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Disgrace in the Duma: Russia’s high profile sexual harassment case is not just about #MeToo

Disgrace in the Duma: Russia’s high profile sexual harassment case is not just about #MeToo
The State Duma in Moscow. Image:

Following allegations of sexual harassment against a parliamentary deputy, the Russian media has demonstrated an unprecedented level of solidarity. But there’s more to the story than a Moscow rerun of the #MeToo movement

31 March 2018

In recent weeks the headlines of Russian news websites have overwhelmingly been dedicated to the growing sexual assault scandal taking place in the country’s parliament — the Duma.

Accusations were first brought forward in February by several anonymous female journalists and producers against Leonid Slutsky, an MP in the Russian parliament and member of the misleadingly named Liberal Democratic Party, known for harbouring the most controversial characters in Russian mainstream politics. No official reactions followed the anonymous accusations, so four journalists — from the BBC Russian service, the oppositional broadcaster TV Rain, broadsheet Kommersant and international Russian language TV channel RTVi —came forward and made the accusations without anonymity. The BBC journalist, Farida Rustamova, even shared an audio recording in which Slutsky calls her “bunny”, flirts with her and, as she reported, touches her inappropriately — her shock and bewildered reaction can be heard in the recording.

Slutsky, whose name transliterates into English in a very unfortunate way considering the topic, denied all accusations, and the Duma ethics committee has reviewed the accusations and reported that they did not find any “violations of behavioural norms” in what was reported. In a somewhat hypocritical manner they advised the victims to sort out their complaints with the police; Russia has no law on sexual harassment, so it’s technically not a crime, and it’s unfathomable that MPs would not know that before offering their suggestions.

The ethics committee is the only body inside the Russian parliament that is equipped to deal with any issues concerning MPs. In addition, members of the Duma have parliamentary immunity, which makes opening any case against them almost impossible.

As a response to the ethics committee’s non-decision, Russian media started pulling their reporters from the Duma. Currently 39 media outlets, predominantly online and print publications, are boycotting the Duma. Some have recalled their parliamentary reporters, some have announced they will no longer cover anything Slutsky does outside the sexual harassment case, others have said that they’re going to follow the MP’s name with “accused of sexual harassment” whenever they write about him, and one online magazine said they will follow every mention of Duma with “the body of state power of the Russian Federation that approves of sexual harassment”. The Duma then pulled the boycotting publications’ parliamentary accreditation, as if to say it disliked them anyway and wanted to break up first.

Members of the Duma have parliamentary immunity, which makes opening any case against them almost impossible

My first thought upon reading these declarations, apart from professional solidarity and pride in the Russian journalists who are taking a stand, was pure surprise. While most of these media could be classified as oppositional and critical of the current government in Russia, only a couple have demonstrated progressive views, and even less could be identified as feminist. Considering the country’s troubled situation with the state of women’s rights, has Russia finally surpassed the painful stage where issues of sexual harassment were ignored, downplayed and outright ridiculed? If that’s the case, how on earth did I miss this tectonic shift in attitudes?

In reality, I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss anything. The kind of tectonic shift that is arguably underway in Europe and America right now with the invaluable spread of #MeToo has probably not arrived in Russia yet. Instead, there is overwhelming evidence that the Slutsky case is fuelled more by the class rage of the 99 per cent than feminism alone.

The working class, the middle class, all the classes in the complicated, confused post-Soviet society are all pretty much equal in the face of the beast that is the country’s one per cent, existing at the intersection of extreme wealth and state power, a scary mix of Scrooge McDuck and Ivan the Terrible. In fact, the Russian rich are so wealthy that the term “one percent” is not even an accurate way to describe them: in a country with a population of 144.4 million there are 182,000 millionaires and 96 billionaires, which is much fewer than one per cent. At the same time, the Federal State Statistics Service reported in 2016 that over 20 million Russians live below the poverty line, meaning their earnings are below the living wage. Coupled with myriad abuses of power — which have a telling number of synonyms in Russian, from proizvol [arbitrariness] to bespredel [wanton behaviour] — falling living standards and the suppression of almost all democratic institutions, it’s not only unsurprising but also logical that such rage exists.

Coincidentally, Slutsky is pretty much the perfect candidate for Enemy of the People status. Not only did he deny the assault even when faced with evidence, he proceeded to make fun of his accusers on Facebook, jokingly telling his Duma colleagues he is willing to share with them the overwhelming female attention that he receives from journalists. The campaign against him started to unfold as activists reminded each other that he is everything that is wrong with Russia today. For example, Slutsky is known as one of the most prolific users of the migalka, flashing lights used by emergency vehicles and, in Russia, by politicians who want to avoid traffic jams (and in turn create more traffic for ordinary people as roads often get blocked for migalka motorcades to pass through). Others noted that he has been an MP for 19 years and co-authored only three law proposals, without writing any himself. These and various other facts are shared on social media and news websites, as though just being an accused predator is not enough and people still need convincing that he is not a person of a good character.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Slutsky case is fuelled more by the class rage of the 99 per cent than feminism alone

There should be no doubt that many activists and supporters of the anti-Slutsky movement are in it because they see sexual harassment as unacceptable. Since the start of the campaign a male journalist has also come forward with sexual harassment accusations against Vladimir Zhirinovksy, the head of Slutsky’s LDPR party. But the sudden mixing in of political grievances against Slutsky poses the question as to whether support for his resignation would have been this strong if he was, for example, a Navalny supporter or an oppositional blogger. An accusation of sexual assault made by journalist Darya Komarova in March against film director Stanislav Govorukhin had been left pretty much unnoticed. In the case of performance artist-activist Pyotr Pavlensky, accusations of sexual assault were ruled by some a secret services plot with the aim of tarnishing the reputation of the favourite artist of Russian liberals.

Ultimately, feminism and the advancement of #MeToo in Russia can benefit from this class rage, as long as they don’t fall victims to it. In fact it is this rage that can help accelerate the case even further and create precedent. A protest demanding Slutsky’s resignation is planned (though has changed date due to the ongoing reaction to the Kemerovo shopping centre fire). One MP has already said that she’s started working on a sexual harassment law, and one can only imagine what will happen if the scandal keeps growing. We might even smash the patriarchy.

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