Sorry we exist The emergence, blossoming, and almost complete defeat of Russian drug activism
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a wave of drug use swept over Russia. Opioids, which were easily accessible not just on the black market but in regular drug stores as well, were especially popular. This led to a spike in deaths from overdoses and the increased spread of HIV. Previously, information about the consequences of drug use and access to antiretroviral therapy was practically nonexistent (therapy only became available to all Russians in 2006). At the time, a few, but notable, drug activists focused on education and harm reduction. Russia’s conservative turn in drug policy, however, later squeezed them out of the country altogether. At Meduza’s request, journalist Evgeniya Ofitserova retells the history of this drug activism.
The article you’re reading is part of our philanthropic support program “MeduzaCare.” In August 2020, we’re addressing drug policy. You can find all these materials here in Russian.
Poet and journalist Aleksandr Delfinov and head of the Rylkov Foundation Anya Sarang first met in 1994 at RGGU, where they both studied in the Department of History and Philology. After becoming friends a few years later, the two organized the art group “PG” in 1998. One of the group’s first projects was the “Anti Glam Magazine,” for which they spoke with people “who didn’t subscribe to the mainstream agenda,” says Delfinov. Sarang gave him the contact information for activists Alik Khachatrian and Vitaly Melnikov (whose nickname was “The Executioner”). They worked with people who were using narcotics.
“Alik and Vitaly befriended American photographer John Ranard, who came to Russia to photograph drug users, attempting to show how intensely student life was saturated by substances,” Anya Sarang explains. “At that time, pretty much everyone was affected by drugs: either using themselves or having friends who did. Some people even knew others who OD’d or died from tuberculosis.”
Khachatrian and the Executioner worked in the very first Moscow program to reduce harm from narcotics, where people could access clean needles or get counseling. The program was launched in 1998 by the Dutch branch of Doctors Without Borders, along with the “Mainline” project, which had helped drug users on the streets of Amsterdam since the end of the 1980s. In 1997, Doctors Without Borders signed an agreement with the Russian Health Ministry to train medics from drug treatment hospitals and AIDS centers, as well as employees of non-profit organizations.
Khachatrian and the Executioner brought Sarang onto the project. She became a translator in the training program for regional medics from AIDS centers and drug dispensaries (which developed harm reduction programs in their cities). They held a variety of classes for drug users on topics like AIDS, hepatitis, safe injections, safe sex, and drug policy. In 2003, the All-Russian Harm Reduction Network appeared in Russia, uniting most of the organizations in this area. Sarang became one of the founders of the association.
The Brain magazine
Delfinov was immediately drawn to Vitaly the Executioner and, after the interview, they became friends. The executioner showed Delfinov a brand new magazine about drug users called The Brain, first published in 1999. Delfinov eventually became its editor. The Dutch magazine Mainline, which is published by an organization of the same name, was the prototype for The Brain. “However, our magazine was more punk, more artsy,” Sarang recalls. In the beginning, Alik Khachatrian was The Brain’s chief editor, but Ekaterina Kotova, a journalism student at MGU, took his place after a couple of years.
“I was 18 years old then. I had friends who used. They didn’t know what they needed. I wanted to help them, but there was no information about narcotics anywhere. I learned everything from the Dutch,” Kotova remembers. “I suggested a magazine because at that time Ptiuch was coming to an end and I liked it. Additionally, we saw [Mainline] magazines that came to Moscow from the Netherlands.” Mainline gave them the idea, but they “developed the basic concept in collaboration with drug users.”
The founders of The Brain decided that there should be more attractive and humorous illustrations and comics to help readers better understand the complex information. Delfinov invited Anton Chernyak (Shilo) to The Brain, a colleague at “PG,” artist, and future founder of the rap project Krovostok. Thanks to Shilo, the magazine got its mascot: a man with a brain sticking out of his head, courtesy of artist Pasha Khikhus. Later, he would become one of the most famous cartoonists in the country.
While Kotova and Khachatryan dealt with the text, the Executioner went out “into the field” and spoke with drug users on the streets, drawing them to the project. The Brain was distributed for free on the streets of Moscow and other cities where there were harm-reduction projects. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Brain was the only printed periodical about narcotics in Russia. Though it was created for drug users and specifically distributed among them, people outside this demographic also read it.
Doctors Without Borders funded the The Brain at first. The team later applied for the George Soros and the Global AIDS Alliance “Open Society” grant. In 2003, Open Society turned down work in Russia (though it continued to work in the country for some time with the help of other organizations). The Global AIDS Alliance was now the magazine’s sole source of funding.
Kotova says the magazine was completely uncensored because a zero-tolerance policy for drug use hadn’t yet developed in Russia. There were even people in power, like Duma deputy Aleksandr Barannikov, who supported harm-reduction programs. At this point, even the mainstream media began covering narcotics. There were also websites and books on the subject. As a result, the magazine eventually focused less on providing information and more on its own “visual and creative” aspects.
In 2002, Russia introduced administrative liability for narcotics propaganda. The magazine could no longer receive funding domestically. Ukrainian activists suggested printing The Brain in their country, which allowed it to retain donors. The magazine retained funding for its Ukrainian audience, but Ekaterina Kotova (who remained in Russia) tried to ensure that it could be read everywhere. Part of the print run was smuggled to Moscow. Delfinov later left The Brain and then Russia itself, moving to Germany for an internship. He never returned.
The Brain existed for about 10 years, from 1999 to 2008. According to Kotova, the project came to an end gradually. Printing in Ukraine while being physically located in Russia was difficult. The publication finally ended when the money ran out.
The Brain was made for drug users on the streets. More fortunate drug users could get information online. In 1997, the website high.ru appeared (later renamed Behigh.org) and after three years it became one of the most visible discussion platforms on the Russian Internet.
“In the late 1990s, there was huge interest in psychological culture among young people and I was no exception. In 1997, a future college freshman, I met my future husband, who shared this interest,” Anastasia, one of the platform’s founders, tells Meduza. Her husband registered the domain and Anastasia took on the task of content creation. “This is what actually started our relationship and the history of Behigh.org.”
At first, Anastasia posted scans from library books to the site: books by Tom Wolf, Hunter Thompson, Irving Welsh, and others, who wrote about narcotics, then articles and translations. A section for trip reports was added, where drug users would post stories about their experiences with narcotics. “We only published well-written stories… and I edited them all,” Anastasia emphasizes. In order to give a full picture, they also published stories about bad trips.
“We also touched on the topic of hard drugs, but here the position was clearly against them. I understood that simple prohibition doesn’t work,” says Anastasia. “At one time, some of my older acquaintances introduced me to heroin users, and took me to a ‘spiral den.’ We tried to do it in a similar way at High: let hard drug users tell their own stories and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.”
With time, BeHigh started to discuss everything, not just narcotics. The forum’s height of popularity was between 2001 and 2005. Due to the influx of users from old participants, they started to recruit moderators. At some point, we had to introduce a “quarantine” for newcomers: it was only after a couple weeks spent in this subforum that the “smartest and most creative” were allowed to enter the original BeHigh.
BeHigh is read not only in Russia, but also in the U.S., Israel, Europe, and former Soviet republics. In some cities, thanks to the forum, local communities emerged. The largest were “Moscow BeHigh,” “Petersburg BeHigh,” and “Kyiv BeHigh.” Some people from the forum became friends in real life and even started families.
People from all walks of life read and posted in the forum. “No one cared who was who,” says Anastasia. “God knows who read us. In the early 2000s, the forum was a cult spot. I think it sparked the interest of a lot of people. There was this deputy of [public figure and politician Evgeny] Roizman in the “City without Drugs” movement who spoke in slogans. Everyone made fun of him and he would get upset and fight back. It made us laugh until we cried. He had the nickname “RAC,” which stands for “Russian Against Cannabis.” There was also a director of a private drug treatment clinic who tried to look hip. They called him “Doctor Cocaine” and eventually teased him so much that he freaked out and asked to delete his account.
According to Anastasia, the forum was strictly moderated. It was prohibited to sell or buy drugs. Even asking “where can you get…?” could get you banned for life.
The forum came to an end when participants got older and less coherent. In 2007, the first domain, High.ru, was sold to a private company. After about six months, a site about narcotics appeared at this web address, however its contents differed greatly from what was there before. It now said that narcotics were evil and led to imminent death.
In 2012, the site was no longer available in Russia. BeHigh continued to exist in Russia somewhat illegally until 2015. Today it has not been renewed. The forum is almost non-functional. “It’s just one and a half veterans of the psychedelic revolution still hanging on,” says Anastasia. She explains that a few users asked to delete their accounts several years later to keep from tarnishing their new adult lives. She was sad to delete them because it left gaping holes in the discussions.
“The forum was an organism — bizarre, interesting, and helpful. But it grew old and died. It’s natural. Now it lies in its online mausoleum like a mummy. I don’t see any kind of future for it. It was a phenomenon of the generation,” she concludes.
Irokez and FrontAIDS
Sasha Volgina started to use narcotics after she was raped, and in 1999 she contracted HIV. “In 2003, in St. Petersburg, the number of people with HIV verged on 30,000 and there were 300 sets of [antiretroviral] therapy per city. Special commissions determined who deserved treatment and who didn’t,” Volgina recalled in a conversation with Meduza.
By that time, Volgina was already living with AIDS. Along with other HIV-positive people, she went to support-group meetings of “Candle” where people helped each other and visited the dying in hospitals to take care of them; medical personnel were afraid to get close to these types of patients. Volgina was certain that she would soon be in the same position as these dying people (she started to receive therapy in 2005 when the Global Fund to fight AIDS started importing medicine to Russia).
At one of these Moscow conferences on AIDS and harm reduction, Volgina loudly discussed “Guardians of the Rainbow,” a Russian group of radical eco-activists, known for campaigns of direct action, with the leader of the Petersburg Foundation “Affair” Aleksandr Rumyantsev. Overhearing their conversation, a young man walked up and said that he also belonged to the “Guardians.” That is how Volgina met Irokez.
At the beginning, Irokez attended one of the Moscow training sessions for people who used drugs (because he used them himself) and then became an outreach volunteer for Doctors Without Borders and actively fought for the rights of people with drug dependency (for example he founded a trade union of outreach workers).
Irokez quickly became friends with Volgina, and introduced her to artist Zhenya Flor, eco-activists from the “Guardians,” and antifascists. “When Rumyantsev and I told them about how [in Russia] there are commissions for distributing HIV treatment, they said that this system was pure fascism, and decided to help us,” Volgina remembers.
All together they came up with the Front AIDS movement, which fought for the rights of people living with AIDS through street demonstrations. Volgina and Sarang were their information sector, writing press releases in Russian and English. Irokez, Flor, Rumyantsev, and other activists (among them, for example, was famous antifascist Volodya Ukrop) went out onto the streets.
The Front AIDS movement’s first demonstration of took place in 2004 in Kaliningrad. The situation regarding AIDS and drug use in the city was especially dire. Some people chained themselves to the doors of the city administration. The rest carried signs and screamed, “Our deaths are our shame.” This became the main slogan for Front AIDS.
After every Front AIDS demonstration, they launched “Fax attacks,” Volgina explains. “You send the same text to a bunch of [international] organizations working with AIDS about how activists dying of AIDS are being arrested. From there, in turn, faxes are sent to the administration and police department of the cities where we were arrested. When the fax machines at the Kaliningrad police station ran out of paper after receiving letters from NGOs in Uganda, they were shocked. They asked, “Who are you guys?!”
The second demonstration took place in St. Petersburg: two participants climbed the facade of the Smolny palace and hung a sign on the balcony with the slogan: “Our deaths are our shame!” Other activists brought empty coffins as “a gift” to then Governor Valentina Matviyenko. In 2004, the artist Flor — one of the founders of Front AIDS and a member of the group MoCPax — led a demonstration in Moscow under the phrase: “State Narcotics Control is closed.” They chained together the gates of the Federal Drug Control Service building, locking all the employees inside.
Front AIDS demonstrations appeared not just in the Russian news (stories about the group even appeared on national TV networks) but also internationally. Volgina remembers that then Kommersant special correspondent Valery Panyushkin (now the main editor of Rusfond) contributed a lot to the news coverage of the demonstrations. He really liked the people in the movement. In one interview, Volgina basically calls him the “PR manager of Front AIDS.”
After Front AIDS demonstrators were arrested, they were usually released with a small 500-ruble (about $7) fine. Sometimes, though, it didn’t go quite like that. After the demonstration near the Moscow Justice Ministry in 2005, the activists were taken to court. “Everything was going normally… But this time they didn’t let us go, and for some reason took us back to the department with riot police and didn’t return our passports,” Volgina says. At the police department, they tried to force the activists to give their fingerprints. Then the real scandal started. “Our people were rounded up to be taken out in turn and beaten. We had cans of cucumbers with us, which we crushed and threatened to cut ourselves with. One girl couldn’t keep it together and she cut her own artery. The whole room was covered in blood. The cops realized that we all had AIDS and ran away in fear.”
They let the activists go after this. They called an ambulance and were able to save the girl who cut her wrists. “After this incident, they didn’t touch us — partly because we weren’t an entirely political movement, but more of a medical one,” says Volgina. “The next demonstration was at the Health Ministry in Moscow [in 2005]. It was unthinkable. We blocked the road. I’m scared to imagine what kind of prison sentence we’d get for this today.”
Through its own provocative actions, Front AIDS tried to get generic drugs in Russian pharmacies. The original antiretroviral therapy at that time cost $7,000 a year for one person, and less expensive alternatives were completely unavailable. According to Volgina, activists didn’t hope that the government would provide treatment for free, so they counted on the less expensive versions of the drugs so that people could have the opportunity to buy them. Another of their demands was the introduction of substitution therapy in Russia.
“I even treated myself with stigma back then. I felt like I didn’t deserve free treatment because I was a drug addict, even though I wasn’t using anymore. My first speech, when I still spoke [at demonstrations] in a balaclava, scared to show my face, was written with the sentiment, ‘Sorry we exist,’” Volgina explains. Nevertheless, she became one of the first among HIV-positive people in Russia to speak about her diagnosis without concealing her face or her name.
“We didn’t like that they would show us on TV with our faces blocked out, like criminals,” Volgina says. In 2005, she was recognized at the MTV Russia Music Awards for her contribution to the fight against AIDS. On stage she said, “Zemfira was wrong,” referring to the Zemfira song “AIDS” which includes the line, “But you have AIDS, and it means we’ll die.”
Volgina says she was shocked in 2006, when President Vladimir Putin announced after the the G8 Summit that Russia would provide therapy to all HIV-positive people, regardless of their past. “Then Deputy Health Minister Vladimir Starodubov met with us [Front AIDS] and once again told us that we would get treatment,” Volgina says. Irokez asked, ‘And what about substitution therapy?’ Starodubov said it was out of the question. Irokez answered, ‘I have already been stuck for so many years. I’m tired.’” Irokez died a year later. After a few years he became famous in Russia under his real name, Andrey Rylkov.
The Front AIDS movement ceased to exist in 2007 after the activists managed to achieve their main goal of free access to antiretroviral therapy. “Before, people with AIDS weren’t treated at all,” head editor of “Rusfond” Valerii Panyushkin told Meduza. Sasha Volgina and her friends were the first to show their faces on television and give their names. Before this no one really knew who the people living with AIDS were. They transformed from monsters into interesting and nice young people.”
The Rylkov Foundation
In 2009, Anya Sarang, along with the All-Russian Harm Reduction Network, founded a new organization based on the same principles: the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice (FAR). At first, there was no money at all and the organization relied entirely on volunteers. Then Sarang inherited money from her American friend and gave it all to the Rylkov Foundation. For several years, the George Soros Foundation also supported the Rylkov Foundation — until 2015, when the Russian Justice Ministry banned the Soros Foundation as an “undesirable organization.”
In 2009, artist and absurdist-parade “Monstration” organizer Artem Loskutov was arrested in Novosibirsk after police planted marijuana on him. This provoked a series of protests. Petersburg artists went on a hunger strike, and the Academy of Arts hung a banner that read “Fewer cops, more Loskutov.” In Barnaul, anarchists threw oregano at passers by, future Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova picketed in Moscow, and Delfinov recited poetry in Berlin.
After a month, Loskutov was released and fined 20,000 rubles (now about $265). Sarang and Delfinov decided to support activist art by organizing their own art contest. Tatyana Volkova, the founder of the activist art festival “Media Strike,” supported their initiative.
“It was then that we devised the project ‘Narcophobia.’ I found the word on Google and it turned out that at that point in Russia no one had thought of it [note to readers: there are now more than 36,000 search results]. The phenomenon existed but there was no word for it,” Delfinov recalls. “There is this moment: If you give a demon a name you can use it to subdue it. That’s what we did. We wanted this art activist project to be creative and enlightening at the same time. The theme of the first year was ‘Narcotics as an Instrument of Political Repression.’”
The first “Narcophobia” took place in 2011. Murmansk artist Arkh won the contest with his work “228” in which he “planted drugs” on the police. Loskutov also took part in “Narcophobia” along with artist Maria Kiseleva. He organized a rally from Novosibirsk to Moscow with the slogan “Legalize parsley!” (shortly before this, the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Well Being added parsley to a list of plants containing strong narcotic and toxic substances).
In 2011, Narcophobia created the “Phraisee 12” demonstration — a reference to the former address of the Federal Drug Control Service (12 Maroceyka Street), where the demonstration took place. Artist Matvei “Scythian” Krylov made a wooden rack, where they placed Delfinov (he came to Moscow for work for a couple months). The demonstration was meant to signify how Russia’s methods of combating drugs resembled torture.
While the artist was on “the rack,” other demonstrators tried to give employees of the Federal Drug Control Service copies of their report, which was prepared for the UN Committee Against Torture. The report discussed how hatred and violence are in Russia deliberately used against people suffering from drug addiction. Among other things, the text described the conditions in drug-treatment hospitals and the situation with access to medical help.
At the last “Media Strike” festival in 2015, activists from the “AntiDealer” movement arrived and tried to disrupt a lecture by Rylkov Foundation employee Maksim Maliyshev. Afterward, Narcophobia stopped engaging with art. Today, it’s a competition for journalism pieces about drug policy.
“By and large, we lost”
“When the law on administrative liability for drug propaganda was passed in 2002, some colleagues and I discussed what would happen next. I said that it would get worse in the future,” Delfinov says. He was right.
In 1999, Russia’s chief sanitary inspector, Gennady Onishchenko, issued a statement “on urgent measures to prevent the spread of HIV,” which noted that harm-reduction projects in Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg were “proving themselves well.”
Today, the Russian government sharply opposes harm-reduction programs, including even the distribution of condoms. The Health Ministry’s official website says “the Russian mindset doesn’t allow us to condone promiscuity […] and family values remain a priority among Russians” when it comes to HIV/AIDS prevention.
Harm-reduction programs started to close down and foreign benefactors started leaving Russia. There are now fewer than a dozen non-profit organizations in the country still distributing clean needles on the streets, and the majority of these groups endure the state’s harassment. In 2016, Russia’s Justice Ministry designated both the Rylkov Foundation and a similar project in Tolyatti called “April” as “foreign agents.” As a result, the Rylkov Foundation regularly found itself on the verge of complete closure because of hefty fines for “drug propaganda” supposedly available on its website. In 2020, the site was finally forced to shut down following a complaint by Duma deputy Vasily Piskarev.
The Front AIDS movement’s success with winning the state’s support for universal antiretroviral therapy was an inspiring victory for activists. People had access to therapy, the Global Foundation for the Fight Against AIDS emerged, and there were harm-reduction projects in motion. “But we lost, by and large. When we said in the 2000s that there would be a million people in Russia living with AIDS, we were exaggerating [at the time]. It hurts me to see that it has become the reality,” says Volgina. According to UN estimates, Russia is consistently among the top-10 countries with the largest consumption of opiates per capita. In 2017, Russia was the single worst AIDS epicenter in all of Europe.
Valery Panyushkin agrees with Volgina: “When Putin signed this decree [on the availability of antiretroviral therapy] — when there were several harm-reduction programs — there was a complete sense that reason prevailed. What happened next was amazing. We’d come to an agreement and everything was clear. We had all the numbers.”
After the breakup of Front AIDS, Volgina turned her attention to problems with treatment and founded the “Patient Control” movement. One participant made noise online by recruiting hacker friends to teach activists how to make “Google bombs” that redirected Internet users searching for “funeral home” to the Health Ministry’s website. By this time, however, direct confrontations with the police in the real world were simply too dangerous.
Volgina now lives in Amsterdam and works for the Global Network of People Living with HIV. Anya Sarang (the head of the Rylkov Fund) and Anastasia (one of Behigh.org’s founders) also moved to the Netherlands. Anastasia works with Russian-speaking tourists and expats. Ekaterina Kotova, The Brain’s former chief editor, now works as a potter and lives in Moscow. Alik Khachatryan moved to Canada and Vitaly the Executioner makes electronic music in Moscow. Delfinov still lives in Germany, where he works in journalism and art.
Abridged translation by Megan Luttrell