On Labour Day, May 1, 2021, Yulia Tsvetkova wrote the following post on her mother’s Facebook page, republished here with her permission. Yulia has been facing significant and draconian oppression for the past two years, having been accused of distributing pornography by the Russian authorities. She was under house arrest until recently; now she is restricted to moving about the small city in which she lives. The community largely shuns her, perhaps out of fear of reprisal by association.
Yulia has declared a hunger strike, to the dismay of her colleagues and friends who are in solidarity with her and pursuing her freedom. Here she explains her motivations for the hunger strike and calls out the cowardice of the Russian state in the extraordinary efforts they are taking to prove her guilt, despite a lack of evidence and a misinterpretation of her artistic practice.
ArtsEverywhere has published a collection of her drawings, along with a description of the persecution she faces at the hands of the Russian state.
This is Yulia. This is my first public post in 8 months (if anything, living without social networks is an interesting experience, worthy of a separate story) and, perhaps, such a post should be about something important.
So I will start right away with the important part. Everyone knows that a new life needs to start on Monday, or at the beginning of a new month. That is why today, May 1, I am going on a hunger strike.
I love that this is Labour Day because my decision has a lot to do with labour. And also with cowardice. But, in order.
They say that a hunger strike is announced out of despair, and yes, it’s hard not to agree with that. It is also believed to be a measure that people only use in colonial prisons, and that is not true. A hunger strike is a method of peaceful protest against injustice that has been used by many artists and activists around the world, within and outside of the physical restriction of their freedom. A hunger strike is also a way to draw attention to a personal or global problem. There are many problems in Russia now. We all know about unjust sentences, about inconceivable sentences for “words and thoughts,” about terrible torture and unpunished murder…. These issues are important, and I do not want to discount anyone in any way.
But I want to draw attention to a slightly different problem, one perhaps less easily perceptible. Let’s take my case. Pretty soon it will be two years from the moment I was accused of distributing pornography. From the moment when they began to talk a lot about my case and it, as they write, “acquired a wide public response,” for a year now, my case has been kicked around by the authorities. The case was repeatedly sent for “further investigation” and again and again filled out with pieces of (very dubious) evidence. They were unable to confirm the indictment. They were unable to appoint a court. Now meetings are held once a month. Two years of investigation. Two years of stolen life. For reposts. And these two years cannot even be counted as time served, because I am under the mildest measure of restraint.
And my case is not unique. Many people spend years in jail, under arrest, or under investigation. Many go through hell even before they are sentenced. The system has all the time; it has nowhere to rush. It doesn’t care about people and their lives. And it is almost impossible to defend yourself from the system.
I was under house arrest, and I know that any physical restriction of freedom is terrible. But freedom can be limited by various methods, some of which are no less effective than a real arrest. Not being able to leave a city where people cross to the other side of the road when they see you, putting aside the lack of opportunities for work or communication—this is also a lack of freedom. Not less (or more) than arrest, but in a different way. It is almost-freedom on paper and its absence in fact. Reminds me a bit of my own house arrest, and how I was not even allowed to visit the dentist. That is when you are not, as it were, being tortured, but in fact you are being tortured. You know, it’s more honest to simply call torture torture. And I would like for our society to talk about these forms of invisible torture and implicit imprisonment. The pain of the invisible torture is real. People who go through the torture of expectation, uncertainty, and isolation deserve not to be forgotten. You cannot measure who suffers more intensely or more correctly. The simple truth is that no one should be persecuted because of their otherness or inconvenience. The persecution of the innocent is a terrible, cynical crime. Look around and you will see how the destinies of people break apart at the whim of the system. And how many people around me, and around us, who withstand such tests with their heads held high and with a smile…. And how unbearably painful it is when you start to think that this is not normal, and it should not be so. So let’s stop waiting for the person being persecuted to be a hero. We don’t need heroes. We need to prevent the persecution of the innocent.
During these two years, I realized that I could endure a lot. I can take it when my dream job is destroyed. I can stand it when my loved ones suffer from the actions of the state. I can withstand detention, searches, courts, illegal detention. Leaking a video of my apartment and my address to social media. Torture. Bullying. Threats of violence. Surveillance. Hounding. The most absurd and humiliating accusations of propaganda and pornography. Fee penalties. The loss of my job. Loss of health. Persecution of those who help me. Rumours, gossip. I lose friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. Boycotted in my own city. The constant risk of getting caught up in a new case.
I’m ready to go to jail if I have to. I was ready as soon as a case was opened against me.
But isolation and the inability to work, I can hardly stand. It’s about work.
And now about cowardice.
I see over and over again how the state takes cowardly measures not to call things by their names. The state does not say that it persecutes undesirables. It hides behind the protection of society, the protection of morality, the protection of order, the protection of children…. Instead of arrest, a person is sent home, but they don’t even call it arrest. Having put the accused on the furthest back of back-burners for several years, they give them a suspended sentence…. The state persecutes children, women, pensioners, and peaceful associations. People are persecuted for words, thoughts, ideas. People are persecuted using dishonorable methods, leaking personal data into the network, spreading rumours, attacking the families of activists….
This is all meanness. This is cowardice. Children have a better understanding of fair play. If you call yourself “strong” and “spiritual” then please take strong and direct steps. Otherwise it’s like when “Akela missed” [in Kipling’s Jungle Book], for God’s sake.
Living under such a state sickens me. It makes me sick that cowardly people beat others meanly and sneakily. It makes me sick that we have learned to rejoice at cowardly half-measures and say “at least not imprisoned,” “at least not tortured,” “at least not real jail time.” It’s sickening that everyday repressions are beginning to be perceived as commonplace. It is sickening that good people are forced to throw their time and energy into fighting a cowardly system. I’m sick of lies and of the conspiracy of silence.
Why a hunger strike? As practice shows, as a person accused of a “serious” crime, I have almost no rights. There is no freedom. No voice. There is no way to defend yourself and your beliefs in the external space. Well, so be it. But recently I realized that I can no longer sit still and watch the shame happening in the country and how my life is being derailed. And if you think about it this way, what other options do I have for nonviolent protest….
You know what one person told me when he found out that I was thinking about a hunger strike. “You don’t have to do this, because you will show the state what is really important to you, and they will start hitting you in this most vulnerable spot.” And this person is right. This is exactly what the cowardly and dishonorable do. But somehow I have no desire to put up with such a reality.
The starving person must have some kind of demand.
My demand is simple. I ask the state to “come out and fight.”
Do you want to condemn me? You are welcome. But do it openly.
I demand that my trial be opened to the public, as the reasons for closing it are far-fetched.
I demand that I be given the opportunity to defend myself by all legal methods, and to admit the public defender into the trial.
And I demand that my trial proceed without delay. That meetings be scheduled more often than one a month.
That is all. As you can see, I am not asking to be acquitted on all charges, or to have my travel restrictions lifted. I just ask you not to waste any more of my time on the farce called “Russian justice.” I ask the state, represented by the prosecutor’s office, judges and the FSB, to be honest with themselves and with me, and go ahead and make a decision. Looking openly in my eyes and the public’s. To condemn, if such is the order. Or justify, if you yourself do not see anything of substance in the case.
Many human rights activists say that it is great that the investigation did not succeed in shutting me down quickly. It’s great that the court is in no hurry. That every time the system pauses to think, the chances of acquittal increase, the public resonance increases. And, yes, it is quite possible that from the point of view of the system it is true. And I apologize to those people who consider my actions illogical. But at this point I no longer have the opportunity to abstract myself and think globally. They also say about a hunger strike that one should only declare it only if one is ready to go through with it to the very end. And the big question is, am I ready to die? I do not know. But I firmly know that I am not ready to live as now, in cowardice and meanness.
Am I scared? I think so. But I don’t have much to lose. My health has been undermined for a long time. Thanks to the action of the state, I have almost no ties left to work, few colleagues or friends. I have only my dignity, and now I am glad that I am doing what my conscience tells me to.
I am writing all this, and I know that there will be those who will not believe me. Who will not believe that you can go hungry at home. Who do not believe that what I write about above is important. Who don’t believe that I am sincere. And you know, so be it. How does that saying go? What you say is what you are?
Happy Labour Day to all of you.
Take care of yourself.