A year and a half ago, artist Yulia Tsvetkova wrote on her Vkontakte social media page that the plight of LGBTQ people in Russia’s provinces wasn't as terrible as people abroad thought.
“Half the community goes around with rainbow-colored pins and symbols, even in small cities, and there are rarely problems,” she wrote. “The negative stereotypes are stronger than the positive ones. We know the homophobes in the country, but we don’t know the LGBTQ activists, and that’s a shame. We have to start from the other side.”
Last month, Tsvetkova, a 27-year-old activist from Komosomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East, was charged with distributing pornography to minors over the internet. She faces two to six years in prison and her trial is set to begin in the coming weeks.
In early July, feminists and activists from the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBTQ Community Center held a vigil for Tsvetkova
The reason for the indictment is her publication of artworks – drawings and images of jewelry, ceramics and embroidery – that look like vaginas. The setting for her alleged crime is a Vkontakte group she managed called the “The Vagina Monologues,” named after the 1996 play that launched in New York. Her online group battled the taboo and stigmas related to female genitalia.
Since last fall, Tsvetkova has been forbidden to leave her city in Russia’s southeast corner; she was under house arrest for four months after she traveled to a nearby city. An online campaign for her has been gaining steam, and demonstrations in support of her have been held over the past two weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg – where security forces violently dispersed the protesters.
In early July, feminists and activists from the Tel Aviv Municipal LGBTQ Community Center held a vigil for Tsvetkova in the city’s Habima Square.
The criminal charge comes on top of two cases opened against Tsvetkova in the past year for “propaganda about nontraditional sexual relations among youth.” Both cases involve posts in which she advocated tolerance toward LGBTQ people. One case was closed after Tsvetkova was fined 50,000 rubles ($690).
'People here don’t really distinguish between feminism and LGBTQ, and they even consider vegans sick fanatics'
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The second, still open, centers around a picture she published with the caption “A family is found where there is love.” The picture was part of protests against an amendment to the Russian constitution defining marriage strictly as between a man and a woman.
Speaking to Haaretz, Tsvetkova didn’t sound very optimistic about her life as an activist in the Russian provinces. “It’s a lonely feeling. Automatically, the moment you declare your position, some people turn their back on you,” she said. “People here don’t really distinguish between feminism and LGBTQ, and they even consider vegans sick fanatics.”
She said that when she began her activism, she wondered why people sat around town convinced there was nothing they could do. “It’s possible in St. Petersburg. It’s possible in Moscow. But we can’t,” she said. “A million activities in Komosomolsk have been halted simply because people said, ‘It’s impossible here.’”
From the start two years ago, Tsvetkova encountered stiff opposition. Her first event was supposed to be a feminist tea party in honor of International Women’s Day, March 8, but a wave of threats forced the library hosting the event to bail.
A cog in the gulag
Born in Komosomolsk, Tsvetkova struggled to fit in growing up. After finishing school, she studied dance in Moscow and directing in London but never completed a formal higher education. She says she returned to her native city for personal reasons.
Komosomolsk-on-Amur is located a few hundred kilometers from the border with Japan, China and North Korea. It was built in the 1930s, mainly by gulag prisoners who were also forced to build the train tracks connecting Siberia to the Far East. For two decades, Komosomolsk served as an administrative center for forced labor camps, another topic the regime has tried to hush up in recent years.
The authorities began investigating Tsvetkova in the spring of 2019, back when she ran an activist children’s theater. One play she directed was called “The Blues and the Pinks,” which raised questions about gender stereotypes among children and teens. It also had a pacifist message.
According to opposition media reports, the police and local authorities pressured parents and the children who took part in the shows, and in the end the festival that was hosting the plays was canceled. The theater disbanded. Tsvetkova says that for some of the children, the first time in their lives they heard the term LGBTQ was when they were questioned by the police about the shows she directed.
The police also questioned Tsvetkova about the evenings she organized on the city’s history. “Komosomolsk was a gulag center in the far east, and its history of oppression and harsh punishments is very present here, but you’re not allowed to talk about it,” she said.
“They called me into a police station several times after I organized historical activities at the community center, and they asked me not to discuss politics.” That initiative, too, was closed under pressure from the authorities.
Another issue repeatedly raised by investigators was her illustrations titled “A Woman Is Not a Doll,” which depict typical female “drawbacks” like fat, body hair, wrinkles and droopy breasts. The police sought to investigate whether these illustrations were pornographic, but they relented after two experts said no.
Mom gets on board
According to Tsvetkova, the police don’t look into the nonstop harassment and threats that she and her mother, Anna Khodyreva, suffer. Their address was published online, a video of a police search of their apartment was leaked to homophobic websites, and her mother told Meduza, an independent online newspaper, that she had been sent a photo of a grave with a picture of Tsvetkova and her death date on it.
Still, the authorities didn’t act on the information, and a few months ago, after Tsvetkova refiled a complaint against a homophobic activist from St. Petersburg, the police warned her not to “maliciously exploit the right” to file a complaint.
“My mother strongly opposed LGBTQ activism and politics. When I thought of running in the local elections, she almost got hysterical and we fought for days,” Tsvetkova said. “But when the criminal file was opened against me, my mother descended into politics. She not only supports me, she says they turned her into a dissident.”
Tsvetkova believes her odds of being acquitted are zero, but even if she’s spared prison, she doesn’t plan to remain in Komosomolsk. “I have no future here because people are afraid of me,” she said. “People who know me cross the street when they see me.”
She says the demonstrations of support in Russia’s major cities mean a great deal of responsibility, because women who get arrested can be jailed for 30 days.
“I sit here thinking that I’m indirectly guilty,” she said. “That is, I realize I’m not to blame … on the other hand, such support for feminist and LGBTQ issues is unprecedented. I don’t think there has ever been such vocal support for a person involved in these ‘dirty issues.’ People in this country are afraid of that.”