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Russia: Feminist activist on trial on pornography charges

Feminist activist and artist Yulia Tsvetkova leaves after a court session in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia, Monday, April 12, 2021. A Russian court on Monday opened the trial of Yulia Tsvetkova charged with disseminating pornography after she shared artwork depicting female genitalia online -- a case in line with the Kremlin’s conservative stance promoting “traditional family values.” (AP Photo/Alexander Permyakov)

MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian court on Monday opened the trial of a feminist activist and artist charged with disseminating pornography after she shared artwork depicting female anatomy online — a case in line with the Kremlin’s conservative stance promoting “traditional family values” that has been widely seen as controversial and elicited international outrage.

Yulia Tsvetkova, 27, from the far-eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, faces up to six years in prison on charges reportedly related to her group on the popular social network VKontakte where colorful, stylized drawings of vaginas were posted. Tsvetkova is not allowed to give details of accusations against her.

The first hearing in the Komsomolsk-on-Amur court on Monday comes a year and a half after Tsvetkova was first detained, and eight months after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed constitutional amendments that outlawed same-sex marriage and tasked the government with “preserving traditional family values.”

Tsvetkova’s lawyer, Irina Ruchko, told reporters after the hearing that Tsvetkova maintains her innocence and that her defense team intends to prove it in court.

Tsvetkova ran a children’s theater and was a vocal advocate of feminism and LGBT rights. She founded an online group, called Vagina Monologues, encouraging followers to fight stigma and taboo surrounding the female body, and posted other people’s art in it.

Amnesty International last week called the case, which is being heard behind closed doors, “Kafkaesque absurdity” and urged Russian authorities to drop all charges against the activist who was merely “freely expressing her views through art.”

Tsvetkova’s mother, Anna Khodyreva, echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Associated Press and said that the court should dismiss the case. “Yulia has always been against pornography. … Feminists are against pornography because it’s exploitation of women’s bodies,” she said.

Tsvetkova was detained in November 2019 and spent the next four months under house arrest. Her home was raided, as well as her mother’s education studio for children.

The activist was fined twice for violating Russia’s law against disseminating gay “propaganda” to minors. The court ordered Tsvetkova to pay a fine of 50,000 rubles ($780) in December 2019 for running an LGBT-themed online group, and 75,000 rubles ($1,060) more in July 2020 for a drawing in support of LGBT families. The second fine was later decreased to 50,000 rubles.

Many public figures have spoken out in her support, including Russian state TV veteran Vladimir Pozner. Activists across Russia protested her prosecution, artists dedicated performances to her, and an online petition demanding to drop the charges gathered over 250,000 signatures.

On Saturday, an exhibition of Tsvetkova’s paintings opened in St. Petersburg. “The snowball of censorship has started to bother the artistic community very much, and we understood that if we don’t stand up for Yulia, don’t support her, any other person can be next,” artist Alexei Gorbushin, who organized and took part in performances in Tsvetkova’s support, said at the exhibition.

The European Union’s delegation to Russia said in a tweet last week that the bloc “is closely following” the case against Tsvetkova and that “apparently, her persecution is related to her public position as an LGBT activist.” The delegation called on Russian authorities to stop the prosecution of the activist.

The past two years have been an ordeal for both Tsvetkova and her mother. As well as the pressure from the authorities, they say they received death threats and were repeatedly harassed by strangers. Khodyreva’s education studio for children has lost a vast number of clients. Tsvetkova’s children’s theater no longer exists — frequent visits from law enforcement were too distressing for the children, and it was decided to shut it down, Khodyreva said.

“It is terrifying. I’m still looking back at the door even now,” Khodyreva told the AP. “The police have barged in so many times that … I’m not ready to have the children involved in this mayhem.”

Tsvetkova’s troubles seem to have started when Merak, the children’s theater, was preparing to show a play about gender stereotypes, titled “The Blues and the Pinks,” in March 2019 at a theater festival she organized.

The festival lost two venues it found, Khodyreva said, and police questioned children involved in the play about whether Tsvetkova, who directed it, talked to them about LGBT issues. The play had nothing to do with LGBT issues — the name referred to colors traditionally associated with boys and girls, but in the 1990s, “blue” and “pink” in Russian were popular colloquialisms for gay men and women.

According to Khodyreva, police didn’t talk to the children’s parents, many of whom supported her and her daughter, and this experience was very traumatic for the theater’s young students.

“We saw how bad the children felt. We saw how the boy who came up with the name for the play cried, thinking it was his fault,” Khodyreva said, adding that another boy who worried he’d told police something about her daughter cried.

Tsvetkova was repeatedly summoned for interrogations. In March 2019, the activist said she was questioned about a series of her drawings called “A Woman is Not a Doll.” The cartoonish depictions of naked or semi-naked women bore captions such as “Real women have hair on their bodies — and that’s normal,” “Real women have body fat — and that’s normal.” Police alleged the images were pornographic, Tsvetkova said in a VKontakte post.

Months later, she was detained and charged with disseminating pornography.