Few women outside the genre of pornography have bared their breasts as often and for such good reason as 31-year-old Ukrainian activist Oksana Shachko. As one of the original three founders of the activist group Femen, she has bared her bosom to popes and princes, to Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel to protest policies and ideologies.
Shachko’s body was discovered in her apartment in Paris on Monday, and activist friends and family say they believe she committed suicide. It
was unclear when she died; French police have yet to confirm the details of their investigation. Femen has referred all queries to its official website, which does not state the cause of death.
But friends who knew Shachko well told The Daily Beast that she lived in a labyrinth of painful situations—personal issues, pressure from from her home country and from the reality she found herself in in France—and that she was suffering.
Media reports said Shachko left a note behind, which said in English: “You are fake”—a sentiment she also shared in an Instagram post on Saturday:
The people who loved Shachko were left to analyze and guess what her message meant, and what made Oksana so depressed and disillusioned.
Shachko founded Femen with Anna Hutsol and Sacha Shevchenko in April 2008, when they were just 17 and looking for an outlet for their anger. Rather than joining those in the streets with Molotov cocktails and glass bottles, they used their sexuality in what has since been defined as “sextremism” protests aiming for a “complete victory over the patriarchy.” She was the first to pull off her shirt and show her bare breasts to a crowd during a political action on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Aug. 24, 2009.
During her time with Femen, Shachko was arrested hundreds of times, spent nearly a year in jail, and was allegedly abused by police on several occasions, including one in which she and the other women were reportedly stripped and covered in oil while officers threatened to set them alight. They have been interrogated and investigated and wire-tapped, but they continued to show up at major events, in Vatican City and around the world.
“She must have committed suicide at the last drop of her suffering—she had experience tons; I am not surprised she has done it, her entire life has never been easy, she had layer upon layer of pain,” photographer Dmitry Kostyukov, a friend of Shachko’s, told The Daily Beast.
His wife is the Femen leader Shevchenko. Five years ago, they all moved to Paris to escape political pressure in Ukraine. They had to start a new life, from scratch.
“About a year ago, she, a mature artist, had to enter an art school to re-establish herself in France. That is very hard,” Kostyukov said.
According to Oksana’s Ukrainian friends, who were shocked to learn about her death, she suffered after the breakup with Femen and her constant struggles as an artist, but they believe there was something else, something that they think must have caused even deeper struggles with depression.
“Any artist—and especially in France—lives a life thinking of the emotional, inner world, filling every moment with sense or feeling depressed from finding no sense,” Kostyukov said. After all, she too was a radical artist.
In 2013, Shachko decided to leave Femen, saying she would stay a feminist forever but that “society has killed this movement.”
Even so, she continued to make headlines: According to Le Parisien, her painting of the Virgin Mary in a burqa drew condemnation.
During those years in exile, she tried to take her life twice, according to press reports. “As far as I know, she was concerned that everything was going wrong,” Femen co-founder Hutsol told Radio Free Europe, adding that “unfortunately” the two had not kept in communication since the group split.
A statement from Femen was sad and succinct.
“RIP. The most fearless and vulnerable Oksana Shachko has left us. We mourn together with her relatives and friends and expect for the official version from the police. At the moment it is known, that yesterday, July 23, Oksana’s body was found in her apartment in Paris.”
Friends in Russia, too, were crying over losing Oksana. A few days before news of Shachko’s death, Maria Alyokhina, a leader of Pussy Riot, noticed the cryptic Instagram post. She was not surprised to read the words.
“Her fate was always complex, difficult, long before she committed suicide; when she was a school girl, Shachko wanted to become an icon artist; she always thought of God, of religion; she studied to paint in a monastery, when she was a teenager,” Alyokhina told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. “She must have been lacking action, lacking art activism, which can save anyone from depression, we find solutions in Art.”
“First I saw her ‘You are fake’ note on her Instagram and then I heard that it was the last note she left,” Alyokhina said. “It could be addressed to either one person or all of us.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). The line is available 24/7 and provides free and confidential support.