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In Russia, comedy is reason for exile

In a stand-up comedy routine that garnered 1.5 million views, Russian indie comedy star Idrak Mirzalizade joked, “My name is Idrak, I’m a Talysh by ethnicity, and a Shiite by religion. Everything that defines me gets underlined red in Word. It’s like I’m not even supposed to be.” Mirzalizade could hardly have expected that what he said three years ago would turn out to be a prophecy.

The Azerbaijan-born member of a small Iranian ethnic group grew up in Belarus and moved to Moscow to perform comedy. In the capital of the former metropolis, he found a group of like-minded people who grew up watching George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Louis C.K. and not TV-friendly Russian comedians from the 2000s who wouldn’t dare bring up real issues or risk offending someone powerful.

Together, they formed Stand-up Club #1, and within a few years gathered a cult following among Russian millennials. At last, Russian stand-up comedy was not a cringe-worthy homegrown alternative to big Western stars.

These young artists knew no limits. “Well, Putin, who are we gonna kill tonight?” comedian Alexandr Dolgopolov stated, parroting the Russian president’s rumoured gymnast girlfriend. For any Russian TV executive insane enough to air this, suicide would be a reasonable decision. For guys from the Stand-up Club, this was the benchmark; but recently, this benchmark has shifted.

In March, the club’s YouTube channel released a video, where Mirzalizade reflected on his experience of renting an apartment in Moscow, which was always difficult for him since every other post on rental websites warns “non-Slavic people” to not even bother calling. The comedian shared his strategy, “I try to say as many words as possible on the phone before saying my name, so that the agent realises I don’t have an accent. Because if I say my name first, he will surely add an accent in his mind.”

Mirzalizade went on to recall that in one of his previous rented apartments, he found a mattress apparently stained with human faeces. “The previous renters were Russian. So, I figure, Russians cover themselves with shit before going to sleep.”

This was hardly the most outrageous joke to come from the club’s stage. Yet, the backlash was tough. In June, hardline pro-government media called for the deportation of the comedian for making fun of the nation that had ‘welcomed’ him. He received thousands of threats online and was even beaten on the street. In August, the comedian was sentenced to 10 days of jail for “humiliating a group of people on the basis of their ethnicity.” Shortly after, the Interior Ministry declared Mirzalizade persona non grata, bypassing the court, and forced him to flee the country.

This example showcases a paradox: openly discriminating against renters who don’t look Aryan enough is a common practice, yet, making a joke about the Chechens, or the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in particular, is reason for persecution. Those who have criticised him in the past have faced disturbing threats offline and have had to film and share an apology to protect themselves.  The irony is especially pungent now that anti-immigrant sentiment is popular before the upcoming election. But this contradiction is non-existent for law enforcement because, in modern Russia, certain individuals and groups are untouchable. As a famous saying goes, ‘the law is for your enemies’.

In addition to Kadyrov, Igor Sechin tops the list of untouchables. He came into prominence by dragging Vladimir Putin’s suitcase in the 2000s and currently leads Rosneftwhich holds a monopoly on oiland has a free pass to do whatever he wants. In the face of scrutiny, he very often gets offended, mostly due to investigations into the incomprehensible scale and sources of his wealth. Offending Sechin is a costly business, as numerous independent media outlets, sued by Sechin for huge damages, have discovered. Yet Mirzalizade was unaware before criticising him.

“He’s a leech, to blame for everything that’s wrong with Russia,” Mirzalizade began in one of the Stand-up Club’s podcasts. “Have you seen his face? Just look at that face of his, I recently thought that Sechin’s face is something you could protest with to scare off the police.”

Is this costly criticism the real reason for his exile, as many journalists suggest? It’s hard to say. However, this podcast has mysteriously disappeared from the web. What I know for sure is that I’d like to live in a country where you can make fun of anyone.

This article has been published as part of an ongoing content partnership with FAIRPLANET.

Russian artist faces six years in jail for pro-LGBTQ+ and body-positive cartoons

Yulia Tsvetkova, a 27-year-old feminist and queer rights activist from Komsomolsk-on-Amur in East Russia, has been charged with violating the Russian “gay propaganda” law and distribution of “pornography” for sharing drawings of same-sex families and vaginas on social media.

Last month, the prosecutor’s office in charge of her case approved the indictment against Tsvetkova; if convicted, she could face up to six years in prison. Tsvetkova’s persecution by the Russian authorities reflects a broader campaign by the government to crackdown on members of the queer community and muzzle anyone advocating for their freedom and rights.

All Out, an international NGO fighting for LGBTQ rights, has teamed up with the Moscow Community Center and launched a petition calling for the elimination of the charges against Tsvetkova and for the abolition of Russia’s “gay propaganda” law.

The authorities’ persecution of Tsvetkova began in 2019, when she was preparing to stage a play titled ‘Blue and Pink’ which dealt with gender stereotypes and criticised the country’s culture of militarism. Following mounting pressure from the authorities, Tsvetkova cancelled the play.

“I don’t know which was worse for the authorities, the play about gender, which they don’t understand and are afraid of, or the other play, which was pretty political, very sharp. I guess it’s the combination of both that got me here,” Tsvetkova told CNN.

Following the play incident, Tsvetkova and her mother were summoned to the police station either on a weekly or bi-weekly recurrence as the authorities scoured for any shred of evidence that could help them press criminal charges against her. Finally, the police came across a blog titled ‘The Vagina Monologues’ that Tsvetkova had founded and managed, in which she featured drawings of female body parts created by herself and others.

Through her work, Tsvetkova sought to shatter stereotypes surrounding the vagina and promote body positivity. The text in one of her drawings, for instance, read “Women who are alive have body fat and this is fine!”

Russian artist faces six years in jail for pro LGBTQ+ and body positive cartoons

It was for posting these drawings that the authorities charged Tsvetkova with promoting pornography. Then, in January 2020, she was charged with violating the notorious “gay propaganda law” after she posted a drawing featuring same-sex families along with the caption “A family is where there is love. Support LGBT+ families!”

After being placed under house arrest, Tsvetkova was released in March 2020, but has since been prohibited from leaving the country or changing her address.

Tsvetkova’s arrest has drawn sharp criticism from human and LGBTQ rights activists and organisations around the world. Last year, Amnesty International, along with several other NGOs, had recognised Tsvetkova as a political prisoner and called for the charges against her to be dropped.

“Russian authorities have tried everything to intimidate Yulia: They searched her home, put her under house arrest for over three months, ordered her not to leave the country, fined her twice for violating the Russian ‘gay propaganda’ law, and brought trumped-up charges against her for ‘distributing pornography’,” said Matt Beard, Executive Director of All Out. “Now her trial can happen any time and she could go to jail for up to six years. And all of this just for sharing on social media innocent drawings of same-sex families and motives promoting inclusivity. Nobody should be prosecuted simply for expressing their wish for equality,” he added.

The controversy has also spread throughout Russia, where, despite the public’s deep-rooted conservatism, individuals and groups have nonetheless taken to social media and the streets to protest Tsvetkova’s arrest. On social media, women have been posting pictures of their bodies (often emphasising hair, curves and skin blemishes) along with the phrase “my body is not pornography” in solidarity with Tsvetkova.

Protests against Tsvetkova’s arrest have been taking place throughout Russia, and have even reached her hometown in the far Eastern region of the country. Numerous artists and media figures have also come out in support of her, something Tsvetkova claims has made her feel less alone in her struggle.

Anonymity is the scariest thing,” she told DW, “and I know that because I was alone at the beginning. It meant that if I was at the police station, I knew that they could do whatever they want and no one would ever find out.”

“[Tsvetkova] is not the first person to be targeted under the ‘gay propaganda’ law. But with your help, she might be the last,” reads All Out’s petition, which has so far garnered over 165,000 signatures. Her trial could begin any day now.