The MeToo movement has finally reached Russia. Unfortunately, it is sad and astonishing for the women involved and for anyone who supports them. Russia’s current atmosphere is conducive to all sorts of power abuses, and a scandal in the Russian Duma proves that nothing is about to change.
On Feb. 22, the anti-Kremlin TVRain channel reported that Leonid Slutsky, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, was being accused of making crude passes at female journalists.
However, the accused immediately went on the offensive, slamming the anonymity of his accusers.
“Attempts to turn Slutsky into a Russian Harvey Weinstein resemble a cheap, low-blow provocation,” Slutsky posted on Facebook. “If anyone has complaints about me, let those people voice them to my face.”
The difference between his reaction and those in the West — where apologies from powerful men are common, even when accompanied by denials — is stark. In Russia, Slutsky garners more sympathy, at least from people crucial to his political standing, than his accusers.
In the comments to the post (now deleted), a fellow lawmaker even offered to “take on a couple of journalists” if Slutsky would share the blame with the rest of his committee.
The following day, the Duma’s Women’s Club — a caucus of female legislators — issued a statement accusing the reporters of trying to soil Slutsky’s name without coming forward: “Those who have decided to try this type of disinformation shouldn’t get carried away. The virus of unproven allegations that has struck Western nations and become a way of fighting competitors, is attempting to get into Russia. The character of this provocation is all too obvious.”
In response, the accusers went public.
Ekaterina Kotrikadze, a Georgian journalist working for the RTVI channel, said Slutsky locked his office door during an interview, pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her.
Darya Zhuk, a TVRain producer, then accused Slutsky of forcibly kissing and touching her.
Finally, on Tuesday last week, Farida Rustamova, who works for the BBC Russian Service, delivered what would have been a coup de grace anywhere in the West. She had audio of her encounter with Slutsky last year because she had turned on her recorder to take a comment from him.
On the tape, Slutsky calls her a “bunny rabbit,” offers her a job and asks her to leave her boyfriend to be his mistress.
After Rustamova tells him to keep his hands to himself (according to her, he reached for her genitals), Slutsky says, “I’m not letting my hands wander, well, maybe just a little.”
One might think that this would be enough even for hardened Russian legislators to turn against Slutsky. The abuse of power could not be more clear. But no, Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin still was not convinced.
“You feel it’s dangerous to work in the Duma? If so, change your job,” he told a female reporter on Wednesday.
He also made it clear that he distrusted the three women who had come forward because one of them was Georgian, another worked for a foreign news organization, and the third for an anti-Kremlin news outlet.
“This story unfolded at the peak of the election campaign,” Volodin reportedly said. “This can be taken as a discreditation attempt.”
The election campaign that he mentioned is a transparent attempt to reappoint President Vladimir Putin to a fourth term in power. None of Putin’s rivals, carefully vetted by the Kremlin, is expected to win more than 15 percent of the vote. Slutsky, a member of the misnamed and largely pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party, is not involved in the “election” in any capacity.
Slutsky’s accusers are facing an unbelievably hostile environment: unsympathetic legislators, unfair portrayals in the media, and a lack of support from the general public that doubts women should complain about anything less than rape.
However, it is clear that the allegations would have been taken far more seriously by all of those power centers in most Western countries. In Russia, there is no law defining sexual harassment. The existing rules that ban blackmailing or threatening people to obtain sexual favors have not been extensively enforced because of the dominant victim-blaming culture and the difficulty of proving such a case.
The worst-case scenario for Slutsky is being censured by the Duma’s ethics body, but he is clearly unrepentant and secure in his knowledge that most of his colleagues — even female ones — are with him, not with his accusers. For now, women in Russia must remain prepared for unwanted advances from powerful men and for being rebuffed after coming forward.
However, Russian women are not willing to put up with abuse, no matter how much the system is tilted against them. They will keep speaking up and the country will get a better MeToo moment someday. Arguably, it needs one more than any nation in the West.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion Web site Slon.ru.
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