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"Be like children. Repeat: 2+2=4. Black is black. White is white." Alla Gutnikova about arrest, feminism and the experience of forced emigration


The editors of the student publication Doxa Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metelkin, Natalya Tyshkevich and Alla Gutnikova were criminally charged in April 2021 for recording a video in support of students and schoolchildren who were subjected to pressure from educational organisations for participating in January’s rallies in support of Alexei Navalny.

The investigation saw evidence in this video of the involvement of minors in illegal activities (Article 151.2 of the Criminal Code). The maximum punishment under this article is three years in prison.

Then still a student, Alla bravely went through all the ordeals of house arrest for a year, without Russian international passport, she escaped first to Armenia, and then to Germany and now lives in Berlin (in September 2022, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the ex-editors of DOXA Alla Gutnikova, Natalya Tyshkevich and Vladimir Metelkin are on wanted list).

Armen Aramyan, Natalya Tyshkevich, Alla Gutnikova and Vladimir Metelkin
Photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev

Media Loft correspondent Asya Morskaya talked with Alla about the difficulties she has experienced, her plans for the future, her life mission and her experience of sexual violence.

'I constantly think about those who could not escape'

- Alla, as I understand it, you are now in Berlin? How are you?

- Good afternoon! Well, how can I say... Considering the current situation in the world, there are, in general, few reasons for joy, so I would say it is satisfactory.

- What do you think about the changes that have occurred in your life in recent years?

- When I was arrested, I was 22 years old, and 10 days later it was my birthday. I was a fourth-year cultural studies student at the National Research University Higher School of Economics. It was April, and a few months later I was supposed to defend my diploma and graduate from the university.

It was 2021, and I had a plan that same year or the year after to join the “Teacher for Russia” program, the essence of which is that young people, not necessarily even with a pedagogical education, go to a small town or sometimes to a village and teach for two years some subject in which they specialised at the university.

But then, when a criminal case was opened against me on trumped-up charges of involving minors in life-threatening activities, it became clear that, of course, I could not have any teaching career in Russia.

It was no longer about my career, but about whether I would remain free or not. Miraculously, in the end, I was not sent to prison, but until recently, before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was not sure whether I wanted to leave. Partly because arrest has such a psychological effect: I began to doubt my abilities very much.

It began to seem to me that my whole life before the arrest, in which there were some successful projects - I worked at several jobs, I was an educational assistant at the university, I taught children - all this at that moment seemed to be separated by some kind of veil over me. It seemed that all this could never return.

I constantly think about those who could not escape. There is also a kind of inequality here.

We had a lot of support, including international support. Letters in our defence were signed by Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek. Slavoj Žižek acted as a witness for the defence at the trial. Not physically, but his video characterising DOXA was presented there.

And also the journalistic and activist community - this enormous support had a big impact on how the case was covered. As soon as there is so much publicity, the risks of a very cruel, blatant violation of rights are immediately minimised.

Фото: Instagram

Although we know examples where even huge publicity can have no effect, in our case it worked. It is very difficult to have this freedom, knowing that a huge number of people also deserve it, to constantly read this news, to mentally continue to be there, with them.

'If there is a war, freedom is no longer needed'

- What was the hardest thing for you during the time you spent under house arrest?

- There were two most difficult and terrible periods. The first was after it had just happened, I was not at all ready for it.

People often tell me “You are so brave, we thank you for your brave act,” but the truth is that I could not imagine that we could be criminally prosecuted for a three-minute video.

I remember the first weeks after the arrest as the most terrible, it was a great shock to the psyche.

I remember that I, for example, constantly passed out in the middle of the day, I could sit on the couch, talk and start falling asleep, because I could not stand this reality. I developed some quite strong phobias, I was afraid of doorbells, my hands began to shake when I heard one. I was afraid of the sounds of passing cars in the street.

The next, incomparably more terrible period began after February 24, 2022, because, before the start of the full-scale invasion it seemed to me that my only problem was an electronic monitoring bracelet on my ankle, a criminal case and the threat of prison. As soon as the bracelet was removed and the criminal case was closed, I would be able to leave and be safe, then after the start of the full-scale invasion it became clear that nothing would ever be good and nothing in the world could resurrect the dead, or heal these wounds.

Against the backdrop of the war in Russia, a new wave of censorship and arrests broke out, and I began to feel real paranoia. I was sure that there would be another search, that another case would be opened against us.

Until I left Russia, I could not do anything truly anti-war and useful.

Фото: Instagram

When I was freed, I forgot how to be happy and suffered very much from it. I waited a whole year for this freedom, but it turned out that even if it existed, but there was a war going on, this freedom was useless, because you cannot do anything with it, it does not bring happiness.

In a way, it was clearer when I was under arrest, because there was some hope for the future, but once you have been released, there is no hope.

- Do people recognize you in Berlin?

- Yes, this happens often, although in Armenia it happened even more often.

We left Russia without travel documents because they were confiscated during a search. That's why we first left for Yerevan. There we went to the German embassy, they knew about our situation and were able to issue us temporary ersatz passports. Now, instead of my stolen Russian travel document, I have a German ersatz passport for the period of the humanitarian residence permit, that is, for three years.

In Yerevan people found me out much more often, we left Russia at the end of April, in Yerevan there were a huge number of Russians who left Russia after February 24th. It was difficult because we hid our location, we were afraid that they wouldn’t have time to give us documents before we were put on the wanted list, and we were extremely afraid of extradition. Therefore, communication was always very awkward. People came up to us to give words of support and thank you, and I had to ask them to keep this secret and not tell anyone that they had seen me.

'It's important to keep talking about what's going on'

- In Germany, are you involved in more than just political activism?

- Yes, a year ago, in the autumn, I finally plucked up the courage and spoke about my experience of sexualized violence that happened when I was 19 years old. This story received quite a lot of publicity, and 10 more women who were abused by the same man contacted me.

I remember that after this story was made public, I was at a rally "Returning of the Names" to publicise the names of the victims of of Soviet-era repression, because it is very important for me to preserve the memory of the victims of terror; and at the rally people came up to me and thanked me, but at that moment I didn’t know what exactly they were thanking me for - for the criminal opposition or for this feminist activity. In any case, it was important to me that this could help someone. I understood that this was not in vain.

Here in Berlin, last summer I played in the documentary play “Exile promenade” at the “Performing exiles” festival. This is such a big festival about the various possible outcomes of emigration. The performance was in English, and I talked about my experience of house arrest, about other political prisoners, about the anti-war resistance. Part of the performance was that I clearly expressed my position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the need to arm Ukraine.

This performance was mainly watched by Germans. After the performance, many people came up to me and said that they had never heard such slogans from the lips of a Russian.

The story about house arrest and political prisoners was just as surprising for Europeans. They mainly know a few of the biggest stories. Navalny, Yashin, Kara-Murza. But lesser-known stories don’t make it here.

There is an endless debate about whether people in Russia are protesting or not. It seems to me important to talk about political prisoners, especially when they are not activists or politicians, but just ordinary people.

I mean mothers of many children, pensioners, schoolchildren, students, workers. There are, for example, a large number of cases related to arson carried out at military registration and enlistment offices. This is a symbolic act, and in Russia these people are being tried for terrorism.

I feel responsible for this, because when our case occured, The Guardian wrote about us, I gave an interview to The Economist, several documentaries were made about us. There was a lot of attention, including international attention. And now this attention is no longer there, but there are still political prisoners. There are many more of them than before, they still need help and support.

Фото: Instagram

- You also mentioned harassment and your confession about experiencing violence. This was exactly what my next question was about. What do you see as your life mission? Is your speaking out, giving courage to others and encouraging them to tell their story, part of that mission?

- Yes of course. This is the kind of activism that I started doing, and I think as long as I live, I will continue to do so, because, unfortunately, there are a lot of crimes related to sexualized violence.

I recently took part in the podcast “I won’t get anything for this” by journalist Nastya Krasilnikova. The podcast describes cases of sexualized violence and harassment in a Russian-speaking environment. There is a deputy, and participants in the intellectual game, a film critic, a university teacher and others. In my case, it was the founder of an educational project.

I told my story and listened in horror to the stories of other victims, many of whom were able to unite. One of the heroines was able to achieve justice in court.

Alina Shcheglova filed a lawsuit after the rape, and the Russian court imprisoned the rapist. For me, the issue of respect for human rights in Russia is still important, because it is clear that the country has an absolutely criminal regime and is now waging a monstrous criminal genocidal war in Ukraine. As we know, this is not the first war, and we can only hope and make every effort for it to be the last.

And we understand that the regime will hit the most vulnerable groups of the population, for example LGBTQ+. They passed a law banning gender transition, this puts the lives of trans people in danger. They are also constantly trying to infringe on and belittle women’s rights. In Russia feminism is equated with extremism, and there is constant talk about the possibility of restricting the right to abortion.

It is important to talk about what is happening with propaganda and the entire education system everywhere, including kindergartens, not to mention schools and universities. It is also important to talk about the responsibility of all adult Russian citizens for what our army is doing in Ukraine.

The army is not some abstract entity, it consists of people. These people are also someone’s brothers, husbands, sons...

Regarding the problem of gender-based and sexualized violence, it is clear that a separate subtype of this problem and feature is when violence occurs in emigration. Many victims may not have legal status in the new country and are waiting for documents. Or even if they have a residence permit, it is still a new country for them, they may not know the language, they may not know which authorities to contact. This is an important issue. The experience of emigration is an experience of some vulnerability. It is important that there is some kind of community that can support them.

Фото: Instagram

- We at Media Loft are just releasing a guide about protection from domestic violence in exile and what to do if violence occurred in another country.

- Nastya Krasilnikova covered an incident in her podcast when there were collective accusations against the Russian composer Kirill Shirokov. This is a very serious charge involving physical assault, strangulation, attempted murder, cutting, mutilation, etc.

Kirill Shirokov received a humanitarian visa and lived in Berlin. Now his exact location is unknown, but he has German humanitarian documents. It is clear that while this story was private, the German authorities had no opportunity to take it into account, but this is an alarming moment. I have hope that this situation will still be resolved legally, because this is an egregious case.

'I don't know if I want to go back'

- Tell us how the move happened. Did the Armenian border guards ask any special questions when you moved from Armenia to Germany? And why did your choice fall on Berlin?

- There were a lot of fears associated with leaving Armenia. At that time, we had not yet been put on the wanted list, which was a calming factor. When we consulted with local human rights activists, we were told that there might be Russian FSB agents at the border, but I was half prepared for the fact that they might not let me out and some dangerous situation might occur.

We were helped to leave by the German organisation InTransit, founded by activists from Russia. With their help, the German government was ready to issue us replacement documents. This was the only possibility of salvation.

Otherwise, we would have remained trapped there (in Armenia - editor's note) under the threat of the possibility of extradition. Unfortunately, now, more than a year after we were able to leave, cases of extradition from Kazakhstan, for example, are increasingly happening.

We were able to get out so quickly thanks to publicity and international support. Those who have been persecuted and, in some cases, tortured, but have not received such publicity, cannot count on quick help. Sometimes this costs people their freedom and they are returned to Russia.

- Do you miss Russia? If you had the opportunity to return there without fear, would you return?

- No, I don’t miss Russia at all. I only miss my family who stayed there. But family is not Russia.

I have no warm or tender feelings for Russia. If, after what the Russian authorities and the Russian state did to me, I would experience some kind of nostalgia and a desire to return, it would already be Stockholm syndrome. But of course, I would really like that human rights, the rights of peoples to self-determination to be respected on Russian territory, because Russia partly consists of colonised territories of colonised peoples.

I would like there to be a law on domestic violence in Russia, so that children and women will stop being beaten, raped and killed. But first of all, I would like Russia to completely withdraw from Ukraine and from all occupied Ukrainian territories, so that all war criminals are brought to justice and that all those responsible receive punishment for this war, so that there is a right to restitution, so that there is a big trial like Nuremberg...

But I don't miss it. I don't know if I would like to go back there.

By: Asya Morskaya
Cover photo: Vladimir Gerdo / Tass