MOSCOW—Darya Zhuk, a producer at Russia’s Rain TV, looked elegant in her short dress. Feeling tired on that long working day four years ago, she was walking the last guest of that night’s TV show to the studio, when she felt a hand on her rear. The guest, Russian Member of Parliament Leonid Slutsky, a 46-year-old man whose girth and bluster are comparable to Donald Trump’s, was feeling Zhuk one moment and then the next moment she saw “this absolutely horrifying big mouth approaching my face.”
She was only 24 at the time and managed to get away from him after he planted his repulsive kiss, but the memory lingered, and has angered her for years as she felt little could be done. Now, however, even in Russia, where the predominant conservative culture still says women are supposed to cope with everything men do—if he hits you, be patient; if he is drunk, cope with it; if he is rude, stay quiet—yes, even here, women are speaking out.
Zhuk told The Daily Beast that only by moving together, as a community, will Russian women be able to make the difference and punish powerful state officials for harassment. And Slutsky has become, in his way, Russia’s Harvey Weinstein, his behavior mobilizing voices and energizing the country’s fledgling #MeToo movement.
Zhuk and three other women journalists have told their stories publicly about MP Slutsky’s sexual harassment. And on Thursday, International Women’s Day—which has been one of the most celebrated holidays in Russia since the earliest days of the Soviet Union—women came out to protest in front of the Duma, the lower house of Russian parliament. Ksenia Sobchak, a presidential candidate, stood in the freezing cold holding a banner that said: “Deputies, we do not want you.”
Instead of celebrating with her family, which is the Russian tradition on Women’s Day, Anna Rivina, leader of the Nasiliyu.Net movement against violence came out to protest, too. Earlier, the chairman of the Russian parliament had told women who report there, “You think working in the Duma is dangerous? Change your job." Rivina’s placard paraphrased him: “Is it dangerous for you to be a woman? Then change your sex.”
“We Russian women face sexism and discrimination at all levels,” Rivina told The Daily Beast, but “instead of hearing our complaints about sexual harassment, the Kremlin’s leaders mock us, trying to shut us up.”
“Sexist” would be too soft a word to describe the attitude of state officials once women speak out about their rights. Fear and silence is what Russian officials expect, and bureaucrats immediately rush to intimidate those brave voices that are raised, accusing women of betraying their homeland, of serving the interests of foreign states, and of being anti-Russian.
Here is what the leader of Slutsky’s party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, also known as Russia’s Trump, said about women: “They should never have active personalities; sex should be a procedure that a woman does not understand,” Zhirinovsky said in an interview with Russian Express Gazeta. “It is necessary to make a Russian sex film,” he said. It would show a poor young woman “with a veil, crying quietly.” That sounded anti-Russian to the ears of many young women here.
By now the Kremlin’s officials should know perfectly well that even the threat of bullets does not silence women reporters. During Vladimir Putin’s era one single newspaper, Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta, has lost three brilliant women reporters to assassinations: Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova and Anastasia Bobrurova were killed for their courageous journalism. But women did not shut up.
This month more journalists confronted the idea of state bureaucrats abusing their rights as one after another four women from independent Russian and foreign media outlets went public with their stories about MP Slutsky grabbing them and touching their bodies in intimate places.
Even one of the government’s top official voices, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, has talked about Slutsky’s rude behavior: four years ago the MP interrupted an address she was giving. “Hey, you girl,” he shouted. Speaking on Echo of Moscow on Thursday, Zakharova said she had had to confront Slutsky about that.
When Zhuk spoke out on Rain TV last Thursday about what had happened to her, she hoped that in response the Kremlin would at least pay a little attention—or maybe even begin an investigation into Slutsky’s abuse of power.
But instead of treating the women’s stories with respect, the Kremlin’s leading ideologue, Chairman of the Russian Parliament Vyachslav Volodin, suggested the victims of Slutsky’s harassment should change their jobs, and added this menacing remark: “If during our investigation we find out that it is a provocation, no escapes to Harvard would save you.”
Provokatsiya, or provocation, is central to the conspiratorial worldview of Russian officials, dating back to the days of the Tsars. As the British newspaper Observer defined it, “Provocation is complicated, but at its most basic involves secret acts to confuse and dismay your enemy.” The reference to Harvard underscores the notion that the objections to harassment being raised by these women are part of some American plot.
Zhuk was outraged by the reaction. “Now, this is a threat from Volodin.” She said she felt like she was writing fiction about some ridiculous state where men of power threaten victims of sexual harassment, but there was nothing fictional about it. Zhuk’s family members in Khabarovsk, 5,000 miles away in Russia’s Far East, were worried about her telling the truth about something embarrassing, something potentially dangerous.
Slutsky was an important official. During the first three years of Russia’s conflict in Ukraine the voice of the now 50-year-old MP could be heard at PACE, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Russia has since been suspended, but as the head of the International State Duma Commission, Slutsky also played a serious role in the Kremlin’s politics. He represented the interests of the Russian world, promoted the Russian language and Russia’s policy around the world.
Shortly before the scandal, Slutsky gave a big press conference to young Russian journalists and members of the youth parliament, suggesting that journalists drop by his office, where he sometimes worked until midnight.
A BBC reporter, Farida Rustamova, described what had happened to her when she did that: “He put the back of his hand against my crotch and stroked it.” The BBC fully supported Rustamova’s statement and said it had a recording of conversation with Slutsky. When she accused him of trying to feel her up, his response, according to a BBC excerpt from the recording transcript was: "I don't feel people up. Well, OK, just a little. 'Feel people up' is an ugly expression."
The Echo of Moscow radio station provided full support for Ekaterina Kotrikadze, one more reporter harassed by MP Slutsky, who said the deputy closed the door of his office and pushed the journalist against the wall. “Katia, we are with you, we understand how much courage you needed to have to reveal your story,” declared the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow.
It would take the Russian parliament many hours to hear all stories about sexual harassment cases committed by Russian officials. Unfortunately, Russian men are far from understanding how difficult it is a for a woman to open up about something so humiliating. Only one MP, Oksana Pushkina, a woman, has initiated new legislation against sexual harassment. And for now, Pushkina’s voice sounds lonely in a Russian parliament that actually decriminalized domestic violence last year in a country where up to 10,000 women get killed annually by members of their family.
Meanwhile, Slutsky is denying that he has ever touched women journalists. And Zhirinovsky, the leader of Slutsky’s Liberal Democratic Party continues to insist that that all accusations are “a provocation.”
Olba Bychkova, a prominent independent journalist says she is not surprised. “That is exactly why Slutsky has harassed journalists—he was sure that nobody would ever punish him for his actions,” Bychkova told The Daily Beast. “This story is bigger than just a story of one sexist MP, this story is about state officials disrespecting and humiliating Russia.”