With their stories of harassment by a leading politician, three female journalists have surprisingly propelled the international #MeToo campaign to the top of the Russian news agenda. But the reaction of the state so far has been to close ranks, ridicule and reject their accusations.
On Wednesday, the speaker of Russia’s lower parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, suggested those journalists complaining of harassment should find another profession.
“You think working in the Duma is dangerous? Change your job,” Mr Volodin said. He made the comments during an event dedicated to Thursday's International Women’s day, which is a major public holiday in Russia.
This week, BBC journalist Farida Rustamova became the third journalist to accuse Duma Foreign Affairs Committee head Leonid Slutsky of improper behaviour. In an article, she said that in the course of an interview, Mr Slutsky promised to help her in her career if she became his lover, and he groped her. The journalist said she recorded the conversation, and that Mr Slutsky knew this at the time.
In February, the Georgian television journalist Ekaterina Kotrikadze told a similar story. When she arrived at Mr Slutsky’s office, she said, he closed the door behind her, before pushing her against the wall to touch and kiss her. “I managed to break free of his grasp and ran away,” she said.
Dariya Zhuk, a producer for the liberal TV channel Dozhd, said that Mr Slutsky threatened not to turn up to an interview if she didn’t go out with him for dinner. “When he eventually arrived, he began behaving in a frightening and unpleasant way,” she alleged. Ms Zhuk asked colleagues to intervene.
Mr Slutsky has denied the allegations, laughing them off as an attempt to “project him as Harvey Weinstein”. But in an open Facebook conversation with colleagues, he joked about not being able to find enough journalists to pass around.
Mr Volodin, whose office is second in line to the presidency, suggested that the women’s accusations were part of a pre-election campaign to discredit the Russian government.
“The story has come about at the height of the election campaign and the accusations have come from the mouths of Georgian journalists and Western publications,” he said. “If this was in the US, and Russian journalists were making the claims, the outcome would already be clear.”
Gender discrimination is generally not a subject talked about in Russia. Post-war demographics and Soviet social policy have meant that in many formal aspects, Russian women actually enjoy more parity and legal protections than their Western counterparts. Women often occupy leading positions in business. In a 2015 report, professional services firm Grant Thornton suggested 40 per cent of all senior management roles went to women – a higher figure than anywhere else in the world.
But the fight for parity in Russian minds is ongoing, and, on some levels, regressing. In Mr Putin's second decade in office, the country has taken a decidedly neoconservative turn and there has been a move to embrace “traditional”, non-Western values of patriarchy.
“Russians are now told this is not America, where men and women are considered the same,” said Alexandra Arkhipova, an anthropologist at the Russian Presidential Academy. “Instead, its OK for men and women to be treated differently.”
When allegations of harassment extended to parliamentarians last month, Russia’s reaction was to brand the accusers as liberal and somehow foreign. Many of Mr Slutsky’s colleagues – male and female – suggested the women were trying to gain attention. Tamara Pletneva, chair of the Duma Committee for Families, Women and Children adapted a vulgar Russian popular saying to suggest that the journalists had solicited the advances themselves. “If a woman doesn’t want it, no one will harass her,” she said.
It is normal for men to show interest aggressively, Ms Pletneva seemed to be saying; and it was down to women to understand this and control their advances.
Ms Arkhipova said there are “anthropological” ways of understanding what to Western sensibilities appears as “savage” indifference. Given the country’s history of war, persecution and early mortality, she said, demographically men are very much in the minority. They are a “prized resource”, “fed and tolerated despite their alcoholism, womanising and bad behaviour." For many Russian women, she said, harassment means interest.
Another Russian tradition – corporate solidarity – is also at play. Challenging power remains taboo in Russia, said Ms Arkhipova: “Any accusation made on a bureaucrat is equalled to an attack on the Imperial Court, just as in medieval China.”
In a blog post written on 24 February, Igor Lebedev, vice-speaker in the Duma, described the women’s accusations as an “underhand game of Weinstein”. They were not only “attacking Mr Slutsky… but Russian parliamentary diplomacy … and the country itself."
Writing on Facebook, accuser Ms Rustamova said she thought about Mr Slutsky's influence before telling her story: “He has very important friends. He was appointed chair of the Duma Committee only after a personal request by Vladimir Putin … and his friends include Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Prince Albert II of Monaco and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan.”
“No one has phoned me or threatened me directly,” she said. “But by making my story public, I do fear for my safety.”
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