there is a constant sense of military threat and the level of general militarization has grown. Before that, the need for nationalist brigades was under question, but when they were introduced, society rather quickly met them with approval. Some feminists, leftist, and anarchists resented and opposed the right turn. But it is interesting that some LGBT-activists began to flirt with the theme of nationalism and militarism and mainstream liberal activism began to cultivate a military theme. At the same time, ultra-right attacks on LGBT activists and feminist women have been more frequent. It was a kind of reaction to the increased amount of ongoing activist events and their presence in the media. On the other hand, due to the war, Western funding began to flow into Ukraine, and many LGBT organizations took advantage of various grants, and began to expand and increase their political participation. These processes affected not only leftists, but also ultra-right organizations, of which more and more are appearing. They, too, began applying for foreign and state grants and developing their own activities.

Masha: In general, I’d like to talk about the war from the point of view of how it has affected and is affecting the social sphere, who suffers the most from it, and who needs help. But the state began to build a patriotic discourse to talk about the need to endure and exert strength. Many leftists and queer activists have suggested and tried to talk about the war in a different way.

— How has your understanding of yourself, your principles, and your work changed over the years? At the end of the day, did you define yourselves as seamstresses or as artists? Or as activists?

Masha: That is more of a personal question. We have a common project, but there is also a desire to do something on our own. My personal experience of understanding myself was also influenced by the fact that I lived in Ukraine with Russian citizenship, or rather, by my move to Ukraine and my awareness of myself as a migrant. It wasn’t easy, I had to apply for permission to live in Ukraine every year. But I had the support and help of friends and comrades.

Tonya: And it is not about Russian or Ukrainian citizenship, but about the experience of migration as such.

Masha: It is a global problem. What I experienced as a personal problem is a problem for many migrants. But these are situations which demonstrate inequality on a political and social level. Migrants from Europe receive more benefits than migrants from Syria, for example. And as for understanding yourself as an artist, that too has changed over this time. At some point I stopped thinking of myself as an artist and instead decided that I would periodically engage with artistic practices. At that time it seemed to me that if I worked six days a week as a seamstress and three times a year I performed somewhere as an artist, it was unreasonable to call myself an artist. My decision was affected by my refusal to come to terms with the way the contemporary art world and art market works. In that world, you have to compete and build a career. However, I am aware of the fact that now, in a situation of war, it is more profitable to be an artist than a seamstress. Not a single firm called for Ukrainian seamstresses to evacuate! There were opportunities like that for Ukrainian artists.

Tonya: At a certain point it became very problematic to relate to the world of women artists. For example, for a day of participation in an art project, I could get a fee equal to my two-month salary as a seamstress. It’s unfair.

“Everything that I usually do every day can be seen as a micropolitical gesture”

I can’t be an activist a few times a year and case by case. If I want to follow horizontal organizational principles, it should not be only in the studio. These same principles should apply to all spheres of my life and to all levels of interaction with the people around me. I can’t talk about intersectional feminism or about seamstresses who receive low wages for their work and work in poor conditions, but then forget about their sister who is raising a child alone. It often happens that activists have a gap between their public and private lives. For me, activist practice and artistic practice interlock with everyday life. In this sense, the elitism and intellectualism of the artistic field is alien to me.

Masha: I should add that we have recently realized that the ethical question is more interesting to us than the aesthetic one. That’s why I am probably more of an activist than an artist.

— How did the circumstances feel on the eve of February 21st and after?

Tonya: Everyone was scared. Some already were beginning to wonder about an impending full-scale war by the end of 2021. Despite the universal concern, many still did not directly discuss the likelihood of active military action, it was scary to discuss. We discussed the possible outcome of events a lot among ourselves. One time we discussed this with our studio neighbors as well; we tried to talk out loud about what we would do if a full-scale war broke out. It had a supportive effect. January was very nerve-wracking. We tried to rationalize our emotions and fears, tried to make jokes. Communication helped. But at some point there were fewer people on the streets of the city and in transport, and they already began to leave by the end of January.

Masha: We decided that we wouldn’t go anywhere, and if they bombed us, we would stay in our studio. It’s in Kyiv, in a semi-basement. That’s where we spent the first month of the war. With time, the intense stress was replaced by habit: you get used to seeing people with machine guns in lines at the store, going through checkpoints and showing your documents. But together with this habituation comes fatigue, because every day you think that the war is at the edge of ending, but it doesn’t finish.

Tonya: It seemed to me that you had to get involved in volunteer initiatives right away. People in the city quickly self-organized and created relief cells, because it all of a sudden became difficult for many people to do everyday things: for example, standing in line at the store, which does not always have food, or obtaining water. On warning, everyone had to hide in a shelter but not everyone had the strength and ability to vacate their apartment. That’s why people in Kyiv began to self-organize: some went to the territorial defense, some just helped people who needed to buy and bring food and medicine. I joined up with the city and local groups which worked around the area. I also took part in an anti-authoritarian solidarity project where I sorted out volunteer questionnaires. It is amazing how society is still capable of self-organization at such critical moments. Even if there were some swindlers among the volunteers, the majority were eager to help.

Masha: In addition, we were in touch with our community and we called each other often, we checked in daily, we supported each other all the time. We needed food and medicine. Public transportation stopped running so comrades with cars helped deliver food and medicine to people from queer, feminist, leftist communities. If it was possible, they would help somebody from the outside by getting information from the city chats. We even went back to work: we sewed a batch of patches for the defense department, a batch of underpants for the military. Before we left, we gave some of the fabric and accessories to the volunteer seamstresses.

— Then you decided to leave Ukraine?

Masha: Yes, although at first we really weren’t going to and didn’t want to leave. One artist gave up his place in a Finnish residency in favor of the Ukrainian queer community. Since it was difficult for us at that time to agree about anything, to conduct correspondence, to think out the way, our comrades did it for us. To independently organize a departure was nearly impossible. In the first place because of our psychological state, but also, all of your strength and time was spent on surviving and helping whoever you can. Still, unlike many people, we had the opportunity to prepare a little — to pack our cats and our backpacks. At first we were given a place in an art residence and, as refugees from Ukraine, we immediately applied for temporary protection. We didn’t know — and we still don’t know — how many months we would be here.

Tonya: In Finland we returned to activist and artistic work. We made The Textile Book, a project about things from an emergency backpack. Together with local feminist activists we organized a “Solidarity Brunch,” where we fed people borscht, vareniki, and other vegan dishes, and they donated to the Bilkis feminist initiative in Kharkiv and to the project Zhinka for Zhinka [note: Ukrainian for “woman for woman”]. We also hosted a film screening of The Wonderful Years (2018) by Svitlana Shymko and Galina Yarmanova. We talked about grassroots, non-governmental, leftist, feminist, queer initiatives in Ukraine and how they can be supported. Now their humanitarian work is aimed not only at ordinary people, but also at those who are at the front.

Masha: The state channels today say that the state supports everyone and provides assistance to all. But in reality, it’s not quite like that. This is exactly why there is a demand for grassroots help; grassroots initiatives work where the state fails. Feminist organizations used to work with those problems that the state preferred to ignore, and so it’s happening even now in the time of war. Only the scale of the problems is now fundamentally different.

Tonya: At the same time, many were ready to come to the state humanitarian headquarters: to participate in the transportation of food and in general to provide help to those who need it. Of course, I have questions about how the state helps, but the scale of the tragedy is really so great that it is impossible to predict how many resources are needed in order to deal with this tragedy. Self-organized initiatives are especially important in this situation, and even though many of them are not well known, it is important to tell people about them and it is important that they exist.