Map over #Metoo

Map over #Metoo

Scientific articles Did #MeToo skip Russia?

The issue in this essay concerns patriarchal culture in Russia and whether this might have been a factor for why the #MeToo movement did not appear to resonate in Russia. The #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign, which began in 2016, was denigrated by many, predicting that it would die out rather quickly. The campaign, however, has remained a part of the discourse in Russia.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2021:1 pp 37-44
Published on balticworlds.com on May 24, 2020

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“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

Muriel Rukeyser

This quote opens the interactive #MeToo Rising map created by Google in 2018 in which one can easily see the presence that the #MeToo movement has thus far had in different countries. The largest country in the world by landmass, however, remains in complete darkness on this map. Does this indicate that Russia is not currently a part of the global #MeToo movement?

International media has written several articles either attempting to understand why Russia has not been touched by the #MeToo movement or why the results of the movement have been modest. Amie Ferris-Rotman, in her article “Putin’s War on Women”, suggests that Russia has a very strong patriarchal culture and is not ready to join the world’s feminist mobilization. Elaborating on the conditions in Russia:

Feminism here has a complicated history laden with paradoxes. Until recently, the average Russian woman — even if she believed in gender equality — treated the word itself with scorn. Many saw it as an aggressive Western attack on femininity and a Russian belief system in which women are encouraged, and expected, to see motherhood as their first priority.

Nadezhda Azhgikhina, a well-known journalist and writer who specializes on matters concerning gender inequality, states in an article for The Nation magazine that “anti-feminist discourse is part of the state media’s anti-Western narrative — Russians need to resist it and stand up for their rights.” She also points out:

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.

Azhgikhina adds that this Soviet mentality is behind the widespread sexism that exists in Russia and why the Hollywood scandal triggered by Harvey Weinstein’s behavior did not find much sympathy in Russia.

The issue in this essay concerns patriarchal culture in Russia and whether this might have been a factor for why the #MeToo movement did not appear to resonate in Russia.

Patriarchal culture in Russia

The context of Russian cultural aspects is quite complicated when looked at closely. Positive and negative tendencies can rapidly gain footholds and often reverse themselves in an unpredictable manner. The Russian writer Maxim Gorki, in The Birth of a Man, quotes the 19th-century writer Nikolay Leskov: “If a person begins to be surprised in Holy Russia, he will be dumbfounded in surprise and become immobilized to the end of his days.”

This is an ironic statement, but it conveys the notion that surprises are common in Russia and that Russians ought to expect them, and this might be applicable to much of the news reporting in modern Russia. Recent practice in the country has been marked by the radicalization of the regime, the increasing role of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a general discourse focused on protecting the sacredness of families (i.e., that families ought not be interfered with, even in case of danger for their members — an issue that will be addressed below). Concurrently, however, the issue of electoral gender quotas has been discussed at the parliamentary level for the first time in 15 years.

At the end of the Second Eurasian Women’s Forum (St. Petersburg, September 2018), a resolution was put forth that was, as Russian Duma deputy Oksana Pushkina stated, replete with generalities and did not address the discrimination of women in Russian society. Vladimir Putin spoke at this forum, and while not addressing the latter, he did at least acknowledge that a gender gap exists in Russia.

This was not the first time that Putin mentioned the problem of the wage gap. In 2017 he stated:

But we have other problems related to the protection of women’s rights. This concerns the level of wages. It is characteristic not only for us. If we look at the developed economies, the European countries, the countries of the European Union — there the average wage level for women is much lower than the average wage for men.

Thus, Putin engaged in his usual manner of moving the audience’s attention from the problem at hand by referring to other countries and denigrating the fact that the wage gap in Russia is very high — around 30%.

In 2017 two especially important issues for women were discussed at the government level — the issue of domestic violence and a 15-year-old law project on gender equality. Neither discussion resulted in any improvement for women in Russia. In the beginning of 2017, a controversial proposal on decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence was proposed and then later adopted into law.As Venera Zakirova noted:

In a society without any coherent mechanism for protecting family members who need protection, domestic violence against women, children, and other weaker family members remains at an incredibly high level in Russia. It is estimated that 14,000–15,000 women are killed annually.

Among the strong supporters and initiators of the law of 2017 was a woman herself, the State Duma member Elena Mizulina (which touches on the issue that women and even female politicians might also support patriarchal approaches to social issues instead of fighting for women’s rights). According to the recent extensive report by Human Rights Watch on domestic violence in Russia, the situation with domestic violence after the law “became completely horrible”. Russian officials, such as Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, questioned the trustworthiness of this report because it contradicted the Russian government’s campaign to promote traditional values and more importantly its efforts to elevate the role of the Orthodox Church in modern Russian society, which itself avoids getting involved directly in parliamentary matters on most issues but focuses on and promotes traditional patriarchal roles for people. Vladimir Putin was heavily criticized for this decision to decriminalize some forms of domestic violence in foreign press publications such as The Guardian.

In October 2017 the Russian State Duma then returned to the law project on quotas after many years. Why did they do so? Did this suggest that Russia was seriously contemplating the problem of gender inequality on the official level by returning to this 15-year-old law project 5 months before Russian presidential elections to be held the following March, or was this something else? This process played out during 2018, and during the last week of Russia’s hosting of the World Cup, on July 11 (the day after the last semi-final match was played), it was officially rejected. This was despite the fact that the very problem of equality between men and women was acknowledged to be “more urgent than ever” by the deputy chairman of the committee (a deputy of the United Russia Party), Oksana Pushkina. In 2014, while hosting the Olympic Games, Russia was heavily criticized for its so-called anti-gay propaganda law. Thus during the World Cup, perhaps to deflect attention from the controversial law on domestic violence, the issue of gender inequality was brought up for discussion, but only to be later rejected when foreign reporters were about to leave Russia. Natalia Hodyreva, a member of the Human Rights Council of St. Petersburg, thinks that the law on domestic violence was actually itself also a possible attempt at improving Russia’s image abroad because the law redefined domestic “beatings into administrative offenses helping to ‘correct’ negative statistics. This is argued to be done because in 2019 the government will have to report on CEDAW” [UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, ratified by the USSR in 1982].

Patriarchal instincts in Russia are also apparent outside of governmental political organs. Popular culture and norms are often represented by the entertainment industry of a country and especially by way of television. In this regard, many television shows in Russia (Comedy Club and Comedy Women, two television shows that have English titles, as well Let Them Talk (Пустьговорят) and Male/Female (Мужское/женское) propagate the sexism of gender stereotypes that marriage ought to be the primary goal for women, often suggesting that even domestic violence victims and those who have been raped perhaps were themselves to blame in some manner. Such commentary is not uncommon on Russian TV and sometimes is also engaged in by women themselves who have been persuaded that they must have done “something wrong”.

New narratives in Russian public discourse

Women’s representation in the public sphere in Russia is limited. Women are under-represented in parliament and throughout traditional media, and existing gender roles are constantly propagated and reinforced. Moreover, issues directly connected with women’s rights such as domestic violence or access to abortion are discussed on the political level without women’s involvement. In short, women’s access to platforms where their unfiltered voices can be heard is rather limited.

Women’s hashtag activism

Topics that might have been deemed controversial by traditional media outlets and consequently have not gotten much public airing have become natural fodder for debate on social media platforms. Forums such as Twitter, Facebook, and others have provided open and democratic exchanges by expanding the public sphere due to their ability to facilitate exchanges of opinions. The global #MeToo movement (popularized in 2017) was not the first such campaign in the world utilizing these public exchange forums, but it might be among the most known. This is indicative of the global nature of the problem because the movement led to a new wave of discussions around the world about the prevalence of misogyny, as well as which violations of personal boundaries merit being labeled as sexual harassment (bringing back to the forefront similar campaigns that addressed such issues in South Korea in 2015 (#iamafeminist), in the US in 2014 (#YesAllWomen), and in Britain in 2014 (#EverydaySexism).

A campaign against violence against women within Russia also preceded #MeToo. This was the #яНеБоюсьСказать (#IAmNot-ScaredToSpeak) campaign that spontaneously developed on Russian-language Facebook in July of 2016. The hashtag was initiated in Ukraine (#ЯнеБоюсьСказати) and was copied within 24 hours by Russian women in Russia, altering the hashtag to make it grammatically Russian. The opening salvo was fired by a relatively little-known Ukrainian activist by the name of Anastasia Melnychenko who shared her own personal story and then declared:

“I want women to speak today. Let us talk about the violence that most of us have experienced. […][I]t is important for us women to talk about our experiences. It is important to make it visible. Please speak. #IAmNotScaredToSpeak”.

Like the Ukrainian campaign, the Russian campaign spread rapidly by way of sharing. A multitude of women joined the campaign throughout July of 2016 resulting it becoming a topic within traditional media outlets in Russia. Prominent feminist online actions took place for the first time in Russia in 2017—2018, but these online actions might not have resonated had it not been for #яНеБоюсьСказать and then#MeToo, both of which (the latter putting the former back into active discourse) helped normalize women’s protests against violence and stimulated debate on the previously taboo topic of sexual harassment.

It is important to note that the #яНеБоюсьСказать campaign was well covered by traditional Russian media, and such attention proves the importance of social media for shaping public debate. The campaign challenged women to share their traumatic experiences and was notable in that it was led by women and thus the narrative was driven by women themselves. This was a grassroots campaign that was spontaneously created and grew from the ground up, and all of this was facilitated by the Internet, which is a forum more democratic to women in societies where the access to conventional forums are limited.

The issue of democratic access to the public sphere in Russia is not comparable to the access that prevails in countries such as the US and Canada and in much of the rest of Europe. Political rallies and protests of many kinds have been restricted in Russia since 2012, and under such conditions the fact that the #IamNotScaredToSpeak campaign was able to spread throughout Russia was a surprise in and of itself. The #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign should thus not be viewed as just Russia’s #MeToo moment, but as a mass political protest that would not have been possible without the forums provided on the Internet.

Social media users have been emboldened in the years following this campaign to more actively use their accounts to express their opinions, and cases of femicide and domestic violence now appear on Russian social media forums. In the beginning of 2018, social media users in Russia started the campaign #этонеповодубить [#Thisisnotthereasontokill] expressing their hostility with the attitude propagated by mass media outlets to the murder of a young woman by her ex-boyfriend. The young woman in question had been deemed by the mass media to have been immodest in some of the social media photos that she had posted.

Although the social media protest of 2017–2018 brought attention to various cases of domestic violence, it did not bring changes on the government level, but slowly the issue that used to be a taboo topic now had garnered the attention of the mass media. At the end of 2018, the Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia, Tatyana Moskalkova, called the law on the decriminalization of domestic violence a mistake and called for the adoption of another law, one that counteracted domestic violence. Human right activist Alena Popova stated that more than 400,000 people signed the petition demanding the acceptance of the law against domestic violence, and she hopes to make Russian deputies accept the law in 2019.

Another example of how social media users can make a difference can be through their reactions to sexist and misogynist advertisements, which have started to become more visible in Russia. Russian media is Moscow driven, but one particular advertisement by the DNS electronics store in the far-eastern city of Vladivostok released on February 23 of 2018 (which is Men’s Day in Russia) stimulated a national discussion. The store was trying to make fun of the gifts (socks and shaving foam) that men are often given on this day by women. In an online video on the company’s website (DNS.RU), a man drives his wife, tied up in the trunk of his car, into the woods and then, after letting her out, forces her to dig a grave for her gifts into which he then tosses her “bad presents”. At the end of the video it turns out that all this was in the imagination of the woman who had bought her husband socks for the holiday. The woman, after such contemplation, tosses the gifts she had already bought and then proceeds to go to her local DNS electronics store for a “good gift”. As she does this, the voice behind the camera welcomes her decision with the slogan: “Men’s gifts without the risk to life.” Users of social media networks did not appreciate the video, and they accused DNS of sexism and for normalizing violence against women, as well as for its offensive attitude to both women and men. Negative evaluations of the company followed on Facebook (now its average rating is two stars out of five) pressuring the CEO of the retail chain in Moscow to officially apologize and to remove the video from their website.

The company subsequently tried to repair their image by making a similar video for Women’s Day (March 8) wherein the woman takes her husband to the woods in search of the presents that were buried. This precedent demonstrates how the reputation of a company might suffer from such sexist commercials, and Russian society is generally becoming more sensitive with regard to such advertisements.

Social media platforms have become the democratic platforms for discussing such difficult issues as sexism (which still provokes waves of hate speech reaction), but at least some campaigns initiated on these platforms have provoked public debate. However, in Russia social media users did not join Alyssa Milano’s call to join the #MeToo movement. Does this indicate that Russian society is not a part of the global fight against sexual harassment and violence against women?

The #MeToo movement in Russia

Searching the Russian segment of Facebook using only “#MeToo” as the search term returns only a few dozen results, and those posts, generally speaking, are not #MeToo posts, but #IamNotScaredToSpeak posts with the addition of the #MeToo hashtag. How can we understand this? Why did Russian social media users not actively join the #MeToo movement?

There are a number of reasons for this. First, the #MeToo movement was not embraced in Russia because Russia already had its own homegrown #MeToo-style movement, so instead of #MeToo hitting Russia hard it only reinforced an already prevailing debate. Another factor concerns the geographical and cultural origins of #IAmNotScaredToSpeak and #MeToo. This explains how #IAmNotScaredToSpeak spread even further afield in the former Soviet sphere as well, crossing over into Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. This indicates that former Soviet entities continue to be connected to a significant degree. One especially relevant example of this concerns Kazakhstan. Dina Smailova, a resident of Kazakhstan, decided to share her story by creating the hashtag #НеМолчиKZ
(#Don’tKeepYourSilenceKhazakhstan) and utilizing it in conjunction with “#IAmNotScaredToSpeak. This campaign was soon after followed up by its initiator with the creation of an organization providing assistance to victims of sexual violence (#Don’tKeepYourSilenceKhazakhstan). In 2017 Dina Smailova was invited as a speaker to a high-level event launching the EU-UN Spotlight initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. It is noteworthy here as well that Google’s MeToo Rising map recognizes Kazakhstan and gives links to articles about
#НеМолчиKZ without recognizing the Russian #IAmNotScaredToSpeak movement, even though the latter influenced the creation of the former.

The above connectedness is related not just to the fact that the countries mentioned above were all part of the Soviet Union, but to the continued importance that the Russian language has for the post-Soviet community through which they were connected. Moreover, Russian remains one of the six primary languages of the UN, and the forum provided by the Russian language is large. Russian ranks high in the world’s flow of translated materials, and on the Internet the Russian language ranks 9thin terms of presence. Thus, whereas many countries of the world communicate through English, countries of the former Soviet Union do so through Russian (including on social media).

The aforementioned factors separate Russia from the rest of the world to some extent because its surrounding environs are still connected by the Russian language. “Hollywood values” are regularly castigated in Russia as well, so campaigns originating from the US (especially with political aspects) will be viewed more suspiciously than something from a culturally and linguistically related country such as Ukraine. In addition, Russia traditionally sees itself in opposition to the West. There is an ongoing debate as to whether Russia is even a part of Western civilization, a subject that has been heavily discussed by Russian writers since the 19th century. This societal otherness, or distance from the West, is thus a crucial factor for why Russian women did not embrace the #MeToo movement.

The formation of new narratives: #MeToo and Russia

These factors do not mean that Russia skipped the global movement against gender-based violence. The public debate initiated by #IAmNotScaredToSpeak developed along with the #MeToo movement, and Russian audiences had the chance to follow #MeToo because it was discussed in various traditional media outlets. Interestingly, a number of Russian media outlets not only compared #MeToo and #IAmNotScaredToSpeak, but sometimes even referred to #MeToo as the American version of #IAmNotScaredToSpeak.

One aspect of the Russian #IAmNotScaredToSpeak movement that did differentiate it from #MeToo was that it did not concern men in powerful public positions, at least not before the #MeToo moment itself. This is how the #MeToo campaign influenced Russia, but this influence was limited to its effect in reinforcing the #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign as opposed to giving life to #MeToo in Russia.

This could be seen beginning in 2018 when some men of note in Russian society began to be accused of sexual assault. The most prominent person thusly accused was Russian State Duma deputy Leonid Slutsky (Duma is the name of Russia’s parliament). This accusation was made by three journalists, and a call by other journalists for an investigation followed. Later, in response, “State Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party Leonid Slutsky congratulated women on his Facebook on the occasion of March 8. He then apologized to those to whom he had caused ‘any unpleasant feelings’.”

The subsequent investigation by the Russian Duma Ethics Commission, however, found (March 21, 2018) no wrong doing by the accused. An unprecedented action followed: “More than 20 media outlets in one form or another supported the boycott of the State Duma and the LDPR deputy Leonid Slutsky personally.” The editorial staff of Lenta.ru, one of the leading Russian online news publications with 100 million monthly visitors, also said that it was joining the Slutsky boycott: “All materials about the deputy that do not concern harassment charges will be removed.”

Leonid Slutsky remains a deputy in the Russian Duma, but this episode suggests that the discourse regarding sexual harassment in Russia is starting to evolve, and perhaps how a more recent case is resolved will provide some indication as to what path this evolution might take.

This most recent case began in January of 2019 (in the author of this article’s hometown of Vladivostok) when a journalist (Ekaterina Fedorova) accused the co-founder (Alexey Migunov) of Prima Media of rape. Prima Media is a Russian media holding group consisting of a network of regional news agencies of the Far East, Siberia, and southern Russia with 2 million monthly visits to their online website.

This case garnered wide coverage from Russian media in Moscow as well (including, among others, Echo Moscow, Wonderzine, Meduza, Svoboda.org, and Yandex News). Migunov then initiated a legal case against Fedorova who, in a subsequent interview, stated:

I was very scared to publish the post. Before [I did]this, I talked to my father. He asked: “Are you sure?” I replied: “Yes.” He supported me, and it gave me a little strength. I did not expect that history would be learned outside of Vladivostok, and I certainly didn’t think that Migunov would sue me. But a couple of days after its publication, the national media began to write about me. The accusations began to pour in: people wrote that I was “a journalist from the Western paid media” and that my story was a provocation from the West.

Fedorova’s words about Western conspiracy theories refer to the common Russian stereotype of feminism’s attempt to break the silence around issues of sexual assault as something coming from the West. On the other hand, such an active reaction of mainstream media outlets suggests that this issue has started to become part of the active discourse in Russia. However, like in the case of Slutsky, there is a danger of negative repercussions. As Fedorova noted in her interview:

[Migunov] filed a lawsuit against me for the protection of his honor, dignity, and business reputation. If he wins and I have to pay him a large sum before the end of my life, that would be only half the problem. This will create a precedent. Men will understand that it is possible to sue a woman who has accused them of violence. They will be able to say: “Just try to utter a word, and I will do like Migunov.”

Ekaterina Fedorova is not just a journalist. In 2017 she created a supportive workshop group for women by the name of “Feminologi”, which is a project devoted to problems that are relevant for everyone but that are often not spoken about out loud. Initially, “Feminologi” was conceived as a support group that would hold events organized for women and would protect their interests. The name of the project refers to monologue, a feminine monologue. In Vladivostok the first open evening of “Feminologi” was held in a local bar on July 27, 2017. The motivation for having publicly accused Migunov, Fedorova noted, was her way of standing up for other victims of sexual abuse in the spirit of the “Feminologi” project.

Conclusion

One might argue that the #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign
has not been as successful as #MeToo because it has not led to similar results such as the latter movement has had in some Western countries. Google’s MeToo Rising map does not recognize Russia as a part of the global the #MeToo movement or the #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign that preceded #MeToo. Nevertheless, an article on CBC News by Chris Brown, written in reaction to the scandal with the deputy Slutsky, suggests that there is hope for Russia:

The #MeToo movement has struggled to gain traction in Russia, but a couple of modest victories offer women some hope that the hostility faced by those who complain about sexual harassment might be ebbing ever so slightly.

Brown, in addition, quotes Ekaterina Kotrikadze, who now works at a Russian-language TV station in New York, and who was one of four women accusing Slutsky of sexual harassment: “In Canada, a limited apology like Slutsky’s wouldn’t help a politician save his job, but in Russia it amounts to progress.” Kotrikadze then acknowledged that for Russia it was still a success, as the title of the article itself suggested: “#MeToo scores modest win in Russia.” It would have been more correct, however, were it to have read, “#MeToo helps #IAmNotScaredToSpeak to remain at the forefront of Russian discourse.”

The #IAmNotScaredToSpeak campaign, which began in 2016, was denigrated by many, predicting that it would die out rather quickly. The campaign, however, has remained a part of the discourse in Russia. Several media outlets have expressed solidarity with women, and the previously taboo topic of sexual harassment is now regularly and publicly discussed and debated. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is connected to the origin of the campaign. #MeToo was greatly spurred by the involvement of celebrities. The #IAmNotScaredToSpeak was more spontaneously driven in comparison and was driven by regular people in various places throughout Russia.

This suggests that, despite few public successes, i.e. as seen by Google’s MeToo Rising map and media attention in the West, the groundswell initiated by Anastasia Melnychenko’s initial call for “women to speak today” remains a force within Russia as individual Russian women continue to declare, “I am not scared to speak!”

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