From teacher and artist to ‘enemy of the state’ in Russia: Daria Apakhonchich | DW | 08.02.2021

Daria Apakhonchich was rudely awakened by loud thumping on her door at five in the morning on January 31, 2021.

The Russian language teacher and feminist artist in St. Petersburg immediately posted on Facebook: “The cops are kicking down the door.”

To prevent the old wooden door from being split open with a circular saw which her early morning guests had brought with them, she let the police in. The reason for their visit became clear during the subsequent interrogation — she had entered “public thoroughfares” during the protests against the arrest of Alexei Navalny on January 23 in St. Petersburg.

Taking to Facebook the next day, she said that she was questioned as a witness “for now,” and that the police had turned her flat upside down, confiscating all devices such as PCs, notebooks and mobile phones.

Artist as ‘agent’

Her post however came with this preface: “This message was provided and (or) distributed by foreign mass media representing foreign interests and (or) by a Russian legal entity representing foreign interests.”

Daria Apakhonchich is politically active in St. Petersburg in her free time

Apakhonchich has been obliged to preface all her posts such since December 28, 2020. That was the day the Russian Ministry of Justice published a list declaring — for the first time in recent Russian history — private persons to be “foreign agents.”

Previously, only “legal entities” mainly consisting of NGOs and the mass media, had been placed on the index under the “foreign agent” law, which was passed in 2012 and has been amended several times since. But now, for the first time, “individual perpetrators” have been included —three journalists, a human rights activist, and Apakhonchich.

‘Power wants to alienate us’

When not earning her living as a Russian language teacher to migrant and refugee women, she has used her position as a performance artist to organize events to protect the environment, defend feminist causes, and protest Russian military adventurism. However, Apakhonchich is no major celebrity.

Artwork by Daria Apakhonchich, 'Land of Strangers', showing a whole in the shape of Russia on a white globe

‘Land of Strangers’: Apakhonchich’s artwork is a comment on Putin’s government

Shortly before the New Year, friends had informed her of the “honor” bestowed upon her, and she couldn’t believe her ears.

Specifically, she was designated as “mass media”; she asserts she is neither that nor a journalist.

If anything, her “media” activities are limited to posts on her Facebook account, where she currently has just 1,589 friends. Clearly too insignificant a number for her to be considered “mass media.”

Apart from funny observations about her children, her posts mainly focus on domestic violence, and violence against women and men in Russia in general.

However, Apakhonchich sometimes doesn’t mince her words either. “Every time another absurd law is passed in our country (whether about propaganda, about demonstrations or about defamation), I hear the sentence: ‘But according to this law, you can put everyone in jail!’ Yes, you can, but that’s not what those in power do, because if you prosecute many innocent people according to the same paragraph, then people show solidarity. But you don’t want unity in the scene, which the power perceives as a threat to itself.”

That is why, she concluded on Facebook, people are given as many “labels” as possible: one is a thief, the other an extremist, and still others, foreign agents. And in case of doubt, someone can always be accused of “breaking COVID rules” or even “trespassing on public thoroughfares.”

“Power wants to alienate us from each other. Like an octopus, it keeps spraying new ink clouds of laws and accusations so that it remains invisible in our waters.”

Chance discovery of protest art

DW had an appointment for a Skype interview with Apakhonchich on January 27. Her old laptop had not yet been confiscated at the time.

She proceeded to relate the story of her life and how she came to be one of Russia’s “lone agents.”

A daughter of a volcanologist, she grew up in Kamchatka and Siberia. “Volcanologists are brave people.” Later, she studied philology and literature on the Neva and taught Russian as a foreign language to migrants.

She had worked as an election observer during the Snow Revolution that saw nationwide protests against the 2011 Russian legislative election results. Lasting until 2013, this event triggered her birth as a political activist. 

“After the suppression of protests against electoral fraud, there was a feeling of suffocation, of having no more space for expressing opinions.” And so, she discovered protest art by chance.

Together with a few friends, she founded the art group Rodina (“Home”), which highlighted some social grievances. Domestic violence against women became a focal area for Apakhonchich.

Apakhonchich holding a banner in Russian that translates as: 'Refugees from the lands of domestic violence — let them into your heart'

Apakhonchich’s banner reads: ‘Refugees from the lands of domestic violence — let them into your heart’

“Russia is one of the few countries where there is no law against domestic violence. Femicide remains a taboo word in Russia. Yet thousands of women become victims of domestic bullies every year,” she tells DW. Apakhonchich campaigned against this using posters, books, and awareness-raising activities.

‘They wanted to make an example of me’

2020 was not an easy year for her, and not only because of COVID.

She is particularly proud of one act though: together with the American performance artist Nicole Garneau, she created a kind of ritualized mourning for Anastassia Yeshenko, a 24-year-old scientist who was brutally murdered in 2019 by her doctoral supervisor, a professor at St Petersburg University. The man had dumped the girl’s body in the river next to his house.

The crime attracted a lot of attention, with the majority of society blaming the victim. “Unfortunately, a woman’s life doesn’t count for much in Russia,” Apakhonchich tells DW. “We symbolically buried Anastasia’s soul, thus giving her back her dignity.”

Russland Künstlerin Daria Apakhonchich

The performance to commemorate Anastassia Yeshenko, at the location where her body was found

But does all this make Apakhonchich an enemy of the state? “I think they just didn’t know what to do with me,” she says. “But they wanted to make an example of me somehow. So that, next time, you will think twice about expressing your own opinion. Even if it’s only on your own Facebook page.”

She’s now trying to return some order to her messed up flat while keeping her spirits up. “I may look gloomy now, but my mind is clear and strong,” she told DW on February 1 — using a friend’s mobile phone.



Adapted from German by Brenda Haas


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Credit: Deutsche Welle

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