The Untouchables: Muting dissent in the wake of the Slutsky scandal

By Natasha Bluth

Earlier this February and March, three Russian journalists accused Leonid Slutsky, a deputy in the State Duma, of sexual harassment. Visiting Slutsky to discuss an upcoming interview, Ekaterina Kotrikadze, now deputy editor of RTVI station, alleges that the chairman proceeded to lock her in his office, slam her up against the wall and kiss and touch her. Both Farida Rustamova of the BBC Russian service and Daria Zhuk of Dozhd came forward with similar stories. Rustamova managed to record hers on tape.

The timing of these accusations not only dovetails with the growing momentum of the anti-sexual harassment platform emerging in the U.S. and spreading globally. They also materialized in the runup to the March 18 presidential elections, which included Ksenia Sobchak on the ballot—the first female candidate to run in 13 years, who also chose to campaign on a pro-woman platform. In an alternate reality, the charges might have had the potential to spark a transformative moment in Russian society and politics.

But these journalists are living in a society where many Russians believe that the victims of Harvey Weinstein in the U.S. “got what they wanted”—and this mentality is all the more present at home. Following the reporters’ charges, Tamara Pletneva, the head of the Duma committee on family, women and children, defended Slutsky and an informal women’s caucus in the Duma called the journalists’ statements a provocation—“groundless statements [that] should be considered information aggression from the outset.” Others questioned the possibility of a sex scandal in Russia altogether. This week, the Duma Ethics Committee allowed the three journalists to testify, but Rustamova told the BBC that the effort was perfunctory; Slutsky was not present during their testimonies and instead of providing a platform for the women to share their experiences, the deputies focused on why they were attempting to sully Slutsky’s name.

Not surprisingly, the committee did not find Slutsky in violation. The three journalists, and Slutsky’s other anonymous accusers, are up against a state institution that not only discredits their voices, but the voices of all opponents. Despite Slutsky’s defensive note on Facebook, which states that attempts to make him “into the Russian Harvey Weinstein just look like a cheap, shoddy provocation,” the situation has nothing to do with holding the Weinsteins of the world accountable. Instead, Slutsky’s actions illustrate another reality, where officials in the untouchable state exploit the words of their victims to further their own political agendas.

The official response to the female journalists mixes denialism and disregard with propaganda, working to enshrine the Russian state apparatus in a protective shield. Because the testimonies by the three female journalists surfaced so close to last week’s presidential vote, State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin labelled them “a discreditation attempt” of the election. Slutsky has also attempted to shape his own allegations to fan conspiracy theories that tap into heightened discontent among Russians about their country’s status in the international sphere. The deputy twisted the backgrounds of the three female journalists—a Georgian, a correspondent from a foreign news association, and a TV producer from an independent Russian news agency—to justify his distrust of their claims.

Officials like Slutsky, who divert attention away from potentially implicating domestic political matters and disseminate conspiracies that fixate on foreign policy embrace a somewhat formulaic tactic favored by Russia’s political elite. The week before the presidential vote, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center pointed to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in London as a boon to electoral mobilization—a classic case of refuting claims of Russian involvement made by foreign law enforcement agencies while simultaneously enhancing the Kremlin’s image at home as a powerhouse that takes care of defectors. The Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot down in Ukraine in 2014, provided a similar boost to the Putin government, which, thanks to its position, led the majority to believe that the event was an anti-Russian provocation, thus bolstering patriotic feelings. When it comes to the recent Duma scandal, Volodin issued a predictable defense of Slutsky to the three female journalists: “Is it dangerous for you to work in the Duma?” he asked. “If yes, then work somewhere else!”

In a way, some of the media industry is heeding the Duma chairman’s call. In the past few days, approximately two dozen Russian news outlets including RBK, Dozhd, Kommersant, Ekho Moskvy, and RTVI announced that their journalists either would no longer work with Slutsky in a professional capacity or would extract their reporters from the Duma entirely as long as the deputy remains in office. Other sites and organizations like the social media platform Odnoklassniki and one politically-inclined Moscow bar have expressed solidarity with the news outlets. Volodin shot back, threatening to remove the media accreditations of those involved in the boycott.

While Western audiences may be tempted to applaud the women courageous enough to stand up to Slutsky and other Putin cronies, Russian women—like other minorities—are still fighting for basic, fundamental rights in a country that lacks any legislation to prosecute the perpetrators of sexual assault or domestic violence. Since Slutsky’s accusations were made public, a few moments have nudged the anti-sexual harassment agenda forward: a member of parliament, Oksana Pushkina, vowed to submit an amendment to provide a legal framework for sexual assault, and university students walked out of a lecture by a Moscow State University dean, who claimed there was “nothing wrong” with Slutsky’s behavior. Sobchak too had opportunities to hold her own during the presidential campaign—after fellow candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky called her a “whore” during a televised debate, she splashed water in his face. But the sexual harassment scandal is much less about a moment for women’s rights in Russia than it is about safeguarding the political institutions that not only seek to preserve traditional ideas about the treatment of women, but more importantly mute the voices of all opponents to the Putin system.

Case in point is Alexei Navalny, who, following the journalists’ public condemnation of Slutsky, released a new exposé about the deputy’s lavishly corrupt lifestyle. But for an official in the good graces of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian Orthodox Church, the video’s message, much like Navalny himself, will continue to be ignored by the government. The Kremlin barred Navalny from registering as a presidential candidate and Putin, now newly elected for another term, refuses to utter even the name of his only legitimate political opponent. As per Slutsky’s and Volodin’s retorts, the state will continue to reinforce its protective armor, muting the voices of those dissatisfied until, hopefully, they take up new professions, move to a different city, or emigrate. In the meantime, what could have emboldened other victims of sexual harassment in Russia to speak out will instead relegate them to the shadows.

Natasha Bluth is a journalist covering human rights issues and the politics of identity in the former Soviet Union.

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