Russian state media see Harvey Weinstein—a symbol of sordid male chauvinism for millions of people around the world—primarily as a victim of intrigue and corporate revenge. “Hollywood actresses are lined up. In order to assert your ‘stardom,’ you have to announce that you were harassed.” That is a typical comment on Vesti, a state news program. The show-business and political scandals that have roiled the United States and Europe and galvanized the #MeToo campaign have been presented to the Russian public as the result of aggressive behavior by crazed PC ideologues. State media have framed the movement as evidence of a profound crisis of Western civilization, crumbling under pressure from gays and feminists. The style of many television programs resembles the exposés of “rotten capitalism” during the Cold War.
There is nothing surprising about Russian propaganda’s using sex scandals to incite anti-Western and anti-American feelings. What is noteworthy here is that Russian voices from all walks of life are united in sympathy for Weinstein—and, through him, for all men guilty of harassment. Rabid patriots and harsh opponents of the regime alike, men and women, have all expressed a rare unanimity in defense of the “natural right” to sex in the workplace. They are also united in the conviction that in questions of sex, Russia is nothing like the West, and that Western rules have no authority in Russia.
Such journalists as the fierce anti-Putinist Matvey Ganapolskiy, the opposition writer Yulia Latynina, and the liberal critic Artemy Troitsky questioned the timing of the belated accusations and the sincerity of actresses who certainly knew about casting couches, and they even downplayed the concept of “rape culture.” I think the only voice in support of #MeToo came from the prominent editor in chief of New Times, Yevgenia Albats, in her blog at Ekho Moskvy, who noted that the culture of harassment was always present in Russia and continues to flourish everywhere. Her bold and sharp text provoked a squall of criticism and insults on the Internet. The publishers of the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan, who ran an article on harassment based on Russian material after a similar one in the English-language edition, were surprised that the dramatic story with real names and addresses drew very little interest among their readers.
What is happening here? Does Russian society really not want to see the problem? Recent data show an increase in domestic abuse and gender discrimination throughout the country. Why are Russian women indifferent to humiliation and unwilling to show solidarity in defending their rights guaranteed by the Constitution and law? Harassment is a crime, punishable by law in the Russian Federation. Yet very few cases reach the courts. The gender salary gap is 30 percent, but professional, educated specialists and managers are in no hurry to demand equal pay. And why are more women starting to support radical right-wing and blatantly fundamentalist and anti-feminist ideas?
A quarter-century has passed since the USSR dissolved. But Russian men and women face a long path toward inner freedom and self-respect. They need to acknowledge the right of every person to determine his or her own life and to live in a world free of oppression and humiliation. The “women’s question,” just as it did a hundred years ago, remains the most important indicator of real freedom.
The Homo sovieticus mentality is still alive in post-Soviet Russia. Homo sovieticus is not a free human being; he is a slave and resents any attempt to overcome slavery. This syndrome is an inheritance of the Stalinist camps. Deeply traumatized and humiliated, an oppressed person looks for another person to humiliate. Throughout history, the other person has been a woman.
The number of supporters of radical, right-wing ideas is growing in Russia. The general atmosphere of anxiety and aggression in society—particularly evident after the annexation of Crimea and the institution of sanctions—promotes this growth. Russians are bombarded daily by overheated, hysterical propaganda that repeats like a mantra statements about a “circle of enemies,” a “fifth column,” and a “liberal contagion.” This propaganda is supported by so-called public initiatives that get moral (and sometimes financial) support from state authorities and from the Orthodox Church. Last summer, Pro Life (the Russian chapter of an international group) held its eighth forum, the main goal of which is to ban abortion in Russia. The number of invitees and the elaborate program—including training sessions in the arts of propaganda, persecuting gynecologists, organizing mass protests, and securing media coverage—showed serious organizational chops and large financial support. The texts of the forum’s speeches and posters turned out to be feeble translations from English—be that as it may, they managed to collect a million signatures.
According to surveys by the Levada Center (a major independent Russian research organization), the opponents of abortion have grown by a third over recent years, and there are more women than men who would ban the operation under any circumstances, including rape and danger to the mother’s life. A year ago, the Russian parliament decriminalized domestic violence, and the initiators of the move were female legislators. Women Cossacks demonstrated in support of punishment for Pussy Riot after the group’s art performance/protest in a church. A recent denunciation of gender studies as a Western attempt to undermine the country came from a woman, an expert of the Public Chamber.
Of course, there are other voices in Russia. Feminist websites are gaining proponents; gender-studies programs in universities are attracting greater numbers of students; and the campaign against gender violence #yaNeBoyusSkazat (“I am not afraid to tell”) has thousands of participants. But not many people know about them. The powerful, independent women’s movement of the 1990s is now fractured and fragmented. Feminists are often subjected to criticism in the media, and women’s crisis centers are added to the list of “foreign agents.” People don’t want to have anything to do with agents during the so-called “hybrid war.” The anti-feminist discourse fits perfectly with the anti-Western, anti–human rights, and anti-liberal narratives.
The phrase “There is no sex in the Soviet Union,” from a perestroika-era televised exchange between Vladimir Posner and Phil Donahue, became a common saying. It did not mean people were not having sex, only that there was no discussion of it in the state-controlled media. But now everyone knows that there is sex in post-Soviet Russia. It’s talked about every day on television; the president jokes about it, playing up his macho image in photo sessions—middle-aged women fantasize about him, according to psychotherapists.
The private lives of celebrities and strangers, rapes and other sexual crimes—this is all fodder for evening television. No one is bothered by the fact that sex portrayed or discussed on TV involves violence; people are used to considering rape culture the norm. Might makes right, and it is practically the duty of the weak to submit. This mentality explains the sympathy Russian commentators showed Silvio Berlusconi, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Weinstein—and the absence of concern for their victims.
The widespread sexism in today’s Russia is based on the sense of inferiority felt by Homo sovieticus. The Russian reaction against #MeToo clearly shows that it will take a long time to overcome this deep-seated syndrome—that is, as Chekhov wrote a century ago, “to squeeze the slave, drop by drop, from yourself.”