Like all Soviet children, she dreamed of being an astronaut. Like fewer kids in her city, Moscow – where she was born 39 years ago to a Siberian mother – she also dreamed of becoming a Shaolin monk. It is one of the first things that motorcyclist Vasilisa Komarova says, showing the pearly teeth of a bright smile that floods the camera with light from afar when she answers the video call in her Nicaraguan time zone.
Tierra del Fuego to Alaska
Life is short only if the mile you choose to go is short. The miles traveled by this woman, with a warrior’s body and the name of Tsarina – Vasilisa in ancient Greek means “Queen” – is very long. Her journey started in 2016 in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, and will only end when she will reaches the icy kingdom of Alaska. “I am Russian, I have a British passport and a Chilean motorbike with a Colombian plate,” she explains. Someone tried to stop her route with brutal violence, but Vasilisa did not allow the pain to redraw her map.
The first time Vasilisa asked her mother for a motorcycle she was four-years-old. They lived in the Soviet Union which was about to collapse. At seven she started saving money to buy it. Her mother told her that the neighbors used to say: “we saw your daughter standing in line together with agligoliki (alcoholics). She’s selling empty bottles, it is not appropriate for a little girl.” It was not, but with those saved up coins Vasilisa bought herself knee pads for the motorbike. She managed to afford the first Yamaha less than twenty years later, buying it with the money received for a photography prize.
Disaster Strikes in Bolivia
Vasilisa’s existence and route was broken in Bolivian territory on a dark night in July 2016. She was staying at a campsite that people assured her was safe and sleeping alone in a tent. Three men accosted her and raped her. Several broke her arm in order to hold her, then assaulted her to leave her almost lifeless next to her bike, which was also destroyed. They did this to prevent her from leaving and asking for help. They then urinated on her tent and left.
“Vasilisa, you have… you have …”. She finds the right words to finish my sentence: “I banged those dogs in prison.” She is talking about the three rapists who attacked her the night that stopped her journey, and together, her life. Her muscles are those of a fighter and she doesn’t look like someone who has ever felt helpless anywhere. Neither restless nor angry, beautiful and disarming: she does not rumble with a grudge, she is not marred by an anger that for anyone, after all that has happened, would be completely understandable.
Road to Recovery
“They were not men, but creatures. They were drunk and drugged. What they have done to me they do to their wives, to their children,” she says. The following months after that night were dark. “I lived only those black thoughts in my head, I saw the film rewind, I didn’t stop thinking about it.” She remained remote and suspended in the jungle for a while. Her life had ended in a thousand fragments, splinters and swarms of obsessive thoughts, in which the usual old challenge of reacting to pain surfaced.
However, Vasilisa could not let herself be suffocated by a tragedy that can leave even the strongest individual immobile. She had been shot down and burned but she did not let herself go. She did not feed on the defeat nor discomfort: she realized she should not remain in the cell of her head, she had to slam the door of her mind on those three rapists. The way out was not one of the escape, but of struggle.
Trying to Find Justice
Empty bottles: like the ones Vasilisa sold as a child in Soviet Union. She started with a therapy of pieces of glass: her friend taught her to use broken containers to create animal figures. “It was a way to regain control, to get out of my head where thoughts were spinning and I always lived the same scene” she says today. In addition to the glass, she put other pieces together. Of paper, of accusations, of investigations that have become some of the many trials against the assailants in a country that has among the highest rape rates in Latin America, equal only to those of the silence of the women not denouncing the abuse.
The longest road to take was the one to justice. “If one has enough character to go from Patagonia to Alaska, then one must also have it to stop and fight for herself.”Travel is a word that changes meaning when you decide to be alone again in a foreign country until you have justice. Vasilisa, who had studied law in the Russian Federation before moving to London at the age of 23, contacted the authorities: the British embassy answered. A diplomatic representative entered her life: “a woman with a fantastic character, she appeared in my life like Mary Poppins” says Vasilisa.
Spotlight on the Struggle
After two years, Vasilisa wins the trial and the three rapists are given a collective sentence of 42 years. She finally begins to speak out loud about everything that has happened and the newspapers notice it. The Bolivian papers write her story first, then the British ones, then the Russian ones, finally the New York Times. Then Vasilisa and her story became a film produced by Al Jazeera.
“I didn’t change until the movie, but during the movie.” Vasilisa has decided to see again her abusers while being filmed by cameras. This time they were prisoners and she was a free woman. They were in the cell, she was outside. The bars that divided them did not stop her visceral screams from reaching their heads. “I had something to say. For me it was a colossal change, from that thrown pain, I absorbed energy. I screamed, I emptied myself, I came back to fly.” She continues to use that verb, she wants to emphasize the concept.
‘We Need Less Fear, More Struggle’
Po menshe baiatsa, po bolshe borotsa. “We need less fear, more struggle.” The very blonde Russian has become a symbol of the Bolivian brunette women, never being self-indulgent and staying strong. She helped them to overcome a word that she often repeats with anger and indignation: shame. At all latitudes “the dogma of machismo is projected on the woman, who is always guilty and dirty. It is men who commit violence, but it is always the responsibility of the girls,” Vasilisa explains. It is the ancient game of criminalization of victims.
At 35 she wanted to see the world. At 39, after finally finding justice, Vasilisa confirms at the end of the video call that the same desire persists.
“I have been on the road for years, I will reach Alaska as soon as the borders closed for COVID-19 reopen,” she says. :You should never let what happens stop you. Even after everything that has happened, they often tell me that I have to find a man, that I cannot travel alone. I don’t have to feed anyone in the evening, in the morning I wake up and start training. I don’t have a boyfriend, I have a motorbike. It is honest. Those wheels are my wings. I fly.”