On May 1, Yulia Tsvetkova, a 27-year-old Russian LGBTQ activist and artist came out from eight months of radio silence with an announcement: As an act of peaceful protest against the injustices she has been enduring from the Kremlin for almost two years now, she decided to start a hunger strike. Tsvetkova’s trial began on April 12, 2021, in the Central District Court of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, an industrial center of the Russian Far East. She faces charges of “producing and disseminating pornography” (Article 242 (3b) of the Russian Criminal Code) – charges which, if she is found guilty of, she could face up to six years in prison. The charges are linked to her role as an administrator of the female body-positive online page, The Vagina Monologues.
The account, published on the Russian social network VKontakte (VK), features abstract drawings of female sexual organs with the goal of removing the stigma around the vagina and female physiology.
“This absurdity has lasted almost a year and a half. A woman has been criminally charged with ‘producing pornography’ simply for drawing and publishing images of the female body and freely expressing her views through art,” Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, said. “During this ordeal, Yulia has spent time under house arrest and twice been subjected to extortionate fines under the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law.”
As Zviagina noted, Tsvetkova’s complicated relationship with the Russian government began way before her trial – almost two years ago, around March 2019. At that time, the Russian artist ran a children’s theater through which she produced a play that challenged gender roles. However, after many visits and questioning from law enforcement, the children’s theater no longer exists. At that time, she was also questioned about a series of drawings titled A Woman is not a Doll. The body positivity campaign comprised of a series of drawings of women, in some instances naked, with captions such as “Living Women have Body Hair: And it’s Normal!”, “Living Women Menstruate: And it’s Normal!”, and “Living Women Sometimes get Acne: And it’s Normal!”.
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The culmination of everything ultimately led to her arrest in November 2019. She remained on house arrest until March 2020, when she was finally released. She was found guilty of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors” and fined twice – once in December 2019 and another in July 2020. In December 2019, she was fined under the article for content on her VK page. In July, it was for her drawing Family is where love is. Support LGBT+ families, depicting two same-sex couples with children, according to Amnesty International. The 2013 ‘gay propaganda’ law purportedly protects “children from information advocating for a denial of traditional family values.”
As the Coalition to Free the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners writes, Tsvetkova’s persecution fits into the context of a government campaign of the “protection of traditional values,” as a way to secure the regime’s hold on political power in Russia. “All this indicates [the] trumped-up nature of the charges and the obvious political motivation for the prosecution,” the Coalition writes.
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When Tsvetkova took to her mother’s Facebook page to announce her hunger strike on May 1, it was almost after two years of battle against the Russian government – with what appears to be only slim chances of winning. Tsvetkova is asking for her trial to be public. So far, according to Tsvetkova’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, the court closed sessions and neither the public defender nor the human rights ombudsman were allowed inside. Tsvetkova is not allowed to publicly discuss her case either.
“The Russian authorities must stop trying to hide this Kafkaesque absurdity behind closed doors, and guarantee Yulia’s right to a public hearing,” Amnesty International writes. “We also reiterate our call on the Russian authorities to immediately drop all charges against Yulia Tsvetkova, stop targeting feminist, LGBTI, and other activists, and guarantee artistic freedom for all.”
While the outcome of the trial remains unsure for Tsvetkova, her case has sparked international outrage and support for the artist. According to AP News, activists across Russia have protested her prosecution, artists dedicated performances to her, and an online petition demanding that the charges be dropped gathered over 250,000 signatures. The European Union’s delegation to Russia is also following the case and called on authorities to stop the prosecution.
“Am I scared? Yes, perhaps. But I have nothing to lose,” the Russian artist wrote. “My health has been undermined long enough. There are hardly any bindings due to work, colleagues, or friends, thanks to the state’s action, too. I only have my dignity, and now I’m glad to do the way my conscience says.”