“Respect 2.0” Beyond Polished Words

Workshop by the comic artist Vladimir Lopatin AKA St. Piter Punk (St. Petersburg punk)  at a RESPECT  exhibition  during the BOOMFEST comic festival in St. Petersburg, September 2015
Workshop by the comic artist Vladimir Lopatin AKA St. Piter Punk (St. Petersburg punk) at a RESPECT exhibition during the BOOMFEST comic festival in St. Petersburg, September 2015 | Photo: Wiktor Kuznetsow

In the project Respect 2.0, Russian and European artists draw comics about social topics with prison inmates and the homeless. They worked with experts across Russia. The results of the project are now being shown at an exhibition at the Goethe-Institut Moscow.

Natalia Jadko is seated in small basement office packed full with clothing donations and books. Once every month, she and her NGO, the Centre for Prison Reform, drive to the colony for juvenile offenders in Mozhaysk to distribute the packages. She often takes someone along with her, artists, architects, someone who speaks with the inmates. “It is important for the youths,” says Jadko. “They realize that they haven’t been forgotten.” A few comic books that were created in the penal colony are lying on the desk. One of them, a small, colourful booklet in Japanese manga style, is called Stop, Thief!.

It was made as part of Respect 2.0, a Russia-wide project by the Goethe-Institut, the Youth Human Rights Movement and the Moscow comic festival KomMissia. The illustrator Olivia Vieweg produced the images, the story and texts are by the young people themselves. In it, two girls are caught stealing. One’s freedom is bought by her wealthy father. The other, from a poor family, has put her future at risk. It is a simple story with chronologically arranged comic strip grids that reflects the experience of the young people of being at the lower end of the social ladder without any opportunities. Ten years ago, the centre learned that comics function well under aggravated conditions in social work to get young people to talk. Back then there were hardly any graphic novels in the bookshops yet. But they designed the first storyboards in the prisons. “Anyone can do it. That’s encouraging,” says Jadko.

The educational concept behind it is simple: comics address the youths at their own level and without barriers. Youths in jail tell other youths their stories, how they got into prison, and about their aspirations.

“We’ve seen that comics are a great tool to start conversations with the young people about difficult topics,” says Sergei Simonov, the programme director of Respect 2.0. Stop, Thief! is one of 38 multi-lingual comics that were created during the second part of the comic project. Russian and European artists worked for months with experts and NGOs in Russia, visited homeless initiatives in Saint Petersburg, orphanages in Central Russia and schools in Chechnya. The idea was to create the comic book stories about various social problems with the people affected by them and then give them back to the schools and workshops. This generated different forms of access to difficult topics like stereotypes based on social origin, prejudices against northern Caucasians, homelessness and even homosexuality, although those comics have the age limit of “18+.”

As different as each of the comics is, they all tell stories from real life. “You recognize yourself in them,” says Astrid Wege, head of the cultural programme at the Goethe-Institut Moscow. They make it easier to open oneself to difficult subjects. Sergei Simonov works regularly with children and young people in the closed schools of the penal colonies. He is familiar with the problem. “No one opens up right away,” he says. Drawing, expressing oneself without polished words, is helpful.

The artistic quality of the comics varies widely. Styles range from refined graphic novels to colourful mangas and reduced line drawings. All of them will be shown in a closing exhibition from 18 November as part of Tolerance Week at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre. One of them is by Alexey Iorsh about a journey to Dagestan to confront his own prejudices. “I had suggested that someone go to the Caucasus,” he thinks in the comic book. “But to be honest, I wanted someone else to go.” This subject matter, the prejudices against northern Caucasians, is particularly important in Simonov’s view. “We live in one nation, but in parallel societies,” he says. He is already planning a follow-up project.

The concept of Respect 2.0 appears to be successful. 40,000 comics have already been sent and even more books have been read online.

 Article courtesy of the Moskauer Deutsche Zeitung