The impact of the #MeToo campaign on the Russian society: is something about to change?

08. March 2018

by Yulia Gershinkova

The #MeToo campaign has become one of the most influential movements against sexual abuse, leading to the biggest scandal in Hollywood in recent history. It brought stories of harassment and sexual assault to the foreground and united millions of women across the globe against all forms of abuse. It was not so in Russia, where the campaign generated different reactions from Russian state media, the film industry and the general public.

First, the Russian propaganda machine tried to prove the political context of the movement. According to the Russian state media, the whole campaign was a plot created by the Democrats and Hollywood elites to discredit the president of the United States, Donald Trump. They suggested that allegations of sexual harassment against Trump could later serve as a formal reason to start impeachment procedures. And if a high-profile fundraiser for leading Democrats like Weinstein can lose it all, one can only imagine the outrage it will cause against the Republican president.

The #MeToo campaign did not get a lot of support from the Russian film community either. The head of the Russian film body Roskino, Ekaterina Mtsitouridze, was the only well-known figure from the Russian film industry to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against the disgraced Hollywood producer. Some Russian celebrities took the side of the Hollywood movie mogul, claiming that, in the end, Weinstein’s victims did not reject the roles he offered them so they should be grateful. The movement also did not immediately resonate among public figures in the music and arts industry, nor did it in the worlds of sports and politics. Former Soviet gymnast Tatiana Gutsu was the only one who lend her voice to the #MeToo movement. However, she has been living and coaching in the USA for almost two decades now.

The campaign wasn’t a big success among the general public. Despite the fact that a significant part of Russia lies within Europe, attitudes towards women are markedly different from those in some of its Western neighbours. In general, modern Russian society can still be described as very patriarchal, conservative and male-centered. Relationships between men and women are often defined by ‘traditional roles’, wherein the man is the provider, and the woman is considered as an obedient housewife and mother. Men are expected to take the lead, ‘act as a man’ and win a lady’s heart. That is why, when it comes to consent, it can sometimes be understood that when a woman says ‘no’ she is just being modest, and that the man should keep trying. Of course these views vary across regions, generations, and different nationalities and cultures. However, it is worth mentioning that the situation has changed slightly over the last few decades, especially in the urban areas where people are usually well educated and are exposed to a variety of ideas, including feminism. Though the majority still does not support feminist views, they are no longer alien to the society.

Nevertheless, Russians were keeping an eye on the events that were unfolding in the US and elsewhere. You could hear people talking about it on the streets and in public spaces, and actively commenting about it on social networks. It was obvious that a lot of men confused harassment with flirting, raising concerns that they are no longer allowed to flirt. Surprisingly, some women showed solidarity with these men, assuming that Western culture has gone too far in redefining relationships between men and women. In addition, in the eyes of traditional Russian society, all the blame lies with the victim. This is reflected in the kind of questions asked by people when a victim comes forward, such as: “why did she go there?”; “what else could she expect working in such a competitive industry?”; “why did it take her so long to speak up?”; “why should one believe the accuser if no evidence exists? Now everyone can come up with a similar story!” and so on. Of course, it does not mean that harassment and violence do not exist in Russia. Around 40% of all violent crimes are committed within families and abuse of any form takes place in one in four families. Widespread sexual harassment and other types of violence against women are often socially acceptable due to fundamentally conservative views and the strong influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. A big problem is that this topic remains a taboo since women are generally reluctant to speak up as they are afraid it may discredit them in the eyes of their family, friends and the society at large.

Interestingly, the #MeToo did not gain as much popularity as the campaign against sexual violence launched by the Ukrainian social activist Anastasia Melnichenko in 2016. Back then, women throughout the post-Soviet space started sharing their stories under the hashtags #янебоюсьсказати in Ukrainian and #янебоюсьсказать in Russian (meaning ‘I am not afraid to speak’). Being the first of its kind in the region, the campaign gave an opportunity to the victims of abuse to speak up and draw attention to the issue. I believe one of the reasons the #янебоюсьсказать campaign became much wider and popular than #MeToo is that it was a grassroots initiative started by local activists and shared between people within societies where women suffer from common forms of discrimination, violence and abuse. At the same time the #MeToo campaign was brought from overseas and was vastly discredited by the mainstream media. Moreover, people considered the #MeToo similar to the #янебоюсьсказать campaign, so being a part of the latter they didn’t feel the need to join the worldwide movement. Nevertheless the lack of legal protection in a country where domestic violence has recently been decriminalised makes women still powerless even if they speak out.

All in all, the anti-Western and subsequently anti-feminist narrative used by Russian propaganda, the persistence of traditional views, along with governmental policies aimed at strengthening conservative social values prevented the #MeToo movement from shaking up the Russian society. However, it definitely contributed to raising awareness and prompted the biggest sexual harassment scandal in modern Russia: few female journalists, including a BBC reporter, have recently made harassment claims against the State Duma politician Leonid Slutsky. Mr. Slutsky denied the accusations and was fully supported by other officials in the Russian parliament: Tatiana Pletneva, the Head of the State Duma’s Committee on family affairs, called on journalists “to dress more respectively”, while Vyacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the State Duma, recommended female reporters to change job if they feel threatened by lawmakers. It is the first time a senior Russian politician is publicly accused of sexual harassment, and despite the allegations do not come under the #MeToo hashtag they would hardly arise if the campaign didn’t take place and attract attention in Russia. The Slutsky’s scandal already divided the Russian society and the way it will develop will  illustrate the attitude of Russian authorities towards violence and abuse against women and its (in)capability to confront it.