‘The horrors I saw in Russia are so much scarier than my costumes’ | World Newsthedigitalchaps


Surreal drag artist Gena Marvin is the latest in a long line of creatives to incense the Russian state (Picture: QUEENDOM)

Petr Pavlensky set the bar pretty high when he nailed his scrotum to the ground in Moscow’s Red Square.

But he’s far from the only contemporary Russian artist-activist who’s suffered for their work, from Pussy Riot’s members, who spent two years in prison for singing a song about Vladimir Putin in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, to Sasha Skochilenko, recently jailed for seven years for replacing price tags in a St Petersburg supermarket with anti-war messages criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Gena Marvin is following in that punishing tradition.

The subject of Queendom, a new documentary film directed by Russian-born, France-based film-maker Agniia Galdanova, the radical, non-binary (using ‘she/her’ pronouns) artist, performer and drag queen from Magadan, a bleak Gulag outpost in icy east Russia.

Gena creates surreal, often dark, nightmarish videos, which she posts to Instagram and TikTok: an insectoid, alien creature thrashing around the desert; a faceless, gold-foiled figure riding in an abandoned fairground.

‘I don’t see them as nightmarish,’ Gena tells me, speaking via Zoom from Paris, where she’s now based. ‘I see them as a reflection, and an attempt to blur all the genders, to get rid of genders and social roles we assign to each other in society, and raise the identity of a single human being.’

But it’s in daily life, walking the streets of her hometown or Moscow in her fantastical costumes, that she suffers real repercussions.

Security guards ask her to leave supermarkets. Neighbours yell abuse. Macho guys respond to her presence with taunts, slurs, threats, and violence. Her college kicks her out for one performance, while another anti-war protest, where she wraps herself in barbed wire, sees her arrested by Russian security forces and loaded into a van.

Even her grandparents, who she on-off lives with, beg her to give up her performances, afraid of the impact on her future prospects. She’s often seen distraught and in tears.

Gena Marvin walking in the subway from the film Queendom byAgniia Galdanova

Gena compares life in Russia to a giant prison (Picture: QUEENDOM)
Queendom reveals how Gena’s costumes draw taunts and threats in her native Russia (Picture: Mikhail Fedoseev)

Why put herself through it all? ‘Because if not, why do anything?,’ Gena responds.

‘If you take every challenge too seriously, you’re really stuck. But I’m unstoppable. Nothing can stop me – not the closed doors of the college, nor the decisions of my own family. It comes naturally to me to keep going.’

‘Ever since my childhood, it was like that,’ she adds. ‘Nothing changed. When I grew up, I used to try on my grandma’s shoes and dresses. This might be seen as a spectacle to some people… It doesn’t to me. All this is just a continuation of my life since I was a very young child. Some people might put it out of them, but I decided to nourish it. I continue to tell my story and share my truth with people.’

Gena looks low-key today, wearing a white T-shirt and a light grey hoody pulled up over her shaved head. While a friend teases her in the film that she always said she wanted to be famous, Gena sees her life and art as a stand for LGBTQ+ rights that she wishes she didn’t have to make.

‘I hope people don’t see this as some sort of a Disney fairytale story or movie. It’s very difficult to do what I did. It’s an unfortunate story about how the state spoiled the future of the whole nation and all the generations ahead, a story of how people, young and old, are forced to leave the country and start a new life somewhere else. This isn’t something I wanted.’

Queendom is a film about personal and political rights in a country Gena describes as ‘a giant prison’, the lack of LGBTQ+ rights seen as part of the same state repression that also clamps down violently on democratic protests again Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Gena hopes her story isn’t viewed as a fairytale (Picture: Boris Camaca)

‘The fact that people have to go to European courts to stand up for their rights, and that people are not being heard and people are being ignored in Russia, this creates such a powerful force in people, in artists and activists, like Sasha Skochilenko, like Pussy Riot,’ explains Gena.

‘People are being unlawfully jailed. This only makes them want to scream louder and louder, and motivates them to keep fighting for their rights. With the current state of the country, when you are not heard, you start to yell from the bottom of your throat. I’m really proud of the people who are jailed unlawfully because of what they stand up for.’

But it’s also a film about trauma. Gena is described at her college as an orphan, her grandfather alluding to her mother who ‘died on the streets.’ ‘Yes, my parents were killed in an accident. They died at night,’ says Gena, preferring not to share more details of the incident.

Growing up in Magadan, she was lonely, isolated and vulnerable. In the film, she says: ‘The horrors I saw and experienced were much scarier than my costumes.’ ‘My childhood was nightmarish and horrible,’ she tells me.

‘All my friends were girls, but around ninth grade, everyone ditched me. I was bullied in high school. I was in a constant state of danger. I couldn’t come out of my house because people told me if I did, I’d get beaten up.

I remember running from school to home because I was scared for my life. These are real experiences a lot of kids go through, including kids not being accepted by society. The costumes and what you see are the consequence of that. What I do is carry on my truth and my power, and try to move forward.’

Gena Marvin in Queendom in front of a ferris wheel byAgniia Galdanova

Gena describes ‘Gena Marvin’ like a character or ‘entity’ she adopts, while her costumes are a suit of armour (PICTURE: QUEENDOM)

At the start of the film, there’s still a split between Gennadiy Chebotarev, the name she was born with, which family and friends still use, and Gena Marvin, which she describes as like a character or ‘entity’ she adopts, her costumes like a suit of ‘armour.’

But as time goes on, the line blurs or disappears completely. ‘In the past, I thought a lot about the separation between me and the art and costumes,’ Gena explains.

‘But with time, I understood and accepted that this is part of me, something that completes me and adds something to me as a person. I want to dedicate my mind and my body to the art.’

Now 24 and living in Paris, where she was granted asylum after fleeing Russia, Gena is planning to focus more on live performances, rather than social media videos.

She hopes her work changes people’s perceptions of beauty and queerness, and brings attention to the harassment of the LGBTQ+ community. She’d also like to see change in Russia: ‘All I want is for all those anti-LGBT laws to be stopped, to be cancelled.’

Gena is proud of the people who are jailed unlawfully in Russia because of what they stand up for (Picture: Kaj Lehner)
She hopes her work changes people’s perceptions of beauty and queerness, and brings attention to the harassment of the LGBTQ+ community (Picture: QUEENDOM)

However, sadly, she has little hope that her work makes any impact on the government or laws of the country.

If anything, there is less freedom today than when the film was made, after the Russian parliament passed a bill in 2022 that bans ‘LGBT propaganda’ and criminalises the promotion of ‘non-traditional sexual relations’ in film, online, advertising or in public.

‘I don’t support the current regime in Russia,’ Gena says. ‘It’s a terrorist state – a small group of people who control the masses.’

There is no chance she will return to her homeland in the near future. But she hopes to one day. ‘I would like to see my grandma’s grave and to say ‘goodbye’ to her,’ she says, her grandmother dying six months after Gena left the country. ‘This opportunity was taken away from me because I had to leave Russia.’

QUEENDOM is in UK and Irish cinemas from December 1, 2023.

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