ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – A 27-year-old artist faces six years in jail over pornography charges related to her gender-themed theatre projects and body-positive art that included cartoon vaginas.
Supporters of Yulia Tsvetkova say the case has chilling implications for the future of women’s rights in Russia, as it marks the first time an activist has faced criminal charges for the production of feminist art.
Russian prosecutors in the Far East region of Khabarovsk confirmed last week that the criminal case against Tsvetkova will finally be heard in court later this year, at the fourth time of asking. The three previous attempts to bring the case to court failed, a fact taken by local activists as evidence that the case is being pursued on political grounds. Tsvetkova’s supporters have described the situation as particularly alarming as the vast majority of cases that go before Russian courts – more than 99% – end in conviction.
In a bizarre turn of events that has made the case against her seemingly even more absurd, the alleged pornographic nature of Tsvetkova’s art has been established via a legal comparison to paintings found in an episode of Sex and the City.
Tsvetkova has been harassed by the Russian legal system for years: in 2019 she was repeatedly interrogated by the police and security services for her educational, artistic and activist work, eventually being placed under house arrest. In late 2019 and early 2020 she was forced to pay two fines under Russia’s notorious “gay propaganda” law. While under house arrest, she was declared a political prisoner by Amnesty International and local human rights organisation Memorial. Although her case has received some international attention, it pales to the spotlight given to opposition figurehead and arch Vladimir Putin critic, Alexei Navalny.
“Is this the first criminal case directly concerning feminism? I would say yes,” Tsvetkova told VICE World News via Telegram, speaking from her home in Komsomolsk-on-Amur.
She says that other major cases where feminists were prosecuted, such as the 2012 arrest of Pussy Riot band members following a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which took place nine years ago last Sunday, were driven more by anti-Kremlin sentiment than their feminist activism. This likely has contributed to the strong response from local feminists against the indictment.
Her family and other supporters told VICE World News that this was a critical time to raise awareness of her case before it comes to trial at an unspecified date later this year.
“For more than a year now she has been persecuted,” Tsvetkova’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, says. “Why? I have no answer – most likely because they can, because there was some policy or because someone wanted a promotion.”
Tsvetkova was raised in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a medium-sized city in Russia’s eastern Khabarovsk region. In her teens she mounted solo exhibitions before leaving to study abroad, returning home in her twenties to work as a teacher and eventually launch various educational and activist projects in the city.
She soon garnered national attention for her art, in particular for a viral series of body-positive drawings called “A Woman Is Not A Doll.” The pictures featured cartoon depictions of women, many without clothes, along with captions like “real women have body hair, and that’s normal!” or “real women have fat, and that’s normal!”
In March 2019, however, she was called to the local police station and told that sharing her drawings amounted to disseminating pornography, a criminal act punishable under obscenity laws still in place today.
Pressure on her work intensified after a youth theatre company Tsvetkova founded, called Merak, performed a children’s play in 2019 called “Blue and Pink,” which challenged gender roles. Over the course of that year she was interrogated multiple times by the police, who even questioned the children in the play and went on to forbid her from organising a performing arts festival in the city.
In November 2019, she was arrested and placed under house arrest in connection to the ongoing pornography investigation, and over the next three months was convicted with two administrative offences under the “gay propaganda” law for drawing pictures of same-sex families with children, and managing two online LGBTQ communities.
Tsvetkova was forced, for each, to pay 50,000 rubles (currently equivalent to around £480) despite the fact that all content was labelled 18+ and not directed at minors.
“Did she commit a crime? Has she robbed or killed anyone? No,” said Khodyreva in a Zoom interview with VICE World News. “She told children that they are individuals and that they can do anything. She painted pictures about how women can be strong, be different, look different.”
Khodyreva claims that both she and her daughter have repeatedly been harassed by local police as well as national security services. The conditions of the house arrest were allegedly inhumane. In one instance, Tsvetkova developed severe tooth pain and a number of requests to leave the house to receive medical attention were denied. A medical professional was eventually brought in to examine her under unhygienic conditions.
There are varying arguments why Tsvetkova has seemingly been singled out for punishment for her art and activism.
“The fact that Yulia was working with children may have actually been the main incentive of the whole process,” says human rights lawyer Arina Nachinova. “The issue is not only that there is a worry about the corruption of morals, but also of children.”
“There is also the fact that open LGBT activism, and to a lesser extent some forms of feminism or body positive movements, always attracts bigger attention outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg,” she says. “Authorities in smaller regions can be quite conservative, or give little value to issues of human rights or equality.”
Campaigns against feminist and LGBTQ activists are often initiated by influential homophobic figures with large public profiles such as Timur Bulatov, who has taken particular interest in Tsvetkova’s case. He has been linked to online hate groups like “Saw,” named after the horror movie, who have sent death threats to Tsvetkova and other LGBTQ activists. Bulatov himself sent a photograph of a knife to slain bisexual activist Yelena Gregoryeva shortly before her murder. He denied involvement but said that he had “prayed” for her death.
In addition to ongoing anti-LGBTQ pressure, Russia has also been in the midst of a wider crackdown on independent civil society movements of all types, with a number of laws passed in December 2020 limiting free assembly and restricting the activities of individuals and organisations deemed to be “foreign agents.”
“All independent public initiatives related to politics or human rights have been targeted,” says Aleksandr Peredruk, a lawyer specialising in defending protester detainees. “But groups dealing with women’s rights have recently, for some reason, received special attention.”
One of Tsvetkova’s strongest supporters is Darya Apakhonchich, an artist who in January was one of the first five individuals to be declared a “foreign agent.” This label was previously reserved for organisations engaged in political activities and who receive funds from abroad, but the December law was changed to allow individuals to be placed in this category. She herself has been detained for organising a “vulva ballet” in her native St. Petersburg to raise awareness for Tsvetkova’s case.
“Since November 2019, when Yulia was arrested, my colleagues, friends and I have organised exhibitions of solidarity, flash mobs, performances and single-picket protests,” Apakhonchich says. “We’ve done a lot, but it’s never enough – and now our ability to protest has been complicated by new requirements in connection with the pandemic.”
“Yulia was involved in necessary and important work with adolescents,” says artist Katrin Nenasheva. “Unfortunately, the feminist community is very fragmented and we rarely know what is happening in the regions. When I heard about what she was accused of, I organised an exhibition in Moscow. It was one of the first solidarity activities, and Darya Apakhonchich soon organised a similar exhibition in St. Petersburg.”
The protests raised Tsvetkova’s profile and made the case against her well known across Russia, leading to pressure that perhaps contributed to the lifting of the house arrest order in March 2020. Local prosecutors, however, continued to seek grounds for indictment on pornography charges, this time in connection to another of Tsvetkova’s projects: a body-positive page on Russian social network VK called “The Vagina Monologues,” which aimed at destigmatising women’s bodies through art. The prosecution failed to find traction in the courts for much of 2020.
That changed after a June 3rd interview with journalist and blogger Irina Shikhman. While Shikhman declined to show examples from Tsvetkova’s “Vagina Monologues” exhibition on the show, given the allegations of pornographic content, she decided instead to include scenes from the fifth episode of Sex and the City’s first season. These clips depicted stylised paintings of vaginas similar to those found on Tsvetkova’s page.
“This series, and this episode, was shown on NTV and Pyatnitsa for many years with many reruns.” Shikhman said, referring to Russian TV channels. “This is considered inoffensive TV content, but Yulia’s work is said to violate the law. What’s the difference between them?”
In response, the Khabarovsk Region Investigative Committee set up two separate “legal-psychological” consultations to determine whether or not the comparison between the Sex and the City paintings and Tsvetkova’s work was warranted. Two separate consultations were conducted in October and November 2020.
Questions the experts were expected to answer included whether Tsvetkova’s work, as compared to the HBO show, constitutes “pornographic material”, whether these materials have “historical, artistic or cultural value” and whether they provoke “a mental state harmful to human health, including the health of minors.”
The results of the examination were released last month, with the consultants concluding that while the images in Sex and the City were harmless, Tsvetkova’s art constitutes pornography. The documents were submitted along with a fourth request for an indictment, which was granted last week.
Tsvetkova’s supporters say the situation is alarming, and that they have little faith in the Russian judicial system.
“The national courts disregard the human rights they are supposed to protect in the first place,” says Peredruk. “The truth is that there is a lack of impartial and fair justice. There is no independent judicial system in Russia.”
“Convictions in cases like Yulia’s would establish a poor practice that other courts, and authorities in general, will follow,” says Nachinova. “This will create a ‘slippery slope’ situation where broad definitions of ‘pornography’ will become a basis for more and more restrictive interpretations.
The consequences, however, are not limited to the legal realm. The indictment comes as a blow to a feminist community already under fire. “Yulia’s story is one in which the state directly deprives us of our bodies, forbidding us to portray, look at and observe them,” says Nenasheva. “And this not only impacts artists or feminists – it touches every woman in Russia.”
Though the outlook is bleak, Tsvetkova, Khodyreva and their team are preparing for the upcoming fight – one that may not only take place in the courts. Khodyreva wrote an open letter to Cynthia Nixon, one of Sex and the City’s stars who later became a women’s rights activist and political figure in the United States. It is her hope that increased awareness may generate fresh public outcry, one that may, in the face of sizable odds, prevent her daughter from being imprisoned.
“I am very disgusted that the police are doing their dirty work under the cover of your wonderful series,” Khodyreva wrote to Nixon. “Nobody understands what they’re trying to achieve here – Yulia’s lawyers are at a loss...but the police do what they want. And so this is where we have come to: my daughter may be sentenced to six years in the name of your series.”