I have long been a fan of feminism’s topless wonders —the Ukranian activists Femen, with their “sextrimist” manifesto, flowing locks, naked stunts and slogan-strewn bosoms. So, when I heard there was a new women’s movement flourishing in this region my interest was piqued. The Asgarda are a group of modern day warrior women who claim to be descended from the Amazons and spend their summers living in the mountains learning the only martial art specifically designed for women. It’s called Asgarda, hence the name. Armed to the hilt with a variety of lethal weapons such as pickaxes, chains and scythes, and dressed in fantasy warrior costumes, these are Girl Guides with attitude.
The Asgarda are the subject of a new film by Vice, which was presented and produced by Milene Larsson—an expert on this new wave of eastern bloc feminism, which encompasses the protest activities of imprisoned Russian female punk group Pussy Riot, Femen and the Asgarda. I met up with Milene, who has worked closely with Femen on previous projects, for a chat about the film and the time she spent at the Asgarda recruitment camp in the remote Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
SK: Why has the Ukraine become such a centre for feminist activity?
ML: I can see why it might look like the Ukraine has become a hot bed of girl power, but it’s not that simple. The Asgarda don’t call themselves feminists, while Femen certainly do. The Asgarda are a nationalist, maternalist movement—rather than crushing the patriarchy they want to work within it. They have nothing to do with the work of Femen who are dedicated to destroying the patriarchy and achieving gender equality through activism.
Where did the story about the Asgarda being descendants of the mythological Amazon warriors originate?
There are two versions of this story. According to the Asgarda’s founder martial arts champion, Katerina Tarnosvka, 34, Scythian Amazons once roamed parts of what is now Ukraine, mainly by the Black Sea. She is adamant that the spirit of these ancient female warriors is in her genes and that it’s her duty to empower women so that they can give birth to a new generation of warrior men. This conflicts with the opinion of a leading expert in Ukrainian feminism, Natalia Lavrinkeo a senior researcher at the Institute of Sociology (NASU). Natalia believes the movement is a brand created by the nationalist political party, and that the myth about their Amazonian heritage was devised to attract more women to a movement whose real purpose is to promote childbirth and perpetuate the Ukraine’s overwhelmingly patriarchal society.
What are the key differences between the Asgarda and Femen movements?
The only real connection is that their activities were documented by the same French photojournalist, Guillaume Herbaut, whose photographs alerted the world to their presence when they were published in 2010. The Asgarda’s dedication to enforcing the role of women as wives and mothers, albeit ones who are trained in martial arts, puts them at odds with more militant feminist groups. Femen have made their name by challenging their orthodox, Christian society—flashing their breasts and engaging in deliberately provocative stunts. Although sometimes it backfires —they famously cut down a wooden cross in 2012 to show solidarity with Pussy Riot as they awaited their prison sentence. They intended it to be a protest against the church, but actually that particular cross was a memorial to the victims of political oppression under Stalin’s Communist regime.
Would they ever work together to improve the position of women in Ukrainian society and around the world?
No, Femen are so much more radical than the Asgarda. They are dedicated to achieving women’s rights and won’t stop until they have achieved gender equality. As a result, the Asgarda think that to be a feminist you need to flash your tits. They see this as hugely disrespectful and are opposed to Femen, to the point where they won’t even mention their name—it’s almost like a swear word! As well as teaching martial arts, the Asgarda also instil the importance of landing a husband and making him feel like the man of the house.
Unemployment and incidents of domestic abuse are very high among women in the Ukraine, is that fuelling the growth of women’s movements?
The Ukraine is a tough place to be a woman. Many of the available jobs are hard labour which are more suitable for men, and it’s an extremely conservative society where women tend to get married and have children. There is mass alcoholism [some recent surveys report that in rural areas 50% of the adult population is addicted to alcohol], and this leads to scary levels of domestic violence with a 2010 survey revealing that 44 per cent of Ukrainians suffered from domestic violence, with more women facing it in their adult lives (33% versus 23% of men). Sex trafficking and mail order brides are also rife. My view is that Femen is popular because it teaches women to question the society they live in, while the Asgarda teaches young girls from small villages how to defend themselves and be more cautious about the partners they choose.
Did the women you encountered at the camp talk openly about the inequalities in their society?
My work takes me to a lot of countries with a lot of problems, and usually the inhabitants of those troubled nations deny all knowledge of the issues. Being proud patriots, the Asgarda girls said that the Ukraine was a great place for women and that they were equal to men. The only conclusion I could draw was that they were either simply not educated, in total denial or brainwashed by nationalist propaganda.
What is the point of the Asgarda learning to become empowered if they are still taught to defer to men?
According to the Asgarda doctrine, as epoused by Katerina and her disciples, a woman’s life is divided into stages. First they are free to accomplish themselves by being a warrior and, if they want, a successful career woman such as a teacher or a politician. Only after they have achieved something for themselves, will they be ready for motherhood. To me, their views on relationships sound like they belong in the 1950s, but there is still a progressive element as they encourage women to work and fulfil themselves.
Do any parts of the Asgarda philosophy fit with feminism?
The Asgarda are all fiercely patriotic, their leader Katerina even has the Ukranian national symbol tattooed across her arm. Their mission statement is “harmonious development of girls through martial arts”. The summer camps include training in all their country’s national traditions and customs including how to prepare for public holidays—it’s accepted that women will organise every aspect of these celebrations. Their aim is to keep the country strong by preserving traditional roles for men and the women. My view is that the Asgarda are more of a maternalist than a feminist movement.
What was your most enjoyable memory of your time among the Asgarda?
I felt as if I was a bit harsh on them in the film, questioning their focus on being mothers rather than strong independent women in their own right. But I did have some great moments, especially learning the unique form of martial arts Katerina has invented which is based on the traditional Cossack Hopak dance. I was also seriously impressed by their ability to open tins of food with huge hunting knives. The sound of the knife slicing through the metal lid was so loud I had to cover my ears. I was worried they’d cut themselves, but of course they didn’t, they were pros.
What do you think the future for feminism is the eastern bloc is?
Personally, I support Femen—I’m not a member but have worked with them in the past. However, I can see why they are finding it hard to get support in the Ukraine. But, in my opinion the Asgarda don’t give women a chance by insisting they all become mothers, but at least they are trying to make the current situation better. At the moment it’s a bit of stalemate between the two perspectives, but as the nation develops and its people have more money, better education and raised awareness both of their basic human rights and those between sexes, then feminism will naturally progress.