Darya Apahonchich: “The Russian State Is Afraid of Feminism and Sex Education” (The Yulia Tsvetkova Case)

In June, the prosecutor’s office asked the court to sentence the artist Yulia Tsvetkova to three years and two months in a penal colony for “distributing pornography.” She was charged with this crime for posting drawings of vulvas on the Russian social media website VKontakte.

Yulia Tsvetkova. Photo courtesy of her VKontakte page and the Moscow Times

If I had to make a list of the methods used by the Russian state to make the life of grassroots activists unbearable, the list would be long. It would include such dirty tricks as endlessly postponing court hearings, delaying investigations, forensic examinations, and official inquiries, and encouraging right-wing “morality watchdogs” to persecute activists by telephoning them, threatening them, and intimidating them. And then the police throw up their hands, because, allegedly, they do not see anything criminal in the actions of these pseudo-Orthodox (but in fact criminal) figures.

All these methods also nicely illustrate the fact that the authorities are not content with merely complicating, or even paralyzing, the work of civil society in Russia.

The current Russian regime also finds it vital to avoid responsibility. Rather than punishing people directly for dissent, it seeks = far-fetched grounds to punish them. Rather than imprisoning them immediately and for a long time, it draws out investigations as much as possible, so that, on paper, the number of political prisoners is not too large, but their persecution considerably discourages other activists.

Even if I listed all these methods, the list would not be long enough to describe everything that the artist and activist Yulia Tsvetkova from Komsomolsk-on-Amur has faced. Children from her theater workshop were summoned for questioning, her home was searched, she was under house arrest, her lawyers were not admitted into the courtroom to defend her, and recently she was declared a “foreign agent,” although it is completely unclear how an activist from a small provincial town could work as a “foreign agent” and in the interests of which foreign countries she could do this work. This campaign of political persecution has been going on for three and a half years, and Yulia has been accused of violating several laws, including “promoting LGBT” among minors and “distributing pornography” by posting schematic drawings of genitals on a educational outreach community page on Vkontakte.

It is quite difficult to believe that all this has been happening in reality, that it is really for her work in a children’s theater workshop and for body-positive and educational pictures that Tsvetkova has faced such an unprecedented onslaught. I cannot get my head around the fact that an entire army of civil servants (police officers, forensics experts, judges, prosecutors, social workers, etc.) have spent so much time trying to find evidence of the artist’s guilt. At this point, of course, it is a pity that we don’t have access to the files in the government accounting office. How interesting it would be to find out how many man-hours have been spent on this “job.” How much paper has been wasted on all the absurd paperwork? What are the salaries of all the officials involved in this political case, and how have they directly benefited from it? Who got a promotion? Who got an apartment? A new office? A bonus?

No one can give back the most valuable thing that the artist and her mother have lost — time. Three and a half years spent in endless court hearings, under house arrest, under travel restrictions, under relentless pressure — it is impossible to compensate them for this time lost by making apologies or giving them money.

But the most terrible thing is that this story has not ended and the court has not yet made a decision. The prosecutor’s office has asked it to sentence Tsvetkova to three years in prison.

It is a wildly inappropriate sentence for pictures that no one would label pornography.

Everyone who has ever heard about the Yulia Tsvetkova has has probably asked themselves: why her? And why have the authorities pursued the case with such cruelty? How has it happened that a huge repressive apparatus has dispatched so many forces to persecute a female activist from a distant provincial town?

It is very important to closely examine the work of Yulia Tsvetkova, because this is a rare case when the authorities have been extremely honest. The Russian government does not like what feminist activists do, because their work is aimed at emancipating women and sexually educating young people, so that the country’s culture of violence weakens, and respect, tolerance, and acceptance of different people within the same community becomes the new cultural norm.

The state-sponsored system of patriarchy opposes sex education, because it does not want young people to grow up independent and capable of making decisions about their sexuality and choosing whether to become parents or not.

But the most important point is that the modern Russian government is against any form of self-organization, because it sees self-organization as a threat to its legitimacy. Free, educated people naturally want the authorities to represent their interests and share their values. The Putin regime does not like independent people, and it opposes grassroots initiatives and diversity.

So, the question of why the Russian authorities targeted Yulia Tsvetkova to demoralize and frighten the grassroots community is useful for thinking about what exactly we can oppose to the Russia’s self-reproducing system of state violence. Feminism, LGBT activism, sex education, and outreach work with teenagers — this is what the state patriarchate fears and this is what will enable us to defeat it.

Source: Darya Apahonchich, “‘The State Is Afraid of Feminism and Sex Education’: Why a Female Artist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur Has Been Targeted for Persecution,” Moscow Times, 17 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader. Ms. Apahonchich is an artist and feminist activist who was herself declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry in December 2020. She has lived in exile since the summer of 2021.

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