Angelina Diash is a black woman, a native-born Ukrainian patriot. She loves her country but hates the direction in which it’s headed. Corruption is rampant. The leadership talks a good game about democracy, but at times, she says, it feels like a dictatorship. Though with a new, pro-Western government in office, Diash felt she at least had freedom of expression.
Her harsh reality check came last week when she was arrested after baring her breasts in protest during a ceremony where Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko signed documents of cooperation between their countries. Human rights abuses are rampant in Belarus, which former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once called “the last dictatorship” of Central Europe. Diash believed that Poroshenko didn’t need to be seen shaking hands with someone most of the world thinks is a tyrant.
Diash made her way into the ceremony last Friday afternoon, bared her breasts with “long live Belarus” written on them and began shouting the phrase. The refrain is commonly used by the Belarusian opposition against Lukashenko. Two large men dressed in black suits quickly whisked her out of the packed ceremony as journalists snapped photos, shot video and looked on.
Lukashenko and Poroshenko grinned calmly. Watch the video of Diash’s protest for yourself:
After sharing a jail cell with three other women overnight, she was released the following morning and placed in a holding cage in court, where she heard the stiff charges against her.
At most, Diash figured she’d get arrested, be slapped with a small fine and be released after a few hours. Instead she faces between two and five years in prison for “hooliganism with aggravating circumstances,” according to the Kyiv Post. The police allege that she resisted arrest as she was carried out of the ceremony—thus the stiff jail time. Diash denies that claim.
“It’s not normal,” she said. “I’m really frustrated. [Ukraine] wants to move toward Europe. The United States supports us. We want democracy to develop in our country, but our authorities show that they are not ready. Don’t know what’s happening with them. I’m really surprised.”
Diash is part of a feminist group called Femen, whose members are known for staging protests by showing their breasts. Founded in Ukraine in 2008, the group of “sextremists,” as they are called, made a name for themselves protesting against the Ukrainian and Russian governments in this manner. Their tactics drew reactions ranging from curiosity to outright hostility. As the group continued their protests and gained international coverage, the Ukrainian government began cracking down on them, and its key members were forced out of Ukraine. Femen is now based in Paris.
I met Angelina in Ukraine during my Fulbright program in 2009, and she participated in my “Black Women in Ukraine Photo Project,” which you can find here. Diash has always been passionate about political and social justice issues in her country and has never been shy about discussing the racism she deals with.
And that is what makes Diash’s current case unique: She is a black woman in Ukraine fighting against what she feels is creeping authoritarian rule, all while fighting against racism from her own people. When news of her arrest hit social media, the language people used toward her wasn’t pretty.
She says some of the comments included, “Why is a black monkey protesting in our country?” and of course, the universal slur for black people: “nigger.”
“It’s really frustrating that people judge me by the color of my skin,” she said. “There’s not a lot of black people in Ukraine, especially those who were born here.”
Diash was born in western Ukraine to a Ukrainian mother and an Angolan father who studied in Ukraine during the 1980s on a Soviet scholarship. In her small town, she was one of a few black kids, and their classmates were quite cruel. Schoolchildren would tell them they should feel cold because they were outside of Africa. They were constantly called “Negros.”
As hurtful as the taunts were, Diash didn’t allow it to break her spirit. In 2009 she sat through a college lecture where a professor said that mixed-race children had a “bad gene” that made them criminals. Worst of all, the professor was her adviser and had to sign off on her graduation papers. Furious, Diash stormed to the professor’s office and demanded that she explain the science behind her logic. Of course, the professor could not.
When the Euromaidan protests against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych took place at the end of 2013, Diash was on the streets in the freezing cold with millions of other Ukrainians demanding a new government. Government forces shot at protesters, killing dozens. When Yanukovych fled to Russia and a more Western-minded leadership took over, Diash was optimistic that the new government would transition the country out of its authoritarian past.
“But as I see, it’s not true,” she said. “And I do not know why all of those people were dying and standing in the rain. And now they want to put me in the prison. I made a protest action,” she added, emphasizing that she was peaceful and feels the charges against her are extreme.
During our 30-minute conversation on Facebook video, Angelina sounded confident, but she admitted she is very scared and doesn’t want to go to prison.
Her mother supports her activism but was reduced to tears after realizing her daughter could get five years for a protest that lasted less than 20 seconds. She planned on attending her sister’s wedding in Chicago in September, but her passport has been confiscated, and her travel is reduced to Kyiv.
She doesn’t know her court date, which is further exacerbating her anxiety. It is Diash’s hope that the case will be dismissed soon and she’ll be able to see her sister, whom she hasn’t seen in over a year.
I asked her if she regrets the protest and if she’d do it over again. Without hesitation, she said “yes” to doing it over. Even though many Ukrainians do not see her as one of their own, Diash is resolute. Ukraine is her country, and she doesn’t plan on leaving. She is a black feminist Ukrainian patriot who risked her life protesting with millions of other Ukrainians for a better future. Diash won’t abandon her country now—even if it means serving prison time.
If she is thrown in prison, Diash says, it will prove that Ukraine is not the free and open society it claims to be.
“It will really show how truly our country is moving towards democracy,” Diash said. “And [it will prove] how interested the authorities are in being in Europe and being a normal country.”
Editor’s note: We have reached out to the Ukrainian National Police and Diash’s lawyer for comment and will update this article with their remarks.