The feminist point of view on the Ukrainian war. Interview with Irina Zherebkina

What should feminists and intellectuals do in wartime? Outside of the mainstream narrative in which we are immersed, Irina Zherebkina argues against russophobia and for the need of transnational solidarity, asking: "Does Ukraine really need nothing from the West but weapons? Can we stop Putin's aggression only with the strength of Western weapons?


he Ukrainian war, in addition to the terrible destruction, has led to the discovery – to those willing to see and listen- of people, women, communities who are mobilizing, producing reflections, self-organizing and questioning us.  Social media create relationships and knowledge while IT tools allow almost perfect translations in real time, offering those who want the opportunity to meet and talk to each other even if only virtually.

It is in the search for the point of view of the Ukrainians under the bombs and of the Russians who are against the war that I came across the Ukrainian philosopher Irina Zherebkina. Irina directs the Kharkiv Center for Gender Studies (KhCGS), founded with other women in 1994 to translate, disseminate and discuss the Western feminist theory in the post-Soviet regions..

Zherebkina has a Facebook profil in which she alternates a personal and family diary in wartime with dense philosophical considerations to interrogate and converse with a wide range of intellectuals such as Étienne Balibar, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, Judith Butler, but also with Ukrainian and Russian interlocutors – alas less known in Italy or completely unknown – such as Artemy Magun , Oxana Timofeeva or a forerunner of the feminist theory such as Žharana Papić …

Elisabetta Michielin: The Facebook translation service from Ukrainian to Italian translates her “personal” posts in a somewhat ruffled way which, however, does not prevent us from catching all her lightness and humor, which are then the characteristic features of her writing as a philosopher who does not wrinkle her nose at the everyday. In fact, it seems to me, that she feeds on it. Germans have these two terms, Erlebnis and Ereignis, which mean experience and event, respectively. In days like these, I mean of missiles raining down on your head and destruction, I can see why a certain phenomenology has made it an endiad. So I think of the adventure of your husband’s tennis shoe soles glued on with stationery glue. I was positively surprised by this art of being able to cope under bombs. A way of saying that those shoes rearranged as best as possible are a form of resistance to war, of not wanting to be determined by it, of not wanting to be prey, in one’s legitimate indignation, to anger and hatred? I was reading this little family event and old Epicurus came to mind, that invitation of his to laugh and at the same time philosophize and administer the household.

Irina Zherebkina -Professor of National University of Kharkiv

Irina Zherebkina: Thank you for your reaction to my random fragmentary notes, Elisabetta, and for your solidarity. In fact, my style of writing on social networks has changed little since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The socio-cultural context and optics of my readers have changed, in as much as they now perceive my personal everyday experience as an experience of being in an existential situation, which is war. Moreover, as Sartre showed in his plays, one of the features of the existential situation is that people who are in a state of commonality can experience it in completely different ways, such as, for example, a prisoner sentenced to death, and a doctor who has come to examine him in the cell on the eve of execution. My main question for myself is the question of how to move from experiences in an existential situation to a mode of actions that could give hope for ending the war not only to me and my family, but also to my readers.

EM: You continue to converse with Judith Butler and her non-violent vision in favor of a global policy to uphold the principles of radical equality where all lives have equal value. How is non-violence protected in a situation of war of resistance?

IZ: Most modern theories of war in one way or another implicitly imply (or do not dispute) the postulate of Karl Clausewitz that the winner in war is the one who uses violence more decisively and more effectively to achieve his political goals, and one can successfully resist his opponent only by using violence of greater intensity.

Feminist theorist Judith Butler challenges the militaristic postulate of the omnipotence and irresistibility of the forces of violence. In her feminist critique of violence, she argues that the forces of non-violence can be more effective and efficient in achieving the political goal of ending war than the forces of violence. Of course, Butler stipulates, in the situation of Putin’s war against Ukraine, the international feminist community should unconditionally support Ukrainian self-defense and hope that in these terrible and cruel conditions, the independence of Ukraine can be defended. But the unconditional acceptance of the logic of violence as the logic of historical development is, according to Butler, a dead end for human civilization, since the driving force behind any war is the Freudian death drive, the goal of which is the destruction of social ties, which militaristic masculinism seeks.

As an alternative to the militaristic mass mobilization provided by the ideology of fascism, which today is the resource of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Butler proposes an anti-militarist feminist mobilization based on the feminist values ​​of interdependence and care (as opposed to the ideas of individualism, on which the masculinist militaristic ideology is based). Butler notes (following Chantal Mouffe) that feminist mobilization needs a powerful political imaginary capable of countering the right-wing fascist fantasies that threaten democracy and peace today. “Which is why, – says Butler,  – the left needs a very strong imagination because they have a strong fantasy of restoring order and we need a very powerful imagination.”[1] At the same time, Butler believes that feminist solidarity and mutual understanding can effectively resist masculinistic militaristic individualism only if they are implemented as transnational, providing the widest possible chains of equivalences, and not nationalistic exclusive, which she spoke about in her speech at the conference “Transnational Feminist Solidarity with Ukrainian Feminists”, which we held together with her and Sabine Hark on May 9, 2022.

Feminists who believe that while violence remains unremovable in a patriarchal society, women also need to learn to use it, and not to refuse it, fundamentally disagree with this position of Butler. And Butler’s ideas about the forces of non-violence and imagination are, in their opinion, fantasies that distract Ukrainian feminists and their associates from the decolonial struggle for independence against the Putin regime. According to one of the participants of the conference on May 9, 2022 Tereza Hendl: «To me, Butler’s insistence on holding onto the unrealistic in response to imperial violence reads as unstructural, irresponsible & harmful. No matter how well intended, the focus on utopia conceals the material impact of RU violence, the real and imminent threat to UA lives & fails to respond to UA calls for support of UA defence against the lethal RU attack».[2]

Therefore, in the conditions of war, according to Butler’s nationalist feminist critics, it is necessary to stake not on transnationalism, but on nationalism, which is the main mobilizing force of Ukrainian resistance today.

In my opinion, on the contrary, Ukrainian feminists today should not immerse themselves in a single political strategy – the strategy of Russophobia.

I am sure that Ukrainian feminists should not refuse collaboration and solidarity with Russian, Belarusian and other dissidents of their regimes in the countries of the former USSR. Also, I believe that they should not advocate a total culture of abolition regarding all forms and types of Russian culture as “imperialist”. The fact is that in Russian culture, in addition to the “major” (in Deleuze’s terms), one can also single out a “minor” culture that resists the ideals of any type of imperialism (see my note “Does Ukraine Need Russian Culture to Win the War Against Russia?” on e-flux.

EM: To a somewhat perplexed Étienne Balibar who questions himself today about the war-nationalism relationship and who writes that “we should not try to answer the question what Ukrainian nationalism is but rather what it becomes during this war” [source], in your post you seem to echo him. I also ask: what has Ukrainian nationalism become or can become in your eyes?

IZ: Therefore, in a war, the stake is, according to the fact that Balibar writes about Ukrainian nationalism as becoming, as if nationalism to come, in tune with the democracy to come of Derrida: ““we should not try and give an answer to a question of the kind: “what is Ukrainian nationalism?”, but rather: what is it becoming in the course of this war?” I see a manifestation of his sincere sympathy for the resistance of the Ukrainian people to Russian aggression and his desire to believe that there is nationalism in Ukraine can be transformed, modified into internationalism, proclaiming the end of the era of the Cartesian “I” as a unique thinking substance (serving as an instrument of grip of the patriarchal law) and stimulating the invention of new social practices of equality and commonality. Following Balibar’s logic it is internationalism  that could will help Ukrainian nationalist feminism to get rid of such repulsive features of nationalism as xenophobia, the use of hate speech towards women of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, etc. (here the logic of French philosopher Etienne Balibar coincides with the logic of feminist philosopher Dona Haraway, but not only. His bet on internationalism resonates with the logic of Yulia Kristeva in her book “Nations without Nationalism” as well).

In my opinion, such a feminist political strategy could help bring ethics back into politics (which Ukraine is now implementing during the just war for independence and personally by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who made a radical ethical gesture of refusing to leave Kyiv at the beginning of the war at the invitation of Western governments). After all, even the presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich, who opposes ethnic nationalism, today has millions of subscribers and views on social networks, which is significantly  exceeds the number of subscribers of cisgender Ukrainian female nationalists Oksana Zabuzhko and/or Irina Farion.

EM: I ask the same question you asked your readers on Facebook : “What should intellectuals and feminists do in wartime”, in particular in relation to the “standing” of all strata of the population?

IZ: My students of philosophy and cultural studies also often ask me this question – “what should intellectuals do in a situation of war?” and ask me if feminists can offer an alternative that can withstand the forces of violence in times of war and stop the war?

What can I say to them now when Russian missiles and bombs are destroying my country and my city? I answer with one word: solidarity. And I quote Butler from her letter to me on the eve of our conference “Transnational Feminist Solidarity with Ukrainian Feminists”: «The most important thing is for Ukrainian feminists to be supported, and for the feminist community to gether in support of our colleagues.  It is true that some have a general position against war; some support a just war or justifiable resistance; some are concerned that the attack on “western values” includes an attack on gender and feminism more broadly.  But mainly, we need to gather to oppose Putin’s violence, no matter what our views are on NATO and the like. It is not a moment to sort all those issues, but to establish a clear solidarity!»

EM: You did not want to sign the appeal for the right to resistance of the Ukrainian feminists against the war  and not even the international appeal of feminists . Can you explain why?

IZ: I think, that both of these manifestos – international (Feminist Resistance Against War. March 17, 2022 ) and Ukrainian national (“The right to resist.” A feminist manifesto 07/07/2022 The Feminist Initiative Group) are in fact identical in their demands and the difference between them is only tactical (different attitude towards NATO), not strategic, conceptual. I would sign a feminist manifesto that would formulate philosophical, theoretical strategies about the possibility to stop the war, and not just particular tactical demands.

EM: In Italy, the war began with a university banning a course on Dostoevsky. There was a cross outcry, perhaps the last thing that kept the leftist family together in this war. That great Russian literature cannot be touched is in the West an unquestionable fact. Even Zelenski’s adviser Aleksey Arestovich, who in his telegram channel openly says I hate Dostoevsky but …, knows it well. On the other hand we get news of Ukrainian libraries cleaned by Russian authors and, as she herself remembers, many Ukrainian intellectuals have more radical positions, referring for example to the Black Lives Matter movement and the destruction of colonial statues. In your article published on e-flux you have a third position. Can you explain to us what it is and which authors you indicate to us Italians?


The backlash against everything Russian and Russian that has swept the world since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began is predictable and inevitable. But in Italy and other European countries, Russian culture and Russian literature, of course, will not be completely cancelled. In Ukraine, this cancellation will happen and is already happening. I believe that this is a kind of collaboration with the criminal Putin regime, and not with the Russian dissident, minor culture. After all, Putin is in fact totally hostile to Russian culture with its elements of non-violence (remember Tolstoy’s theory of non-violence, which influenced Mahatma Gandhi and the feminist philosopher Leela Gandhi) – as well as to any culture in general.

What is Russian minor culture is difficult to explain to a reader who is familiar with Russian literature only from the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Therefore, the editors of my article “Does Ukraine Need Russian Culture to Win the War Against Russia?” on e-flux, asked me to explain to the Western reader not only what is special about Andrei Platonov or Daniil Kharms in Russian literature, but also why Pushkin, little known in the West, belongs to great/major Russian culture.

However for the Serbian philosopher Adriana Zaharijević and poetess Dubravka Djuric, who are well acquainted with the Russian cultural context, the concept of “minor Russian literature” seemed absolutely obvious and does not require explanation 🙂 Adriana Zaharijević, who initiated the translation of this note of mine into Serbian (Ruska književnost i rat u Ukrajini), interpreted my text as a feminist intervention in Putinism: “It shows me how the feminists continue to question, to share, to ridicule, to laugh and cry at their courage and fear. I find your text a light, using the language of philosophy to somehow live in the present horror, and to envision what will come. Alternative, different”.

Although, of course, the border dividing Russian culture – like any other – into major and minor is very mobile, changeable and, as the Russian philosopher Helen Petrovsky reminded me (using Pushkin as an example), in the works of authors who apparently belong to the “great” Russian culture, we can discover the phenomena of a “minor” culture. It is just enough to change the usual perspective of vision.

And for Italians who are interested in Russian culture, I can recommend, as examples of Russian minor culture, not to Russian literature, with which Russian culture is usually associated, but to modern Russian philosophy, almost unknown, as you noted, to a wide readership in the West – to the works of Helene Petrovsky, Oleg Aronson, Michail Ryklin, Artemy Magyn, Oxana Timofeeva, Alexei Penzin, Maria Chekhonadskih, Ilya Budraitskis, and, most importantly, Valery Podoroga, the teacher of many contemporary post-Soviet philosophers, whose book Mimesis: The Analytic Anthropology of Literature” was recently published by Verso.

EM: Could the path of “minor literature” also show us a path for understanding this war? Leaving aside the objectivity of geopolitics made in the name of realism and post-modern relativism and post-truths, assuming instead the risk of positioning and partial perspective in search of those points of view which, as Donna Harayay says “can they never be known in advance”?


In fact, my appeal to the minor Russian culture as an anti-militarist resource is only one of the possible options, one of the proposed moves in the search for cultural resources to resist militarism. More broadly, the question is posed today as follows: does modern culture can offer any tools, some kind of weapon capable of resisting militarism, stopping the forces of war in Ukraine and in the world?

As a rule, from the camp of defenders of Ukrainian national independence, we hear demands to the West to give us only weapons and nothing else: “we will do the rest ourselves, and we don’t need anything from you except weapons”. As for Western culture and philosophy, Ukraine is not up to it now: Ukrainian intellectuals (writers and philosophers) insist that our own culture and philosophy, glorifying our national dignity and feelings of revenge and anger, without the help of other cultures, are themselves able to provide victory over our national enemy.

But does Ukraine really need anything from the West but weapons, and can we stop Putin’s aggression solely by the power of Western weapons?

I believe that only the forces of Western weapons without the forces of culture – not only European, but also global – are not enough to defeat the imperial, militaristic and patriarchal Putin regime, which can only be destroyed by 1) joint / solidarity – military and economic – forces of world internationalism and 2) the intervention of the Putin regime from within by Russian opponents of the regime. The citizens of my country in this context must understand that Russian opponents of Putin’s authoritarian militaristic political regime and the war it is waging suffer from this war and Putin’s repressions within the Russian Federation no less than we Ukrainians.

In this context, I am now thinking about the subversive possibilities not only of Russian literature, but also of Russian philosophy and art, capable, in my opinion, of delivering a devastating blow to the Putin regime from within.

After all, it turns out that even a short cartoon (for example, Masyanya by Oleg Kuvaev. Episode 162. St. Mariuburg ) is capable of delivering a tangible blow to the ideology of Putin’s militarism (therefore supporters of Putinism tried to remove it from Youtube): on the one hand, it subverts the identity of the average Russian inhabitant, forcing him to identify himself with the Ukrainian population. On the other hand, it undermines the ideological construct of a united Russian people, clearly demonstrating that not the entire population of Russia are “Rashists” who support Putin and his “special operation”, and, frankly, the war against Ukraine.

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EM: In your studies you have been very critical of post-Soviet feminism, with its liberal aspects, and in particular with the Ukrainian feminism that you have defined as nationalist. Are these two types of feminism comparable to Western liberal feminism? And yours, how would you qualify it? Did you draw elements from the archetype of the “new Soviet man” or do you think there is nothing in that tradition that can have, today, universal liberation value?


First I will try to answer your second question. Although both my family and my husband’s family suffered greatly from the Stalinist repressions, I consider Soviet political subjectivity not an invariable Jungian “archetype”, but a heterogeneous assemblage of subjects-in-process (in Julia Kristeva terms), which includes both moments of antagonism and of solidarity.

Western liberal feminism can be compared with post-Soviet feminism by the criterion that the women’s programs (gender centers) emerged in the countries of the former USSR in 1990s, driven by the desire of capitalism, were following the logic based on Derrida’s concept of différance, when in the traditional dilemma of equality and difference, emphasis is placed on difference (understanding of women’s political subjectivity finally as “atomic”, being in a competitive relationship with others) It is no coincidence that when, after the collapse of the USSR, post-Soviet gender centers were organized within the discourse of liberalism (somewhere earlier, somewhere later), it was difficult to talk about solidarity: after all, we then turned out to be producers of a new type of capitalist commodity – feminist commodity within the discourse of gender studies. And that means that in the 1990s we were necessarily placed in a relations of hidden, but ruthless competition, when the issue of equality was associated exclusively with Marxism of Soviet type, without references to early Marxism of “The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 “, focused on the task to overcome the capitalist alienation of human from human and from his creative ability. For me personally, it was this component of Marxist theory that was of decisive importance even at the time when I was in school.

As for contemporary nationalist Ukrainian feminism, I see its weakness – as well as the weakness of post-Soviet liberal feminism in general – in its orientation towards capitalist values and its readiness to fulfill the state order of the Ukrainian authorities since 1991, and not to criticize it. As a result, Ukrainian nationalist feminism has been functioning all these years not as an anti-systemic critical movement, but rather as a systemic discourse and movement, which in fact does not make any challenge to the patriarchal power, performing only the function of its legitimation by means of decoration of democratic values. Instead of criticizing patriarchal masculine power, nationalist feminism is obsessed, in my opinion, only by the desire to “enter power”, in other words, not a political task to criticize patriarchal power from within, but to take a place in this regime of power, performing – I emphasize again – the function of legitimizing the current patriarchal political order.

[1] Judith Butler: “I am hopeful that the Russian army will lay down its arms

[2] Tereza Hendl @TerezaHendl 05.05.2022