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'Three years down the drain' Artist Yulia Tsvetkova, who fled Russia after being acquitted of felony charges over her art, reflects on her case

Source: Meduza
Alexander Permyakov / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

On November 22, a court in Russia's Khabarovsk Krai upheld the acquittal of artist Yulia Tsvetkova, who was charged with “distributing pornography” for sharing art that depicted vulvas. (She posted the images in an online community called The Vagina Monologues.) Tsvetkova was first acquitted on July 15 — the culmination of three years of agonizing legal proceedings. After the sentence, however, prosecutors appealed the ruling. Tsvetkova left Russia the day after it became clear that she was free. Speaking to Meduza, she described how the criminal proceedings changed her life, why she no longer wants any ties to Russia, and what she plans to do next.

‘There’s nothing that could give me these three years back’

After my first acquittal, we estimated the likelihood that we’d be able to survive the appeal at about 80 percent. Until then, I’d spent all three years always expecting the worst. And not just me — my lawyer [Alexander Pikhovkin] was the exact same way.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t fight, but we had little hope that we’d win. Nobody really believed a total acquittal was possible. So, we weren’t really considering that possibility, and on July 15, I brought a bag for remand prison with me to court. On November 22, [at the appeals trial] we had a lot more hope.

My case demonstrates exactly nothing. What’s so awful about this situation is that no matter how much I want to, I can’t give anybody a recipe for fighting a case in a Russian court and winning. I don’t want to fall into survivorship bias.

I can’t feel triumphant when three years of my life have gone down the drain even though I wasn’t guilty. This case shouldn’t have even happened, and there’s nothing that could give me these three years back.

All of us in Russia have gotten used to cruel courts; we’ve gotten used to the fact that probation is the best you can hope for if a case is opened against you. In our reality, probation is the new acquittal. We’re all losing sight of the fact that none of these cases should exist in the first place. As much as I would like to, I can’t feel victorious. I’m trying hard, but at this point, I can’t.

‘The artists were the most supportive’

I’d like to nip any attempts to find meaning in these three years in the bud. “Sure, I was on trial for three years, but at least I made ten drawings…” Or “Sure, I was on trial for three years, but now my sketchbook is full…” No. This experience didn’t have any meaning. It didn’t have any pros. There’s no ratio [of pros to cons]. Since I’m a smart, grown woman, I can find some silver linings, of course, but it can’t be forgotten: What happened was some hellish shit, and it should never have happened in the first place.

Right now, none of the people who were around me at the start of this are around me anymore. Of course, there’s my family: my mom, my aunts, and my grandmother. But of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues from my past life, there’s nobody left — for various reasons. That’s fine: a long, difficult situation [like mine] destroys everything. That’s how a prolonged illness works: people just leave.

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Of course, there were people who immediately left as soon as the case was opened against me, and that was more than a few. A lot of them just pretended that nothing was happening; some people just shamefully averted their eyes and went away. There were also literal insults, like, “We always knew there was something wrong with her.” But I try not to dwell on all of these minor events, because this was such a long and large-scale process that not even I remember everything that happened.

There were also people who, on the contrary, were never close to me before, but in my time of need, they started helping me and turned out to be very dependable. So great misfortune brings out all of the good and all of the bad in people. It opens people up in the most unexpected ways.

Protesters at a march in memory of murdered politician Boris Nemtsov holding signs in support of Yulia Tsvetkova. Moscow, February 29, 2020
Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy / Vida Press

I saw all kinds of things: both huge negatives and huge positives. I can’t speak about the whole city because, after all, more than 200,000 people live in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. But on the whole, the city tried to ignore my case, and these attempts are still going on to this day. The authorities tried to ban the publication of information about my case. Did Komsomolsk-on-Amur residents go to my trials? No. The majority of people just tried to shut their eyes and move past it. That’s the default attitude of many Russians: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” “The court will figure it out.” And so on.

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As far as I know, the feminist rallies ended a year after my case was opened. I don’t talk to any Russian feminists, and they don’t talk to me; I don’t know how their lives are going or what they’re doing. Artists held a lot more protests in support of me — it took them a lot longer to forget about me. The feminists did something, and I’m grateful to them for that. And by the way, all of my friends, acquaintances, and colleagues were feminists and LGBT activists, but none of the people who were with me three years ago are still with me now.

‘A fear of everything free’

The [updated] law against LGBT propaganda will affect everyone. It’s going to do a lot of damage, both on a personal scale and on a global scale. And as someone who’s been fined under this law twice — after all, it didn’t appear yesterday — I can confirm that it’s all being done sincerely. They really are afraid of gays and lesbians. What I saw during my case showed me that it’s a sincere fear of everything they don’t understand, everything that’s free. It’s a sincere fear of the West. If Russia declared war against its own citizens many years ago, now they’ve declared war on this mythical “collective West” — a real war.

As a result, I believe that this law [against LGBT "propaganda"] is a kind of fake tool to distract from more important issues. It’s all part of the same system: use one hand to give citizens insane prison sentences while you use the other to send them off to war.

‘Not how I wanted to leave’

The most important thing isn’t where I’m located now but that I got out of Russia. [My current location] isn’t a secret; my trusted friends know where I am.

I’m somebody who's probably wanted to get out of Russia my entire life. From my childhood, I traveled a lot and lived in different countries. I started seriously thinking about leaving Russia in 2019 — a few months before my criminal case was opened. When I went to Komsomolsk-on-Amur for the last time and was arrested, I was going to get my things to leave.

[After my case ended,] as soon as I had the chance, I left, and it was a case of forced migration: I knew I couldn’t stay. It was an escape from new criminal cases and from the continuation of this whole nightmare. It’s not the way I would have wanted to leave Russia, and now how I would recommend others do it. It was too rushed, too difficult. It was a departure to nowhere — and for now, it’s even harder than the criminal case itself.

‘I don’t want to settle down’

I’m in the situation of having been through darkness and horror and come out on the other side. What’s next? For now, all I can say is that I want to live a bright and active life. I don’t want to settle down.

It’s unclear to me whether I’ll be able to draw again. My work has been completely destroyed by the state, and it’s impossible to get it back. That’s a closed chapter. I stopped working as an artist almost immediately after my case was opened. I’m not sure whether my drawing will come back to me. I’ve made some attempts and had varying degrees of success.

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I’m still interested in politics, and I’m insanely concerned about the plight of political prisoners in modern Russia, but whether I’ll do any work on that — can I? Do I want to? Until I get back on my own feet, I’m not someone who can create anything or help anybody. Same with the situation with the war. I just got out of my own war — I need time to understand who I am, where I am, and where to go next. But I definitely don’t want to be humiliated for another second.

I’m going to renounce my Russian citizenship, when and if it’s possible. It’s clear that it won’t be anytime soon, because first I need to get citizenship in some other country. And we all know how hard that is right now.

I don’t want to live according to the interests of Russia. Of course, it’s impossible to cut out your roots completely — you can’t just switch off thirty years of life in Russia. There are a lot of people I care about there, whereas here it’s just my mom and my cat. But I don’t want to live by the life and agenda of a country where I’m not. I don’t want to have my body in one country and my soul in another. 

I don’t want to live on the expectation that this regime will fall tomorrow, and we’ll return. Though I understand those who see their forced departure as temporary. But for now, I don’t want to have any ties with the current Russia. If the “beautiful Russia of the future” ever comes, then I’ll see. But for now, I’m going to try and gain a foothold in a different world rather than living in the past. Right now, I’m actively trying to close that door.

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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