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  2. "I thought they were dying, but they were simply catching up on sleep." The story of Femdacha in Moscow Oblast, where activists and NPO employees can overcome burnout

"I thought they were dying, but they were simply catching up on sleep." The story of Femdacha in Moscow Oblast, where activists and NPO employees can overcome burnout

Darya Zhirnova, Sofya Sno, and Darya Serenko
Photos and video by Yuri Kabantsev

Femdacha (dacha — ‘country house’) opened in Moscow Oblast in November 2020. This is a shelter for LGBT+ and feminist activists, where they can have some rest from hard work. Four curators — Darya Serenko, Sofya Sno, Darya Zhirnova, and Roxana Kiselyova — have created and lead the project. Femdacha’s location is kept secret, and its visitors are advised not to discuss news and their work. 7x7’s journalist Maxim Polyakov has visited the shelter to learn why burnout affected many employees of human rights organizations, NPOs, and independent media and how proper relaxation planning helped people not give up activism.

Chasing and Threatening

There are no visitors in a small country house at the beginning of each month: there is a so-called shift change at Femdacha. This is a few days when the project curators have the opportunity to prepare rooms for new participants of the retreat.

We agreed with Darya Serenko in early February that we would be able to come to Femdacha in early March, right during the shift change, and talk without bothering anyone. But on February 27, Darya sent us an unsettling message and asked to reschedule the meeting: "The circumstances are changing in terms of safety, you might have heard that I have been tracked down."

Darya Serenko participated in the organization of the Chain of Solidarity Action in support of Yulia Navalny and female political prisoners in Moscow and St. Petersburg on February 14. On this day, almost 300 women took to the streets of the cities and towns, holding flowers and hearts with the names of those who are persecuted on political grounds. On the same day, someone published Serenko's residential address in a Telegram channel, and on February 15, she received more than 600 threats.

“They have not just spilled my address in theory, from databases, but they have spilled a photo of me entering my house. I was followed, threatened with physical violence. I was afraid not so much for myself, but that I could have accidentally led the tails to Femdacha. We are responsible for the safety of people here. I was very scared at that moment,” Serenko recalls.

The dacha’s address is kept strictly secret

We met in the second half of March. The cameraman and I did not know where Femdacha was until we finally reached there. A few dozen minutes by car away from the MRHW — and here is a brick two-storied house in front of us: a small kitchen, several spacious rooms, many bookshelves, modern pieces and sets of furniture near tables of the Soviet era.

“We have just finished an orientation session for a new group of activists who came to Femdacha. Let's have a talk in a separate room on the second floor, so that no one would be bothered”, suggests Darya Serenko.

Darya Serenko

New Concept

Darya used to work at a state contemporary art gallery before opening Femdacha. But she was suggested quitting her job because her friends and she had participated in protest actions and promoted a feminist agenda. Then the activists decided to open their own independent space for lectures, workshops, and exhibitions.

The idea was discussed for several months, but coronavirus changed the situation. According to Serenko, activists’ workload increased many times because of it, and they simply burned out, as the state could not help everyone who needed help. The concept of a cultural center turned into the concept of Femdacha within a day.

Sofya Sno

“I remember the moment when we came up with everything. That summer, we began to go to Dubna often when we had tough times. We could sit by the water, drink wine, and say nothing,” recalls Femdacha’s curator Sofya Sno. “We were going back by train one day and thought how cool it would be if some more people could go with us like this. We also thought that it would be cool if people came to a house with us moderating the space there. We actually came up with Femdacha on this train. And it literally took a month and a half from that trip to the opening.”

The team analyzed the experience of organizations and activists who had already organized similar retreats (for example, the Tbilisi Human Rights Center), contacted partners in the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which has the Sustainable Activism Project, studied the literature, formulated a concept, found sponsors, and developed several principles.

Security (both external and internal) is among the main ones. Femdacha’s location is kept secret, you cannot take photos of the house exterior and publish its address in the public domain. Internal security includes a "culture of consent” and careful, nonviolent communication: for example, before you take a photo of another participant of the retreat, you need to ask their permission.

“There are people who are actually being tracked down right now. There are people from human rights organizations who face very dangerous situations. And we are responsible for them when they live here,” explains Serenko.

 

Another principle is to disconnect from the world outside. All participants of the retreat should, if possible, mute their work chats; it is not advised to discuss news, talk about work — even name their organization.

If possible, activists should attend lectures, seminars, and consultations with a psychologist, but if they need a bit of peace and quiet and to get some sleep, no one will bother them, even if it takes a few days. The organizers of Femdacha provide tickets, accommodation, and meals. Activists can get free counselling both during and after the retreat.

The first participants of the retreat arrived in Moscow Oblast in November 2020.

Principles and Rules

Darya Zhirnova, another curator of Femdacha, did not immediately join the project. Serenko and Sno asked her to join the team. She had two days off before we met, which she spent at home, and when she returned to Femdacha, she greeted a new group of activists, cooked lunch, and participated in the first seminar.

“Everyone who comes here will say something like, ‘I do not know what to talk about, if not about work’ in the first days. But it will clear up after a few days. That is how burnout works, as you get hung up on what you are doing. This is the only thing you have resources for. And everyone here seems to snap out of it,” says Darya.

Darya Zhirnova

During the retreat, participants are invited to participate in several types of art practices. For example, drawing, going for a walk, or decorating gingerbread.

“We also provide self-help practices that people can use even after they leave. They learn to manage their stress and burnout on their own,” says Zhirnova.

According to Darya Serenko, she did not expect that her colleagues and she would be able to “fix” burned-out activists within a week or a month. But the first group’s feedback pleased her. It turned out that the project had a delayed effect. Some participants messaged her that they had seriously considered going to a therapist on a permanent basis or used some exercises to cope with stress only after a month or a month and a half.

“I find it important to talk within the community about the fact that we all often work flat out. People often want to do the maximum, and it does not matter that it will make them lie down and die. It is important to say that you need to work as hard as you are able. This is more efficient, because when you have both work and rest, you can work a longer distance. And when you work and get exhausted, you can do nothing afterwards,” Zhirnova believes.

Waiting for “Season Two”

Femdacha was initially planned to be a place where LGBT+ and feminist activists could find support. But after the rallies in support of the politician Alexei Navalny in January, those who constantly helped the arrested and detained began relying on the shelter. These are employees of NPOs, human rights organizations, independent media, or individual activists.

“The participants of that group would just fall asleep right on the carpet during practices. They would just sleep for a few days in a row, because they had been providing assistance around the clock. I thought for a week that people were dying quietly, but they were simply recovering. This opportunity to sleep was important to them,” Serenko recalls.

 

Sno says that the retreat itself has revealed the problems of human rights organizations and NPOs that help political prisoners and victims of police brutality. For example, not all of them have crisis protocols in case of another protest action. And sometimes the only solution within these NPOs is to add additional shifts to activists.

The situation has been gradually changing. Some organizations have even begun inviting psychologists to consult employees in order to avoid potential problems with colleagues.

Darya Serenko is convinced that people need the project:

“It is important that activist work is seen as work. And when we opened Femdacha, we received a lot of feedback that many activists who could not come there for their own reasons were just happy that we were there. The fact that we are here tells them that their work is important.”

“When new people get into activism, they get tired very quickly. Some burn out and never come back. Some work in a state in which it is impossible to work for a very long time. I hope that the example of Femdacha will inspire other people to do similar projects,” says Darya Zhirnova.

The "first season" of Femdacha will finish at the end of April. The curators are going to have a short vacation, but they are already thinking about a new enrollment after a while.


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