Ukrainian feminists on the front line


Alliance for Workers’ Liberty

September 13, 2022

In May three members of Workers’ Liberty visited Lviv, Ukraine, to meet with members of Sotsyalnyi Rukh (Social Movement) and other leftists. We spoke to Brie (Kateryna Kostrova) in Lviv, and Yana Wolf and Katya Gritseva in the weeks following the trip.

In the summer of 2021, Ukraine celebrated its independence day from the Soviet Union with a series of symbolic parades and parties. This year, it lined the streets of Kyiv with the shells of real Russian tanks, many of them destroyed in recent fighting. Since the Russian invasion in February, the country has been in a state of crisis and siege. Millions have been made refugees. All men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been mobilised, and are banned from leaving the country. Martial law is in place. Estimates of deaths range from thousands to hundreds of thousands.

A group of Workers’ Liberty members travelled to Lviv in May on a delegation organised by the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine and attended a gathering of labour movement and social movement activists. The scene that greeted us was surreal. Located in the far west of Ukraine, the city is a long way from the front line and seemed, on some level, to be going about its normal business. But stay any length of time and you realise you’re in a warzone: an 8pm curfew was in force, and sandbags piled up around historic buildings. Metal sheets cover the stained glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption. Air raid sirens go off so frequently, and with such inaccuracy, that they are simply ignored by residents.

Sitting outside a cafe on a picturesque cobbled street, we spoke to Brie, a feminist activist and member of Sotsyalnyi Rukh (or Social Movement). Social Movement is an anti-capitalist and anti-Stalinist tendency which emerged from the Maidan protests of 2013-14 as a left wing alternative to the mainstream nationalist movements. It has an orientation towards the labour movement, as well as involvement in various social movements around LGBT rights, feminism and environmentalism - overall, a similar perspective to our own.

Brie started out as an anarchist while at university, and was part of various feminist circles, before joining Social Movement. “I decided I wanted to change the world now,” she says, “and that meant getting involved in the workers’ movement, not just reading books and doing occasional street actions, as the Anarchist movement here does”. Although she is committed to Social Movement, she also tells a story that will be familiar to many socialist feminists dealing with male-dominated groups. “I was maybe the only woman in the organisation. It’s hard to work with some men, because they don’t listen to women, even in leftist organisations. So when I came in I wanted to change it.”

A growing movement

“The feminist movement has got a lot stronger in recent years,” says Brie. “I got involved in 2016, about five years after it got going, and we were still really small then, with only grassroots organisations and maybe two or three NGOs operating.” As with many countries in eastern Europe, Ukraine’s feminist movement grew substantially in the second half of the 2010s, with street mobilisations playing an important role. “We developed a coalition of different organisations, and we could talk, discuss and organise projects and protests together.” As well as her broader work within the feminist movement, Brie organised a series of campaigns and educational projects around sexual violence in universities.

Yana Wolf became a feminist aged 15 by reading online before heading to university and attending a summer ‘Femcamp’. She helped to found Bilkis, a small initiative of left wing feminists from Karkhiv, Ukraine’s second largest city located in the north east of the country. “It seems to me that in recent years the feminist movement in Ukraine has become more visible and stronger,” she says. “There were many different initiatives aimed at involving young people in feminism and activism.” Within the growing movement, debate and ideological divisions emerged. “The main conflicts were about trans politics, the relationship of feminism to neo-liberalism, and the question of whether feminism was a subculture or a political movement.”

Brie describes how, in 2018, left wing feminist were excluded from the 8th March Women’s Day demonstration when they started raising issues of anti-Roma racism. “A Roma person had been killed that year by neo-Nazis, and there had been a lot of attacks on Roma camps,” she says. “We also discovered that some Roma women were being sterilised during childbirth without their consent while under general anaesthetic, and so we wanted to talk about this. The NGOs who were the official organisers said that these topics weren’t ‘the Ukrainian scene’ and said that instead we should make it like the marches in the USA. They created this brand, with cups and t-shirts and a logo, and renamed the demo. We were completely cut out.”

War changes everything

The feminist movement’s development, and the ideological conflicts within it, were put on hold first by the pandemic and then by the war. Since war broke out, Brie says, things have become much more about meeting people’s basic needs. “We have decided to direct all our funding towards humanitarian aid,” she says. “So now we try to provide resources to women from the East and South of Ukraine, pads and tampons. Period boxes, we call them. And also we decided to help people with mental health problems, most of them women, are not receiving their drugs because of supply shortages.”

Yana paints a similar picture. “Absolutely all feminist organizations and initiatives that I know from the beginning of the war began to deal with humanitarian issues: the supply of food and medicine, housing, childcare, as well as working with internally displaced persons.” She has herself been internally displaced, having fled Kharkiv for Lviv when fighting broke out.

For Katya Gritseva, another feminist activist in Social Movement, the role that feminist organisations are playing in wartime is invaluable. “In Lviv, feminist groups have begun to care for older women and provide free childcare, educational activities and psychological support groups. They weave camouflage nets, volunteer in shelters and refugee distribution sites, and fight in the ranks of territorial defence and the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

Katya is from Mariupol in the east of Ukraine, and her family is now stuck in occupied Russian territory. Her contact with them is limited, but what details she gets are grim. “The city is overflowing with decomposing corpses,” she says. “My family was lucky that they managed to move. Our house burned down, and now they live in a village near the city, with people they hid from bombs in the basement.”

Uniforms give a sense of impunity

Gendered violence and rape are common in the war. “Most of all, I fear for my younger sister’s safety and mental state”, says Katya, whose family is in Mariupol. “The Russian army uses violence against women and children as a weapon to undermine morale and destroy the victims emotionally and physically. You often hear about the rape of girls in the occupied territories, and there have already been cases when Russian soldiers flirted with my sister. Still, fortunately, nothing terrible has happened so far. Women and children are at significant risk every time they leave the house.”

For months now, investigators have been documenting tens of thousands of war crimes committed by the Russian military. All reliable reports of the front line agree that sexual violence is being perpetrated routinely by the occupying army. “Weapons and military uniforms often give a sense of impunity,” says Yana Wolf. “The risk of physical and sexual violence against women by men increased.”

Superficially, the context of war has created an opportunity to overcome some of the divisions in Ukrainian society, but it has also exacerbated oppressions and introduced a new level of violence into society. A spirit of togetherness has seen some Ukrainians fight side by side with people they once regarded as inferior, but this has far from solved the brutal racism faced by the Roma community. Feminist organisations have become visible in the national humanitarian effort, and something like 15% of the Ukrainian army are women. But the war has also unleashed the worst aspects of hypermasculinity, and those same feminist organisations are dealing with a sharp spike in domestic violence cases.

And after the war, Ukrainian men will come from the front. “The militarization of society always leads to a wave of conservative sentiment,” says Yana. “I think the war will have very grave longer-term consequences: post-traumatic stress disorder in the military, high levels of arms trafficking - these are risk factors for increased violence against women.”

A state of exception

While much of the left and the feminist movement support the war effort, things are complicated by the Ukrainian government’s insistence on using the war to crack down on the left and the labour movement. Under the ‘decommunisation’ law of 2015, which was strongly criticised by the EU, a number of Communist organisations were already banned from standing in elections. But in March of this year, Volodymyr Zelensky suspended a further eleven parties, citing their supposed links with Russia.

“The government is undoubtedly using the law to make it harder to be a leftist,” says Brie. The state of exception created by war is being exploited for authoritarian ends. “The police now have a lot more rights now”, Brie explains. “It feels like every day there are new powers introduced for them. They can now arrest people without explaining why in order to interview them, and they can enter people’s homes much more easily and without bringing witnesses.”

In the labour market, a similar process is underway. Law 5371, which passed through the Ukrainian parliament in July, removes all employees of small and medium sized enterprises from labour law protections, a total of 70% of the overall workforce. This has come on top of a law, passed in March this year, which gave all employers the right to suspend employment - i.e. to suspend work and wages without technically dismissing an employee. As millions of Ukrainians are internally displaced, they are finding themselves at the mercy of a largely deregulated labour market, as well as a housing crisis which has allowed landlords to cash in by driving up rents.

Sooner or later, class politics and political organisation will resume in Ukraine. There will be a fight over wages, housing and social justice, and there will also be a fight for women’s liberation and for a society free from sexism and sexual violence. In that situation, there will be a dire need for a radical, progressive left that can join these struggles together. Social Movement will no doubt be a part of that left, and the role of feminists like Brie, Yana and Katya will be pivotal.