The #MeToo movement has finally reached Russia. However, the shared hashtag is where any similarities with the American movement end. So far, even audio evidence documenting a Russian Duma member harassing a young journalist has led nowhere, except for accusations that the journalist was wearing inappropriate clothing. In many ways, this is hardly a surprise in a country that recently decriminalized domestic violence. Nevertheless, the Russian #MeToo moment has led to an unusual solidarity among the Russian media and shed light on some of the weaknesses of Putin’s system.
The controversy began about a month ago, when three journalists anonymously accused Leonid Slutsky, a member of the Russian Duma, of sexually harassing them while they were on duty. Slutsky represents the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), one of several so-called “systemic opposition” parties in Russia. In other words, it’s a fake opposition party that always votes in line with United Russia.
The accusations made some noise in the press but did not immediately cause a scandal. Leonid Slutsky, however, left some salacious comments on a Facebook post, which made another journalist, for the Russian-language RTVi TV channel in New York, go public. Ekaterina Kotrikadze accused Slutsky of having harassed her seven years ago. The Duma member allegedly locked her in his office, squeezed her against the wall, and forcefully tried to kiss and grope her.
After that allegation, the two journalists who had previously accused Slutsky anonymously went public. Daria Zhuk, a Duma reporter for the independent Dozhd TV Channel, and Farida Rustamova, for BBC Russia, told stories similar to Kotrikadze’s. Rustamova even had Slutsky recorded on tape in his office, where she went to solicit his comment on Marine Le Pen’s visit to Russia in 2017. During that encounter, Slutsky asked Rustamova to become his mistress and leave the BBC, promising to find a good place for her as he touched her by the crotch.
Leonid Slutsky at first refused to comment, then called the accusations a “black PR” campaign from his enemies. Finally, when International Women’s Day rolled around on March 8, he posted on Facebook. Having congratulated Russian women on the holiday, he apologized to anyone he might have ever hurt. And that was it.
This looked positively generous compared to what the Duma Speaker and former Presidential Administration head Vyacheslav Volodin told journalists at a Duma briefing on the occasion of Women’s Day. Those journalists who find the Russian Duma a dangerous place to work at, Volodin said, should find themselves another job. He then congratulated the women on the holiday.
There is no punishment for sexual harassment under Russian law, so the journalists appealed to the Duma’s Ethics Committee. The committee gathered to hear the journalists but refused to listen to the BBC tape. Slutsky was not present. The journalists were questioned for an hour. After they had left, Slutsky sneaked into the session where he was questioned for 15 minutes. The committee head, Otari Arshba, then proclaimed that they couldn’t find out the truth, nor they could see any norm violations in Slutsky’s actions.
What followed was an unprecedented level of journalistic solidarity. At least two dozen media outlets, including Dozhd and Echo of Moscow radio (which I represent), announced a boycott of the Duma. Most of the media outlets withdrew journalists from the Duma and refused to cover the Russian Parliament. Some of them refused to cover Slutsky without explicitly mentioning the sexual harassment allegations against him. Most significantly, liberal and independent media outlets were joined by pro-Kremlin ones (Kommersant, RBC, Vedomosti) and even those owned by the government, like Moscow Speaks Up radio station.
Announcing the full withdrawal of his reporters from Duma, Echo of Moscow chief editor Alexey Venediktov said that the environment there is hostile for the journalists of both sexes because “you never know what Duma members’ sexual preferences are.”
This constitutes the second revelation about the Russian harassment scandal.
Striving to oppose Europe, the United States, and their shared democratic values at any cost, Putin’s Russia has become reflexively anti-Western. If Europe and the United States respect gay rights, Russia doesn’t, and the Duma passes a bill against homosexual propaganda among adolescents. If Europe and the United States respect women’s rights, Russia doesn’t, and the Duma passes a bill that decriminalizes domestic violence. No new laws needed to be passed to change public opinion on rape: in most cases that are widely discussed on national television, the victim is blamed for wearing too short a skirt.
Putin’s Russia has thus turned into a country where, if not formally illegal, it is definitely shameful to be homosexual. At the same time, it is not only legal but not shameful to beat up and harass women.
And this is exactly how the Russian government has cornered itself. It is an open secret that there are many closeted gays within the government and the Duma in particular. Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is probably the most well-known among them. Last week, reports surfaced that the LDPR party leader and perennial presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky is also gay, and has been accused of harassing young boys. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalist and Current Time TV host Renat Davletgildeev, 31, publicly accused the 71-year-old Zhirinovsky of having harassed him twelve years ago. The politician allegedly touched the young journalist by his legs, and Zhirinovsky’s bodyguards offered Davletgildeev to go to the sauna with him.
Zhirinovsky has not reacted to the charges, while his son Igor Lebedev, also a Duma deputy, promised to punch the journalist in the face if he ever bumps into him.
These kinds of accusations, and the potential outings of Duma deputies and members of the government, are what the Kremlin fears most. There was nothing to stop the Duma Ethics Committee from publicly condemning Leonid Slutsky. And it would have been up to him to resign, which he could choose not to do anyway. The Duma could have kept some dignity and self-respect by acknowledging the problem of harassment, but instead preferred to act in the nastiest possible way.
The only reasonable explanation seems to be the government’s fear of exposure. Had they condemned Slutsky, Pandora’s box would have opened, and who knows how many other others, especially males, would go public with stories of harassment by Kremlin insiders. Such an outcome would have been an embarrassing revelation of the hypocrisy of a regime that proudly touts its commitment to “traditional values.”
The bitter irony is that it was the exact same Duma and government that created this environment in the first place—one where so many are ashamed of their sexual orientation and scared to open up about it.