On 28 December, 2020, feminist artist Darya Apakhonchich became one of five Russian citizens labelled as “foreign agent”.
The label is the latest twist on old legislation which saw the Russian government crack down on non-governmental groups receiving money from abroad. Previously, only organisations and media outlets could be given a “foreign agent” label — but a new amendment made on 30 December means that individuals can also be targeted.
Anyone who receives foreign funds, and distributes “printed, audio, audiovisual, messages and materials intended for an unlimited number of persons”, can be named as a “foreign agent”. They are then obliged to create legal entities, report to the Ministry of Justice, and preface their publications with the “foreign agent” label. Disobedience can be punished with a fine.
Apakhonchich is a performance artist and Russian language teacher. She is part of the social art performance group Rodina (or Motherland in English), who organise performances and installations on political subjects, ranging from autocracy to ecology and domestic violence. She also leads an initiative teaching Russian to foreigners and refugees in St Petersburg who can’t afford to pay for language courses — most of whom are stay-at-home mothers. “While I teach the women, our children play together in the next room,” Apakhonchich, who is a mother of two, told The Calvert Journal.
Last July, she organised the performance Vulva Ballet in front of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in support of feminist illustrator Yulia Tsvetkova, who was convicted of “distributing pornography” with her body-positive illustrations of women’s bodies. Apakhonchich was detained following the performance and fined 10,000 roubles (£100). She also lost her teaching job with the Red Cross, who, she claims did not want a “feminist” working for them.
The artist says she is perplexed to be included on the list, given that she doesn’t work in the media. With 1,560 friends on Facebook, she doesn’t even qualify as a blogger, according to the now defunct 2017 “law on bloggers”, which required bloggers with more than 3,000 daily readers to register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor.
“I found out that I was on this list [of “media foreign agents”] from friends who are journalists and lawyers, and I was shocked because I am not a journalist,” Apakhonchich told The Calvert Journal. “This was so strange… If you’re a foreign agent, you need to represent a certain foreign country… But which country am I representing?” she added. “I haven’t even received an official response to know what exactly I am accused of.”
Apakhonchich says that she has not received any foreign grants or funds, apart from art festival royalties, help from friends living abroad after an illness, and donations she received to pay her fine in 2020. “I wish I had a grant for my teaching project but I don’t,” she laughed. “The whole situation reminds me of the 1930s, when you could be imprisoned [in Russia] for speaking, or teaching a foreign language. Maybe the [intelligence services] need work.”
Apakhonchich says she will challenge the decision in court, with two defenders who helped her when she was detained last summer. “This is a new law and it’s not clear how it will work,” she says. She is hopeful that she will succeed in court. And if she doesn’t? “It sounds like I need to change profession, not teach Russian, not do artworks, not participate in international festivals. I can’t imagine the future, because I can’t understand what is happening.”
“I understand that, most likely, I was included in the list because of my civic activism,” Apakhonchich told Russian online media outlet Fontanka.ru. “In addition, I have an educational project; I teach Russian to migrant and refugee women. [...] Perhaps I was credited with activities benefiting foreign citizens, like the Syrian women I teach? But still, this is not the work of the media.”
Since 2012, dozens of foreign-funded non-profits, ranging from the NGO defending voters’ rights Golos, to local press associations and human rights centres, have been registered as “foreign agents”. The legislation was challenged by federal ombudsman Vladimir Lukin on grounds that it stigmatised NGOs, but the Constitutional Court upheld the law, arguing that the term “foreign agent” lacked the negative connotations it held in the Cold War-era and “was not intended to persecute or discredit” organisations.
In November 2017, a new law classified foreign-funded news agencies in Russia as “foreign agents”, in response to an American law passed earlier that year, which made Russian-funded media companies in the US to register as “foreign agents”. The amend on 30 December 2020 expanded the law to individuals, in addition to media companies.
The first individuals to be classified as “foreign agents” by the Ministry of Justice, alongside artist Darya Apakhonchich, are human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, RFE/RL journalists Sergey Markelov and Lyudmila Savitskaya, and Denis Kamalyagin, editor-in-chief of the Pskov regional newspaper.
In December, organisations such as Nasiliu.net (No to Violence), an NGO supporting victims of domestic violence, was also deemed a “foreign agent”.
The law is one of the most recent expressions of the Russian government’s conservative and authoritarian rule, which seeks to limit the expression of liberal ideas and values. Under President Vladimir Putin’s last term, a raft of legislation has been introduced that targets those who do not conform to “traditional” ideas promulgated by both the government and church, as well as those who pose political challenges. One of the most emblematic of these bills was the “gay propaganda” law of 2013, which forbade information or expression of homosexulity, effectively stamping out any discussion of homosexuality as well as the expression of same-sex relationships in public.
Apakhonchich’s case follows a decade of high profile attacks against cultural figures. Figures such as the punk band Pussy Riot, film and theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov, and illustrator Yulia Tsvetkova have faced trials, arrests, and imprisonment because of their work in the arts. With the egregious case of Tsvetkova last summer, which saw the artist arrested due to body-positive drawings which depicted female body parts, there seemed to be a turning point for feminists, and the Instagram generation, for whom the internet has provided a second freedom away from the clutches of more traditional, state-run media.
Stigmatising those who must announce their “foreign agent” status, the new application of the law will serve to isolate those it labels, casting a darker shadow on the liberal-minded generation of creative Russians.