The victor isn’t the smartest, the bravest, the most privileged — the victor is the most stubborn
Yuma is an LGBTQ+ activist and feminist. In 2021, BBC included her to the list of “100 Influential Women’’ from around the world. In Russia, Yuma’s family became known after taking part in a commercial for the grocery chain “Vkusvill”. The commercial was made to show actual customers of the stores and tell viewers about their favourite purchases. And yet, Yuma’s family incurred criticism and hatred. Sensing that they faced a real threat to their safety, they left Russia and now live in Barcelona. We’ve talked with Yuma about her family, the role of women in activism, who are the “post-Russians,” and about what the world will be like after the war.
Tell us about how you started on your path as activist
I don’t like the word “activism” — it has some kind of stigma to it, a stereotype. For me, having a proactive life means to help wherever I am able to help. I’ll tell this story: before our first emigration-escape to Georgia, our whole family came out to the city — we needed to buy a laptop for Mila [one of the daughters]. Suddenly we see, right in the middle of the street, a huge man is beating a young woman, kicking her. I, like an antelope, jump over to him and start yelling at him to go away. Mila also pounced on him. How old was she? Maybe 19? The woman suffered brain damage — she really didn’t know where she was or who she could call. Her husband had been the one who beat her. They have two children. Other women who worked in the cafe and store nearby, brought us water and napkins to wipe the blood. Is that activism? And then the police arrived and declared: “What did you call us for? You, girl [meaning Mila], if your man beats you, you’re going to call us too?”
Arguably, other people would have just passed by.
There are things that don’t worry me as much, but the topic of children and women is incredibly important to me — this is quite literally the meaning of my existence. In everything that touches this subject, I very harshly advocate for my position.
You came into activism in order to defend the rights of women and children?
Yes, exactly for this reason. After they passed the law about “LGBT-propaganda” in 2013, I became really afraid for LGBT children. I was really moved by the idea of the project Children-404. But for quite a while I didn’t call my position “activism” — I don’t love to resist. If I don’t like something, I just do the opposite.
But doesn’t activism imply struggle? Resistance?
Not for me. If I step into a conflict, then I strengthen it onto myself. But if I become a counterweight, an alternative to this conflict, then it will become weaker and start to recede. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Often, you have to put in a lot of effort.
So for you activism includes education as well?
Activism is, first and foremost, enlightenment and aid. Among my listeners, there are different people — heteronormative [people] included. At some point, they bring their friends and relatives to the chats. In this way, the circle of trust and goodness widens, and people learn that lesbians aren’t strange creatures but interesting people with their own interesting stories and their own families. For a long time, I worked as a therapist with a client, and one day her daughter came out as gay. My client told me that at that moment she thought, “Well, Yuma is normal, so that means that everything is ok.” She was able to keep her relationship with her daughter, and everything that I did was not in vain. This brings me great joy and pride.
How did you get into political activism?
I was one of those who helped guys who were victims of persecution in Chechnya. I couldn’t pass by idly — these are children. So young, of a similar age to my own children. I talked with Maxim Lapunov — he was one of the first who openly spoke of the persecution of gay people in Chechnya.
How do you cope when your struggle is literally reduced to nothing?
It is painful. You cry, argue, but continue to work. I taught my children this: when you have to do something, it doesn’t matter how you yourself feel. The victor isn’t the smartest, the bravest, or the most privileged — the victor is the most stubborn. If it doesn’t work out, no matter — walk away, rest, and try again. After difficult actions, people relieve stress in different ways. For instance, sometimes I would want to go out and just drink a glass of vodka. But I don’t drink or take anything. So I just stood there and thought, “Well, I could drink a glass of vodka; what could happen to me?”
Is it difficult for you to be a mother and an activist at the same time?
In general, it was difficult to be a mother. Difficult to be a woman. You wake up as a woman, and you’re trapped. I became a mother — I knew what I was getting myself into, didn’t just “become” — also my fault. For my loved ones, the story is this: on the one hand, I love my family and value their freedom to make decisions. But on the other hand, of course, I fear for them.
Currently, many young people in Russia are trying to convey their anti-war position to their parents and older relatives. Many are met with rejection. Do you think it is worth it to try to convey one’s point of view? What is the best way to do so?
You can’t examine a person outside of context. In Russia, people have ended up in a societal trap. They are not allowed to make a personal choice — they weren’t allowed to for many years. Some were able to escape, to get themselves out, but the mass constantly tries to drag everyone back in. This societal landscape, this pressure, is so powerful that one young person is likely incapable of changing anything. But there are different kinds of parents. If there is an opportunity to show them the right path, then you shouldn’t give up.
Do you think that there is a tradition in Russia to silence important societal problems, a certain societal atrophy? Do you remember a time from your childhood or young adulthood where you understood that this is detrimental? Is your activism an attempt to change this established order of things?
This is clearly a tradition. I’ll tell a story. I am a neurotypical person; I have a relatively high mark on the Asperger’s scale. I remember how in the Soviet school in response to the question “Individual or society?” I answered, “Well, listen, how about Peter the Great, or Hitler? Individuality doesn’t matter. Otherwise how could so many people follow them?” To this the teacher answered,
“Sit and be quiet please, don’t ever say that to anyone, otherwise you won’t get into university”. So I’ve never been in agreement with what the majority says and does. I was inconvenient. And in activism also.
Nowadays, many people talk about how the protests in Russia have a “woman’s face” (for example, the protests of mothers in Dagestan against mobilisation). Do you think that women and men protest differently?
The active mass [of people] is always women. And a few men who try to occupy leadership roles. Men became cowards — they didn’t come out to defend their right to “not kill people,” they fled, hid. And their women are so afraid to lose their loved ones that they came out to defend them.
“The mothers and wives collective” came under criticism because the members protested not against the war itself but for example, against violations in how mobilisation was conducted.
Each person comes out for that which truly worries them. These same women didn’t come out to the streets for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, but now they came out.
Do you think the fem-protest had an influence on how society saw the war?
I left, so I can’t with certainty answer this question. I’ll say one thing: I am greatly sorry that many people who I treasure remain in Russia and have had to make peace with the prevailing state of affairs.
Tell us about activism in Spain. What is the key difference that you see compared to Russia?
A year and a half that we are here — we are healing our wounds. Most of the time I just ate, slept, worked a little. That’s why I don’t have much to say yet about activism. But I can for sure say that here, the atmosphere itself heals; everyone is kinder to one another. In Russia, we didn’t notice how our people are so grim. In Spain, people who meet each other’s eyes readily say, “Hola!” I get on the bus, and the driver raises his eyes and greets me. And this is so natural: see a person — say that you like him. Of course, there are many freedoms in Spain and you have to pay for them — because of the high unemployment rate, among other things, there are many petty crimes — for example, theft. But in the context of overall goodwill, acceptance, and relaxation, you can make peace with it.
Can you tell us about your ongoing projects and initiatives?
I had the goal to create a community in Barcelona and I returned back to organising the festival “Side by Side.” Of course, I knew that it would be difficult. We put on two film screenings; it was rather hard and stressful. But personally for me, this enterprise was incredibly important because I finally created something. People came, watched films, argued about something. And we established a team. This means that we are not strangers to each other anymore, that we haven’t been thrown away, isolated.
Side by Side LGBT Film Festival
Side by Side - the only LGBT film festival in Russia. We organise film screenings, discussions and Q & As in Saint…
Did you expect that the war would start?
I was sure that the war would start; I even assumed the date. It was horrible and waiting [for it] was horrible. Your state of being is as if you’re screaming but no one hears you. And when the war started, I cried so much, argued so much… and for a long time when many of my friends were sure that everything would be over soon, I would say, “It won’t go away, [you should] leave! It won’t get better!”
How can you describe society’s relationship with Ukraine before the war?
I don’t think that the case was with Ukraine in particular. When people asked me where the war would start, I said that in Ukraine or in Georgia. The war in Ukraine is a serious blow towards Europe, and there, everything is powered by ambition. In general I saw that people are neutral towards what is happening. They don’t want to hear, don’t want to know anything. This is understandable — people just don’t want to ruin their own lives. Everything that concerns human reactions, I understand very well. I understand those that are against, and those who have suddenly become desperate Putinists. They are surviving. The only thing that I can’t accept are people who murder, stab, shoot. It’s known that they exist, and that some forces kept them at bay, but that there are so many of them, and that after all the atrocities, they continue to live…
War leads to dehumanisation?
How so? War is very human. We just don’t want to know that people are like this. If you forget about snobbery, then a person just devours everything around, feeds off of other living things. People abuse, stab, torment one another. And this is the same part of our nature that makes us eat fish, chickens, cows. Humanity will never grow up and never stop sowing hell around itself.
What do you think will happen after the war?
Here in Spain, I often think about this: what will happen after the war? It will end at some point, I don’t know how, but it will be finished. What then? I think that in all this madness it is important to maintain dignity, humanity. If humanistic values stop having meaning, then after the war, we will fall into a real pit. It is crucial to talk [about this] now, because after, we will all live to restore these values.
How have you helped those suffering from the war?
In ways that I know how. I talked, wrote posts on social media, did livestreams. I helped people see each other not as enemies but as victims who need to come together and support one another. I talked about how to communicate with loved ones or with those who are on different sides of the border. And there are wonderful people on the Ukrainian side who tell me that they understand who exactly started this war. There are Russians who say that they don’t want to have anything in common with this regime that started the war, and want to help instead. I think that this is our path going forward. The “post-Russians” will remain, [those] who have crossed the borders of ols Russia, and moved on. And in this post-war world, we will have to negotiate with one another: with dignity, carefully, gently. Learn to not spin conflicts, because one conflict often begets a second and a third. This is a considerable amount of work.
Work for activists among others?
Activists must create this arena for discourse, a place of dignity, so that after the war ends, people will have someplace to go. Where they could get world experience. As an activist, I see my primary purpose as creating precisely this kind of informational space. Because when a person doesn’t have a template for healthy behaviour, the war within can go on endlessly.