KIEV – Anna darts gleefully around the two sparsely-furnished rooms situated through an archway off a steep street that climbs up from Kiev’s Independence Square. She is a general showing off her new headquarters.
“This is going to be our training room for our Euro strikes,” she says.
“That’s for the girls to get fit on for when they scrap with the police or have to run away from them,” she says, pointing to a set of wall-bars and an overhead muscle-tone pulley-bar by the front door.
The topless activists of the Femen women’s rights group, whose eye-catching antics have made them the cover girls of international feminist protest, are shouting loud and clear that their attendance at next month’s Euro-2012 soccer tournament – welcome or not – can be counted on.
Bare-breast public appearances – flash-mob-style – by the neo-feminist group are guaranteed throughout a month-long Euro soccer feast expected to draw a million or so foreign visitors.
Indeed, Anna Hutsol, a small 27-year-old with close-cut, flame-dyed hair and the group’s main ideologue, is warning of a blitz of stunts to dramatise Femen’s view that Euro-2012 will only fuel prostitution and the former Soviet republic’s sex industry which it says demeans women.
Ukraine’s police, gearing themselves to control hundreds of thousands of rowdy visiting fans, might find themselves just as busy with the small army of activists that Femen plans to field.
“We are going to do everything we can to interrupt and disrupt, to break up these (Euro) events,” Anna said.
She says she has 40 or so Femen activists on stand-by for action in Kiev with two or three in each of the other Euro cities — Lviv, Kharkiv and Donetsk.
“We’ve got people coming from abroad too – a Brazilian woman and someone from France,” she said.
So what do they plan for the tournament, which opens in Ukraine on June 9 and runs for the whole month? Will they “streak” onto a pitch? Will they raid a VIP box? Will they pull off an en masse Femen spectacular at the July 1 final in Kiev ?
“I can’t give you concrete details. But we’ll be staging all sorts of strikes – at stadiums and alongside, at press conferences and at cup ceremonies, everywhere,” she said.
“Of course, we’ll be going to Poland, too,” she said. Neighbouring Poland is co-host of the tournament.
For Femen, Euro-2012 is both a target to be disrupted and a platform for protest. Far from being a showcase for a modern European state as the authorities envisage, the Euros will only hurt Ukraine’s future by boosting prostitution and making it a sex tourism destination in Europe, Femen says.
It is an event the group has spent at least two years sharpening its knives for.
Some critics question the sincerity of their beliefs and dismiss the young women, all in their 20s, as attention-seekers.
Don’t their topless antics only provide images for a prurient, sex-obsessed media and re-inforce the stereotype of Ukrainian women that Femen is fighting against? Do their tactics help or hurt their cause?
Eccentric and contradictory though it might seem to some, stripping down to the waist publicly is the only effective weapon the group has found to get attention, Femen says.
“Euro-2012 will not help Ukraine develop. The only thing that will develop is the sex industry here. Euro-2012 will help make Ukraine one big Euro brothel,” says Sasha Shevchenko, a tall, blonde 24-year-old and a regular participant in topless actions.
Other Femen core activists are Oksana Shachko, 25, a waif-like icon painter who handles design for the group, and Inna Shevchenko, 21, a blonde, former journalist who has the same surname as Sasha but is no relation.
Since the group set itself up in 2008 – then using a downtown cafe as its operational base – it has gone on to establish itself as a global reputation.
There is something to Femen’s complaints about sex tourism.
Any online ‘Ukraine’ search on the Internet soon throws up a dating ad for Ukrainian girls “looking for” foreign men.
Though prostitution is illegal in Ukraine, pimps regularly work central Kiev streets, such as the Khreshchatyk boulevard, handing out visiting cards for erotic massage parlours or walking up to foreign men to direct them to apartments for sex.
Equally, young women often complain they are approached on the streets and propositioned for sex by foreigners.
Prostitution parlours have sprung up in many apartment blocks in advance of the Euros, Femen says.
Femen’s argument is that Ukraine’s authorities and UEFA, Europe’s governing soccer body, have turned a blind eye to the directors of the sex trade who have set up shop well in advance.
“UEFA has social programmes like, for instance, ‘football without racism’. Why can’t it set up the programme ‘football without prostitution or sex tourism’?,” asked Anna.
She is echoed by fellow activist Sasha Shevchenko.
“At the start we had high hopes that UEFA would speak out against prostitution. But after several protests we realised that UEFA and the Euro organisers have an interest in Ukraine becoming one big bordello,” she said.
With a new operational base close to Kiev city centre, Femen has already fired its first shots.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Kiev this month, 23-year-old Yulia Kovpachyk loped up the ramp of an open-air exhibition where the Euro soccer trophy was on public display, ostensibly to be photographed alongside it like hundreds of other sightseers.
She then pulled down her T-shirt to reveal the words “Fuck Euro 2012″ – Femen’s current slogan – etched in black paint across her torso.
She was seized by security guards, but not before she had grabbed hold of the 60 centimetres (two feet) high cup with both hands.
“Yulia got the usual fine of 119 hryvnias (nearly $15) for the administrative offence of hooliganism,” said Anna. “But, of course, we don’t pay these fines.”
The group has started going further afield too.
For a protest last year outside the Paris apartment of the former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, three activists provocatively dressed up as hotel chamber maids – an allusion to his arrest in New York on accusations of attempted rape. He was later cleared and released.
In Switzerland on a bitter cold day in January, Femen activists took off their tops and scaled a security fence at the Davos economic summit.
And in March they went topless at a Moscow polling station against Putin’s certain re-election. Oksana’s breasts were emblazoned with: “I steal for Putin!”
Their actions typically end with them being bundled away – often physically carried off kicking and screaming – by local police.
But a bare-breast action in the former Soviet republic of Belarus against the country’s hardline leadership turned into something far more serious.
Inna, Oksana and a third activist were seized, apparently by members of Belarus’s KGB state security agency. Inna says they were driven off to woodlands away from the capital where they were interrogated and made to undress and dress again several times.
Green dye was poured on their heads and, before being abandoned in woodlands, they were told never to return to Belarus.
“It was the very worst experience we have had. Thank God we have not reached the stage of being like Belarus,” Inna said.
Anna herself does not take part in topless protests, but reels off recent successes with the pride of a general listing his campaign victories.
“We grabbed the UEFA cup of course. We had our ‘sex bomb’ action on the metro. There was the protest in the bell tower of St Sophia’s cathedral. We staged an action in Turkey in March, then there was Putin and we carried out our action at the Indian embassy,” she said.
There are unanswered questions about the group – notably about the funding which allows Anna, Sasha, Oksana and Inna to devote themselves full-time to Femen activities, and pays for travel abroad, legal counsel in numerous court actions and a stack of other overheads.
Anna ducks the question, speaking broadly of “charitable help” from inside the country and abroad and income raised from Femen’s online shop which sells branded T-shirts, sweat shirts, handbags and hats.
“The biggest part of our supporters are people abroad. They understand what a woman’s movement is all about. Ukrainian society is less ready to help and sympathise. But now we can afford to go to McDonald’s whereas before it was a yoghurt and a stick of bread,” she said.
And the question remains over just what long-term effect their brash protests will have in improving women’s rights. Have they made a difference?
“I can see progress and I can’t help but be happy about it,” said Anna. “We have new supporters springing up in different countries and they are organising themselves. This shows that our ideas are not being confined to our country and this city.”
“The Euro organisers now know who they have to be afraid of. They have to be afraid of us and they will have to get ready for us appearing at every Euro event,” says Inna.
As she leans forward to make her point, the black scrawl of a partly-visible Femen slogan shows at the neckline of her denim jacket.