For the average American social media user with feminist values, the sight of body-positive art is really no shock. The rise of social media has led to the proliferation of art, with artists often using their work in order to promote their own brand of activism. Though activist art is now a part of the mainstream, with artists like Keith Haring, Freida Kahlo, and Banksy now all household names, the state of artistic freedom is not universal. 

Who is Yulia Tsvetkova?

The art of Yulia Tsvetkova should not be controversial. Her childlike drawings, on bright neon post-its, unabashedly portray the female body. With stretch marks in black marker, one drawn woman outstretches her arms in the photo, as though reaching for joy. It is captioned, in the Cyrillic alphabet, “Women who are alive have imperfect skin and this is fine!”. Likewise, in another similarly styled cartoon, a woman with bulging muscles declares “Women who are alive have muscles and this is fine!”

These images were enough for Russian police to begin questioning 27-year-old Tsvetkova. The trouble came following the police discovery of Tsvetkova’s social media group, called “The Vagina Monologues”, named for the famous feminist play. Group members shared art, often focusing on celebrating and normalizing the female body.  

Tsvetkova’s work, however, is not limited to her online presence. Up until these charges came, she ran a theatre group in a small city in Russia’s far east, where she lives. She hosted lectures on LGBTQ+ issues, and gave sex education. Russia currently does not allow sex education within the school curriculum.

“Women who are alive have imperfect skin and this is fine!”
Art by Yulia Tsvetkova, from the project “Woman is Not a Doll”
https://www.freetsvet.net/art-by-yulia/woman-not-doll?itemId=xxp2ph9t0dnxtfetip2k86df2o0tko

Societal Intolerance

Tsvetkova’s legal battle, unfortunately, is not an anomaly. Russian society, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, has increasingly embraced traditional values. A 2020 poll by the Levada Center found 21% of polled Russians believed the LGBTQ+ community should be “eliminated”. 32% believed LGBTQ + people should be “isolated from society. Likewise, feminism is looked down upon in Russia. A stark contrast to the supposed feminist of the Soviet Union, the current promotion of traditional womanhood within Russia is rampant. The Orthodox Church has contributed to a lot of this.

Tsvetkova was also charged under Russia’s 2013 “Gay Propaganda” law, which makes the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” illegal. Signed into law by Vladamir Putin, it essentially denies the existence of LGBTQ+ lives and issues to children. 

However, due to the prevalence of children in society and online, this law has been used to prosecute and silence many. Human Rights Watch claims that this law has been used to exclude LGBTQ+ people from working with children, and has had disastrous effects on mental health treatment in the nation. Tsvetkova was charged due to a colorful image drawn with a marker, portraying two families, one with two mothers, and one with two fathers. The caption reads “Family is where there’s love. Support LGBT families!” In Russia, only heterosexual couples are permitted to adopt children.

“Family is where there’s love. Support LGBT families!”
Art by Yulia Tsvetkova
https://www.dw.com/en/russia-feminist-activist-could-face-prison-for-vagina-drawings/a-54070289

Fighting to Beat Unbeatable Odds

The battle is not over for Yulia Tsvetkova. She faces 6 years in Russia’s notoriously brutal prison system. She also faces these charges in a nation where the conviction rate is over 99%, a clear sign of a moribund, undemocratic legal system. However, despite these challenges, she does not stand alone. Her supporters have staged several pickets and protests, and have shown solidarity through social media. 

Although Tsvetkova is just one artist and activist, her story shows the continuing importance of artistic and political freedom across the world. Tsvetkova is currently facing trial in her hometown of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. 

To sign the Change.org petition for Yulia’s release, visit: https://bit.ly/3jjmCtk

For Russian speakers, you can follow Yulia’s case on her Facebook page- https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100046127534181For more information on her case in English, visit: https://www.freetsvet.net/englishlanguage-news-info

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Empowering Body Positive Art Throughout History
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