By Gelia Bessmertnaya
The Russian Federation is among the countries with little or no effective measures against human trafficking. The Modern Slavery Index data showed that as of 2018 there may have been approximately 794,000 people in modern slavery in Russia. This is not a statistical calculation, but rather an estimate – the exact number of people in situations of human trafficking in Russia is not known.
Such facts about an aggressor country should not surprise anyone. But what may seem surprising is that there are still people in Russia who, without the support of the authorities and in the face of numerous obstacles, continue to struggle to ensure that survivors of trafficking have a chance to return to a safe life.
In 2019, we launched Eurydice because we wanted to make the problem of women’s exploitation in prostitution more visible and to give women survivors a place to turn to. We are a few feminist activists who are concerned about the problem. Some of us had experience in prostitution, so we wanted to create a grassroots movement.
In fact, at that time, we had only one goal: to take part in an educational and prevention project organised by the only foundation in Russia that helps survivors of all kinds of human trafficking. We could not have guessed what was in store for us.
Before we recount our adventures, let’s dive a little into the context. Novosibirsk is the largest city in Russia east of the Ural mountains. It is inhabited by more than a 1.5 million people and is the capital of Siberia. It has grown to its current size because it is a major transport hub, accumulating connections through the regions within the country and beyond, including Kazakhstan, China and some other Central Asian countries.
Of course, not only legal businesses flourish in such a place, but also criminal groups – pimps, drug dealers, owners of “workhouses”. There are striptease clubs all over the city, which are not hidden because they exist legally, as well as illegal “rub and tug” parlours, “offices” and webcam studios.
On the streets there are people begging for alms and after a while you start to recognise them by sight. They are held hostage by traffickers and forced to beg. The authorities and the police are not very active in combating this, and in some cases, they support the criminals.
In the autumn of 2019, we invited colleagues from the Safehouse Foundation to come to our city to run a three-day training programme. This gave us a theoretical basis that helped us take our first steps in activism against human trafficking in Russia and to participate in building a unified approach to combating human trafficking and assisting survivors, based on abolitionist principles.
We called our initiative ‘Eurydice’ after the heroine in the Greek myth who fell into the realm of Hades – an allegory for sexualised exploitation. But unlike Orpheus, who was unable to help his beloved, we were confident that we would find a way to make an impact.
We started with prevention activities for vulnerable groups and activities to raise awareness about trafficking and sexualised exploitation – film screenings, speeches at local feminist events, creation and distribution of information materials to fill the gaps on the most pressing topics, such as exploitation in webcam and massage parlours. As the project drew to a close, the most interesting part began – we received our first call.
At first, it was completely unclear what to do. I wrote to the Foundation’s coordinator and, under her guidance, we started accompanying the survivors. Our activities still overlap closely with the Safehouse Foundation: their psychologists provide assistance to the clients from Novosibirsk, they bring in lawyers when needed, and they cover most of our expenses.
We do everything on the spot: we provide medical and social service support, buy medicines and food, find and pay for temporary housing, respond to emergencies, talk to the police. We have even found a new home for our clients’ pets when circumstances made it difficult for them to continue taking care of them.
Those of us who have been trafficked ourselves have also been able to finally get support from professionals.
In the first year, the main source of referrals was word of mouth, and the first clients were acquaintances or friends of acquaintances. In 2020, however, we processed 15 referrals. These were not only victims and survivors of prostitution, but also several women who had experienced other kinds of violence.
Local legislation on pimping and human trafficking
The Russian Criminal Code establishes liability for human trafficking. However, the main people convicted under the article on human trafficking are mothers who transfer babies to third parties for money. And the total number of criminal cases under this article is only a few dozen per year. The default view is that there is no human trafficking in Russia.
The Russian legislation on prostitution has many shortcomings. Often cases are not prosecuted because police officers are corrupt. They willingly fine prostituted women, but are very lax when it comes to punishing pimps. Law enforcement officials not only take bribes from criminals, but sometimes also rape women under their control.
There are no state programmes to assist trafficked persons and survivors of sexual exploitation. Grant assistance for NGOs is also difficult. The chances of receiving state grants for anti-trafficking programmes are very slim. Projects with a “patriotic” focus are prioritised.
It is also worth saying a few words about the article against the distribution of pornography. Such an article exists and is applied, but there are examples of it being used for repressive purposes against an innocent person. The most famous is the case of Yulia Tsvetkova, which shocked the whole world. The feminist activist has been on trial for more than two years for painting pictures of vulvas (in fact for her human rights work).
Threats from legalisers
We realised we were being noticed when people who defend “prostitution as a choice” started commenting on our publications. They often subscribe to news articles using the tags #prostitution, #escort and others, which we add to make the articles visible to the target audience.
It was hard to believe that the heads of Russia’s largest red umbrella organisation came to prove something to us in the comments. [*] In doing so, they behaved both unprofessionally and in a boorish manner.
Or that a well-known woman in the Russian porn business re-posts our articles to her page with angry comments. According to her biography, which is freely available, her first stripper pole was given to her by her parents, and she started performing in clubs before she was eighteen. We think that she is either being controlled and her social media is not her own, or she is deeply traumatised and cannot acknowledge the damage her parents have done to her and seeks to maintain the status quo.
An unidentified man also made his mark in the comments, sending us selfies with a knife and calling us “fucking SWERFs”.
‘Cooperation’ with the police
In 2020, one of the Eurydice members decided to take legal action against the owners of the brothel where she had been exploited just a couple of years earlier. Since then, their address has changed and one of the women we assisted gave us the new address. We appealed to the Commissioner for Human Rights in the Novosibirsk Region for an inspection of the brothel. Apparently, our appeal was forwarded to the prosecutor’s office, and from there it went downstairs and was eventually assigned to a district police officer to check.
A few weeks later I received a call from a private number. The district police officer said that an inspection had been carried out and no violations had been found. And the address in question was a residential apartment. However, he invited us to talk to him at his station.
My colleague and I arrived at the specified time at the empty police station, where he met us in plain clothes. We recorded the entire conversation, which may have stopped him intimidating us. But his whole appearance exuded menace.
He questioned us at length about what we knew, who we were, and what we were trying to achieve. He played dumb and stood his ground: he had already carried out a check, interviewed a woman who allegedly lived at the specified address with her family and found nothing suspicious.
According to our information, the woman controlled either one brothel or several of them. We knew her personal details and those of her relatives who were also part of the criminal network, phone and bank card numbers, and the circumstances of the criminal activity. And we knew for a fact that sexual exploitation was taking place at that address. But all this was worthless to the police officer. We later found out that an image was circulating on WhatsApp of this policeman with a man who bore a painful resemblance to the brothel owner’s husband.
We were ready to go further and report it to the prosecutor’s office. But on the day we visited the station, our informant received threats. Women, who were still in the salon, told her that the police had allegedly called them. Who had called them and on what pretext remained a mystery. They were indignant that they would now be “out of a job” and it was all because of her. I think it was a bluff to intimidate her. Later, they started writing threats to her on social media. We feared for her safety and curtailed our work in that direction.
What we managed to achieve was that the parlour left the multi-storey penthouse, where up to 15 women were being exploited at any time, and was closed down for about a month. It then reopened at a new address on a much smaller scale and is still in operation.
After a couple of months, our informant stopped contacting us. We knew she was safe, but the shock of the experience must have been so strong that she did not want to do business with us. We had acted without providing her with adequate protection, and she was right about that. It was our first experience of advocacy and, alas, unsuccessful. We tried to learn from this experience.
Three years after our launch, we can now sum up the interim results: 31 people have approached us in that time. Among them were survivors of sexual exploitation in escorting, striptease, erotic massage, and porn, as well as people who were in other vulnerable situations. They include both women and men, including transgender people. Some of them were from other regions.
These people received psychological help, temporary accommodation, legal advice, vocational training, humanitarian aid and food. We helped them recover their documents, ask for medical assistance, contact the police several times, and we took parcels to the hospital…
Two out of every three cases have now been completed. Most of these service-users have been able to feel more confident and no longer need support. Here is how some of them describe their condition now:
“Something amazing has happened to me after that disgusting time.
New acquaintances, cool work and travel, some acceptance of myself, passion for things, tender and mutual feelings, lots of emotions that have kept me in a more positive frame of mind (well, compared to what I had)”
“I’m at a point in my life now where looking back I can say to myself, ‘You did well, you managed to get through it’. But looking ahead, I get scared. The dark forest, where one bright lantern shines at my feet, but there is little to see among the many trees and branches.
I make no more plans, no more deadlines. I am terribly tired, but I will keep walking and one day I will get out into the light.”
But there have also been those who have suddenly stopped making contact or returned to the sex industry. Unfortunately, in our work this is unavoidable: there are things that do not depend solely on our efforts.
We are keen to look for like-minded people and build horizontal bonds. To do this, we have been getting to know local human rights organisations in order to establish referral mechanisms. We have been invited to online and local feminist events. We have given media interviews and participated in research.
We also became known in other regions. In 2021 we performed at the Eve’s Ribs (‘Ryobra Evy’) festival in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It is a landmark feminist festival, the biggest in the country. Its organisers have now left Russia under the threat of political persecution. Sexual exploitation was a central theme that year and we presented a block of lectures: on the latent forms of prostitution, on the functioning of the brain under the influence of trauma, and violence in the porn industry.
We aim to take every opportunity to spread the word about the problem of sex trafficking. If our experience inspires just one person to take action, we will have achieved our goal. Every time we hear feedback from the women we work with, or hear about the importance of the message we are spreading, we realise that our work has meaning.
To achieve a systemic change in the human trafficking situation, we need coordinated and sustained work by grassroots organisations, NGOs and activists who are willing to work together.
We, like many initiatives in Russia, are not officially registered. This is partly because registering an organisation entails serious risks of persecution by the state, which considers any independent NGO a threat. Also, registration involves additional financial and time costs, which we cannot bear at the moment. However, we are accountable to the donors for every expenditure.
The practice of labelling independent organisations as foreign agents has become widespread in recent years. It is true that, to date, this has applied to all organisations, not just registered ones. Politically motivated criminal or administrative cases are fabricated against activists. Since 24 February, the situation has only worsened.
Despite these difficulties, we continue our activities. The lack of registration as an NGO makes it difficult to obtain grant support from donors. In these circumstances, we need to look for new, safer ways of obtaining resources to support initiatives that continue, despite the crackdown on civil society in Russia.
I left Russia this summer, and another colleague recently left to study in another city. But the initiative continues. A few active participants accompany survivors in Novosibirsk, others do their part remotely. There are people who help us on a volunteer basis from time to time. I think this is a great achievement.
What is happening now cannot help but cause anxiety and worry, especially when we are separated by distance. But time demands resilience and courage, and we continue to do what we can.
We are now working on a digital campaign to prevent girls’ involvement in online trafficking. However, we are faced with an acute shortage of finances to cover the basic costs of our clients’ needs. And the launch of a new project will definitely lead to new appeals. Your cryptocurrency donations will help us get through this period.
- BTC: bc1qnme9ly6eze9dlv8krwdnqqzl9x0vpsyeqnk0yw
- ETH: 0x607B84130509a5dE0754989cBcc8F2620fc0Ac45
- USDT (ERC20): 0x607B84130509a5dE0754989cBcc8F2620fc0Ac45
[*] The red umbrella is a symbol of the so-called “sex workers’ rights movement”. This might sound like a good thing that few could object to. The reality, however, is a little more complicated.
- Lies, Damn Lies and Ignoring Statistics: How the Decriminalisation of Prostitution is No Answer
- The cost of Western Europe’s rampant prostitution: the genocide of Romanian women
- Prostitution in Hungary and the sex trafficking of Hungarian women and girls
- Swedish sex trade survivors back international campaign for the Nordic Model