“I feel that today there are so many invisible female political prisoners: mothers, wives – women who bear an incredible burden thanks to political trials,” says Russian artist Yulia Tsvetkova, who’s been designated a political prisoner by the Memorial human rights association. “Political prisoners are heroes, but women are the invisible service staff.”
Tsvetkova, a theatre director, feminist and LGBT activist, has had time to reflect. In October 2019, she was interrogated in her hometown of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, and in November her social media posts led to her flat and theatre studio being searched for evidence of pornography. Tsvetkova was charged with spreading pornography and has been under house arrest since 23 November last year.
As part of the investigation, Tsvetkova has been accused of spreading “homosexual propaganda” among underage people and fined 50,000 roubles (£500). Tsvetkova has run several educational projects in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as a youth theatre, online groups on feminism and sex education for young people and a Vagina Monologues group which celebrated the power and uniqueness of the female body.
In March this year, a district council reduced the charge against Tsvetkova and released her from house arrest on the basis that she would not leave the country. But Tsvetkova is still charged with spreading pornography for publishing illustrated educational material, for which she can be given a two-to-six-year prison sentence.
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We asked Yulia about how an educational project on women’s bodies resulted in a criminal case and how from being the darling of the local press she turned into persona non grata in her hometown of Komsomolsk-on-Amur.
Why do you think you’ve been freed from house arrest? Why has it happened now and was it news to you?
It was news to me – neither I nor my lawyer expected it. I think it’s been partly to do with bureaucratic processes. They took three and a half months to hold an enquiry and literally ten days ago they changed the details of the article I was charged under and held an investigation instead. They were supposed to re-arrest me, but it didn’t happen. The judge was for going ahead but the prosecutor, to my utter amazement, supported our side.
The detectives initially asked for my house arrest to be raised to a ban on any communication and on access to the internet, so things could have turned out very differently. I can’t call it a thawing or a positive dynamic; it could be just a coincidence, they’re very common.
But your case hasn’t been closed yet?
No, I’m now officially a suspect, I have a notification of suspicion of having committed the crime of spreading pornography. Some media outlets have incorrectly stated that I haven’t been charged with anything yet – but the announcement of the charge comes at the very end of the process, before a court, when the investigation is finished and there is an indictment, so it’s still early to charge me.
In your Facebook post about being released under house arrest, you wrote that the prosecution had “big plans” for you. What did that mean?
During the court sittings, the prosecution, asking for an extension of my arrest, listed everything that they would do during the case hearings: interrogate my mother and the members of my Vagina Monologues group; check my accounts and call a lot of expert witnesses’ testimonies: artistic, psychiatric, computer. I might be facing a second arrest: it’s not clear yet but the case isn’t going to close anytime soon.
How did your house arrest go?
Life under house arrest couldn’t have been more different if they tried. I like going for walks, I travel a lot for various reasons, and suddenly I was a prisoner within four walls: it was a real ordeal; I had no idea how tough it would be. My arrest had a big effect on my everyday life. I share my flat with my mother, and we suddenly realised that I had been responsible for all the housework and shopping while she went out to work – and now I couldn’t do it.
I did have access to the internet, so I wrote articles about my experiences and read books. I spent nearly two months getting my teeth fixed, living in a kind of fog from the pain and the anaesthetics. Plus, I had to get my head round a load of legal jargon, since I’ve been writing a lot of statements myself, which has been an interesting experience.
How long have you been having threats from the homophobic Pila protiv LGBT (Saw against LGBT) movement? What are the police doing about it?
The “Saw” movement has been around for a couple of years, since 2017-2018. I wasn’t in activism at that time, and not a single institution, including the FSB and Centre for Combating Extremism, has been able to find the authors of the threatening letter. We searched for them ourselves, and made complaints.
The first time it threatened me was in the summer of 2019, when I, along with activists from all over Russia who were in the so-called “Pila list”, made a complaint. It’s only recently that the FSB responded that there was no charge to answer.
What was amusing was that I had to give evidence on the threats to the cop who had initiated my criminal and administrative cases in the first place. In other words, this guy was collecting incriminating evidence against me, while at the same time I was supposed to be providing him with evidence in my defence.
On 18 March, new threats, naming my address and flat number arrived in the post. This time they were demanding 250 bitcoins before 31 March, otherwise they would kill me. After the first threats, the police took six weeks to tell me that there was nothing they could do and advised me not to leave my home and to get a dog. The only question they asked during our conversation was whether I drew pornographic images and slept with women, so it would be futile to ask for help from that quarter. At the same time, when I get hate mail from homophobes, it gets dealt with in two days. If somebody thinks this is a good joke, that’s fine – but let’s find the joker and tell them that it’s not funny.
[Note from the editor: Yulia Tsvetkova reported on Facebook on 2 April that she had received new threats from the Saw movement.]
Were human rights groups in touch with you while you were under house arrest? Did you feel you had support from activists and the public?
A lot of people got in touch – the Memorial human rights centre, for example, officially declared me a political prisoner. I have a lot of time for them: they do amazing work. I saw everything connected with my case on the internet and had a lot of letters of support. Our city is extremely remote, and we feel very isolated. So when the whole place is telling you that you’re bad and wicked, it’s so cheering to find out that there are people elsewhere supporting you.
Who helped you during your arrest, and how?
People often ask how they can help me. It’s really horrible when something obviously unjust happens to you and you are left alone with it. When I was under arrest, I realised that the most effective help for someone in that situation – house arrest, remand centre, prison – was simple human contact. Everything the police basically do is deprive you of your right of speech. They accuse you of crimes you haven’t committed and there’s no-one to take your side.
Getting myself heard saved me several times, and I saw that the cops’ attitude changed towards me when people started talking about my case. In this situation, active intervention and individual communication with other people is very helpful, but not many people get involved with this. You need to be unafraid and to write. This is a lesson that I learned for myself, because I’m not the last political prisoner in this country, and I think about what I can do to support the rest.
How do you see yourself, in terms of being a political prisoner?
Nothing has basically changed for me – it’s not like I fell asleep and woke up a different person. Early in my arrest situation I read Oleg Navalny’s book Three and a Half, about the time he spent in a prison colony. I was amazed how such an intelligent, cultured person could become engrossed in prison life and almost enjoy it. And after literally two months I now always talk about myself as a political prisoner and end letters to my friends, “With an arrestee’s respect and sisterly warmth”. And I don’t see any other option to accepting this and making it part of me.
I was surprised to discover that some activists are jealous of the status of political prisoner. It’s become a sign of quality or something, but it scares and unsettles me. It’s like, if someone is persecuted for political reasons, it means they’re a good person, someone super-correct. It’s better, of course, than condemnation or silence, but you don’t need to idealise this status.
Until recently, women in Russia were less likely than men to be persecuted for political reasons. Is there any change happening here now, and do you feel you have a special status as a female political prisoner in Russia?
We have a patriarchal country here, and it’s logical for women to be seen as less powerful and less of a threat to the regime. I’ve heard a lot of people saying, “You’re just a girl, they knocked you down here, but they should have tried bashing me, because I’m a smart, strong bloke”.
At the same time, as someone in this situation I discovered how hard prison is for families – even harder, perhaps than for the prisoner themselves. Look at my own situation: here I am sitting at home and suffering for the cause while my mother has to bear our entire domestic load, as well as legal issues and life in general. I feel that today there are so many invisible female political prisoners: mothers, wives – women who bear an incredible burden as a result of political legal processes. People don’t talk or write about them, or if they do, it’s in terms of “somebodies’ mums, somebodies’ wives”. Political prisoners are heroes, but women are the invisible service staff.
These women are not officially recognised as political prisoners, but they are an essential part of the situation. If the government persecutes children, they are also persecuting the mothers of those children. They too are victims of the system, and who’s to tell who are the greater victims?
What’s happening with the persecution of activists and people who openly talk about sexual minorities, feminism, human rights and sexuality? To what extent do you feel that these issues are taboo in Russia and how this situation can change in the future?
I am the person who they started persecuting when I created The Pink and the Blue, a show about gender stereotypes which I put on at the Merak theatre. And I feel that this already says a lot.
I believe that a lot depends on culture, or rather, lack of it. For example, I needed an ambulance after my arrest and the medics that examined me asked about my case and also, whether I was a paedophile. These aren’t bad people; they just lack culture. People are curious – I can understand that: my case is unprecedented in our city. Because I have short hair, I’ve been asked four times on the street whether I’m male or female. When that happens, I feel shock and embarrassment. And people just don’t see that I’m embarrassed and that haircuts don’t define gender.
The question of my sexual orientation comes up at nearly every police interrogation. The need to physically examine me, for example, is all to do with the fact that I’m a lesbian. And as for my case, there seems to be an idea that the female body is public property. I’ve heard cops going on about how we should be having kids, not displaying our vaginas. But even if I wanted to display my vagina, it’s my right and my vagina.
The most interesting thing is that this idea is approved at government level: look at the amendments to the Russian Constitution about marriage being a union of a man and a woman, not to mention the necessity of childbirth – all this creates a certain cultural stratum. Now everyone is talking about the coronavirus – no one mentions the HIV epidemic. I don’t know how much hard effort it will take for this issue to be raised at government level, to introduce sex education in Russian schools.
Has activism always led to persecution on the part of our rulers, or public ignominy?
Nearly everyone who is engaged in public activities encounters pressure of one kind or another. It could be haters, the government or something else, but I don’t know anyone who has avoided it. It’s hard to speak for everyone, but these days every activist has to ask themselves: “What will I do if I get a fine or a prison sentence?”
I’m not sorry about what I’ve done, but I never imagined that I would end up with a criminal record. I thought the worst I could get was a fine. I was sure that I had weighed every risk and consulted lawyers, and I didn’t break any law, but they still got me. Where these things are concerned, you can’t be prepared for everything.
What do people in your home region think about your case?
Some people support me, although most of them are people who know me well. I certainly don’t hear many words of support: it’s more about judgment and unpleasant remarks. I’m now persona non grata in my home town, my name is never mentioned, no one can write about me or publicly defend me. A lot of people here didn’t like what I was doing, but the scale was very different.
Our town is very small and closed: no one ever had a good word to say about feminism and LGBT issues. We engaged in a lot of initiatives as well as the sex education project – we ran an environmental project, taking photos of rubbish on the streets and posting them on Facebook. We were accused of lying and exaggerating the situation, and any honest discussion just encounters negative attitudes here.
We don’t have political activism as such. Even the young women who call themselves feminists are scared to organise any events and I honestly can’t blame them, busy with three jobs and only just having removed the leg-iron from their ankles. Some people are now doing single-picketing against recent amendments to the Constitution, but they also encounter persecution, hate and police pressure.
I understand people being frightened. I have been lucky to work in private businesses, but if someone works at a firm and gets involved in activism or protest activity, they can get fired in an instant – another factor holding people back from showing any dissidence in even the smallest ways. People here have taken a vow to see nothing and say nothing.
How did your creative life develop? When did you start working in the artistic world and whose ideas influenced you?
I started drawing in my early years and have been involved with that for most of my life. When I was around 12-14, I had personal exhibitions in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and the whole town came to see the pictures that I produced with acrylic paint or crayon. All the local papers wrote about me – the wonder-girl – and my wonderful mother – now, 15 years later, we are enemies of the people.
I am an artist specialising in primitivism, so for me the story in a painting is much more important than the details. Many people think that primitivists don’t know how to draw, but in fact it’s a complex and interesting area of art: representing something with the minimum number of lines is much harder than it looks.
My art always lacked meaning. When I became a feminist, I started looking at works by various women artists and also comic books - stories in pictures – and I realized for the first time that art can speak about important things. I realised that artists embody a social and political agenda through their work. But now I see myself more as a director than an artist.
What are you planning to do in the future? Are you going to return to activism, theatre, internet activity and educational work?
I’ve no idea what I’ll be doing – there’s still a chance that I’ll go down for two to six years. My activity here has been cut off at the root. Everything that I’ve done over the past two years has gone, and I still don’t have anything ready for the future. There are a few notes and projects that I would love to pursue, but it’s not realistic at present. But I certainly want to be involved in the theatre and human rights activism in Russia or elsewhere.
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