MOSCOW — The well-tended brick house in Moscow’s outskirts may be among the most exclusive addresses for those exhausted from fighting President Vladimir Putin’s government.
First, you apply to be a guest — open to women and other activists within the LGBTQ community.
Then, if accepted, you receive the location through the “secret chat” function on the Telegram messaging app. It’s not to be shared with anyone.
At the start of your stay, there will be an introductory seminar in the living room, where a rainbow flag is hanging on one wall and slightly deflated pink and blue balloons are dangling from the lighting fixtures. The lone identifying marker is its official name as a pink neon sign by the fireplace: Femdacha.
Dachas are staples in Russian society: country homes varying in size and grandeur that serve as year-round family escapes on weekends. The founders of Femdacha adopted the concept to create a retreat for activists, specifically pro-feminist and LGBTQ advocates, battling increasingly harsh crackdowns by Putin’s government as it tries to crush and intimidate dissent.
The repression has worsened for women, activists said, as their causes have garnered more support and, consequently, more attention from authorities.
At Femdacha outside of Moscow, a pink balloon and LGBTQ rainbow flag hang in the living room. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
A bookshelf at Femdacha outside of Moscow. Reading social media or the news is discouraged in the retreat. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
LEFT: At Femdacha outside of Moscow, a pink balloon and LGBTQ rainbow flag hang in the living room. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A bookshelf at Femdacha outside of Moscow. Reading social media or the news is discouraged in the retreat. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
The house can accommodate up to five guests at a time for a stay no shorter than one week but no longer than one month. Discussing work is discouraged — except for that first day. That’s when the new residents are asked to list their main fears and frustrations as activists.
“Other than Putin,” co-founder Daria Serenko clarified with a chuckle, because that issue is both too obvious and too big to tackle from the Femdacha couches.
Guests have listed police heavy-handedness, such as sudden apartment searches or arrest. Some have said they feel alone. Others have complained that activism isn’t recognized as hard work in Russia — and it’s still so stigmatized that it can lead to losing a paying day job.
But the most common concern was the feeling that their efforts aren’t making a difference as the Kremlin’s pressures have grown more intense.
“It seems to me that from the moment a segment of activists start to be taken seriously, the repressive measures begin,” Serenko said. “That’s what you’re seeing now.”
‘A place for them’
Serenko and Sonia Sno, a fellow activist, were both so burned out that they just wanted somewhere quiet to sit in silence and recharge. Last year, day trips that took them three hours outside of Moscow to do just that became more frequent. They needed a place to rest.
The idea for Femdacha was born. What if, they thought, instead of seeking retreat alone, they created one for activists feeling the same emotional exhaustion? Thanks to some funding help from foundations and individual activists, Femdacha was founded last year and has been fully booked since opening in November.
Each guest gets their own room, and the stay is free. A family that liked the idea for the project agreed to rent the house at a discount. So Serenko and Sno didn’t change the interior much — the personal touches are in the funky couches, the two Baby Yoda figurines on the fireplace and the projector screen in the living room.
The living room at Femdacha. Visitors are encouraged to spend time relaxing, and the address of the house is kept secret. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
In the kitchen at Femdacha, the founders say they spend most time in kitchen cooking things they will usually never cook, like Russian Borsch or jam. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
LEFT: The living room at Femdacha. Visitors are encouraged to spend time relaxing, and the address of the house is kept secret. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post) RIGHT: In the kitchen at Femdacha, the founders say they spend most time in kitchen cooking things they will usually never cook, like Russian Borsch or jam. (Nanna Heitmann for The Washington Post)
“Many people have told us that just the fact that we’re here feels like support,” Serenko said. “They know there’s a place for them.”
In recent years, Russian women’s rights defenders have largely focused their efforts on strengthening the country’s domestic violence legislation, as it’s still not considered a criminal offense. Sno said that all-women picket lines and similar demonstrations for that cause and others used to take place without incident just two years ago.
“Now, you’ll get detained for any peaceful protest. We were detained,” she said, referring to herself and Serenko.
A chilling turning point for activists came in June, when 27-year-old Yulia Tsvetkova was charged with distributing online pornography after she posted artwork based on female anatomy on her social media page as part of a project on positive body image. The charges carry a prison sentence of up to six years.
Tsvetkova’s case garnered international condemnation. Amnesty International decried the “absurd charges.” She was also fined under Russia’s law banning “gay propaganda” toward minors after directing a children’s play that criticized gender stereotypes and shared drawings of families with same-sex parents on social media.
To show support for Tsvetkova, Daria Apakhonchich organized a “vulva ballet” performance outside of St. Petersburg’s famed Mariinsky Theatre in August. She now thinks that demonstration led to the government labeling her a “foreign agent” late last year. Previously, the tag applied only to organizations.
Apakhonchich is suing the Russian Justice Ministry over the decision. After police raided her apartment on Jan. 31, confiscating her laptop and frightening her two children, Apakhonchich decided the family needed a break, leaving St. Petersburg for what she’s referring to as a vacation.
“Of course, I want to return to my beloved St. Petersburg and have fun there and engage in feminist projects,” said Apakhonchich, who planned to publish a third book of feminist fairy-tales for children. “But I felt my kids need a break because they were definitely not ready for this. It shocked them.
“And I’ve asked myself what I did that was so wrong that I landed on this list as an enemy of the state. I only ever tried to do good.”
Guarding the secret
It’s unease over stories like Tsvetkova’s and Apakhonchich’s that often leads activists to Femdacha.
The house’s rules are taped to a brick wall on the first floor, warning guests not to reveal Femdacha’s address nor bring any visitors there and to make sure that the location tag on their social media accounts is switched off.
The whereabouts are kept secret to keep the house a safe space.
Just last month, Serenko’s home address and photos of her was published on a Telegram app channel belonging to a group identifying as “anti-feminists.” Thousands of threats to her social media accounts followed.
“Every time I stepped outside, I was afraid to find some kind of dangerous man waiting by the door because I knew that there wouldn’t be any punishment for him over this,” Serenko said. “There’s this kind of pressure and this kind of threat to us, too.”
At Femdacha, reading the news or social media is discouraged. So is networking with other guests. Instead, downtime is urged.
On a Sunday afternoon in February, two women sitting in the kitchen discussed what they should have for a midday snack and when the new guests would be arriving. A corgi — he’s also called “an activist” — belonging to one of the house’s temporary residents lounged in the living room, chewing on a toy.
Femdacha’s schedule for the week is handwritten on a large easel in the living room. Lunch is prepared together at 1 p.m., tea is served at 4:30 p.m. and from 9 p.m. guests can watch a movie together, have a therapy session or just “chill.” Group therapy and two individual sessions with psychologists over video link are provided free. Other planned activities include making apple jam together and painting.
Femdacha’s visitors aren’t required to strictly follow the agenda. It’s a guide. Just staying in bed all day is okay, too.
Serenko and Sno, who sleep on mattresses in an office upstairs, just ask that everyone at least have breakfast and dinner together as a way of checking in.
At every Femdacha introductory seminar, guests are asked to list their goals. That usually leads into a conversation about keeping their objectives realistic — and how everyone needs to keep up their energy for what’s likely to be a very long battle with the Kremlin.
“I just can’t stand this phrase of the opposition about a ‘wonderful Russia of the future,’ even though I consider myself a member of the opposition,” Serenko said. “But the problem is that people feel themselves responsible to every second that this wonderful Russia of the future arrives.
“People give themselves these huge, impossible goals and then feel like nothing is changing,” she added. “Part of our goal at the seminar and at the retreat in general is to show them the short-term results and the small steps.”
Svetlana Kovalenko contributed to this report.