Theatre-maker and activist Yulia Tsvetkova was building a community in her hometown in Russia's far east - until she was targeted by a hostile police force. Tsvetkova ran education projects in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, as well as a youth theatre, online groups on feminism and sex education for young people. Following a police investigation, she has now been charged with “spreading pornography” for publishing drawings of vulvas online, and faces up to six years in prison as a result.
Tsvetkova’s case has drawn public support inside and outside Russia, with supporters holding demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg. The Memorial human rights association has declared her a political prisoner, stating that the criminal case against Tsvetkova has been provoked by her “civic activity and active feminist position… She is promoting her views in a completely legal fashion as an activist and maker of modern art.”
Anna Khodyreva, Tsvetkova’s mother, is an artist and founder of a children’s free education studio in Komsomolsk, where the two live. As repression rises in Russia, increasing attention is being paid to the role of relatives, particularly mothers, in the solidarity campaigns for political prisoners. Indeed, Tsvetkova herself noted as much in a recent interview to openDemocracy, saying: “Today there are so many invisible female political prisoners: mothers, wives - women who bear an incredible burden thanks to political trials. Political prisoners are heroes, but women are the invisible service staff.”
Here, Ksenia Sonnaya from OVD-Info, an organisation that monitors politically-motivated arrests, talks to Anna Khodyreva about her daughter, how the prosecution began, and the campaign in support of her.
We translate this interview with permission from OVD-Info.
When did you realise that the pressure your daughter and her theatre group were under…
We called ourselves the Merak activist buffoon-theatre. But as soon as the word “activist” emerged, all our friends and acquaintances said: “Drop that word, it’ll be the end of you”. And it was.
When did you realise that the pressure was serious? It wasn’t just your mates saying:“Oh dear, activists”. Because activism usually puts people off, they don’t want to have anything to do with it – but that’s a normal reaction. When did you realise that something serious was going on?
We realised that it was serious when Captain Konstantin Tychinsky appeared on the scene. The first time he came to work, he interrupted a lesson Yulia was giving, asked a load of questions and just seemed like he wouldn’t understand.
Is Tychinsky a police captain?
He’s a captain in the extremism and terrorism department. He kept Yulia at work for almost an hour and issued her with a summons. There was no discussion of legal representation at that point. We just thought: “Well, if they want to ask questions, we’re not doing anything wrong. And if we’re not doing anything, we can have a normal conversation and explain what we’re doing.” But then he went on to question her for four hours, and that’s when I realised it was serious.
He asked Yulia some crazy questions. Two years ago, for example, we held a master-class and drew portraits of ourselves on enormous sheets of paper. The theme was: “I’m big”. It was Yulia’s idea, because a lot of people are afraid to draw on big pieces of paper – we feel we’re not good enough for it. But one young girl – she was 12 at the time – drew herself as a stick figure in front of a rainbow. Nobody asked any questions about it and we forgot about the incident.
Then Captain Tychinsky showed a grey screenshot of the picture, and Yulia suddenly tried to remember – what was that about? And there was a black stick figure with a round head and arms and legs, and stripes of different shades of grey. And he spent ages harassing her about it.
And what did you feel at the time?
Fear. We were drawing, and Masha was talking to me (she was six), and she asked: “Can I paint a rainbow? I like rainbows”. But I felt sick and cold inside and said, “Yes, Masha, you can paint a rainbow”, thinking about Captain Tychinsky all the time.
I was scared of laying out our photos. We lived very openly – if you go onto VKontakte, you can see thousands of photos. All our lessons were recorded, every lesson. If there were any issues or conflicts, they were discussed with parents. I know every parent not just personally: I know their cat’s name, where their sideboard is, what conditions their grandmother has.
I silenced myself for a moment. I tried to censor myself, and asked Yulia to remove any rainbow pictures from the theatre. I went through the question of “What has Yulia done wrong, why all this harassment? Maybe she shouldn’t have done anything – why did she get into activism?” And then – “What have we done? Why are we being hassled?”
Fortunately, this mood didn’t last long. At some point I realised that I had gone crazy and I needed to stop. After that I wasn’t afraid – I was disgusted. I was embarrassed.
There are five and six-year-old children in the theatre, and I want to see just one adult at least who would be able to raise the issue of gays and lesbians. They go home to mum and say, “Anna Leonidovna and Yulia told us about such-and-such”. And then the parents would ask us, “Have you gone mad?”
This had nothing to do with our show. The children would talk about themselves, about how the girls in nursery school would get their pigtails tugged, or how the kids at school said, “Hey, he’s just a boy, let him copy your work.”
You’re talking about the “Pinks and Blues” show? [A performance about gender stereotypes, performed at the Merak theatre.]
Yes. It was all about children’s drooling and slobbers. There wasn’t a single controversial idea. The children basically put on a show about themselves, and about how their lives were hard. There were very soft boys among them, who were forever being told that “long hair is bad, crying is bad”, and they suffered because of that. It was hard for them to discover that they weren’t completely masculine. And on the other hand, there were very strong girls: gold medallists, competition winners, real super-girls. And they were told that “you have to be weak, and let a boy carry your bag”. But they were never weak, nobody carried their bag – that was the issue. They were innocent, bright, great kids. And they were so unspoilt, as unspoilt as they could be until this whole thing started.
How did the parents of the children you taught react to what is happening with you now?
People realise that none of this is our fault – even the people who have suffered from the situation. They were, of course, annoyed with us. At first, I thought that if Yulia hadn’t stood here and blinked there, everything would be different. But things are better now, nobody’s cross any more, we have normal relationships with everyone. To be honest, we get together in secret because I worry that if we do it in public and actively, we would be dragging kids to the police station again.
We closed the theatre. The cops don’t realise that they are traumatising human beings, so it’s better to drop the issue than to bring children into danger.
What did you do after Yulia was arrested at the train station when she returned from the “Eve’s Rib” Festival. That, as far as I know, was the first time she was arrested?
She got off the train and I was so happy when I saw her. We hugged, and then suddenly I was looking at two sets of papers from both sides, I didn’t even have time to read them. These two cops on either side, like ancient Russian knights – lean, well-groomed, polite enough: “Come with us”. Yulia noticed that I was trying to speak to them in a raised voice, and said: “Everything’s fine: I’ll go with them”. I wanted to take her suitcase, she hadn’t been at home for nearly a month, but they said, “No, the case goes with us”. I walked with her to the police car, and they drove off with her.
Arrest of Yulia Tsvetkova in November 2019.
I felt as though I was in a desert; my world had frozen. I should have been taking her home, feeding her, talking to her, and then she would have fallen asleep and I would have gone to work. But now I didn’t know what to do.
I tried to phone our lawyer, but he didn’t answer. I phoned him again and again as I walked home, but he wasn’t answering. And then I just sat in the emptiness, our home was so quiet, and tried to think of something. I wasn’t even scared, I just didn’t understand…It was like hovering in a vacuum, unable to go backwards or forwards. Then Yulia phoned, and I could tell that she was totally stressed out. She said she was being charged with a criminal offence, and they would come to my place. She said that everything was very difficult. That was already six hours after she’d been detained.
Did the police then carry out a search?
They came the next day, and were really unpleasant. You know how people sometimes talk to cats, like: “Where are you going, you brainless creature. Why is your food all over the place?” That’s how they spoke to me. They read me some paper about a search, but all I remembered was that my daughter was a lesbian and that was the reason why our home was being searched.
They started asking who I was, why I lived with her. I found that really funny. I said: “Actually, I’m her mum”. Then it was: “Why do you have a different surname?” “It’s what her dad wanted…I don’t really know, but it’s none of your business why we have different names”. They walked round the house in outdoor shoes, which was disgusting, trod on the cat’s toys and were generally aggressive. A lot of people have said that it happens, but I don’t know, I live in the normal world where people talk to one another in a normal way, which was why I wasn’t prepared for all this.
Do you support Yulia’s views?
Of course. Absolutely. It can’t be otherwise. Yulia doesn’t have seditious views. I just feel that people are people. Even if they’re bad. I don’t understand how you can judge anyone because they aren’t like other people. If that was the case, we would all turn into monsters.
You know, Yulia’s projects, “The Vagina Monologues” and “A Woman is not a Doll” [a series of body-positive drawings] are incredibly important. I’ve learnt a lot from them. I didn’t accept myself for many years, but looking at Yulia’s pictures, I learned to accept myself. And now I love myself in any form, in any clothes, with any hairdo. I used to find it hard to watch her “Vagina Monologues”. Not that it was hard as such, but it was like I was prying. And I started to think, why can I look at my finger or my heel and not go, “hmmm”. So why, when I look at my vagina, I have to say “hmmm”? Just because I couldn’t see it? Go on, look at your vagina, bend down and use a mirror. It’s part of my body, I’m proud of it, I love it and there’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m happy that everyone can talk about the subject now.
As my friend said, all Russian women are feminists, even if they don’t realise it. I see a family – a mother and child, a father and child – and together they’re a family. Sometimes there is a third or fourth child, and they all visit me together. I have pupils whose mother has died, or whose mother has left her family and isn’t in touch with them anymore. I also have children with two daddies, and that’s what they call themselves: Daddy Igor, Daddy Max, Daddy Vasya, Daddy Kolya. When a child says, “I’m going to Daddy’s today, I ask, “Which one?” They say they’re going to the one who’s a sportsman, and they’ll go on a hike. But another daddy might be a historian, who can tell them interesting facts about history. And what could be wrong with such a setup?
I also don’t see anything wrong with it. Parents are all different. What’s it like with you?
We have peace, friendship, chewing gum. We went through every stage of rows and shouting matches, up to when she was twelve. I remember how 12-year-old Yulia wrote the music for a fashion show. She decided to take a song by Rammstein, cut it in pieces, then take some classical music and cut that up as well, then mix the lot. My adult director head said it was some kind of madness. I stood up for it while foaming at the mouth, but she explained everything logically and brought me round.
Then we went to the guy who was mixing it all, and said, “Come on, Sasha”, and he said “I won’t do it: it’s all rubbish and weird stuff”. I said, “Sasha, please, do it like that for our sake, and then tell us – and if it’s really rubbish we won’t do it anymore”. He agreed. At night we gathered in his office and sat and listened to the mix. When we got to the fourth track he started to smile, and at the eighth he said, “I take it all back. Well done!” That’s when I realised that Yulia was brighter than me in many areas.
I trust her to some extent, as she does me. Naturally, we still always row. But we row technically, working out our relations and views. We discuss some things. We always look in the same direction and resolve all our issues together. I will sign up to any of her actions, and I think it’s the same in the other direction as well.
Why did they start to pressure Yulia?
That’s a question that honestly worries me too, and I’ll be very pleased if I ever find out. Because it’s still a mystery to me.
Perhaps, it was because Yulia had returned after living outside Russia for many years when she had travelled half the world. And we, without a television, didn’t know that many things, such as homosexuality, were banned. We didn’t realise that some things had already changed. Yulia wanted to be involved in politics, she gave a lecture on the GULAG.
There’s also the fact that the Far East is a test site for experiments. Perhaps someone thought that a combination of activists and pornography could be a goldmine. Many activists, especially feminists, are also into body positive connections. It’s easy to call it pornography.
Perhaps you’re too flamboyant for the city.
Perhaps. We lived very interesting lives. We always have a million events on the go, lots of adventures and interesting stories. Yulia was always being sworn at, everyone stared at her wide-eyed. Even the fact that we went around with rucksacks on our backs was something to talk about. But we weren’t touched. It seems that time has passed. It seems that someone has decided that everyone has to be the same in this grey city, and began levelling it out.
Do you feel supported by the fact that so many people are speaking out in your defence, and organising actions on the internet and offline?
Do I feel supported? Yes, very. You know, I’ve been having the same nightmare all my life. I’m in the far north, in the snow, and I’m alone. I stand in this snow, watching a helicopter take off and realising that they’ve forgotten me. They took everyone off, and left just me to remain in this far north. Wind, a blizzard, blue snowdrifts – and the helicopter takes off. It’s a similar sensation in Komsomolsk: you’re alone and against everyone.
I’m incredibly happy, but I realise that we’re still talking to emptiness. I don’t know whether the local cops see what’s happening. For the moment at least, it has, unfortunately, no influence on Yulia’s case. I hope that the publicity will make the police say: let’s leave Yulia in peace, guys. And that they’ll simply close the case and not put her through a show trial.
How has your own life changed since the prosecution began?
It has become harder. My life has two halves: I have my life at work – that’s the happy half of my life. And there’s the hard part of my life. I’m learning how to speak to journalists, not always to sleep at night and to send SOS signals when I need help. I’ve become wiser and more technically savvy. I also understand a lot now. I never used Telegram or Facebook, it was too scary.
But have you changed inside after all this?
Yes, I want to leave Russia, I don’t feel it’s my country any more. I grew up in the town of Vyatka. It’s clay figurines, objects made from tree growths, wooden clocks, a Russian merchant city. And when I moved to Komsomolsk I took a little bit of Vyatka with me to my studio. I work with clay, and would show children how the Slavs lived back in the day and tell them about Russian princes. Yulia made a whole project about the Romanovs. And this whole criminal case has told me: “Leave, it’s not your country”. I don’t just want to leave Komsomolsk – I’ll definitely do that. However events pan out, I will leave this city.
In other words, when all this ends, you’ll leave?
If Yulia’s sent to prison, I’ll follow her to wherever it is. If they give her a suspended sentence, I’ll follow her to wherever she’ll spend it. And if she’s released, I’ll go where she goes. I don’t know what the future may hold, but I can’t stay in this city.
What’s your main source of support at the moment?
Yulia. Two days ago I lost a lot of energy, and she took care of me – made me tea, surrounded me with pleasant things, showed me an incredibly beautiful film. Yulia’s friends and activists, as well as Memorial, Amnesty International and Moscow Community Center also give me support. I feel that I’m surrounded by good people. My art also continues to be a means of support, I’m always busy doing something creative. When I watch Duma member Irina Khakamada, she inspires me greatly: she’s one of my favourite women in Russia.
I understand that the situation is finished. They’ve found an eleven millimetre prolapsed disc, and I may have to have a very serious operation followed by immobilisation for a year. I phoned Yulia - and she said that it would all work out, that we’d get through it. And, you know, I got through it. I realised that everything has an end. This story will come to an end: if not today, then tomorrow; if not tomorrow, the day after, and if not then, in a month or two. There will be an end to it, I know there will.
When you’re under arrest, you can’t live the same way as you did before. You have to live as though you are under arrest. You need to find a way of life where you will not kill yourself, and how to stay alive, keep fit and so on. And we’ll get through it all, learn new things and live a new life. It’s a very intense experience.