The trial has begun in Russia of an LGBT+ feminist activist charged with spreading porn after posting artwork of women’s bodies online.
Yulia Tsvetkova, also an artist, could be sentenced to up to six years of jail time as she stands trial in the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in far east Russia.
The charges are reportedly linked to her group on the popular social network VKontakte where colourful, stylised drawings of vaginas were posted.
Ms Tsvetkova, who was first detained a year and a half ago, is not permitted to provide details of the allegations levied against her.
Her lawyer, Irina Ruchko, told reporters after the hearing that Tsvetkova maintains her innocence and her defence team intends to prove it in court.
Ms Tsvetkova, who is an outspoken supporter of LGBT+ rights, founded an online group named Vagina Monologues encouraging fighting 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 “expressing her views through art.”
Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, said: “During this ordeal, Yulia has spent time under house arrest and twice been subjected to extortionate fines under the so-called ‘gay propaganda’ law”.
Anna Khodyreva, Ms Tsvetkova’s mother, echoed this sentiment in an interview with The Associated Press, saying the court should dismiss the case.
Ms Tsvetkova, who ran a children’s theatre, was detained in November 2019 and spent the next four months under house arrest – with both her home and her mother’s education studio for children raided.
The activist was fined twice for violating Russia’s law against disseminating gay “propaganda” to minors. The court ordered Ms 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 defence of her, including Russian state TV veteran Vladimir Pozner. Activists across Russia protested her prosecution, artists dedicated performances to her, and an online petition demanding the charges to be dropped gathered over 250,000 signatures.
On Saturday, an exhibition of Ms Tsvetkova’s paintings opened in the Russian city of 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,” Alexei Gorbushin, an artist who organised and took part in performances in Ms Tsvetkova’s support, said at the exhibition.
The European Union’s delegation to Russia said in a tweet the bloc “is closely following” the case against Ms 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.
The first hearing comes eight months after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed constitutional amendments that outlawed same-sex marriage and tasked the government with “preserving traditional family values.”
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 have received death threats and were repeatedly harassed by strangers. Ms Khodyreva’s education studio for children has lost many clients.
While Ms Tsvetkova’s children’s theatre no longer exists — frequent visits from law enforcement were too distressing for the children, so it shut down, Ms Khodyreva said.
“It is terrifying. I’m still looking back at the door even now,” Ms 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.”
Ms Tsvetkova’s troubles seem to have started when Merak, the children’s theatre, was preparing to show a play about gender stereotypes, titled The Blues and the Pinks, in March 2019 at a theatre festival she organised.
The festival lost two venues it found, Ms Khodyreva said, and police questioned children involved in the play about whether Ms Tsvetkova, who directed it, talked to them about LGBT+ issues. The play had nothing to do with LGBT+ issues — the name referred to colours traditionally associated with boys and girls, but in the 1990s, “blue” and “pink” in Russian were popular colloquialisms for gay men and women.