MOSCOW – Yulia Tsvetkova, a feminist activist in the Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, has been placed under house arrest for two months, ordered to wear an ankle bracelet, and barred from communicating with anyone except her mother and her lawyer.
But that might not be the worst of her ordeal.
"The craziest persecution is going on now," Tsvetkova’s mother, Anna Khodyryeva, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview about her daughter, who has been charged with distributing pornography. "In local online forums and in the comments sections, people are writing that we should be killed or crucified. Yulia is afraid for my life whenever I go out.
"The federal television channels have gotten involved, saying that...we have an LGBT community, although we have not been involved in any LBGT events," Khodyryeva said. "They are broadcasting across the whole country a 2-year-old photograph from a classroom in which a 14-year-old girl is drawing a rainbow. I asked [the girl] what she thinks of it and she just said, 'They are idiots.'"
Tsvetkova, 26, is a fairly prominent figure in the remote city of some 260,000 people. She has had seven individual exhibitions of her artwork, has staged 10 plays as artistic director of the Merak children's theater, runs a feminist forum on the social network VK, and is an environmental activist. She sings and dances professionally and is a certified parkour instructor.
Khodyryeva believes the online assault against Tsvetkova is not really a local phenomenon but was was incited by a St. Petersburg man named Timur Bulatov, a self-proclaimed defender of "traditional values" who has been investigated by the Interior Ministry's anti-extremism unit for his efforts to identify gay teens and outing them to police and schools. In November 2018, the Moscow organizers of an LGBT conference reported that Bulatov had threatened them by telephone. The event was canceled after threats of violence on social media. According to Bulatov's now-shuttered VK page, his group carried out "public activities" in direct coordination with law enforcement agencies.
Bulatov earlier served 2 1/2 years in prison for embezzlement.
Khodyryeva says Bulatov has written to all the parents of the children who attended her local children's group.
"They come in with wild eyes and say that he is completely abnormal," she added. "When they try to defend my studio and me, he tells them that they are sick people and that he will pray for their recovery."
The parents, in turn, have supported Khodyryeva and even bought her a new telephone to replace the one seized by the police during one of the searches they carried out while investigating Tsvetkova.
On November 29, Tsvetkova was officially charged with illegally distributing pornography. If convicted, she faces two to six years in prison. The case files have not been released, so it is unclear exactly what allegedly pornographic material the authorities have in mind. Tsvetkova's art includes many images of male and female genitalia and sexual acts.
In addition, on December 9, she will face an administrative hearing on accusations that she violated Russia's controversial 2013 law against "propagandizing nontraditional lifestyles to minors."
That charge appears to stem from a forum she hosts on the VK social-media site named after the feminist play The Vagina Monologues in which she posted her explicit artwork.
"It had about 100 subscribers," Khodyryeva said. "But after all the hype started, it had 300."
The Khabarovsk Krai branch of the Federal Security Service wrote a letter in May to the regional children’s rights ombudswoman, Viktoria Tregubenko, with a request that she examine Tsvetkova's social-media pages. Tregubenko asked Yelena Kradozhyon-Mazurova, an instructor in the department of Russian and foreign languages at the Far Eastern Management Institute, a branch of the presidential Russian Academy of Management and State Service, to provide an expert opinion.
"Imagining herself a victim of Russian legislation banning the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors...Tsvetkova persistently attracts the attention of minors to the LGBT community, repeatedly mentioning that nontraditional sexual relations are 'a variant of the norm,' which has long been accepted 'by the entire world (except for the most backward countries),'" the expert opinion states. "The author includes Russia among 'the most backward countries' since its legislation doesn't normalize homosexuality and bisexuality, which upsets the author. The author considers herself part of an LGBT community."
Tsvetkova's materials "contain concrete directions and instructions on actions in defense of the interests of the LGBT community and propaganda of the norms of nontraditional sexual relations among young homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people," the report concludes.
The authorities turned their attention to Tsvetkova in March, when her Merak theater attempted to put on a production called Pink And Blue, a performance that was collaboratively written by the children themselves and that dealt with gender stereotypes and issues such as bullying.
Although the title, which was the brainchild of an 11-year-old actor in the show, was simply a reference to boys and girls, the terms "pink" and "blue" are used in Russian slang to refer to lesbians and gay men. The Merak production had nothing to do with sexual or LGBT issues.
Nonetheless, officials accused Tsvetkova of illegally trying to hold a gay-pride event under the guise of a youth theater festival. The program was canceled after the owner of the venue pulled the plug -- under pressure from the local administration, Tsvetkova told RFE/RL at the time.
Around the same time, Tsvetkova attracted the attention of law enforcement because of an online campaign she launched under the slogan "A woman is not a doll (#женщина_не_кукла)." She illustrated the campaign with six hand-drawn images with texts like, "Real women have body hair, and that is normal" and, "Real women menstruate, and that is normal."
She was questioned about the campaign on March 21, after police received an anonymous complaint that the images were pornographic and that she was "corrupting children" by posting them online and at the Merak children's theater.
"As I understood it, they are gathering information," Tsvetkova told RFE/RL at the time. "It is a new complaint and a new case. They threatened me with prosecution, but for now they aren't saying any more."
Tatyana Vinnichenko, the director of the Moscow Community Center For LGBT Initiatives, which is providing legal aid to Tsvetkova and her mother, told RFE/RL that the real purpose of Russia's 2013 law banning the propaganda of "nontraditional lifestyles" to minors is to harass activists and prevent public demonstrations.
"It is a discriminatory law that is used as a tool of repression to suppress activity and discredit activists," Vinnichenko said. "It is surgically used to fight against those who irritate the regime. Most likely, [Tsvetkova's] activity was too noticeable and undesirable to someone."
The New York-based Human Rights Watch on December 3 said Tsvetkova's case was "yet another example of Russia using unfounded accusations and vague laws to intimidate certain activists."
Khodyryeva thinks that things would have been different if her daughter had been intimidated by her conversations with police in March.
"I think that if Yulia had sunk into the shadows, stopped talking to journalists, stopped writing on social media about how she was enduring four-hour interrogations, and if she had stopped giving advice to those who were in similar situations, they might have left her alone," Khodyryeva said. "But she persisted.
"I have lived in this city for a long time," she added. "I know a lot of people. I tried to find out [who was behind this situation] and I was just told: 'It is better if you don't know. You have gotten into a serious mess -- get out of this city.'"