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‘They define themselves through their experience of the war’ Katrin Nenasheva on trying to build a safe environment for forcibly deported Ukrainian children
Over the last seven years, Russian artist and activist Katrin Nenasheva has accomplished an impressive amount: in addition to her numerous public protest pieces, she founded PsychoActive, a support group for people living with mental illness, as well as Teens and Cats, a similar group for teenagers. Since Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, Nenasheva has remained busy, putting her more high-concept work on hold to do all she can to help people affected by the war. She spoke to Meduza about two of the projects she’s helped launch in the last five months: a summer camp for displaced Ukrainian children and a support group for anti-war Russians who chose to remain in the country.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, at least 900,000 Ukrainians have been forcibly deported to Russia, including hundreds of thousands of children. For many, the journey has involved Russian government-run “filtration camps,” where displaced Ukrainians are subjected to a host of new indignities after weeks or months spent trying to survive under shellfire.
While some Ukrainian families eventually manage to return to Ukraine or travel to third countries, many are effectively stuck in Russia. That mean they're constantly surrounded by state propaganda promoting false narratives about the war they've just fled.
Artist and activist Katrin Nenasheva knows a mental health crisis when she sees one. In years past, she’s helped create PsychoActive and Teens and Cats, two support groups for people with mental health disorders. Though the war has exacerbated her own mental health issues, Nenasheva has continued to find ways to mitigate the suffering of those around her. On July 4, she helped launch a summer camp for Ukrainian children who have been forced to come to Russia.
“Most of the camp attendees are children from nine to 12 who were taken from Mariupol, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Sievierodonetsk. But there are also six- and seven-year-olds,” she told Meduza.
While there are other camps for displaced Ukrainian children in Russia, Nenasheva and her fellow camp workers felt it was important to provide an alternative to the numerous pro-Russian ones — especially since parents who are working to save enough money to eventually leave the country often have nowhere else to leave their children during the day.
“It’s better for kids to come to our camp, where the volunteers are feminists, anarchists, and artists than to pro-Russian camps, where they’ll be brainwashed,” she said.
The camp isn’t run by mental health professionals, and politics is far from a safe topic to discuss directly, so Nenasheva and the other camp workers don’t provide therapy or ask children invasive questions about their experiences. Instead, they focus on art, which provides an outlet for children to share and process their thoughts in a more comfortable way.
“The younger children practically don’t talk about the war at all,” said Nenasheva. “It’s mostly the 11- and 12-year-old who discuss it. When we started working with older kids, the first thing one boy said to me was, ‘Hello. My name is Vlad. I spent a month under shellfire.’ The war has become a part of their [the children’s] identity — they define themselves through their experience of the war.”
Another boy who mentioned the war was only nine. After he told Nenasheva that his father died when the family’s house was bombed, she asked him how he was handling it emotionally. “He told me, ‘I’m doing fine. Everything inside has already healed. That was a long time ago.’ I asked how long ago, and he said, ‘A whole month,’” she told Meduza.
Because of the losses they’ve experienced, Nenasheva said, many of the camp attendees are emotionally closed-off.
“When we discuss ways to make friends, a lot of the children say that there’s no point in becoming friends with anybody and that it’s better to be alone, and that if somebody hurts somebody else, the offender should be killed,” she said. In those cases, she and her coworkers advise the children’s parents to seek help from a mental health professional.
The kids also point out differences between life in Russia and life in pre-war Ukraine. “They get upset that there are Russian flags everywhere [in Russia]. It makes them angry. They say it’s not like that in Ukraine,” Nenasheva said. She and the other camp workers try to make sure the teenagers know there are ways for them to return to their home country (though that's not always feasible in practice).
As a Russian woman running a camp for Ukrainian children in Russia, Nenasheva has received a lot of criticism from skeptical Ukrainian people online; after she shared a drawing of the two countries’ flags with a tulip in between them that a young camper had drawn, commenters accused her of forcing him to draw “propaganda.”
But it’s not comments like those that make her feel guilty, she told Meduza; it’s her interactions with the children themselves.
“I don’t feel guilty when people criticize me on social media and tell me I’m a ‘bad Russian’ and that I’m responsible for this war. But when it comes to the children, I have deep feelings of guilt, because they ended up in Russia because of the actions of my compatriots,” she said.
‘The value of freedom’
The sudden outflow of people from Russia after the full-scale war began put Nenasheva at unease. The morality of staying in the country versus leaving has been widely debated among opponents of the war, and while Nenasheva doesn’t blame anybody for leaving, she feels a moral imperative to stay. In April, she teamed up with other activists to create I’m Staying, a support group for people who chose to remain in Russia.
“It’s extremely important right now not to be alone. I’m Staying is oriented towards providing psychological support and developing solidarity and mutual aid networks,” she said. “[...] At the moment, there are more than 90 people in our group. We hold weekly meetings that include activists and former special detention cell inmates as well as psychologists, teachers, managers, accountants, and artists who were involved in political activism before the war.”
When the group first started meeting, Nenasheva said, only about half of the participants were involved in politics. In the months since, however, that number has risen sharply.
“Many people come to our meetings worried about how they haven’t done much activism; when there’s a war going on, it always feels like you’re not doing enough,” she said. Many participants have lost jobs or even loved ones as a result of the war. Some are suicidal.
At their first meeting, the group decided to make a list of their motivations for staying in Russia. Number one of the list was “the value of freedom.” Number two was “the value of love.”
“The concept of ‘the value of love’ includes, first and foremost, love for one’s neighbor, for people. That’s important, because after the war [began], a lot of media researchers and bloggers began talking about how atomized we are [in Russia]. On one hand, that’s true. But on the other hand, there’s a huge number of young people who treat each other with sensitivity and solidarity and who are always ready to join together and help make the world a better place,” Nenasheva said.
Nenasheva is determined to remain in Russia and work for a brighter future; the only thing that could convince her to leave, she said, would be a threat to her loved ones' safety. But she seems to have made peace with the idea that her efforts might only ever pay off in small ways. When asked about Russia’s future, she responded, “No bright future is coming. Only darkness.”
“I’ve thought a lot about whether I’m ready to stay in [the dark Russia of the future] and completely give my adult life over to activism,” she continued. “I’ve thought about the fact that we’ll have to deal with the consequences of destruction — both within our country and on the outside. There’s going to be a lot of work to do. And I don’t know who’s going to do it if I don’t.”
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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