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.

Mikola Dziadok: Thinking about Mikhail Zhlobitsky

mikhail zhlobitskyMikhail Zhlobitsky. Photo courtesy of Mikola Dziadok

Mikola Dziadok
Facebook
November 12, 2018

Thinking about Mikhail Zhlobitsky

It is easy to be a revolutionary and a rebel in revolutionary times. You don’t need to do a lot. You join the crowd, and history carries you along on its waves. It is harder to be a revolutionary when everything that can be forbidden has been forbidden, when humiliation at the hands of the powers that be is the rule, a rule challenged by almost no one, and when your friends and comrades are tortured in vans and the woods by the secret police.

During such times, the only thing that compels people to act is a sense of self-esteem and a fierce, merciless hatred of injustice. Unfortunately, people do not experience these feelings to the same degree. So, in the darkest times, lone champions come to the forefront.

People are slowly forgetting Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who blew himself up at the FSB’s Arkhangelsk office on October 31.  Many other things have happened since then, you see. Yet we know almost nothing about Mikhail. Decent photos of him have not surfaced, his real social media page is nowhere to be found, and we have heard nothing from his family. The trash written by the losers at Komsomolskaya Pravda and similar outlets (“bullied at school,” “wanted to blow up the college,” “mentally abnormal,” etc.) does not count.

We can only guess what Mikhail was like based on what he did.

Seventeen years old. Let us try and recall what we were up to when we were seventeen. We explored the world, made trouble, got drunk with friends, and learned how to have relationships with the opposite sex. We went to university and got our first jobs. If we look back, we will discover a fair amount of time has passed between those years and now. We lived through them. We had our share of fun, we had our share of sorrow, we had our share of experiences. Mikhail will not have these years to live through, because he valued two things—his sense of dignity and hatred of injustice—more than anything else in the world, more than individual happiness, pleasant experiences, etc. He valued them more than his own life.

Think about it. He gave up the most precious thing he had.

graff“Narrm/Melbourne, so-called Australia: Graffiti mural in memory of 17 year old Russian Anarchist-Communist Mikhail Zhlobitsky who died while carrying out an explosive attack against the FSB (Federal Security Service) Regional Headquarters in Arkhangelsk, Russia on October 31st.” Courtesy of 325

We can have different opinions about whether what he did was politically effective,  talk about how he could have accomplished more if he had gone on living, and so on. Essentially, though, he did something most of us would be incapable of doing.

“I’m waiting until I’m 18 years old so I’m responsible for my actions, not my parents. I don’t know what you all are waiting for,” Mikhail wrote in a chat room.

He could not have described himself better.

The Russian cops who leaked a postmortem photo of Mikhail on their Telegram channel, mocking him in the comments to boot, also showed us their true faces.

In the photo, Mikhail’s face was disfigured and burned by the explosion.

I have always believed an individual’s moral strength and their inherent sense of honor has only one dimension: a capacity for self-sacrifice. It runs the gamut from small things, such as giving up immediate pleasures for the sake of others, to revolutionary suicide, the deliberate rejection of life, for the sake of high ideals. What is the point of pretty speeches and big words if your basic need for safety and comfort suddenly outweighs everything else when push comes to shove?

Let us recall how many times each of us, including me, has put personal comfort above our causes.  We were tired at the end of the day and did not go the meeting. We did not go to the protest rally because we were afraid we would be detained. We had exams coming up. We had to finish writing our graduation thesis. It was our birthday. We had to feed the cat. We were not feeling all that great. Take your pick. Activism is cool, but we want other people to do it. We have more important things to worry about: life, family, work, parents, and fun. Or we say we will join the fight after we have done everything else we need to do. We have to think about the future. It would be better if we could be activists without getting into trouble, without getting expelled from university, without paying fines, without going to jail.

I have seen many would-be activists for whom personal comfort was the focus of their lives, although it could not be clearer that life works in such a way that if you want something social change and freedom, you have to give something up.

Mikhail did not talk the talk. He walked the walk. As long as we are afraid to make sacrifices even when it comes to little things, evil will press forward, using handcuffs, tasers, and paddy wagons to achieve its ends. Only a fearless few put themselves in harm’s way. You do not have blow to yourself or commit acts of violence to join their ranks. Besides violence, there is a huge arsenal of methods for effecting change, some of them even more dangerous. We need only remember that a willingness to suffer hardships, albeit tiny hardships, is a prerequisite for change. Revolutions are never comfortable.

Then today’s fearless loners will turn into groups, and the groups will turn into multitudes, and the people who forced seventeen-year-old boys to blow themselves up will be held to account.

Translated by the Russian Reader. My thanks to Mikola Dziadok for his kind permission to translate his essay and publish it here.

Sixteen Blue, Part Two

Petersburg teens playing football on a snowy day, November 11, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

Investigative Committee Asks Health Ministry to Report on Minors Who Lose Their Virginity
Novaya Gazeta
November 11, 2016

The Investigative Committee has proposed that the Health Ministry inform law enforcement agencies when they come across cases of minors who have lost their virginity before the age of sixteen, reports Lenta.ru, quoting Yevgenia Minayeva, head of the special investigations procedural control directorate.

Law enforcement officers are thus hoping to prevent sexual offenses. Ms. Minyaeva insisted communication of this information “protects the rights and legitimate interests of minors.” According to her, it would be wrong to consider this cooperation a violation of doctor-patient confidentiality, because “the confidentiality of the preliminary investigation is protected by law to no lesser extent.”

Minayeva explained that  it is a criminal offense in Russia to have “sexual intercourse and other sexual acts with a person under the age of sixteen.” However, such crimes are usually concealed by those involved in the intercourse “by virtue of natural shyness or at the instigation of relative and friends.”

“At the same time, teenaged victims of such crimes acquire victimized behavioral patterns and in the future become victims of more serious crimes or eventually become perpetrators of sexual crimes themselves,” said Minayev.

Sexologist Alexander Poleyev called the proposal “incredibly strange.”

“Science has long known that sex steers teenagers with high hormonal levels away from crime, delinquency, vandalism, and aggression,” he said.

Poleyev also noted that doctors can disclose information about their patients only by court order. If doctors disclose this information on an extrajudicial basis, “there will be terrible distrust of physicians,” argued Poleyev.

The Health Ministry will consider the Investigative Committee’s proposal “in the prescribed manner, involving a large number of experts on the given topic,” Govorit Moskva radio station was told by the Health Ministry’s press service.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Dmitri Dinze for the heads-up. See my previous posts in this occasional series on young people in Russia today and the moral panics generated around them by media, politicians, and the public.

Ilya Matveev: The Childish Face of Russian Fascism Today

Our friend Ilya Matveev writes:

I have noticed, incidentally, that the focus in the current state-sponsored fascist upsurge is on children—moreover, both as objects of various bad actions (“propaganda,” pedophilia, etc.) and as subjects, as “young militants.” For example, teenagers were clearly involved in the “attempt to clean up the dormitory” in Moscow’s Kapotnya District: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were thirteen or fourteen. This was all shown on national TV almost as an example to be emulated. Children also play a large role in convicted Russian neo-Nazi Maxim “Tesak” Martsinkevich’s Occupy Pedophilia campaign (likewise hyped on TV). The same kids have opened up their own shop (Occupy Gerontophilia) and set to bullying their gay agemates. Kids beat up activists at LGBT protests. Eighty percent of attendees at the so-called Day of Russian Rage were children. Finally, a sixth-former (!) has detected homosexuality in T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and again it has made the TV news. This stuff is served up completely seriously, as the new moral standard.

In general, I see two major differences from previous years. Very rapidly, just as described by Hannah Arendt, whole groups of people are denied the status of human beings. For example, it is taken as a given in fascist rags like Komsomolskaya Pravda that the Interior Ministry is using a gang of teenagers against illegal immigrants. Legally, migrant workers are no longer human beings; the issue of “purging” them is a technical matter, not one of law enforcement, and anything goes here. LGBT are also not human beings, but defective biomaterial, so their “hearts should be burned” and so on.

That is the first difference. The second is the focus on children. In the noughties, “youth policy” was about the eighteen- to twenty-year-olds who embedded themselves in a fake albeit political organization (Nashi), with its own program, ideology, and so on. (Although Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko and Kremlin ideology chief Vladislav Surkov daydreamed of units of stormtroopers combating the “orange menace” on the streets.) Now it is a matter of fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds, with a distinct taste of hatred as something absolutely irrational, along the lines of school bullying. The state has no doctrine or theory of hatred: there is only the pure emotion displayed by laboratory mice-like children. Grown-up “psychologists” and “educators” comment on this, arguing that we really are facing a gay threat and IT SHOWS in children. In short, the shit has hit the fan. Now things really are serious.

“Who Knows What a Girl with Bright-Green Shoelaces Might Have in Mind?”

We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.

All you need to know about the Putin regime, packed into one minute and forty-seven seconds.

Gold shoelaces, flaming red hair, a provocative text on someone’s jeans. This evening, the attention of these police officers is directed to everything unusual. Operation “Leader” is underway. Its objective is to locate and neutralize teenage subculture groups.

It is said that these groups have recently begun acting particularly aggressively. The other day, for example, two classes at a school in Kirov staged a rumble, and now police inspectors have increased their vigilance to be on the safe side. Who knows what a girl with bright-green shoelaces might have in mind?

Girl: “I like the color green.”

The color of this young man’s hair also prompted the curiosity of the police inspectors. The young man calls himself a “punk.”

Female police inspector: “Why do you look that way?”

Punk: “Why do you look the way you do? I don’t ask you that.”

Male police officer: “Her hair isn’t dyed. Your hair is dyed. You stand out.”

Punk: “So I’m not one of the crowd. Give me a cigarette.”

Now the “punk” will be meeting more often with the folks in gray. The police have decided to screen him—to find out whom he associates with and whether he is involved in anything illegal.

Olga Yergina, Inspector, Juvenile Affairs Department: “As a rule, groups in Russia have a leader. [The leader] comes up with and hatches, say, a plan and proposes it to the other members of the group. Say, let’s commit the theft of some property or other or some things. As a rule, members of the group usually agree to commit the wrongful act, and so it turns out that they are guilty of conspiracy.”

This group of young people was also unable to hide from the inspectors. The teenagers do not admit to being skinheads, although several of them are already on file with the police.

Female police officer: “That one was born in 1995.”

Skinhead: “I’m fifteen.”

They claim they are well behaved: that they don’t drink and that they go in for sports sometimes.

The inspectors have their work cut out for them with this bunch, work that goes by the code name of “prevention.” The key now is to keep them from committing a crime or attending an unauthorized political rally. Although a written promise is a mere formality, teenagers have to be kept on a leash somehow, don’t they?

Translated by the Russian Reader

Sergei Volkov on Being a Teacher in Russia after the Anti-Gay Law

In the Zone of Silence
How to talk with teens after passage of the law banning gay propaganda
Sergei Volkov
New Times
June 17, 2013

On June 11, the State Duma passed in its third reading a law banning promotion of homosexuality. Complex problems are being driven underground, where teenagers will be left one on one with their questions.

The law banning “gay propaganda” has passed. And although the much broader notion of “non-traditional sexual relations” figures in its wording, this is exactly how it will be referred to for short.

What does the law have to do with me, the father of a quite traditional family (from the viewpoint of the people who drafted the law)? Everything. I’m a schoolteacher. I’m a university lecturer. I’m the editor of a journal for teachers and university lecturers. I’m a member of the Public Chamber. And more than two thousand people, including teenagers, read my Facebook page. When I say or write something, it ceases to be private: with the right will, it can be regarded as propaganda. You see, I’m already one small step closer to falling under this law. Also, I mainly work with teenagers, with minors and with people who work with them. That’s another small step. And I’d like to clear up some of the law’s nuances so as not to fall into its trap.

The law says that dissemination of information aimed at forming non-traditional sexual attitudes among children, presenting non-traditional sexual relations as attractive, giving a distorted view of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relations, or imposing information that provokes interest in such relations will be considered “promotion” [or “propaganda”] and as such deemed punishable. Okay.

Does this mean that if I consider a pupil with a non-traditional sexual orientation (I have had experience with such pupils, and, as I know firsthand, so have many other educators) normal and want him to realize himself in the future as he likes, I’m coming dangerously close to breaking the law? I still haven’t engaged in propaganda, but in my own mind I think of this person as ordinary and “legal,” and I think the same thing about the relations he will have with other people like him. I haven’t opened my mouth yet, but I’m no longer so pure before the law.

And if I do open my mouth—because, for example, a pupil comes to have a heart to heart talk with me (I’ve had experience with such conversations, like many other educators, believe you me) or sends a message to my inbox or shares his problems in an essay? Should I tell him what I think or should I tell him what the law requires? The law requires I don’t give a distorted view of the equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relations. So if a female pupil comes to talk to me about her sufferings over a boy, I can hear her out, comfort her, and give her advice. But what if the sufferings of another female pupil are over a girl? Do I have to tell her it’s disgusting and perverted? If I talk to her and comfort her the way I did the first female pupil, will I thus be affirming the equivalence of such relations? Will that come under the law? Or will it not be considered propaganda because it’s one on one, not intentional or systematic?

But what if the conversation happens in the classroom—because, for example, I need to intervene in a conflict involving a student who is “different,” or because we’re discussing a book, a film, an incident, or the law itself? (Teenagers aren’t blind: many of them are interested in politics and what is happening in society.) Or, say, what if I’m asked about the project Children 404, a Facebook page where children of non-traditional orientation talk about what it is like for them in the adult world, a world of homophobes? In these cases, I’ll have to talk in public. So what? What should I say? Or should I hand them the text of the law while shaking my head and mumbling something unintelligible by way of saying, “You see, I can’t do it: the fines are so steep. What if someone suddenly takes what I say the wrong way or files a complaint? You can’t be too cautious”?

Or, for example, the publisher Samokat has just released the book Fool’s Cap, by Darya Wilke. It’s a poignant and beautifully written book about a boy who lives in a puppet theater (his parents are actors), a book about the world of theatrical workshops, a book about puppets—and a book about love. The boy becomes aware of his unconventionality, his sexual specialness. And so as not to be found out he pretends by playing the role of jester, which is his favorite puppet. He gradually grows up emotionally and realizes a jester is not someone who plays the fool, lets everyone take a whack at him, and hides under the fool’s cap. Real jesters are freer and stronger than kings. So he decides to do his own little coming out. And he wins.

I often tell teenagers about new books, because we read a lot of stuff that is not on the curriculum. I want to tell them, among other things, about this book as well. But will I be able to do it now without fear of being accused of gay propaganda? What guarantee is there that some parent won’t come running into the school screaming that their child has had a book about “faggots” rammed down his throat? The parent won’t even bother to open the book, but he will be certain I’ve committed a crime just by introducing it to my students. Remember how quickly parental opinion turned against Ilya Kolmanovsky: they demanded their children be protected from a gay teacher, who wasn’t really gay but had only gone to the State Duma to support the protest against passage of the law and explain to people that if a person is homosexual, they are that way by nature. Of course, not all parents were against Kolmanovsky, only a minority, but in our business one unhinged parent is enough to ruin a teacher and a school forever. Believe me when I say I know what I’m talking about.

The law has been passed, but the controversy over it has not died down. I’ve noticed that problems not addressed by the law often get mixed up into the debate. For example, can a same-sex couple be considered a family? Can the marriage be registered, or must the union be tagged with a different label? Can same-sex couples adopt children? These issues are exacerbated by the fact that such things are more and more permitted in Europe. For many, this is a sign it’s time we in Russia should ban these things. Unfortunately, the confusion and tension around these issues makes it impossible to get to the bottom of them.

Aggression comes pouring out of many people when discussing same-sex relationships (and the new law in particular), revealing an inner fear. Talking through the problem could be a remedy for fear, but the law drives it into the zone of silence and presents people working with adolescents with a difficult choice.

Silence is detrimental to teenagers who have discovered their own specialness. They need to talk about it with someone. I am very grateful to my fellow educators who replied to my question on Facebook by writing that nothing would change for them after passage of the law and that as before they would try and help any pupil with any problem, because all pupils are equal to them.

My last point has to do with the fact that homophobically minded people make the following move as one of the strongest arguments in their favor. They ask whether I would want my own son to be seduced by a gay. My answer is that I don’t want my son to be seduced, and it doesn’t matter whether the seducer is a woman or a man. I would want my son to figure out what he wanted, and for things to happen as they should, the way he wants. Or the way he wants with the person or persons with whom they’re going to happen. And I want for him to know that I’m ready at any moment to talk with him and accept him. And that there are other adults ready to do the same.

What I very much do not want is for him to break himself to satisfy the majority and its laws and not have the chance to be himself, or for him to be left without help by people who could give him help but prefer to keep quiet on pain of punishment.

Sergei Volkov teaches Russian language and literature at School No. 57 in Moscow. He is also editor-in-chief of the journal Literature, an associate professor of philology at the Higher School of Economics, a lecturer at the Moscow Art Theater Studio School, and a member of the Russian Federal Public Chamber and the Ministry of Education’s Public Council.

Original article in Russian