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19.11.2015

Beyond the well-turned phrase

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The small office of Natalia Dzyadko is located in the basement, it is full of clothes and books which volunteers bring along. Once a month Natalia along with her colleagues from the Centre for Prison Reform travel to the young offenders prison colony in Mozhaisk and distribute parcels. Fairly often someone else comes along with her- artists, architects, those who are ready to communicate with the prisoners. «It’s important for the teenagers” says Natalia. “They feel that they are not being abandoned». On the table lie a few comics created in the correction colony. One of them is titled «Stop, Thief!» —a small multi-coloured book in the style of a Japanese manga comic.

  This comic appeared in the «RESPECT 2.0» programme – the all-Russian project of the Goethe Institute, the Youth Human Rights Movement and the Moscow International Festival of Comics «KomMissia». The graphic artist Olivia Vieweg just drew the illustrations while the story plot and dialogue were thought up by the teenage prisoners: two girls stole things in a stop and were caught by the police- a rich Dad pays off the police whereas the other girl is from a poor family and her future is now very uncertain. This simple story recounted in a chronological manner reflects the personal experience of the teenagers on the lower rungs of society with little hope of finding success. The comics help the teenagers express their thoughts. Colleagues at the Centre for Prison Reform already acknowledged the effectiveness of comics as a method of social work in difficult conditions ten years ago. In the prison colonies the first storyboards were already being drawn. «Anyone can draw comics. This is inspiring», — Natalia says.

The pedagogical conception is simple: communicating through the means of comics allows equality between participants, without any artificial obstacles. The teenage prisoners tell their stories to their peers describing how they ended up in jail, and about their hopes and wishes. 

«We understood that comics are a wonderful tool to start a conversation with young people on difficult subjects», — Sergei Simonov, the leader of the «RESPECT 2.0» project says. «Stop, thief!» is one of thirty eight multilingual comics created in the framework of the second part of the project. For several months Russian and European artists have worked in Russia along with experts and NGOs, visited homeless shelters in Saint Petersburg, children’s homes in Central Europe and Chechen schools. The core of the project is to creat comics about different social problems along with those who are affected by these problems, and then to show these works in schools and seminars. Thus different approaches manifested themselves on such thorny issues as stereotypes of various social strata, prejudice against migrants from the North Caucasus, the homeless and people with a non-traditional sexual orientation (these comics, in accordance with Russian laws, have been given the «18+»).

While there is a large variety in these comics, there is one thing which is present throughout – they are all stories from real life. «One can recognise oneself in them», says Astrid Wege, head of the cultural programmes department of the Goethe Institute in Moscow. It is easier to open up some difficult subjects through the medium of comics. Sergei Simonov regularly meets children and teenagers in special closed schools for young offenders and in correction camps and is well acquainted with the difficulties of getting them to speak up on some issues: «No-one is going to open up straightaway”, he explains. And here drawing comes to the rescue, statements which go beyond the realm of well-turned phrases». The artistic quality of these comics is very variable.

The styles are also very varied: there are both meticulously drawn graphic novels and bright manga’s as well as laconic pencil drawings. All these different comics can be seen from November 18th at the final exhibition during the Tolerance Week at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre. There the comics by Alexey Iorsh about his visit to Dagestan and his struggle with his own prejudices will also be presented. «I suggested that someone should go to the Caucasus, — the story-teller remembers. — To be honest I was hoping that someone else would go». For Sergei Simonov this story of prejudice relations towards people from the Caucasus is extremely important:«We live in a single country but also we were living in parallel universes", — he laments. Sergei is already planning a successor project.

The «RESPECT 2.0» project, it seems, has turned out to be a very successful one. 40 000 comics already sent thrкоughout the country. The number of internet views is even greater.

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