Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

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Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

International Women’s Day in St. Petersburg: Defying the Ban

88325787_2658545944242554_2755934399055790080_oFeminist activists queuing to picket at International Woman’s Day protest on the corner of Malaya Sadovaya and Nevsky in Petersburg. Photo by AnFem

AN-FEM
Facebook
March 8, 2020

The Banned Eighth of March, Petersburg

Once upon a time, the danger and risk in men’s lives were considered the basis of their alleged superiority over women. Only those who walked the razor’s edge looked danger and even death in the face and were thus spiritually elevated.

87848158_2658538717576610_6222493887676547072_o“My body is my business.” Picketer at International Women’s Day protest in Petersburg. Photo by AnFem

When today, International Women’s Day, the Petersburg authorities have used the pretext of events that did not even take place, including the Shoulder to Lean On Festival, to prohibit women from publicly speaking out about the issues that matter to them in any way, all that remained for them was step onto their own razor’s edge and take to the streets, risking their own safety and freedom, and thus one more time (if someone has not heard the argument) assert that archaic segregation is unacceptable.

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Because, under these circumstances, each step is a small victory. Among other things, it is a victory over oneself and one’s own fear. Each step is a reclaimed meter of urban space that should belong to people, but does not belong to them. It is a small step towards freedom, a step toward oneself — through the political, through the raucous intrusion into the chronotope of a spring day somewhere in the middle of an ugly regime. A small step into our common holiday. No one is free until everyone is free.

Photo reportage by AnFem

87905423_2658546174242531_2565779528093794304_o“On March 8, I think about women political prisoners, not spring.” Picketer at International Women’s Day protest in Petersburg. Photo by AnFem

Female Activists Hold Flash Mob Dance on the Field of Mars to Protest Violence Against Women; Pickets Held on Nevsky Prospect
Bumaga
March 8, 2020

MBKh Media reports that a feminist protest rally has taken place on the Field of Mars during which female activists played drums and performed chants protesting violence against women.

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The rally featured a dance flash mob. The girls [sic] chanted such lines, in particular, as “The patriarchy is a judge / that judges me for being born. / And my punishment is / violence day after day.” As MBKh Media reports, the Petersburg women borrowed the idea from Chilean feminists.

88336060_2658532417577240_2627163952307503104_oFeminist activists performing a flash mob dance and chant on the Field of Mars in Petersburg. Photo by AnFem

In addition, a series of pickets took place on the corner of Nevsky Prospect and Malaya Sadovaya, reports the web publication Sever.Realii. The picketers protested domestic violence and the law against “promotion” of homosexual relations, and in support of female political prisoners. Protest organizers had originally planned a rally [on Lenin Square], but city authorities refused to sanction it.

Thanks to AnFem for the photos and the first text. Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg Police Sabotage Pussy Riot Video Shoot

Police Sabotage Pussy Riot Video Shoot at Lenfilm Studio
Mediazona
February 9, 2020

Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova has told Mediazona that police have sabotaged the filming of a video for the Pussy Riot song “Rage” at Lenfilm Studio in Petersburg.

“There are cops and Center ‘E’ officers at the filming of our video at Lenfilm. First, they came and made us sign an obligation not to promote ‘homosexualism’ and ‘extremism,” and then left to talk with Lenfilm management. Half an hour later, the lights were turned off throughout the building. The shoot was scheduled to run from noon to six in the morning. So, the whole thing’s a bust,” Tolokonnikova said.

riotPolice at Lenfilm in Petersburg. Photo by Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Courtesy of Mediazona

The producers tried to rent a generator, but they were not permitted to bring it on the premises of the studio.

“Two days before the shoot, plainclothes officers visited Lenfilm and insisted they cancel the shoot. Surprisingly, Lenfilm refused to heed their request, telling them that we had paid and all the paperwork was in order,” the performance artist added.

Tolokonnikova said that feminist activist Nixel Pixel (aka Nika Vodwood), artist Lölja Nordic, and photographer Aleksandr Sofeev were among the people slated to appear in the video.

“There were supposed to be riot cops [OMON] in the video, but a real patrol showed up instead. The song is about resisting the authorities,” Tolokonnikova told Mediazona.

In an interview with Znak.com, Inessa Yurchenko, who was appointed Lenfilm’s new director general two days ago, called Tolokonnikov’s story a provocation.

“The guys were supposed to have actors in police uniforms, so they cannot pass that off as there being police officers there. There are no police officers on the premises of Lenfilm. It’s not nice to show pictures of actors and provoke the public,” she said.

Yurchenko threatened to call the police.

“I won’t be surprised if there are more provocations on their part—then I will be forced to call the police,” she said.

Yurchenko explained that the blackout in the studio had been caused by an accident on the power grid.

“The head of security will now have to follow regulations while the cause of the accident is established, and so he will have to ask [people] to evacuate Lenfilm because it’s a [secure] facility,” she said.

She added that the activists could return to the film studio when the power was restored.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Yulia Tsvetkova: Pink Turns to Blue

76618320_1260332754165872_8902406124347588608_oYulia Tsvetkova. Photo by Maria Nyakina. Courtesy of ONA

Russian Feminist Association ONA
Facebook
November 20, 2019

Yulia Tsvetkova Named a Suspect in Alleged Distribution of Pornography

The police are again playing hard ball with our colleague and comrade Yulia Tsvetkova. Yulia returned to her native Komsomolsk-on-Amur via Khabarovsk from Petersburg, where she appeared at the Eve’s Ribs festival. She was met by law enforcement officers right at the train station. They told her that a criminal investigation into distribution of pornography had been launched, and she was a witness. They took Yulia to the police station to interrogate her. Yulia refused to testify in the case. The police immediately made her a suspect. She had to sign a non-disclosure agreement and an undertaking not to leave the city, after which nine police officers (!) searched her apartment and the premises of her children’s theater studio. Among other things, they confiscated equipment and brochures on gender issues. They accused Yulia of “promoting” something or other, calling her a “lesbian” and “sex coach.”

We fully support our colleague in this situation and express our solidarity. We demand an end to the political prosecution of the feminist activist!

Photo by Maria Nyakina (St. Petersburg)

Thanks to Darya Aponchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. See our post from earlier this year, “Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks,” a translation of an interview with Tsvetkova about her work with a children’s theater in Komsomolsk-on-Amur and the crackdown against the theater by local officials.

Feminists vs. Police in Petersburg

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Police Show Up at Eve’s Ribs Feminist Festival in Petersburg
Mediazona
November 10, 2019

Police have shown up at the Eve’s Ribs Feminist Festival in Petersburg, human rights defender Varya Mikhaylova has informed Mediazona.

Mikhaylova reported that a uniformed male officer and a female plainclothes officer were in the festival space, and a police cruiser was parked next to the entrance. The male officer had asked festival organizer Leda Garina to show them the rental agreement and had inquired about the festival’s repertoire.

Mikhaylova added that the police visit had been triggered by a complaint filed by anti-gay activist Timur Bulatov.

“A performance of the play ’10 Scenes of Sexual Violence’ is scheduled for today,” Mikhaylova said. “[The police officers] want to stay and watch.”

garina policeEve’s Ribs Festival organizer Leda Garina and a police officer. This photo was posted yesterday on the festival’s VK page

Police Promise to Show Up Every Day of Feminist Festival Eve’s Ribs
Fontanka.ru
November 11, 2019

Police officers have visited the Skorokhod theater space, where the Eve’s Ribs international feminist art festival has been taking place. Festival co-founder Leda Garina told Fontanka.ru about the incident on November 11.

“The police officers told us they would monitoring the presence of minors at the festival,” Garina said. “They’re going to inspect the bar at the Skorokhod. And if we summon human rights defenders, the police will call in the guys in the masks, who will line us up against the wall, and then find a way to shut us down.”

As Garina noted, police had already been at the festival the previous day in response to a complaint by activist [sic] Timur Bulatov and had demanded Garina show them the lease agreement for the festival space.

“The police summoned the site’s managers, issued them an order to check the documents of visitors, and warned that they would come to the festival every day,” said Garina. “We’re afraid of provocations and really will be checking everyone’s IDs at the door. This is quite sad, however, because children face sexual abuse and lack of financial support from their fathers much earlier than the age of eighteen, but we cannot talk to them about it.”

Eve’s Ribs, an international festival of feminist theater, cinema, and performance art, runs from November 10 to November 17 in Petersburg. The main venues are the Skorokhod and the space run by the organizers, the social and artistic project Eve’s Ribs.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. First photo courtesy of The World. Translated by the Russian Reader

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After decades in the shadows, Russia’s feminists grab their spotlight
Indra Ekmanis
The World
June 5, 2019

Russian feminists paraded a 13-foot-tall model vagina down the streets of St. Petersburg on May 1, 2018, without getting arrested. It was a big win.

“[Police] arrested only those who they have orders to arrest,” says Leda Garina, director of the Eve’s Ribs, a social, artistic, documentary and communication project devoted to the subject of gender discrimination. “But there were no vagina orders, so they didn’t know how to react.”

The giant vagina didn’t spark police action in 2018, but participants were not so lucky in 2019. Six Eve’s Ribs activists were detained.

In a country where the concept of feminism remains at best socially neutral and at worst a “mortal sin,” activists fighting for gender equality under the banner of feminism have to take success where they can get it. And it’s often fleeting.

“This year, one of the girls wore a vagina costume, and they made her take it off so right there in the middle of the May 1 parade, so she was walking basically naked in the middle of the parade and she was just showing everyone the finger,” says Garina, 37.

Activists like Garina and other women at Eve’s Ribs are working to unite people interested in feminism by bringing them together in a physical space. To that end, they opened Cafe Simona — a women-only workspace by day and event space by night.

“The idea was that here you can feel at ease, because in public spaces in Russia, men always bother you,” Garina says. “Men will always come up and ask, ‘What are you writing, what are you eating, what does it say on your shirt?’ It’s terrible.”

There’s a generational shift happening when it comes to feminism in Russia. Millennials and Gen Zers are online — many read English and have been exposed to the fundamental reasoning behind the concept of men and women being born equal. And after decades of repression under the Soviet Union, feminist activism is reemerging in today’s Russia.

“Officially, after the [1917 Russian] Revolution, all women’s rights were achieved, so therefore according to the Soviet system, feminism as a movement had no need to exist,” Garina says.

But the ideal of gender equality as espoused in Marxist doctrine was far from reality. Though equality was touted in principle after the Communist revolution and women’s education and literacy rates rose, in practice, it looked quite different. Female participation in the labor force was not free of gender gaps and didn’t translate into equality in domestic duties. Despite some strides (the Soviet space program had a woman cosmonaut decades before the US did), women were still largely expected to take on work in the home, care for children, and stand in long lines for food in addition to their “equal work” outside the home.

As the USSR was crumbling, feminism began to resurface as a more active movement. But when the Soviet Union did collapse in 1991, women faced new challenges.

“The next problem that women encountered was capitalism. Suddenly there was this new pressure where women became objectified,” Garina says. “This was not the case during the Soviet Union. This meant that women needed to look like super sexualized models in addition to doing all the housework.”

In the post-Soviet years, the main achievements of feminist activists has been “gradual conscious-raising,” pointing to issues that had rarely been in the public discourse previously, such as domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination against women and sexual minorities.

But these gains have sustained major blows. In 2017, the Russian State Duma, or lower house of parliament, eased penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence.

“The 2017 amendments symbolized a green light for domestic violence by reducing penalties for perpetrators, made it harder for women to seek prosecution of their abusers, and weakened protections for victims,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Studies suggest that at least one in five women face domestic violence, largely from partner abuse. The vast majority of such incidents go unreported — only about 3% make it to court. The 2017 law — sometimes dubbed the “slapping law” — allows first-time offenders against a partner or a child to be subject to a fine, rather than a criminal charge. It was also supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which touts “traditional family values.”

The church has been vocally opposed to feminist groups. The band Pussy Riot was famously detained for a rebellious performance in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, then found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” — directly linked, by the judge, to feminism.

Garina of Eve’s Ribs has been arrested more than once for her feminist work. But she says it won’t deter her.

“My personal goal, as a creative person and as a director, is spread the word about feminism,” she says. “Therefore it needs to be funny, controversial, sexualized, but we can’t just complain. We can always complain about domestic abuse and sexual abuse, but I think that if we don’t show that we can be aggressive, none of our complaints will be heard.”

Another prominent feminist activist, Zalina Marshenkulova, 30, has taken to social media to talk directly to people. Marshenkulova runs “Woman Power” — a channel on Telegram, a popular messaging app in Russia.

Her goal is to explain feminism to a mainstream Russian audience, but Marshenkulova is also known for a Russian Reebok ad campaign that sparked outrage with this slogan on Instagram:

“Don’t sit around hooked on male approval — sit on a man’s face.”

Reebok deleted the campaign, but later put the images back up, except for the controversial one.

Internet users shared screen grabs of the deleted ad.

“I think this ad was good for the Russian audience because if this ad were to run in this light, vanilla, Western style, which I don’t like — something like, ‘be strong, women are great’ — you know, the stuff you see in European ads, this doesn’t work at all here,” Marshenkulova says. “Basically whining and saying ‘let’s respect women’ — this doesn’t work here. This is not Europe, it’s not America.”

Still, Marshenkulova’s frank attitude toward Russian feminism has won her a lot of fans online — including men.

“Yes, I have very many male supporters,” she says. “They understand what I want and they understand the patriarchy kills men too, not only women.”

Marshenkulova, who grew up in a small town in Russia’s far north, says she was raised to “be modest, be quiet,” but it didn’t suit her personality.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve always been rowdy,” she says. “I have a strong personality, you can’t shut me up, you can’t tell me my place. My place is wherever I want it to be, so I try to pass this idea along to other women.”

As in politics, going against the status quo in Russia means taking on some risk. “Opinion makers in this country are always in danger,” Marshenkulova says. But change is happening — slowly.

“I think that one of the big victories for feminism happened just in the past two years,” she says. “Now feminists sometimes appear on television, and not too long ago we were completely invisible. It’s a big accomplishment for us that some channels started talking about feminism in a neutral tone as opposed to highly negative tone. In the past, it was all negative.”

Marshenkulova and Garina take different approaches to feminist activities in Russia, but they agree most activists are largely working toward the same goal.

“Some of them are radical and separatist — they want to work with women exclusively. Others are more liberal,” Garina says. “I believe that all of these movements are important and are moving in one direction because they all influence society. I am willing to work with everyone, women, men, animals, plants, as long as we actually cause some change.”

Leokadia Frenkel: How to Defeat Russia’s Ruling Party in Your Own Neighborhood

lika-1.jpgLeokadia Frenkel talks to local residents protesting vote rigging. Photo by David Frenkel

“I Realized They Were Getting Ready to Throw the Election”: A Petersburg Woman Talks About How She Fought Three Days to Have the Real Vote Tally Confirmed
Leokadia Frenkel is a member of the election commission in Petersburg’s Vladimirsky Municipal District, where not a single United Russia candidate was elected
Sofia Volyanova
TJournal
September 12, 2019

Three days after Russia’s nationwide election day on September 8, the results of the municipal district council races in Petersburg had not been officially announced. In four districts where ruling United Russia party candidates did not win a majority of seats on the councils, the election commissions postponed their final meetings. In the Vladimirsky Municipal District, all the ruling party’s candidates had lost, according to preliminary vote tallies. The Yabloko Party had won twelve seats, while five seats had gone to independent candidates, and three seats to A Just Russia.

At some of the polling stations where opposition candidates were leading, election officials decided to recount the votes. As a consequence, United Russia candidates suddenly took the lead, while independent candidates were robbed of critical votes.

Leokadia Frenkel, a voting member of the Vladimirsky Municipal District Election Commission, told TJournal how she and the winning candidates prevented such vote rigging in her own district. She was forced to sleep in the district council building and was assaulted by the election commission’s deputy chairwoman, who attempted to lock Frenkel in an office.

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On election day, I arrived at the Central District administration building, where our municipal district election commission is located, at seven in the morning. We invalidated ballots, then I got the papers I had to take to the different polling stations and I delivered them. I communicated with the polling station election commissions and monitored what was happening. At eight in the evening, I returned to the Central District building, where we invalidated the rest of the ballots that needed invalidating.

We did not receive a single complaint during the voting and the vote counts. Everything was completely fair and square. I had no complaints with the commission chair.

“The polling station election commission chairs will go with me, and we will enter the results into GAS [automated state elections system],” she said.

But then, during the night, someone told us all the election commission chairs had been sent home and no one had entered their vote tallies into GAS because it was down. We learned this completely by accident. I asked the secretary of the municipal district election commission what had happened, why the vote tallies had not been entered into GAS, and why the commission chairs had been sent home. She said something was broken, but we checked and nothing was broken. They were playing for time: they needed an excuse to do a recount. That was when we realized the fix was in and we spent the night in the administration building.

Why did I stay there? I was afraid they would convene the municipal district election commission without me. I wanted to be there and register my dissenting opinion if there was a recount.

The winning candidates slept there, too, because the ballots had been packed up and stored in the basement. They were making sure the ballots were not stolen. There were advisory and voting members of the polling station commissions who had done their jobs honestly and wanted to prevent electoral fraud.

The commission had left in the wee hours of September 9, saying it would reconvene at four in the afternoon. But it did not show up at four in the afternoon. We kept waiting, finally filing complaints with the Territorial Election Commission and the Central Election Commission.

We spent the whole day in the building. The very nice, hospital head of the Central District talked to us and gave us chairs so we would not have to lie on the floor. Our friends supplied us with food and water.

We spent over twenty fours in that building.

The head of the district communicated the City Election Commission’s decision to us and said all the chairs of the polling station election commissions would be gathering and all the final vote tallies would be entered into GAS.

When the chair of the commission showed up, she summoned all the polling station chairs. At nine in the evening, they started entering the vote tallies into GAS. The results were entered correctly: there was no vote rigging.

But the fact is that the chair of our municipal district election commission did not come and pick up the results. First, she said they were not ready, although they were ready. She was supposed to collect them and hold a final meeting of the commission to confirm the vote tally and the list of winning candidates. Many independent candidates and new people won seats on the Vladimirsky Municipal District Council. No one from United Russia was among the victors, so maybe they were angry or somehow affiliated with the municipal district council.

Leokadia Frenkel sleeping outside the office of the deputy head of the Central District

After the vote tallies were entered into the GAS, I went home and the next day I was busy with my own affairs. But the final sitting of the commission had not been held nor had the documents been collected. I telephoned the chair and asked what the matter was. So I would not worry, she said the meeting would be held and everything would be fair and square.

At nine in the morning on September 11, the candidates telephoned me and said that certain polling station commission chairs had shown up at the municipal council for some unknown purpose. So I also went to the municipal district election commission, once again asking when our final session would be held and why the paperwork, which had long been ready, had not been picked up.

The deputy chair was the only one in the office, so I asked her. I saw a paper on her desk with no date or registry number. It was a complaint, filed by United Russia candidate Igor Kartsev, who requested a recount.  I realized they were getting ready to throw the election. Instead of getting ready for the final meeting, they were grooming people affiliated with them to file complaints requesting a recount, as was happening in other municipal districts, in order to steal the victory from the independent candidates.

I took the complaint in order to photograph it when the deputy chair attacked me from behind. She tried to snatch the letter from me and destroy it.  There were many people present, including the candidates and voting members of our commission. One of them grabbed the complaint, which the deputy chair tried to snatch from me, in order to save it from destruction. He photographed it and posted it on social media.

Vladimirsky Municipal District Election Commission deputy chair attacked @likafrenk, a voting member of the commission from Yabloko, to stop her from seeing documents and complaints that would trigger a recount. The voting member managed to escape despite the fact that the deputy chair tried not to let her out, but now the deputy chair claims it was she who was attacked. She was taken away in an ambulance.

The deputy chair tried to lock me in the office and prevent from getting out by holding the door shut. There was a slight tussle: I wedged my foot in the doorway, but she tried to hit me with the door so I could not get out. When she let go of the door, I escaped. I filed a complaint with the City Election Commission, explaining that I had found a strange document. I also wrote that I was afraid, since the final commission meeting had not been held, that they were planning to throw the election.

I filed a complaint with the police about the attack and the fact that the municipal district election commission had tried to destroy the documents I had turned up. And I went to the emergency room and had the doctors there document the injury I suffered when the deputy chair hit me with the door to keep me looked in her office. I ended up with a bruise on my leg, of course.

The commission is located in the building where the municipal council has its offices. The police and an ambulance were summoned. Allegedly, either someone hit someone else or I hit someone. But I could not have hit anyone because I was on the other side of the door, in an office where there was nowhere else. Complaints were filed to the effect that I had, allegedly, absconded with certain documents, but I had not stolen them. I was in the commission office and the deputy chair would not let me out. I could not have stolen the documents.

Also, the deputy chairwoman filed a complaint that someone had hit her in the hallway or something to that effect. She also had her alleged injuries documented at the emergency room, and she was taken to hospital.

I don’t know what is going on here, but it all began when the incumbent council members got a look at the vote tallies. When they realized they had lost in all the districts, they postponed the final commission meetings and the announcements of the results. First, they put off entering the results into GAS, but when the actual, correct results were entered into the system, they tried to put off holding the final commission meetings.

Holding a recount is one way of switching out ballots and substituting them with fake ballots. But they still have to be signed by two commission members, at least. They want to switch the ballots and recount the votes. What are they fighting for? They want a majority on the council. They want to prevent the independent candidates for gaining a majority on the council and then electing their own chair.

Tomorrow is the last day when they can hold the final, wrap-up session, and now social media are reporting that, allegedly, the municipal district election commissions are going to be meeting at the Central District administration building and, allegedly, the election results will be confirmed in keeping with the vote tallies that the polling station election commissions arrived at fair and square.

lika-3.jpg
Leokadia Frenkel. Photo by David Frenkel

It is now the evening of September 11, and a rather large number of people have gathered outside the offices of the Vladimirsky Municipal District Council, including the winning independent candidates, commission members outraged by the fact that the authorities have been trying to throw the election. These people have said they will not go home because the authorities are trying to throw the election.

The winning candidates spent the whole day picketing the municipal district election commission and demanding the immediate confirmation of the results. But just now the police detained someone here. [It later transpired that a young woman conducting a solo picket protesting vote rigging had been detained. She did not have a local residence permit, so she was put into a police car, but she was released after the police checked her return tickets — TJournal.]

I came here to see what was going on. Everything is closed, but people have gathered here all the same. The candidates called local residents who signed petitions to get them on the ballot and told them the authorities were trying to steal their votes, and so these residents have also come.

The candidates are going to stand guard at the Central District administration building. As soon as they see that the chair has shown up, I will also run over there. If a recount is demanded, a report will be issued. I will send a dissenting opinion to the City Election Commission and the Central Election Commission and tell them there was vote rigging and a recount.

All the rough stuff lies ahead of us. Now, however, I don’t see anything rough happening. I see lots of young people who are determined to fight. They are proactive and positive. Of course, it would be a blow to me if everything into which we have put so much effort is declared null and void, if there is a recount and they steal the victory. But we plan to fight.

I have only positive thoughts. I did not expect the opposition to win, but win they did in all the districts. This is the first time when people who deserve to win have won. In this sense, it was fair and square. There was nothing like this in past elections. Nobody wanted to vote. Suddenly young people the candidates, their friends and their aidesappeared on the scene, and it’s great. I have seen another world, a world of young people.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Darya Apahonchich: Relaxation for Men

darja-1Darya Apahonchich is one of the artists exhibited at the 2019 Festival of Political Photography at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Photo by Liisa Takala. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for Men
Darya Apahonchich wanted to make prostitution visible so she photographed men
Jussi Lehmusvesi
Helsingin Sanomat
March 13, 2019

A good three years ago, Petersburg teacher Darya Apahonchich was walking to work when she noticed letters painted on the sidewalk.

ОТДЫХ

Freely translated, the word means “relaxation, rest.” Apahonchich knew it was one of the most common phrases in Russia for advertising prostitution.

Apahonchich was intrigued. On previous walks to work, she had noticed that ads for brothels had spread everywhere, including walls, light poles, and transformer boxes, and now they seemed to have flooded the streets, too. There was also something irritating about the word отдых.

Relaxation.

Or the slightly longer version:

Relaxation for men.

Apahonchich had an idea. She was also a professional artist and had worked in several groups that produced political art. She asked male acquaintances to think about how they really relaxed. Then she took the men to the sex ads and asked them to assume the poses they had chosen for relaxing.

The photographs were produced in the middle of sidewalks as passersby watched.

“I wasn’t trying to take smooth, finished art photos but snapshots,” she said. “People’s reactions were supportive or, more often, indifferent. Petersburg is a big city, after all, and people are not easily surprised.”

After the photoshoot, she posted the photos on social media and waited for a reaction.

Things kicked off after a while.

Apahonchich’s photos attracted attention on social media. The photographer was asked for interviews by more traditional media.

She was more delighted by offers from complete strangers, men who wanted to be involved in the project.

“They said they wanted to relax and asked whether they could help me,” Apahonich says.

Despite what you might imagine, there was nothing suggestive about the men’s requests. They genuinely wanted to be involved in doing something good.

The photographer accepted the offers and new photos were produced.

“It started out just as a fun thing but gradually turned into something more serious,” she says.

darja-2Two young men relaxing. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

The success of Apahonchich’s photos could be explained by their skewed perspective. We have seen plenty of pictures of people victimized by prostitution at exhibitions but the gaze in her photos is focused on men.

This also has its own meaning for her.

“When people talk about prostitution, they usually talk about women, but I hope to make something invisible visible in the images I produce,” Apahonchich says.

It is a reasonable aspiration in the sense that men are active in the sex trade as middlemen, customers and, sometimes, vendors, too.

“Of course, men see my pictures differently. Some see them only as humorous. In the best case, I make the men looking at the photos reflect on their own position on the matter.”

The artist also has a personal reason for approaching the subject seriously.

Apahonchich walks around the Finnish Museum of Photography at the Cable Factory looking at the works of her colleagues in the Festival of Political Photography, which presents the work of twenty artists from around the world in a show entitled Potentiality.

In Apahonchich’s own images, men relax alongside “Relaxation for men” ads. One reads the newspaper, another plays on the train tracks, a third does yoga, and a fourth plays the balalaika.

A fifth man fishes.

According to the artist, the men who wanted into the project hardly represent the majority opinion regarding prostitution.

“Russia is still a conservative country and we have a different notion of women’s rights than in Scandinavia. It is common for men not to see any problem with prostitution. Many of them think it’s quite acceptable if, say, they have problems with their marriages.”

It is illegal in Russia to advertise sex services but, according to Apahonchich, Russian cities are in no hurry to get rid of the ads. She argues that the economic interests of the powers that be are often linked to human trafficking.

“It’s about money,” she says. “In Russia, the media have written about the links between corruption and prostitution. The police, for example, visit brothels regularly. They even have their own term for their visits. They are called ‘Saturday specials.'”

Her drastic claim is supported by a longitudinal interview study in which researchers mapped the experiences of sex workers with police in Petersburg and Orenburg. The study found that over a third of the sex workers had been abused by police.

The study was done in 2014, but researchers have obtained similar outcomes in more recent studies.

Estimates of the total number of people involved in sex work in Russia are as high as three million.

“I don’t approve of the word ‘sex worker,'” says Apahonchich. “In my opinion, it is not work but exploitation. I am talking about women who are involved in prostitution. Of course, there are differences in how people view the matter. If someone wants to call themselves a sex worker, I accept their choice, of course, but I don’t think of it that way.”

She also finds it misleading to talk about “sex.”

“Many girls go into prostitution at the age of thirteen or even younger. I think it is a question of rape culture more than of sex.”

darja-3Man and pillow. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich has a personal reason for regarding prostitution negatively. She earns her daily bready by teaching Russian to women who have come from Syria and Afghanistan, for example. She is painfully aware her students are at high risk of being marginalized and forced into prostitution.

“Since they come to Russia as refugees and immigrants, they are on really shaky ground. They are often undocumented and cannot defend themselves,” Apahonchich says, looking anxious.

She is clearly concerned about her students.

She has not shown her photographs in class.

“I try to keep politics to a minimum,” she says. “A large number of my students are from quite conservative regions and I don’t want to scare them. Also, some of the students’ husbands have a negative attitude to their going to school, so in this sense, too, caution is important.”

“So, I concentrate on teaching the language and I answer their questions.”

There is one subject, however, that Apahonchich plans to raise in class.

She wants to teach the women how to talk to the police.

darja-4A man relaxes by meditating. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for men. Although sex advertising has been moving to the Internet in Russia, the letters on the cobblestones still entice men into becoming customers.

Apahonchich’s own attitude to the advertisements has changed as she has photographed them.

“In the past, I would complain about them and think about all the young women they concealed. But after shooting them I saw them as locations and advertisements.  I would think that one was in a good spot for marketing or this one had really different colors, that I had no photos with yellow lettering in them. Or this image was in a good place for setting up and shooting.”

Another thing has changed. The photographer now knows what to say to men who fiercely defend prostitution.

“I ask them whether they would be willing to do the same job themselves or let their children do it. Since they don’t want it for their own children, why would they wish it on others?”

darja-5.JPGThe ads encouraging relaxation are also in English. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich recounts how one of the men in the photos heard a child ask his parents what the ad meant as the model sat waiting on the pavement.

It was no easy task for the parents to explain what the words meant.

Nor was it easy to tell the child why a price had been placed under a woman’s name.

Translated from the Finnish by the Russian Reader