“He Threatened to Kill Us for Perverting Children”
A Feminist Staged a Children’s Play. She Has Been Accused of Extremism and Interrogated by Police
March 15, 2019
The police department in Komsomolsk-on-Amur has been investigating the work of feminist Yulia Tsvetkova, producer of the activist comedy theater Merak. The ostensible cause of the investigation is her production of a children’s play about gender stereotypes, Blues and Pinks, which the people who denounced Tsvetkova to the police regarded as promotion of homosexual relations among minors. The suspicions of the authorities have also been piqued by the anti-militarist dance productions Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and Prague Spring, and the VK community page Komsomolka. Lenta.ru recorded Tsvetkova’s account of why regional activists have grown accustomed to threats of real violence and how the local extremism prevention center (Center “E”) inspects children’s dances and drawings.
“Are You Against the Soviet Union?”
Everyone who has known us for a long time agrees that something completely insane has been happening. We have pupils who have been working with us for almost sixteen years, starting with my mom’s early development workshop.
Our theater is me, the actors, and my mom, our manager. We are a tiny theater company in a really small city and the only young people’s theater of its kind. We are not a classic theater company, but a horizontal (egalitarian) and activist theater. We highlight societal problems and look for ways of solving them. We established the theater a year ago. We decided to call it Merak, with the stress on the first syllable. In Serbian, mérak means a buzz, a high, life’s little pleasures.
The actors are twenty-one children aged six and up. They write poems, contribute to the scripts, build scenery, and choreograph the dance numbers. As director, I supply the overall outline, but then I leave the creativity to them. How do you feel in this scene? I ask them. What should it be like? How should the dialogue sound? What words would you use to say that? How would you dance it? Some find it odd I deal with children as equals, but I believe it has to be this way. We use improvisation, forum theater, gags, and free dance.
Everything was fine until February, until we decided to stage four danced-based plays, which we had been rehearsing for six months. Two plays are staged one day, while the other two plays are staged the next day. We came up with the idea of calling them a festival by way of combining them. It would have been the first activist art festival in the region. A week before the first performance we got a phone call from city hall. The next day, the Youth Center, a venue we had already confirmed, told us they were booked up on the dates we needed, and there were no openings for the next six months.
The telephone conversation with city hall lasted over an our. City officials went over our poster point by point. Why was our play called Blues and Pinks? We wrote, “We can do it again”: were we against the Soviet Union or something? We were asked what we meant by the word “individual.” Obviously, there was something about what we were doing they didn’t like. We also suddenly got the cold shoulder at other venues.
Detail of a poster for The Color of Saffron Festival of Activist Art. The inscription reads “We can do it again. We can ban it!”
After the news that the festival had been shut down was published, city hall called us and said we had misunderstood them. Actually, they supported our undertaking. They invited us to a meeting at which they made it understood that if we denied the news reports, they would help us find a venue. Since I don’t like having my arm twisted, and I didn’t think I had done anything wrong by talking about the connection between their first phone call and the sudden refusals to give us a venue, I was not about to refute any of the reports. That was when they interrogated the kids.
“The Kids Are Feared like Terrible Dissidents”
To be honest, I thought we would be called on the carpet for our anti-militarist production Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. It is a translation of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of System of a Down. He often voices his opposition to war and the arms industry. The big dance number in the play is set to his song. It’s an urgent problem for us, because all the boys who attend our workshop, which has been functioning for over twenty years, try to smuggle in toy pistols at first. But we have a ban on weapons, even toy weapons. Why? We are trying to make sense of things. During the big dance number, one dancer acquires a “pistol.” Then another gets one, too, as a means of defense. A third dance gets hold of a machine gun, and the atmosphere heats up. It is satirical and exaggerated, of course, but it is a quite dramatic play as well.
Merak Theater’s poster for its four-play, two-day festival, The Color of Saffron. Originally scheduled for March 16 and 17, it was to have featured (in descending order) Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, Spring [sic], Untouchables, and Blues and Pinks.
But when we came up with the play, the shooting at the college in Kerch occurred. The kids were scared: the shooting affected them greatly. We talked a lot about what they thought about the incident and how it could have been avoided. No one at school discussed the incident with the children at all, although it should be said adults generally avoid discussing really important things with teenagers. The kids came up with the play’s finale on their own: it showed how the situation could have been avoided.
Prague Spring is a production based on Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We pay homage to Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography and Maurice Béjart’s 1955 choreography, using music by John Cage. Coincidentally, I got the idea during the fiftieth anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops: the two “springs” came together in my mind around the subject of human rights and resisting oppression. It’s a simple, obvious subject, but when you grow up in a small city like Komsomolsk, it can seem quite remote and forbidden. But this is just what I read into it, inner thoughts not meant for viewers. The kids simply dance spring. That’s it. Six-year-olds hop up and down and run around in circles, making up half of it as they go along.
Our fifteen-minute play Untouchables focuses on bullying at school and kindergarten. A lot of what the kids told us themselves about their own experiences went into the play. The more we talk things through, the easier it is for them to deal with them.
Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK
Blues and Pinks is a play that illustrates stereotypes about girls and boys. According to the script, we run through the list of clichés: girls like pink, boys like blue; boys are messy, girls clean up after them; boy are defenders and warriors and shouldn’t cry, while girls are future mothers who dream only of getting married; girls and boys can never understand each other. This is presented on stage as a lighthearted dance. We try and show the notion that if a boy pulls your pigtail, it means he likes you is a step away from the idea that if a man beats a woman he must love her.
We continue by suggesting a solution. One of the boys dances, releasing his pent-up feelings as it were. The other boys follow his example, realizing that, whether they dance or not, it does not make any more or less guys. The girls share their dreams. One of them wants to be a businesswoman, while another wants to be a director. They recite the names of great women: the first woman to climb Everest, the first woman to win an Oscar, and so on.
Sophisticated audiences in the western half of Russia would probably find it quite naive, but in our city it is timely and relevant. For example, the other day, a local radio presenter, Tatyana Zhemerenetskaya, announced she planned to run for mayor. She was fired: her bosses were outraged by her excessively “unfeminine ambitions.” Women are supposed to stay home and make soup. In the final scene of our play, the kids say they are individuals. They have dreams and passions.
The funny thing is I didn’t even think about the connotation of the play’s title, which the police caught. One of our pupils came up with it. I have hung out with female LGBT activists, and none of them ever call themselves “blues” or “pinks.” They are just colors to me. Honestly, if I had had doubts, I would not have bothered using the words in the title.
Our actors are between six and seventeen, but the authorities fear us as if we were terrible dissidents. Miraculously, we found a woman interested in contemporary young people’s theater who was not afraid to provide us with a venue. We intend to hold the festival there as planned, on March 16 and 17. But we have nowhere to seat viewers: we cannot find people who will give us chairs. One person said yes, but later he was scared off, apparently.
“She Drew the Rainbow of Her Own Free Will”
The policewoman who came to my office could not say out loud the reason for the investigation. The complaint read that we were promoting homosexuality among minors. She showed me the complaint and blushed.
During my interrogation, I was told I was at the local department for extremism and terrorism prevention (Center “E”). Three complaints had been filed against me: for promoting homosexual relations among minors, for inciting hatred towards men, and for “extremism,” I think.
The interrogation lasted nearly four hours.
First, the officers gave me screenshots of various posts and photos from my personal social media page and the community page Dandelion Field, where I write about really simple things like contraception, HIV, and condoms, things that, unfortunately, not all teenagers know about. There was also stuff from Komsomolka, which deals with feminism. By the way, there I don’t write at all about men: it’s a community page about women.
One of the screenshots showed a workshop from last year at which a girl had drawn a picture, and there was a rainbow in her picture. I was forced to write two paragraphs explains that my underage female pupil had drawn the rainbow of her own free will. No one had pressured and coerced her to draw it.
Next, we got hung up on the phrase “gender stereotypes.” The police officer thought gender had something to do with transgenders. I explained to him what gender stereotypes were, what I meant by the term, and gave examples of stereotypes, as if I were sitting for an exam at school.
Then I was shown a screenshot of a post in which I had negatively assessed the “gay propaganda law,” and I had described the persecution of the lesbians in Chechnya and the “corrective” rapes to which they had been subjected.
The detective asked whether I engaged in propaganda. He asked was sex education was, and who needed it and why. He asked what feminism was. He asked what intersectional feminism was. Ultimately, I had to describe to him how I imagined traditional family values, what I thought about families. I wrote that I wasn’t against traditional family values like love, acceptance, and warmth. This ridiculous testimony took up four pages.
This was followed by the persecution of our children and personal attacks on them. There is no other way of putting it.
“The Police Have Come for You. Let’s Go”
The police officers running the investigation are clueless about the questions they have been asking, and this incompetence has only exacerbated the circumstances.
On March 10, they came for one of boys and one of our girls. It is not clear why they were chosen. There are seventeen teenagers in our theater, and they attend different schools. The police did not pick on our oldest and youngest pupils.
The 15-year-old girl was summoned after school from her house and grilled for two hours by five adults: two police officers and three female school employees. They put the screws on her and descended into semi-insults. They quizzed her about LGBT. Did she know what it meant? they asked. How had she found out? Was I promoting homosexuality? Did I encourage girls to sleep with girls, and boys with boys? The subjects they discussed were such that they would have earned an 18+ rating, but the interrogation took place without the girl’s parents present.
Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK
The 13-year-old boy was kept after school. He was summoned to the headmaster’s office. “The police have come for you. Let’s go,” he was told. No one had the presence of mind to call his parents. The police officers showed him the likes I had awarded a post I no longer remembered, but they were showing this to a child! The absurdity was off the charts. They asked the boy and the girl about each other. Maybe they had picked the through the list of numbers in their telephones.
When, the next day, they came for another of our boys, we warned him to call his parents immediately. He called his dad, who works as a beat cop, so he was not grilled for two hours, but twenty minutes, and the conversation was more polite and less biased.
Everyone is scared. Naturally, it is frightening when you’re interrogated for two hours. For now, no one wants to quit the theater, because everyone is aware of my work. They know I am opposed to violence, and I treat boys and girls equally. But, first of all, the subject itself scares the kids, because they are still kids and not tuned into all these issues. Second, they feel the pressure: they are afraid to say something wrong and inadvertently throw me under the bus.
Their parents and I have now been trying to understand the legal grounds of why we have been persecuted. We have been poring over the laws.
“Rewind to Fifty Years Ago”
Until recently, everyone really loved our theater and told us how cool we were. We did two productions wholly in English about the history of the English language, which were unprecedented in our city. At the Drama Theater, we did a dance performance about the problems of teenagers entitled Evolution. It was about how society puts pressure on carefree kids, but ultimately their friends help them and their problems are solved. This was all performed to poems written by one of the girls involved in the production. The show was a benefit for disabled children and the local organization Lighthouse of Hope. Not a bad track record for a single year!
Children grow up, and the problems they face get more complicated. First of all, they deal with domestic violence. I have had whole black months when it was one story after another, and I cried because I felt so helpless. It’s really scary: dad’s beating mom, dad’s beating me, dad’s beating my brother. Gender stereotypes are also something our kids deal with up close and personal. My fifteen-year-old female pupils are already pestered now with questions of when they are getting married and having kids, and why they should bother with careers. Homophobia is also a force. I know there are LGBT teenagers out there, and I cannot imagine how hard it is for them to cope alone. The streets in Komsomolsk are a really dangerous place, just as in most typical provincial towns, I would guess.
Komsomolsk is one half a factory town, and one half a gangster town. When you hear about us, rewind to fifty years ago. It is not the twenty-first century here, but the twentieth century. I think what really spooked the police was that I had been talking about activism and feminism. These words scare people.
Our local feminist community consists of two volunteers and me. I have an audience of a thousand some subscribers on our community page, but between two and twenty people in Komsomolsk itself. That is the number of people who come to our events. Unfortunately, that is our audience for the time being. It is a infantile scale.
But there have always been plenty of haters. When I decided to do a lecture on abuse, there were threats: we will come and show you what real violence is like, I was warned. Instead, a group of women showed up who sabotaged the lecture by insisting victims had only themselves to blame or something of the sort.
Even our women’s tea party was disrupted. We wanted to make it women-only, without men, so we could talk about our problems. Men wrote to us that they would come and show us what feminism was. There were so many threats that even the young women themselves got scared, along with the venue where we had scheduled the tea party. They asked us not to come.
I have stopped responding to death threats. Now, as we have been chatting, I have received three messages from a young man. The only word in the messages you can print is the word “you.” Yesterday, a man wrote on the community page of our theater workshop threatening to kill us for “perverting children.” This the general background.
After I was interrogated for four hours by the police about feminism and sex education, I felt I had a claim to the hashtag #FeminismIsNotExtremism. Six months ago, I would insert in posts in connection with the case of Lyubov Kalugina, when I was not even remotely in harm’s way. It is one thing to read about persecuted activists, but it is another thing to become one of them. People keep asking why I do it. What is the point? My run-in with the police makes me think hard about the kind of country we live in. But I can name at least twenty-one people for whom what I do is not pointless. I can name even more people, actually.
Photo from the Merak Activist Comedy Theater’s page on VK
What scares me most is the kids think they did something wrong. I ask them, You believe in what we do? Yes, they reply. Do you see anything bad about it? No, they answer. But the whole situation puts them under psychological pressure. It is a really terrible precedent, because the kids have been rapped on the knuckles as it were. They really work their butts off staging our plays. They invest a tremendous amount of energy in them. They are sincerely looking for ways to change the world for the better. These kids are really delicate and sensitive, and they are close to each other as group. They volunteer their time, they visit orphanages, they support other social projects. They are totally maxed out: they try and get straight A’s at school, and they are involved in academic competitions. In the midst of all their activities, they manage to come to four-hour-long, physically draining rehearsals.
But then adults tell them activism is bad, activism is evil, without even fully understand what activism is. And when these adults show up a week before our festival and tell us to get lost, both the kids and I are stressed out. They are really worried.
I have not slept or eaten for three days. I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I have been summoned again to the extremism prevention department. The phone is tapped, and calls with my lawyer are cut off. But I dream of opening a women’s crisis center in our city and an alternative independent school where the children would be not be bullied and hounded, and continuing to move the theater forward. In late spring, we are doing a production based on Svetlana Alexievich’s book Last Witnesses, about children during the Second World War, and in the summer we are staging a new English-language production.
Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader.
UPDATE. DVHab.ru reports that, despite the fact the local authorities ostensibly canceled Merak Theater’s Color of Saffron Festival, the festival went ahead way anyway at “closed” venues. DVHab.ru included a full video of Merak’s performance of Blues and Pinks in its article. I have reproduced it below.