[Leonid Bershidsky] Russian women deserve better #MeToo moment

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Mar 12, 2018 - 17:55
  • Updated : Mar 12, 2018 - 17:55
The #MeToo movement has finally reached Russia. Unfortunately, it‘s 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 the scandal in its parliament proves that nothing‘s about to change.

On Feb. 22, the anti-Kremlin TVRain channel reported that Leonid Slutsky, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the Russian parliament’s lower house, was being accused of making crude passes at female journalists. But 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 parliament‘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.

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 March 6, 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 2017 encounter with Slutsky because she‘d 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 this would be enough even for hardened Russian legislators to turn against Slutsky. The abuse of power could not be clearer. But no, Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin still wasn‘t convinced. “You feel it’s dangerous to work in parliament? If so, change your job,” he told a female reporter Wednesday. He also made it clear 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 one.

“This story unfolded at the peak of the election campaign,” Volodin reportedly said. “This can be taken as a discreditation attempt.”

The election campaign 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. But it‘s 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 haven’t 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 parliament‘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. But Russian women aren’t willing to put up with abuse, no matter how much the system is tilted against them. They‘ll keep speaking up and the country will get a better #MeToo moment someday. Arguably, it needs one more than any nation in the West.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. -- Ed.