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Activist Daria Serenko: ‘Russia is a terrifying country for LGBTQ+ people’

The Russian poet and dissident – who fled to Georgia after the invasion of Ukraine – heads one of the most powerful anti-war organizations in the world

Ukraine war
Daria Serenko, in a photo from May, 2021.Tatiana Egorova

Daria Serenko has x-rayed Russia. She has done this by delving into the interior of the state’s endless entities: the gray bureaucracies that depend on the labor of women, who occupy the lowest positions in the country’s public administration.

In her book, Girls and Institutions – magnificently translated into English by Nina Murray – the writer, feminist and LGBTQ+ activist delves into the guts of Putin’s autocratic machinery, which instrumentalizes women as workers, mothers and perfect beauties.

Serenko, 30, had to flee Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, due to the persecution that the regime unleashed on dissidents. Among other activities, she was the protagonist of the “silent” protests – she walked alone through the Moscow metro, carrying political posters bearing feminist reflections.

The activist was once one of “those girls” – ageless women who print Putin’s portraits and paste them on walls in public spaces (as the rules dictate), or falsify museum visitor statistics to make them add up to the official narrative. She was one of the employees surveilled at their jobs by the cameras of a regime that does not trust its citizens and endorses a system in which gender violence goes unpunished.

The poet – who now lives in exile in Georgia – spoke to EL PAÍS via videoconference. She currently directs Feminist Anti-War Resistance, one of the most powerful anti-war organizations in the world. She still has hope that the lobbying and actions carried out by her organization and other partisan groups within Russia will help bring about the collapse of Putin’s regime.

Question. You describe a structural gender inequality in Russia. This may shock some sectors of the European left, who see Russia – as they once saw the USSR – as an egalitarian country, with women engineers, astronauts…

Answer. The Soviet-Russian woman has always lived within a huge contradiction when we talk about equality. She was required to be the same as a worker, as a member of society but also to embody that role as a woman, as a mother country. And not only did she have two work shifts – one at home and one outside – but there was a third shift: beauty. Queuing up to buy stockings, cosmetics… being perfect. Continuously juggling the roles of mother, wife, ideal worker… is that equality? There is no gender equality in Russia. There is a huge wage gap and a huge problem of gender violence. And now, with the war, [these things] are getting even worse.

Q. Russia is an extremely conservative country.

A. Women’s rights are under attack. The Church and conservative sectors are attacking the right to abortion… it’s very likely that there will be restrictions, or it will become illegal. We’re already seeing signs. Russia is also a terrifying country for LGBTQ+ people. The war is dealing a severe blow to the most vulnerable women, lesbians, trans, women from republics with minority ethnic groups…

Q. In fact, a few years ago, Russia decriminalized some crimes of domestic or gender violence – a concept that is not used there – which were considered to be “minor” offenses…

A. I think there’s a relationship between gender violence and military violence. In all these years, the government hasn’t passed a law against gender violence, because it needed to continue perpetuating these schemes of violence within the home, to prepare society for violence that occurs beyond the house. Many people laugh at this idea, as if [we] think that Putin wants to do some kind of domestic experiment. It’s obviously not literal – but it’s much easier to defend a culture of violence when you’re used to it.

We Russian feminists often say that violence begins at home. And if society accepts that a woman feels that she has to defend herself – or bear everything – inside her home, it’s much easier for society to accept that we must fight outside our territory.

Q. In many quarters, they wonder why people don’t go out to protest in Russia.

A. We need to be clear about this. The Ukrainians, for example, have every right to ask that question, because they’ve had successful experience in making revolutions – beyond the fact that, of course, they have the right to any questions and criticisms. But normally, the people who raise [this question] live in Europe – in countries where they have the right to go out on the streets without exposing themselves to anything extremely serious. Right now – if we were to throw out a statistic – for every protester [in Russia] there will be five riot police officers. I can’t imagine how we can overthrow a military dictatorship just with the force of our banners. Also, I, as an exile, have no right to tell anyone who is in Russia how to protest, [considering] what they have to risk.

Q. Is there hope for change in Russia?

A. It’s different for each person. I believe in partisan resistance groups. Currently, there are people who are attacking the [military centers] where mobilized people are taken. There are many resistance movements against the war – feminist and non-feminist. The protest isn’t just going out with a banner and having the cameras record how the riot police take you away. It’s a fight and it must have its tactics and these must be discussed [in advance].

My greatest hope is that this network of resistance – of protest – will be very decisive, radical, clear and widespread. Because it’s more effective that way: with people inside Russia and also outside, from where we can do things that would be dangerous there, such as helping to obtain resources, [solving] technical issues, removing activists in danger, developing cybersecurity instructions. Those of us who are outside can act because we are safe: we are like the technical support of the partisan network of the resistance. It’s important that we exist. Obviously there are many tensions between those who have stayed and those who have left – frustrations – but all of that can be overcome.

Q. In a country like Russia, can such a network bring down the regime, end the war?

A. I believe that wars end when resources run out. No anti-war movement is capable of stopping a war on its own. But I hope that Russian activism – those of us who have stayed and those of us who have left and are in different parts of the world – joins forces, so that the Putinist regime runs out of resources to fuel the war. I also hope that this type of resistance will spread to other countries and that none of them will buy Russian gas, oil and resources, [and they will cease] to be collaborators.

Q. And emotionally, how do you feel?

A. I don’t feel guilty, because guilt is a negative feeling that paralyzes you. But I do feel responsibility for my future, for the future of my country. For me, the important thing is what I’m going to do with that responsibility… how I’m going to approach it, apply it. Part of my life is also very dedicated to my literature, but this is also closely related to that political activism, because I write activist poetry, feminist poetry. I just finished a book related to all this and I’m also continuously training.

Q. In what way?

A. Russian citizens know very little about the damage they have caused to other countries. I knew very little about the occupation of Georgia or the war in Chechnya. It’s important to be politicized about the wars that Russia has carried out in the last 30 years.

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