“It’s Not So Easy to Break Us, Despite Everything”

We knew that the transcripts of our hearings would be broadcast. Even though no one listens to you in the courtroom, you can address invisible listeners who will read about it later in the media. And so to demonstrate the full absurdity of the Russian courts we set up what we called a “word auction”: we invited our readers to contribute words, any words, along with a monetary donation. We then went ahead and wove them into our speeches—we put the speeches together using the words people sent in. So the speeches ended up pretty absurdist, but we managed to express some of our ideas at the same time. I remember that there were a lot of really wacky and exotic animals, so we would say, like, “we’ve been sitting under house arrest for a long time now, we aren’t able to admire these wonderful animals.” Someone sent in the phrase “bee extinction,” so my colleague Volodya [Vladimir Metyolkin] gave a whole speech about the problem of bees going extinct due to climate change, and how in our country journalists are just as important as bees, and their extinction is just as dangerous for the environment as the bees.

An interview with DOXA Journal’s Natalia Tyshkevich

Photo of the four student editors of DOXA Journal
Left to right: Alla Gutnikova, Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metyolkin, Natalia Tyshkevich

n+1 is publishing a series of interviews and transcripts that describe and illuminate the situation of antiwar protesters in Russia—with an emphasis on the experience of student protesters. See also Natalia Tyshkevich’s final speech to the court, Anastasiya Osipova’s interview with the artist and activist Katrin Nenasheva.

On April 14, 2021, the offices of the Russian student-run journal DOXA were raided by the police. Its four now-former editors—Natalia (Natasha) Tyshkevich, Vladimir (Volodya) Metyolkin, Armen Aramyan, and Alla Gutnikova—were charged with “involving minors in committing actions that pose a threat to their life.” Their crime was posting a three-minute video expressing support for students threatened with expulsion for participating in anti-government protests. After the police finished searching DOXA’s offices, they moved to the editors’ apartments, confiscating their family members’ phones and laptops. The question “why so many books?,” which a policeman asked while suspiciously looking through Armen’s library, instantly became a popular meme reproduced on stickers and social media stories as a motto of the war that Vladimir Putin’s government is waging against Russian youth and education.

Natasha, Alla, Volodya, and Armen were put on pretrial house arrest. For almost a year now, they have only been able to leave their houses between the hours of 8 AM and 10 AM. They have also been prohibited from using the internet. These measures have not only disrupted their lives and caused serious psychological strain, but also effectively put an end to their studies and research. Before their arrest, Natasha was working as an archivist at the largest textile factory in Moscow; she is a historian of the Soviet period and is a specialist in the digital humanities. Armen is student of philosophy, sociology, and anthropology; he is also the Russian translator of David Graeber, whom Armen names as his biggest influence. Alla was planning to defend her thesis on Walter Benjamin at the time of her arrest; she is also a poet, dancer, and model. Volodya is a student of history and pedagogy.

The final hearings for their case will conclude by April 12. All four of them face up to three years in prison.

Founded in 2017 as the student journal of the Moscow campus of the Higher School of Economics, DOXA quickly outgrew its original purpose and has become one of the most important media outlets for Russian youth and the political opposition. (Because students have been the most active presence in anti-government and antiwar protests since 2017, “youth” and “opposition” have now become nearly synonymous in Russia.) DOXA’s first brush with censorship came in 2019, when it was deprived of the status of a student-run organization. Since then, it has been independent, operating on private donations.

Over the past three years, DOXA has become the central media platform speaking to and for this generation of highly politically active young people. DOXA collects information about the harassment (in all its forms—political, sexual, social) of high school and university students nationwide, gathers data about arrest statistics, provides legal advice, and collects and distributes legal funds.

Since February 24, 2022 DOXA has emerged as one of the most active, reliable, and popular sources of information about the war in Ukraine. Like all independent Russian media outlets, it was banned by Roskomnadzor (the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) shortly after the beginning of the full-scale war, yet it continues to invent ingenious methods to reach its audience. Right now, DOXA subscribers can access their newsfeed by using a VPN, via Telegram1, or by subscribing to a daily newsletter2.

DOXA is a horizontal and, for the most part, anonymous organization. The fact that we know the identities of the four former editors currently on trial is an exception rather than the rule. This focus on anonymity, and the interest in building an enduring collective media platform and networks of legal and technological help, is a mark of the new generation of activism in Russia. Unlike their famous 21st-century Russian predecessors, like Pussy Riot or the actionists, the members of DOXA prefer to maintain digital anonymity for as long as possible. In these circumstances, when anyone who openly states their criticism and opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine stands a direct risk of arrest and a house search, this change of strategy might be crucial for continuing the work of journalism.

In keeping with the habits of their generation, the DOXA editors, who are all under 30, emphasize self-care techniques as crucial elements for psychological survival under repressive conditions. DOXA’s daily antiwar newsletter typically combines reporting on Russian bombings and war crimes in Ukraine, antiwar protests, new censorship laws in Russia, and advice on legal rights and cyber security with a section on self-care, including exercises to do in case of arrest and suggestions on how to manage anxiety.

What follows is a conversation with Natasha Tyshkevich. Since she is not allowed to use the internet, my questions and her answers were relayed through an intermediary. She discusses the changing views and strategies of oppositional activists in Russia, her attitude toward the earlier models of oppositional activism in which Russian history (from revolutionaries who worked to overthrow Czarism to Soviet dissidents and the Post-Soviet actionists) as well as the evolution of her personal views: her shift from liberal feminism toward cyberfeminism, and her emphasis on theories of decolonization as the most urgent avenue of inquiry for Russian media and academia right now.

—Anastasiya Osipova

Anastasiya Osipova: My first question is: Are you scared?

Natalia Tyshkevich: Yes—I’m very scared. Because right now, this moment is really scary. It’s been almost a year now, and I’ve been holding it together, but now I’m really feeling afraid. Our sentencing is literally in just a couple days and it’s for real, it’s serious.

AO: How are you preparing for it? Emotionally, physically? Are you reading anything?

NT: Well, I’m working on my final speech for the court. This is a really important statement for me, a chance to speak in public, despite the fact that they barely let anyone into the courtroom. But I know that this speech will be published in various places afterward, and it will be an important statement for our listeners—so I am thinking about various speeches. Right now, I’m reading the courtroom speeches of Pyotr Aleksandrov. He was a well-known lawyer in the 19th century, and he defended, among others, Vera Zasulich.3 Her case is famous because she was acquitted by the jury, largely thanks to her lawyer’s brilliant speeches. At the same time, I’d like to express my own views on what’s happening in Russia and with my own case. But to a certain extent I have to hold back because what we say in court can also be used against us. Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine how these speeches might work for us—they’re very unlikely to change the judge’s mind. But they can definitely be used against us. Like just now Alexei Navalny was convicted for contempt of court. I don’t really plan to have much back-and-forth interaction with the judge, so I don’t think I’m at risk of landing in a similar situation, but I have a clear sense that speaking in court is not the same as giving a lecture.

AO: What kind of parallels do you see between your situation and that of Vera Zasulich?

NT: Well, the lawyer talks about how Zasulich’s arrest was not lawful, how she felt that she was tried unjustly. She had been convicted once before in her youth, and after that she became an activist. Her lawyers said that this early conviction had a really big impact on her. She was also strongly influenced by other politically motivated convictions that she saw, including that of Nikolai Dobrolyubov.4 I also exist in this Russian media space and have followed other political court cases over the past years, and I’ve known about political prisoners in Russia for a long time. I wouldn’t say that I was ready to become a political prisoner, but all of this had become a part of my life to such an extent already that I couldn’t not say anything, couldn’t stay silent in the face of persecutions. I felt strongly that I wanted to express myself. That’s why we made the video, since we couldn’t just stay silent: The video we’re being tried for, which we filmed in 2021, in which we called on Russian universities not to expel students for participating in protests, and called on students and told them not to be afraid, not to be afraid of defending their rights, of organizing. And we offered various options for taking action. And that call not to be afraid was very important for me. You asked me about fear, and that really resonates, because more than anything else I am trying not to be scared, and also to cheer up other people around us—even though I am in a difficult situation, all of Russia is in a difficult situation. Everyone I know right now is just in shock and very scared, and it’s very hard to support each other.

AO: I’m in awe of the way you’ve maintained a kind of moral vigilance over the course of this year—the way you’ve conveyed your refusal of fear to others of your generation.

NT: I can say a few things about how this year has gone. It’s been important for me to help support the people around me and offer them different forms of engagement and participation. Going to protests has been getting more and more dangerous, but you can go to the courts, for instance. So people have been coming to our hearings, and just being there is another kind of important collective action. To be present together at a place where some kind of political decision is being made. We’ve also done various activities before the court hearings: we had picnics and held secret early-morning raves; we’re not supposed to leave the house—I’ve been under house arrest for nearly a year now—but we have two hours in the morning when we’re allowed to go out for walks. Early in the morning, from 8 to 10 AM every day. And during these two hours we’ve thought up all sorts of things, little expeditions, walks. I was planning to do some historical excursions but didn’t get to that. I did screaming sessions, “primal screams”; I had wanted to do this as a collective action, but now even that seems dangerous.

All of these small-scale practices that we have been doing over the past year, and also inviting people to do things before the court hearings—all of this seems more dangerous now, since the authorities are now reacting to any kind of gathering, to people getting together. Right before our last hearing they drove four paddy-wagons right up to the court building, even though people were just standing around, maybe forty people, mostly friends of ours—and a big group of policemen started to move them away. Tomorrow and the day after we will be in court again, and I think they’re going to be driving people away and arresting them once again, even though they plan to be there in a totally peaceful capacity.

AO: We are recording this interview for n+1, which was also where the first translation of the final statements from the Pussy Riot trial were published. Could you describe to American readers how your relationship to the trials—your perception of them as media events, and your sense of your own role in them—has changed since 2012?

NT: I remember the Pussy Riot trial very well. I went to the hearings, and I remember what it was like to gather there at the court, seeing people you knew. It was kind of a scene, but you could also feel that it was something important. I’m pretty well acquainted with the format, and it was really very strange to find myself on the other side. There was a lot about it that felt theatrical. Inside the court everything is very theatrical: the mechanical, memorized speeches of the judges, the strange “sets” that resemble Putin’s office: walls covered in black plastic with plastic two-headed eagles on them. It’s a really bizarre space. Of course, at some point we got really sick of it; it’s like a theater, but the most boring theater ever.

We knew that the transcripts of our hearings would be broadcast. Even though no one listens to you in the courtroom, you can address invisible listeners who will read about it later in the media. And so to demonstrate the full absurdity of the Russian courts we set up what we called a “word auction”:5 we invited our readers to contribute words, any words, along with a monetary donation. We then went ahead and wove them into our speeches—we put the speeches together using the words people sent in. So the speeches ended up pretty absurdist, but we managed to express some of our ideas at the same time. I remember that there were a lot of really wacky and exotic animals, so we would say, like, “we’ve been sitting under house arrest for a long time now, we aren’t able to admire these wonderful animals.” Someone sent in the phrase “bee extinction,” so my colleague Volodya [Vladimir Metyolkin] gave a whole speech about the problem of bees going extinct due to climate change, and how in our country journalists are just as important as bees, and their extinction is just as dangerous for the environment as the bees.

At that point the judge couldn’t take it anymore and tried to interrupt him, but he finished his speech. Afterward we posted the transcription and it made a real splash. I could tell that we’d managed to cheer people up. Usually the news coming out of courtrooms makes people terribly sad. I understand that there isn’t a whole lot to be cheerful about here either, but even from the beginning we didn’t want to be these mournful political prisoners—I mean, not mournful, but like sacrificial victims, suffering in prison. Instead, we wanted to show that we are going on living, we’re alive and it’s not so easy to break us, despite everything. Even though there have been a lot of emotions over this past year, and the confinement starts to drive you crazy; all this requires tremendous restraint.

All year I’ve been feeling like my brain has been working really well, I feel a lot of intellectual potential, but I have to use it for thinking up ways not to get sent to prison. There’s this sense that the difficulty level keeps going up, like in a computer game. Just recently my difficulty level went up because on top of our main case, some kind of additional mysterious administrative charges were brought against me, about how I allegedly displayed Nazi symbols online. I don’t even know which of my posts they’re talking about, since I scrupulously avoid anyone who might try to get me involved in a new trial. It’s similar to what happened with some of the Pussy Riot members, like Lyusya Shtein and Maria Alyokhina; the same woman, an inspector from the Anti-Extremism Bureau, who issued them tickets half a year ago for the alleged display of Nazi symbols—now she’s issued one to me. Now in order to go to my own trial, the one for the DOXA case, I have to think up some complicated disguises just so I don’t get arrested on the way there.

AO: Could you clarify—you’re worried that they’re going to serve you with this other case?

NT: Yes, as I understand it from talking with the members of Pussy Riot, it’s not like with a criminal case where the police have the right to burst into your house. This is a lighter case, so they have to serve you the summons personally—or actually, they have to compel you by force to the court. And if you can keep from getting caught, if you stay home or manage to get away from them, then you can’t be summoned, and this whole case just vanishes. So now I’m hoping I can escape from them in this way.6

AO: Can’t they just come to your trial on Friday? And serve you the summons right there?

NT: They can’t come into the courtroom. There are rules against it. But later there is the moment between the conclusion of the trial and my getting home, and that’s when we play cat-and-mouse with them. I know that Lyusya managed to escape. Masha [Alyokhina] had worse luck, and that’s why she has spent ninety days over the past year in special detention centers, because they periodically manage to bring these minor cases against her. I don’t consider myself a big shot like Pussy Riot, but I sense that these people might latch onto me too as one of the activists left in Russia, and use me to kiss up to their bosses. Because this is how the police work in Russia nowadays: they want to earn some extra brownie points, so they cook up some kind of nonsense against activists. And because of this, you have to limit yourself even more, be even more careful about what you say. I’m forbidden from using the internet, so we have a protocol to work around this. We’re not the ones who invented it—we  inherited it from other Russian activists. Those who are prohibited from using the internet can be assisted by trusted confidants who will put stuff up on their behalf. However, now that new laws and wartime censorship have been implemented, this too is no longer safe.

AO: Are you close with Alyokhina and Shtein? Did you ever collaborate with them, or are you just acquaintances?

NT: We didn’t know each other before the investigation. We met on the way to the Investigative Committee. I was walking to the interrogation while Lyusya and Masha were returning from theirs. We noticed one another’s ankle bracelets and were like hey, check it out, we’ve got something in common. From then on, we started to communicate with them professionally—meaning, not about art projects but about our shared issues as political prisoners. I see them as my high school seniors, who have been dealing with this longer than I was.

Their new criminal case—the “Sanitary Case”7 that they and other people are part of—was opened in the winter of 2021, while ours began in April. This gave them a head start, since their trial was in the summer. So, for us, Lyusya and Masha are an older generation of political prisoners—not that they teach us their wisdom, but they’ve discussed with us their experience of surviving under these conditions, and this experience is quite specific.

I can’t disclose most of the hacks—you can’t exactly put together some kind of comprehensive “How to Survive Under House Arrest in Russia” guide with all the tricks without betraying yourself. For instance, things like the functioning of an ankle bracelet, which is very different in Russia from what you see in American movies. I’d only seen them in American films and TV shows. Russian bracelets are smaller and do not have GPS. But no one tells you that when they’re putting one on you. The only way to figure all of this out is by talking to other people. But since there are already quite a lot of political prisoners in Russia, we can exchange our experiences. Whenever a new person is arrested, everyone goes like, hey, newbie.

On the one hand, this is very hard. For example, in November, Masha Platonova, a design student from the Higher School of Economics, the school I myself graduated from, was detained. It wasn’t exactly clear what she was arrested for. For managing some Telegram channel, her apartment was searched and she was placed under the house arrest, just like we were. All four of us were extremely worried for her. It was a kind of re-traumatization for us. She’s even younger than we are, and she was interrogated by the very same investigative group, by the same detectives who interrogated us. As soon as they were done with us, they started harassing a new generation, went seeking fresh blood. It was very important for me to pass on to Masha Platonova some skills and experience I’ve collected over time, because I felt that she was in a position that was similar to mine and in a state that was very difficult for a stranger to understand. Under my terms of arrest, I am allowed to see other people at home—my friends come and visit—while Masha Platonova is not. And yet I feel that we have some mutual understanding.

And the same is true for Shtein and Alyokhina. For me it is very important that Shtein and Alyokhina are actively and publicly sharing what everyday life under a house arrest is like. I think we were inspired by all that and started communicating and posting information online through trusted friends. For example, I made a video on Instagram about how I clean my ankle bracelet and about some other stuff too, to give my subscribers an idea of what it’s like to cohabitate with repression.

AO: About the exchange of experience, historical precedents, and a sense of historical connection to other political prisoners: Do you have a feeling of solidarity with Soviet political prisoners? If yes, then with whom? Or, perhaps, with the Russian revolutionaries—you’ve mentioned Zasulich. Are there other revolutionaries whose memoirs made an impression on you? And how does it feel to that you now also belong to this lineage, to this long, horrible history of Russian political repression? Do you find this encouraging or depressing?

NT: When I was still a teenager, I was brought up to respect the Soviet dissidents, and that includes the seven people who were arrested and imprisoned for going to the Red Square in 1968 to protest the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army. I grew up with something of a cult of these people. The Russian intellectual, liberal sphere still by and large consists of the descendants of such dissidents. But I did not want to be like them, I did not want to become one of the suffering, martyred heroes. They almost seemed to be one of the Soviet atavisms. I wanted to be an activist, but not a dissident. Instead, I was rather inspired by some Western examples.

AO: Can you name them?

NT: By the Red Army Faction, I’m afraid. But at the same time, examples from Russian history did make an impression on me as well. I have a degree in Soviet history, so historical parallels appear in my head quite frequently. I once took a special course on the socialist revolutionaries, and I was quite inspired by their talent for disguises, their uncanny ability to lose Czarist police tails, and to remain organized despite the constant police surveillance. We are not like the desperate Soviet dissidents; we were seeking other models.

To return to the SRs, Boris Savinkov and his memoirs were quite influential for me personally. I haven’t reread them during the past year, but I’ve been thinking of the SRs lately because I’ve had to think up different kinds of disguises in order to go to the trial.8 The SRs were famous for having to invent disguises all the time, to get away from surveillance. I think my supervising officers are closer to those imperial officers, the Czar’s guards, than to Soviet Chekists. Both in how their work is organized and probably in how they feel, too.

As far as the 20th century goes, before my arrest I read a lot of poetry from the 1920s and 30s—the OBERIU poets were always important for me.9 In fact, on the day I was arrested, on April 14, 2021, while my apartment was being searched I managed to write a Facebook post: “They’re searching my place. I love all of you”; and though it wasn’t really a literary reference, later I thought about why it was important for me to include the line about love. It resembled what Alexander Vvedensky wrote in his last known text. It’s a farewell note to his wife and child. He writes that he’s being taken out of the city and asks that someone tell his family how much he loves them. And when I was being taken to the Investigative Committee, I also thought about Vvedensky’s lines in the poem where he says goodbye to everything on Earth; I had a sort of farewell in my head then, too. Later I found out that it was the same for Alla [Gutnikova], too; we have a kind of shared corpus of texts, the OBERIU poets especially.

Later the OBERIU theme continued—that is, not the OBERIU poets per se but the feeling of the 1930s. I received a huge outpouring of support from friends and acquaintances. It was really an incredible source of strength, the strength of community. But there were also people who turned their backs on me, and I felt that this was probably like what happened in the 1930s, when repressed people were ostracized by others as if they were lepers, even by the people they knew. People thought it was dangerous to come see me; I had this friend, we had done some OBERIU-themed art projects, and then she suddenly turned her back on me. I wanted to ask her, I mean, we stopped speaking to one another, but if I could, I would ask her: would Vvedensky and Kharms have turned their backs on Oleinikov when he was arrested? We don’t really know what happened back then, not a lot of their exchanges were preserved, but I have always been curious: when those poets were getting arrested one after another in the 1930s, how did they respond to it among themselves?

AO: What’s your relationship like right now with your family? How have they reacted to the situation? Are they supportive?

NT: Yes, I have a very supportive family! The four of us were assigned to house arrest according to our place of [residence] registration, which for all of us meant our parents’ houses. So it was literally punishment by sending us home to our parents. We are all adults and were living independently, so part of it was this social pressure, like, “send them back to their parents to get properly disciplined.” Someone told me that in the 19th century the children of the aristocracy would be sent back to their parents’ estates to get some common sense knocked into them. We don’t have noble estates, of course, just Moscow apartments. I had to figure things out with my mom, learn how to live together again, and with my partner too, and with my brother, and with my mom’s partner, and my brother’s girlfriend—there were six of us living together, like in a Soviet communal apartment. In the end it meant that we relearned how to get along with one another, how to communicate, how to support one another. I also got a lot of support from the relatives who don’t live with us anymore, from my father and my grandmothers. Really, everyone in my whole family is super understanding and politically on my side. And this is really important for me since right now in Russia I’ve heard a lot about political rifts between generations, but I haven’t had to deal with that. Everyone in my family is unanimously with me and this means a lot to me.

AO: In the year since you’ve been arrested, during this period of house arrest, there have probably been changes in how you assess the significance of your role, of DOXA. Has anything changed for you, for your political priorities? Have your political views shifted at all as a result of the war in Ukraine, or your sense of what needs to be done most urgently?

NT: Well, I think the irony has fallen away completely, both in the aesthetic and political realm. The jokes are over, and some of the views that seemed OK to voice in an ironic or sarcastic way, like when you knew someone was doing something as a joke, cannot be condoned anymore. For instance, some of my friends have—well, it’s not that they supported Russian nationalism, but a sort of corny traditional Russianness; and even though they always took a much more subtle line than any real Russian nationalists, still there was a kind of right-wing contemporary aesthetics there, and I just can’t tolerate that anymore. For me all the ironic joking around with right-wing themes is no longer acceptable at all. I’ve started taking all of that more seriously, really taking everything more seriously. I’ve been surrounded by irony for the past few years; I think this has been a survival technique in Russia: maintaining an ironic stance toward Putinism, toward Sobyanin’s Moscow, toward this squeaky-clean glamorous Moscow we live in, and people have been taking advantage of these benefits while remaining aware that they live in Russia.

For instance, half a year ago, the rapper Oxxxymiron released an album. I don’t really like Oxxxymiron all than much, but one of the lines from it has stuck with me: “a restik to your right, arestik to your left”—“a restaurant to your right, an arrest to your left.” I think these kinds of jokes rhyming restik and arestik are no longer possible. And yes, it’s true about Moscow that people are getting arrested right next to the people eating out, so perhaps restik-arestik is a subtle and precise observation after all. But this kind of jokey attitude now seems no longer possible. And then there are all those people who’ve been going to those trendy restaurants—many of them have emigrated and are still sitting in the same kind of restaurants, only in a different country. Perhaps they are even discussing arrests, but with a kind of irony that tells us that they are not with us. Neither in spirit, nor in flesh.

AO: You feel that reality has become urgent, that it no longer leaves space for irony or the postponement of anything. I started to sense this very distinctly with the beginning of the war, and you, probably, with your arrest. Do you have a sense of how most young people in Russia outside your immediate circle might be feeling now? Do they still believe that they can continue sitting at the restiks and postponing a confrontation?

NT: [Sighs] Oof, that’s a good question. It seems to me that now really is the time when everyone should immediately understand everything, if only because of the economic changes in Russia. They make it hard to remain blissfully oblivious. I’m beginning to see many previously apolitical people starting to change their views. Actually, I remember that many apolitical people around me became politicized in the aftermath of our arrest. I know that our case has mobilized and scared many people in my community, forcing them to think about what’s happening. Many of them ended up emigrating. I only hear indirectly about people who remain ignorant—there are no people like that in my immediate surroundings. And it’s not even a matter of a media bubble: it’s just that anyone who either supports the war or is not politicized, those people have already distanced themselves from me. The expression “the personal is political” is something I’ve experienced very directly. Everything that is happening to me is political. Even if I’m doing something very mundane, it is already political. Even things like, being able to enjoy some capitalist luxuries during house arrest. I went and got a manicure, for example. I usually never get manicures, I was simply thinking about what I could do between the hours of 8 AM and 10 AM, and it turned out that nail salons in Moscow are open then. And a political prisoner getting a manicure is something entirely different from a regular Moscow woman getting her nails done.

AO: I know that it’s not fair to ask you to formulate for the people in the US what they can do to help you, but perhaps you have some ideas for American students, professors, or just regular people?

NT: They can spread information about the DOXA case and about the existence of political opposition in Russia. I think this is very important. I feel that my very existence is a testament to something significant. They could translate our materials and reports about the things we do. All four of us are humanists and we are doing a lot of work primarily for a Russian audience. But at times, it begins to feel that our readers in Russia are getting used to us and are starting to forget the urgency of what’s happening to us. And vice versa. Within our circle we too are beginning to lose perspective. That’s why I feel that translations could help us understand what’s happening ourselves. To pause and to reflect.

Or, if not translating or spreading information, people can simply do what we are calling on them to do in our videos: to not be afraid and to not be indifferent, to self-organize and, if they are students, to defend their rights within the universities and  resist all forms of harassment. All of this really does help us.

AO: Did I forget anything? Perhaps there’s something that you wanted me to ask you?

NT: Can you ask me about what I was doing before the arrest?

AO: Sure, what did you do before the arrest?

NT: I’m a historian by training, a historian of the Soviet period. And I had a job at the archive of the Triokhgornaia Manufacture, the largest textile factory in Moscow. I was digitizing documents there, because for many years I had worked in the digital humanities. And that’s why the fact that I got banned from using the internet seemed like a very personal message from fate. I was also involved in a lot of local and university activism and that’s how I encountered the DOXA journal. It was a student journal that began by writing about the problems that students encounter in Russian universities. It actively discussed the theme of harassment in the universities. Before the arrest we even designed a video game about harassment in Russian academia. We released the first part and the release of the second one got pushed back, because of the war. But somehow, I still think of myself as a game designer. DOXA has shown me the way out of pure academia through activism toward certain new forms of media. Complex forms of experience, such as harassment, may be hard to describe simply through textual narrative, and that’s why we started making games. We are planning on creating more games on the topics that are current right now, including Russia’s war in Ukraine.

AO: Can one find these games online?

NT: Yes, and we even translated part of the harassment game into English.

AO: Do you have a sense of the extent to which new media and technology allow for the role of a political activist to be reconfigured? You spoke about not wanting to be like the dissidents, to not follow the dissident model. The technologies you’re using in your activism as well as in your scholarly work, do they help you articulate this distinction from the dissidents?

NT: I used to think a lot about what makes us different from the dissidents. First, we are no longer living behind the Iron Curtain, we are not separated from the rest of the world, we have the internet and can connect with people in other countries. Before the arrest I used to think, OK, many people are saying that we are going through stagnation, but at least we have the internet. But then I get prohibited from going online and yet we still find ways to communicate with people, including those who live outside of Russia. And this is very important for me. I feel that we are not isolated. For example, after the arrest we received messages of support from the Black Socialists of America. The Russian government is trying to isolate us, but we are sneakier than that. That’s also why Instagram activism, which played a significant part in spreading the current wave of feminism in Russia, matters to me so much. It allows us to testify about what’s going on through social media. But now we see a new turn, since activists are getting singled out and persecuted. And that’s why we understood that we should move away from activism as a form of personal brand-building—in which political activists become celebrities—toward other forms, which should include internet activism as well as anonymous activism. The latter approach is becoming more and more widespread in Russia right now, since the antiwar movement is by and large anonymous. It mostly consists of student and feminist organizations, all of them anonymous.

I myself, on my own skin, have learned how dangerous it is to speak about the war in the first person. It is only possible if one joins large anonymous communities. That’s also the way I’ve been functioning within DOXA for a long time: I was working for the platform but without showing my face much. That three-minute video exposed me, and that’s why we are being singled out and persecuted by the state. I now realize that protest must be horizontal, rhizomatic, and cyber-secure. And now many people in my surroundings, my partner for instance, are giving trainings on how to protect yourself online. Recently, we’ve been training feminist activists, because this is a really crucial skill to have right now. Not to say that you need to be some super-hacker to be an activist, but you have to observe some rules of cyber-hygiene to not get caught immediately. I think that my experience as a historian of technology and a philosopher of technology has come in handy here, because I understand the extent to which technology may be your friend, the extent to which it can help you stay hidden. So this is a very different model from liberal feminism, which shines a spotlight onto your identity. Instead, it is closer to cyberfeminism, which conceals and anonymizes you.

AO: I have a bibliographical question, then: who are the media theoreticians and cyberfeminists who are important for you?

NT: I’m personal friends with and am influenced by Virginia Barratt, from VNS Matrix, who wrote The Cyberfeminist Manifesto. Virginia is now an artist and the bodily practices they taught me have really helped me during the arrest. Barratt shifted from the cyberfeminist manifestos of the ’90s toward bodily practices, including the practices of hysteria. We learned how to connect safely and how to support each other from different parts of the globe. I have a similar connection with other feminists as well—for instance, with Patricia Reed, who came to visit our DOXA school. I was also very influenced by the writing of Helen Hester, although I’ve never met her personally, especially by what she writes about care. It turns out that from the theory of care I moved to a very physical, concrete realization of just how important collective care practices are. Without them I simply would not have survived.

Before the arrest I’d been reading a lot about non-human interaction. And here too, what used to be purely theoretical, some things that I’ve grazed from Donna Haraway, have now become very concrete and practical for me.

And there is also the Distributed Cognition Cooperative,10 created by Anna Engelhardt and Sasha Shestakova. They are originally from Russia but now they are working as international researchers of decolonization. Discussing various questions of decolonization with me has prepared me well for what happened right now between Russia and Ukraine. It has given me critical tools for thinking. The most relevant and urgent direction for me right now is thinking about decolonization.

—Translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Anastasiya Osipova, with the assistance of Milla McCaghren, Christopher Damon, Yevheniia Dubrova, Savannah Eller, Nicole Gonik, Emily Hester, Marta Hulievska, Alice Ivashina, Kirill Lanski, Jasmine Li, Andres Meraz, and Dennis Ossipov-Grodsky

  1. https://t.me/doxajournal 

  2. https://doxajournal.ru/antiwarletter 

  3. Vera Zasulich (1848–1919) was a Russian revolutionary most famous for her attempt to assassinate Colonel Trepov, the governor of Saint Petersburg after he had ordered corporeal punishment of a political prisoner. She was acquitted in court. 

  4. Nikolai Dobrolyubov (1836–1861) was a Russian revolutionary, poet, journalist, and critic. 

  5. https://doxajournal.ru/dattebayo_sasuke_in_moscow_city_court 

  6. Natasha did not succeed. She would be arrested on April 1, 2022 and sentenced to fifteen days in jail. 

  7. https://meduza.io/en/feature/2021/08/25/my-case-is-a-drop-in-the-ocean 

  8. The Socialist Revolutionaries (the SRs) were one of the most significant political parties in the pre-revolutionary Russia and during the early Soviet years. The organization was tried by Lenin in 1922. 

  9. OBERIU, or the Union of Real Art, was a group of Leningrad avant-garde artists and poets: Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolay Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov, and others. Almost all OBERIU members were arrested during the Stalinist repressions, very few survived. 

  10. https://dccoop.info 

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