Therapist in private practice, St. Petersburg, Russia
Link to Sabunaeva’s short bio here
Maria Sabunaeva drew our attention with her recent experience of being cyberviolated in a pretty calm period of her (professional) life. She was doing her regular therapeutical work, having the peak of her social activism couple of years behind. While the intensity of the threats witness about the impact Maria’s work has obviously achieved, we condemn violence against her as well as against the psychological knowledge and services that we consider as standards. This is the story about a female psychologist who advocates for human rights, and whose human rights have been violated.
As a psychologist you have recently been cyberviolated and faced with severe threats. Can you explain what happened?
There is a right-wing group in Russia [editorial comment – we are not stating the group’s name to avoid publicizing it],an anti-women, anti-liberal social media group whose leader is V. P. They were prohibited by the Russian laws, but they changed their name and kept the same politics. They didn’t like my job as gender psychologist and feminist therapist, as well as LGBTQ+ activist. In November last year they sent me over 400 threatening messages to my personal mobile phone. There also was a phone call, in which a man in aggressive manner said: You will know more about P. Children! More phone calls followed, but I haven’t answered. Later I saw some offensive and threatening messages in social network VKontakte (Russian version of Facebook) and one of my friends there wrote me that she saw information about me in closed Telegram channel “M. L.” with more than 40.000 followers. My phone number and the link to my page in VKontakte were exposed in that channel with appeals to imprison me. Here is an example: “Another scary f***ing thing which will come to you in nightmares, all her avatars are f***ing face close-up. Here is she, radical fem-f***, psychof***ologist, hates men, is a part of LGBT-organization, intentionally inclines public opinion in favour of fags if to look at photos. F***, she has to be declared in police as criminal, she inclines children to “gender-neutral” and other f***ing things, they are omegas in skirts now because of her. She works as a psychotherapist with children and I won’t be surprised if she is paedophile. F***, she’s been working since the beginning of 2000-s, a lot of people became a part of LGBT community or worse because of her. If you google her, she has a lot of articles, too many, and I think she has to be imprisoned as soon as possible.” The most recent messages arrived from another, similar group “S..”, saying: “Leave Russia or you will be damaged!”. These threats were addressed not only to me, but also to some other LGBTQ+ activists.
Was there any particular action that you undertook or any specific event that you assume triggered those reactions? What did they want from you?
I don’t know why they started at that moment. There was no particular event that triggered their actions towards me, at least I’m not aware of any. But I have a long story of being a feminist therapist, a person who enlightens others, and an LGBTQ+ activist. Recently there have been attacks against many feminist activists in Russia. Darya Serenko is one of the latest cases, who has just left prison, just because of her ideas. So they attacked other feminists, and once they decided to attack me because I am openly feminist, LGBTQ+ activist. They haven’t requested anything specific from me. They just wanted me to stop my activities and to change my statements to be more in line with the “traditional” ones.
What kind of support did you receive? Did you get any from the colleagues or clients?
I immediately phoned the lawyer from the organisation I previously worked with, “Coming-out”, who told me what to do and instructed me about my safety. I got a great immediate support from PH, SH AND AL. (psychologists and human rights activists in the Netherlands, USA and Russia). I published a post on Facebook and I received a lot of support from other colleagues and activists and friends here. That was great, really. I am not alone here. I have worked in the LGBT organisations for more than 10 years, so we support each other in cases like this. Some of my clients also supported me after the incident, some were even proud to be able to be supportive. Some of my clients are LGBTQ+ people, some are not. But many of them were anxious when that happened. This is especially important for our psychological work: the attackers want us to stop offering our psychological help. So it is not only a threat to me personally, but to me as a psychologist, as a part of professional community. Such groups should not decide how we work with people, what approaches and methods we should use.
To what extent do you think it is worth standing up for human rights while putting your own in danger? Where is your limit? Where does your strength come from?
You can stand for human rights, even inside. You don’t have to be involved in many activities. I am a psychologist and human rights activist. For me it is important and it is a part of my personality. What is important for now is that I am alive, that my family is safe. There is a choice whether to prolong some activities or not. At this moment I am not publicly as active as I was maybe five years ago. I am included in some feminist groups and support other activities, but I am more involved with my private practice as a therapist. I would recommend to other persons first to choose to be safe, and then to do everything they can do for the goal that is relevant to them. The ideas and values are important but to stay alive is more important. So threats to safety are my limit. There was a case last summer when one of the LGBT families from Russia left the country and moved to Spain because of homophobic threats after their participating in advertising a shop. The owners of the shop apologised to public for offending the traditional values, they did not oppose the homophobic threats. That was the last exit to the LGBT family that I mentioned. I keep that in my mind. I wouldn’t like to leave my country and St. Petersburg. Here are many things to be done, a lot to do to change social and psychological climate. I can do that, I want to be a part of it. My strength, my source of power is – myself! I am aware that I do progressive things. Violence is not acceptable. My professional identity is also my support. I know, as a therapist, that it’s not OK when people feel so much hate and when they are so violent. When they are ready to kill people, they even don’t know, I know that they are not thinking and feeling well. That gives me a strength.
How much has your involvement in human rights advocacy accomplished? It probably has, otherwise you would not receive threats. Are you an influencer on social changes?
I have been involved in the process of change. I started studying gender psychology in 1997, which was almost unheard of in Russia. After that I was included in different gender programmes. In 2005 I started my LGBT activism. I took part in establishing of two largest LGBT organisations in Russia: “Coming out” in Saint Petersburg and the “Russian LGBT network”. I started the psychological services in both organisations. We implemented many activities and we could see how the situation around us changed because we influenced it. We started working with many groups, such as journalists, other activists, psychologists, teachers. We held many seminars. It became obvious that the language about LGBTQ+ topics started to change in the media. Great progress is visible with psychologists. When I worked as assistant professor at the university I managed to open those topics with students and they responded very well but I had to find the smart way to introduce the topics, what language to use, etc. There is an increased interest in and understanding of the LGBTQ+ and feminist topics as a result of our engagement. Now topics of LGBTQ+ are included in some conferences as regular topics.
How do you cope with threats and try to maintain your mental health?
Some messages have stopped, but some continue. It is unpleasant, of course. But what I find most important is the fact that my colleagues from other countries support me. This interview is also an opportunity for me. We share the idea that this threatening behaviour is not acceptable. What we have in common is that we also use this case to change something. It is important to pay attention to such threats, and to increase understanding and become closer in our professional community.