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

 

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Yulia Tsvetkova: Blues and Pinks

“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
Larisa Zhukova
Lenta.ru
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.

pic_08ab34d1a9a5f76eb7ff4c96411bec73Detail 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.

pic_dc844038f81c1c5c70e0d764a49c0a98

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.

pic_eda40eabbbb3ba6a6ff95708693a0148Photo 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.

pic_7bc908930662b55a0cdbabb1976b5037Photo 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.

pic_55145f4a6ff0238f1689b54bfaa9dccbPhoto 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.

Getting Out the Vote in Arkhangelsk

Archangel LifePhoto published March 10, 2018, on the Archangelsk Life community page on the VK social network. “Photo of the Day. ‘We’re Going to Vote.’ *The common law wife of regional MP Alexander Dyatlov, chair of the regional committee of United Russia Party supporters, is in the middle.”

Darya Goloschapova
Facebook
March 11, 2018

A good illustration. Society has left women without pants and, apparently, taken the shirts off their backs. It has reduced them to sexualized objects whose sexual function is emphaized even in the civic act of voting, as remote from the bedrom as could be. But it’s cool: they are going to vote. Why are they naked? Are they going straight from the shower to vote? Then where did those ridiculous high heels come from? Did they just come down from the pole in a strip club? Why is this generally routine and uninteresting act decked out in Russia like a wedding in an archaic society? Men show off their power (see the campaign ads of “rich and successful” men supporting Putin), while women show off their naked bodies, sexual desire, submissiveness, and vulnerability.

Thanks to Bella Rappoport for the heads up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“It’s a Mystery to Me Why Women Don’t Recognize This Oppression”: Russian and Belarusian Teens on Gender Stereotypes

“You’re a Future Warrior!” Gender Stereotypes in School
Afisha Daily talked with teenagers from different cities who disagree with traditional gender roles
Afisha Daily
June 1, 2016

Lena, 16, Perm Territory
I started thinking hard about violations of rights a couple of years ago when I accidentally happened on a [social network] group featuring the stories of young women. The things they told about were horrifying: rape and domestic violence. But the criminals had not been punished because the police had found no evidence of crimes or no one had believed the young women. I wondered what had happened to justice if such egregious crimes went unpunished.

Since then, I have noticed more often the swinish behavior of males towards females, which is apparently considered the norm in our country. Men whistle at young women as they walk by, and they grope them just because they feel like it. Young women usually just put up with this.

I recently faced a similar situation myself. I like to dress nicely: not for anyone else, but for myself. One fine day, when I was walking downtown in a short skirt and high heels, an unpleasant elderly man touched my leg. My first reaction was shock. Nothing like that had happened to me before. I could not even react, and the man was able to get away. The outrage I had thus not been able to express swirled round in my head for the rest of the day. But it was a lesson to me. From now on, I will know how to behave in such circumstances. If something like that happens, I will try and stop the person from doing it, and then reason with him.

I often notice the unequal treatment of boys and girls at vocational school. We have only three boys in our group, but usually only one of them comes to class. There have been times when I was the only one to raise my hand to answer a questions, but the boy was picked to “take the rap for everyone,” because “the stronger sex must protect us.” During geography class, we learned about the unequal salaries of men and women for the same work. Someone shouted, “Serves them right!” The others laughed. In our nearly entirely female group no one voiced her disagreement. Was I really the only one who thought it was unfair? Back in high school, I was amazed when female teachers would say the main thing for girls was finding a good husband, while doing good in school was another matter.

I have also encountered injustice in the social networks. For example, there was a survey question: who should be the head of the family? The possible answers were “the man” and “both spouses are equal.” “The woman” was not even considered as an option, and more than half the people who responded voted for “the man.”

I am quite glad my parents really are equals in our family. Neither of them orders the other one round, and there is certainly no use of force. But I recently had an unpleasant conversation with Mom. It was explained to me that I would be a woman, and I would have to find a better half of the male sex (that was obligatory!) and have children, because it was, supposedly, my destiny. When I asked for arguments, I was told that was the way things were.

You cannot escape from the patriarchal mindset. We live in a country where ordinary life is closely bound up with the church and traditions. It is as if everyone has forgotten that ours is a secular country. I have the sense that our authorities judge people according to the Domostroi, which says you can beat your wife.

Some young women do not respect each other. As long as men see this, they will go on thinking they can treat them disrespectfully.

Mark, 17, Ivanovo
When I got fired up by feminism, many people thought it was really strange, because I was a boy. My outlook today is that I am against discrimination on any grounds. A lot of things have changed about me, but very little has budged in my environment.

It’s silly to deny the “adult” world is dominated by gender inequality. But things are worse in the world of kids, who have stereotypes and attitudes foisted on them. We are brought up on the standard system, which says that boys must be strong and are not allowed to shed tears, while girls must be dainty princesses.

School often abuses its right to educate children. It all starts with the school uniform. Your appearance, one of the most accessible forms of self-expression, is strictly regulated by other people. Then there is the division into “M” and “F.” Girls are taught to cook in home economics, while boys learn to be carpenters in shop class. Personally, I found it terribly offensive I was unable to learn to cook something tasty, although I consider it a wonderful occupation. Instead, I had to do stupid work that nowadays is done by wage workers for money. In physical education classes, we were divided into strong kids and weak kids. The boys, of course, were automatically the strong kids, so the physical education teacher would always be screaming at us, “Don’t give up! You’re a future warrior! Who is going to protect your wife?”

I felt less of this pressure in high school. Maybe it was because the teachers thought we had turned out “right” by then?

It is a touchy situation with friends. They have been brainwashed: the stereotypes are deeply rooted. They don’t want to see the framework into which they have been driven. They snap at me when I try to take into account the opinion of both boys and girls. As if our personal lives were already prescribed by someone in advance, and everyone follows these instructions.

Things are different at home. Everyone is family, and there is no one to fight with. My parents, who were raised in the seventies, project their gender attitudes onto me and my brothers. But can you blame them for this? My father sees us as future businessmen, entrepreneurs, and holders of high office.

Some might say that only in this way can we save humankind and a normal society. But who defined these standards, and why can’t we violate them? Nowadays, people have suddenly taken it into their heads to preserve certain truths. But if you take a look a history, you find that the “truths” have always been different.

I see feminist and similar ideas as a way out. I think activists should bring these ideas to the schools. Education has to be changed, not radically, but gradually. That is the only possible way to educate a society in which there will be no inequality.

Maria, 17, Transbaikal Territory
I live in a military town where nearly all the families consist of a wife and a husband in the military. The head of such families is the husband. He is considered the protector, and the woman is obliged to stay at home and do all the household chores. There are not so many jobs here nor any chances for self-improvement, either. These families have not even heard about equality. If the topic comes up, the conclusion is always the same. The husband is the breadwinner. The wife stays at home, meaning she doesn’t get tired, so she has no reason to pretend she is oppressed.

Having seen their fill of this, half of the boys definitely want to go into the military. It isn’t hard for them to achieve this goal. These fellows make it known to their girls right away that they should wait for them to come home from obligatory military service. And then, at the drop of a hat, they will have to give up their studies and their jobs and move with them to a godforsaken town to start their new careers as maids.

I have been trying to convey to others (including at school) that this is abnormal. Everyone takes it as a joke. The worse thing is that the girls have the same reaction as the guys. It’s a mystery to me why women don’t recognize this oppression.

I think that women’s rights are systematically violated just because feminism is a secret club spoken about in whispers, and even then not everyone gets to hear them. If all the stories about rape, abduction, and beatings were made public, everything would be a lot better. Women would give a lot more thought to the fact that such a number of crimes is not just a coincidence.

Nastya, 17, Minsk
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I wondered about all the gender stereotypes around me. I couldn’t understand at all why people encouraged this, and I fought back against equality, not even knowing what feminism was. When I found out there was such a movement I immediately supported it.

School is full of gender stereotypes, and that is sad. School should be a place where not only maths and history are taught but also respect. Even the teachers support inequality, to say nothing of the students.

Recently, our biology teacher told us, “If a girl says no, she means yes. Girls are all like that.”

And our home room teacher, a women, ended a public lesson on the bravery of Belarusian women during the war years by saying, “The point of a woman’s life is to have a family and raise children.”

She is a fairly religious woman. She is always saying that girls must be weak and bestow their beauty only on their husbands.

Once, in class, I said women were not obliged to have kids.

A male classmate replied, “If a woman doesn’t have kids, then what is she good for?”

The whole thing is sad.

Anton, 17, Moscow
Until the tenth form or so, I was dead set against modern feminism. I thought it was a total profanation and perversion of the suffragette movement. I changed my mind after meeting feminists and realizing the movement for equal rights was still relevant today as a means of combating domestic violence, rape, and discrimination.

Some girls might make fun of the reluctance of male classmates to go and serve in the army. They might voice incomprehension and ridicule. Personally, I haven’t witnessed such instances. What I saw has been limited to friendly teasing.

Teachers can sometimes have the gall to say boys should do physics, while girls have no need of it. That is a matter for their own conscience. Especially delusional persons have demanded that schoolgirls wear high heels, but that has led to nothing.

The stories my female classmates have told me have once again convinced me of society’s narrow-mindedness. Everyone already knows the list of stereotypes: hysterics and demands to “give us grandkids,” restrictions on socializing with the opposite sex, and insults based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Disrespect for one’s own children, students, and simply people, the rejection of any opinion except one’s own own, and fear of new things are just a short list of the ailments that have afflicted our society.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts in this occasional series on young people in Russia today and the moral panics generated around them by the media, politicians, and the public.

“Prenatal clinics are now a source of obscurantism”

“Prenatal clinics are now a source of obscurantism”: “Helpful Advice for Strengthening Family Ties” Brochure Handed Out in Prenatal Clinics in Moscow
Yuri Lvov
September 1, 2015
Kommersant

An acquaintance of mine is expecting a baby, and she was issued a so-called exchange card [obmennaya karta] at a prenatal clinic. This, for those of you who do not know, is a brochure containing about twenty pages of various medical tests. But my acquaintance’s exchange card was about twice as long, and this additional content makes it virtually a new work by Vladimir Sorokin. It is simply a monument to the New Middle Age. The ads at the back of the brochures—for diapers and rocking chairs that “imitate the motions of parents”—are one thing. But the text printed alongside them, “Useful Advice for Strengthening Family Ties,” is genuinely obscurantist and insulting.

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Sample “exchange card” for pregnant women. Courtesy of 2polisa.ru

“It is best for the woman not to awaken the ‘beast’ in her man: a wife’s ability to be second constitutes her greatest value for the man.” “All men wish to be the heads of their families because it is their God-given destiny.” “The man cannot stand to be supervised by his wife: the head of the family cannot be supervised! Try and supervise the country’s president: will he be able to do much for his country?” argues the text’s author. He or she is not listed, by the way, and although the word “god” is capitalized, what god is meant is not spelled out. So we will assume that a certain denomination has played no role here. The Moscow Health Department Health itself simply converted to some faith, apparently, in connection with layoffs of doctors and cuts in the number of hospital beds.

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Andrey Ryabushkin (1861-1904), Merchant Family in the Seventeeth Century, 1896. Oil on canvas. The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It would seem that mandatory health insurance policies now come equipped with a divine covering and the rhetoric of the Domostroy. But in the sixteenth century, the man in charge was the tsar, who really could not be supervised, unlike, it would seem, the president in an electoral democracy. By the way, similar advice—e.g., to greet your husband in a clean apron and say nothing while he eats supper—was to be found in a Soviet book of the 1960s entitled Housekeeping [Domovodstvo]. Even back then, however, such advice looked like a stupid atavism: the Soviet regime had long ago destroyed the foundations of patriarchy. But now, half a century laters, we read, of all things, about the male’s divine status in the family. In the twenty-first century, neighborhood prenatal clinics in Moscow are a source of obscurantism. They could have at least thought what it is like for single pregnant women, whom god did not send husbands, to read stuff like this.

In Russia, whatever problem you tackle is serious, but the topic of feminism had always seemed concocted to me. Domestic violence in connection with widespread drunkenness and police inaction is a real problem, but feminism in the sense of the struggle for women’s rights appeared as far-fetched as the recent controversy over the word “chick” on the social networks. Russian women have long enjoyed all the same rights as men: they can be anything from bosses to rail sleeper layers. If anything, society rather suffers from a lack of respect for the work of housewives. But if the health department has hatched a plan to send women back to the kitchen, consider me a feminist.

________

Yulia Markina, the brochure’s publisher: 

I myself am the mother of three children, and I discovered that the exchange cards at prenatal clinics were obsolete. They were compiled way back in the 1980s. Many tests were not listed in them, and OB/GYNs had to update them manually. Some other mothers and I contacted different departments, but no one responded. So then we offered the doctors to develop new cards, and our designer worked out the bugs.  To recover our expenses somehow we added advertisements. We published 15,000 copies of this card and have been distributing them to prenatal clinics. Women have been grabbing them up, and some places have even run out of them.

In this issue of the exchange card, we decided to publish a psychologist’s advice on a trial basis. This advice is based on normal Christian principles. In fact, many obstetricians, worldly wise adults, have backed up this advice. My own life experience speaks to the fact that these recommendations works.

Marriages based on selfishness quickly disintegrate, so many women have to give birth alone. These tips will make selfish people indignant, of course: “How come I have to restrict myself in some way?” Well, what can you do: everyone is different. However, we are not going to publish such tips again so as not to upset anyone.

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The heading on page 31 of the controversial Moscow “exchange card,” a brochure distributed to pregnant women at prenatal clinics, reads, “PRACTICAL TIPS FROM PRESIDENT’S WIVES ON HOW TO IMPROVE FAMILY RELATIONS. It’s a well-known fact that behind every famous man is a woman. Reading the biographies of successful people in various fields, we see confirmation of this. For example: Roosevelt, Lincoln, [and] Churchill. Let’s have a look at several tips that helped these women [sic] make their husbands great.” Image courtesy of Afisha Gorod

 

Excerpted from Anastasia Karimova, “‘Don’t awaken the beast’: What is happening in prenatal clinics,” Afisha Gorod, September 2, 2015. Both articles translated by the Russian Reader