MOSCOW -- The innocuous-sounding summer camp for feminists and women’s rights activists, Femcamp, was due to be held in Krasnodar, the conservative southern Black Sea region and Cossack heartland.
What could possibly go wrong?
The threats began before they arrived, said Oksana Vasyakina, a Moscow poet.
The summer camp, held last year outside St. Petersburg, was due to feature lectures on such things as women’s poetry, discrimination against women in the workplace, feminism for autistic women, and inclusive feminism for about 15 participants. A master class on feminist activism was also planned.
But the camp events never got under way.
Krasnodar has been the center of something of a Cossack revival during President Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term, and in that time pro-Kremlin Cossacks have gained a reputation for chauvinism, xenophobia, and even violence, grabbing headlines for such things as whipping Pussy Riot feminists and attacking opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his supporters.
Before the feminists arrived in Krasnodar, they received a message purportedly from local Cossacks warning them not to travel to the region -- the first shot across the bow.
Addressing them as "supporters of feminist groups and representatives of the lovers of nontraditional sexual intercourse," the message read: “The Cossacks of Krasnodar Krai do not recommend you hold your camp on our land as we do no propagate tolerance towards those who corrupt society!”
After the feminists made the journey regardless, arriving on August 14, the messages took on a more abusive, threatening tone. "Alright you [expletive], we saw you at the train station we have your photographs you feminist scum -- we’ll find you anyway."
The message was signed: "Yours disrespectfully, the Cossacks of Kuban."
The group planned to camp near Krinitsa Bay, although those plans were scrapped after the landlord suddenly informed them he could not allow them onto the campsite because of "fire safety," Vasyakina told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. The group opted to stay at a hotel instead.
“At 6:40 a.m. I woke to a knock at the door,” said Vasyakina. “I saw four men in civilian clothes, saying they are policemen. We had a child with us: Alena started crying, they really scared her. We were taken away in two cars to a police station. They questioned us one by one. We were held three and half hours and then released.”
The group then traveled to the village of Vozrozhdenie, walked to a park, and sat down on a bench by the gates when a police car parked near them. Four Cossacks and some police got out and demanded the group's IDs -- and upon their request being refused -- threatened them with violence before taking them all to the police station.
The group was held for two hours until the police chief arrived – and when he did he behaved “extremely aggressively” and “shouted like a wild animal.” They were taken in one-by-one for questioning.
“I went first," said Vasyakina. "A man in civilian clothes spoke with me and didn’t introduce himself. He asked various questions: ‘why did we come, how did we meet, are we in any political parties?’ Then the boss said: ‘Oksana, you must understand, these Cossacks didn’t just come up to you for no reason, you were meant to have a camp, some festival.’”
“He suggested we sign a warning and leave the territory of Gelendzhik region, and preferably Krasnodar Krai as well. Which we did.”
Vasyakina concluded that for the Cossacks, "feminism is extremism."
Written by Tom Balmforth based on reporting by Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL’s Russian Service.