Yulia Tsvetkova is on trial. If found guilty — as more than 99 per cent of people who face court in Russia are — she will face six years in prison. But this is a trial being watched closely by Russia’s creative community. Tsvetkova is an artist. She is also being prosecuted for feminist drawings that she posted on social media.
Twenty-seven-year-old Tsvetkova is from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, a city of 250,000 people in Russia’s Far East. Embracing art at an early age, she later channeled her creativity into building a community for young people where they could learn about gender, feminism, and LGBTQ community. She later took on the role of director at a youth theatre, and ran several online groups on feminism and sex education for young people, including a performance of the Vagina Monologues which celebrated the power of the female body. But in 2019, police started investigating Tsvetkova’s play The Blue and The Pink, which explored gender stereotypes. The artist was arrested on 20 November 2019, and put on house arrest two days later, charged with “production and dissemination of pornographic materials”. She was also accused of spreading “homosexual propaganda” to minors, and was later fined.
On 9 June, prosecutors confirmed that Tsvetkova was still due to stand trial, provoking real life protests and online outrage. Tsvetkova would be forced to answer for several cartoonish drawings of naked women with captions that read “Real women have body fat – and it’s normal” or “Real women have wrinkles and grey hair – and it’s normal”.
The trial has paricularly raised concerns in Russia’s creative community, feminist activists and the LGBTQ community, all of whom fear the trial could spark renewed pressure to curtail their online activities. The Calvert Journal talked to activists and creatives about Yulia Tsvetkova’s case and what it means for Russian culture today.
Yulia Tsvetkova’s case is a horrifying story. It shows that the Russian authorities can prosecute any artist or activist who is inconvenient for them or who they simply don’t like. This is a message that no one, especially women, is protected in this country.
Yulia’s case is also disturbing because the authorities’ attack wasn’t just carried out through the “gay propanda law”, but by describing her work as “spreading pornography”. This legislation has the potential to become a crisis for modern Russia in the same way that we’ve seen the police planting illegal drugs.
I hope we manage to win the fight for Yulia’s freedom. I can see how this case has sparked solidarity among feminists, activists, artists, and even people who are usually quite remote from politics — everyone is outraged. But unfortunately, the level of support we’ve gathered is still much smaller than what we’ve seen in other political cases. Yulia is not a politician or oppositional lawyer. She is an artist and feminist, and this is exactly what she will be prosecuted for: for her honestly, feminist beliefs and creativity. This is why I worry that a lot of Russian people might not support her; she is not someone worthy of empathy or compassion in the eyes of mainstream society. But O-zine, other progressive outlets, journalists and activists are trying to do as much as we can to raise awareness and fight for Yulia’s freedom.
Yulia Tsvetkova’s prosecution is political. She’s not just an artist, but a LGBTQ and feminist activist. It’s an expression of our government’s homophobia, misogyny and sexism, and overriding belief that activism is something negative and punishable. All Russian artists must unite and show solidarity with Yulia, and demand that all charges are dropped. Anyone could be in Yulia’s place, facing 6 years in prison for simply publishing your work, I also make drawings of the body and I have also drawn vulvas, which, according to the government’s logic, probably means that I deserve the same punishment. We should unite behind this case because it concerns everyone. Today it’s Yulia and tomorrow it’s someone else, and we should show the government that we will not tolerate this.
The best way to help this cause is to join the pickets, post on social media spreading information about the case, and sign the petition.
I am a feminist and a photographer. I take portraits, and I have photographed people nude before. I do not post these photos online, and now it seems I never will, even though body positive photography needs these depictions of real unretouched and non-sexualised bodies.
Yulia Tsvetkova’s case is political from start to finish. Yulia is not only an artist, but also a feminist activist who worked on educating teenagers. Since 2019, when Yulia was first charged, feminism and women’s rights have become more urgent and prominent in Russia than ever. For over a year, lawyers and activists have been trying to push through a new and very necessary law on domestic violence.
For me, it’s horrifying and painful to see a woman of my age being tried in court and threatened with six years in prison for sketches of a female body, especially when museums around the world are full of paintings of naked women drawn by men. Why is the first pornography, and the second art? It means that the female body still doesn’t belong to women. It can be adored and objectified, but women have no right to subjectivity.
Yulia Tsvetkova’s case is an example for others: be quiet or you’ll be next. That is what scares me most, especially if we don’t manage to secure Yulia’s freedom. It’s mostly feminists fighting for Yulia because for “serious male journalists”, it’s not a valid reason to come out to protest, like it was when journalist Ivan Golunov was arrested. All the political cases are equal, but feminism in Russia is still not considered “serious politics”.
I literally shake with anger when I hear about the story of Yulia Tsvetkova. If I had grown up with the kind information which she is sharing, if I had been exposed as a child to these kinds of images and information, I would have had a different life. I wouldn’t have to put in years into undoing all the harm caused to me by the lack of sexual education in Russia, the lack of empowerment, and the lack of body-positive and sex-positive information.
I would love Yulia Tsvetkova to reform sexual education in Russia, and to be at the forefront of people creating the new reality for women in my country. I want to unite forces with her. We are growing up with women facing centuries of institutional disempowerment, specifically related to their own body and sex. I’ve had hundreds of women approach me who have no idea about their own bodies, their own anatomy and what’s possible for a woman’s body. So many of us hate our bodies and feel repressed in the current system, and working with women I see that so much. It’s happening all around the world, but in Russia, this kind of work is particularly crucial.