Sofia Rusova was a young political journalist in a provincial Russian city when a lawmaker pursued her with sexual text messages, staked her out and even assaulted her near her apartment.
“I was in shock and for some time I couldn’t walk the streets alone,” she says.
But she knew from prior experience that police would not react and most of her colleagues did not take the situation seriously.
“Some people who heard my story saw it as a funny adventure and told me I should be happy to be an object of such interest,” she says. In the end, she asked her father to confront the lawmaker and the pressure subsided.
Rusova’s story is typical in Russia, where sexual harassment is seen as a joke rather than a problem, even as the #MeToo movement sweeps across western countries.
In an unprecedented recent case, three women publicly accused senior lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of kissing and groping them.
They were accused of undermining his career for political reasons and being anti-Russian.
“You tried to force kisses on me, to touch me, you were rude and pushy,” one of the women, Daria Zhuk, said in a video appeal to Slutsky last week. “You still deny it?”
“Are you not ashamed to be working in parliament and stoop to such low behaviour?” said Zhuk, who works as a producer for independent Dozhd channel and said the incident occurred when Slutsky came to the studio for an interview.
– ‘Russian Harvey Weinstein’ –
Zhuk and two female reporters first made the allegations against Slutsky anonymously in February. He labelled them a political attack ordered by his enemies and even said the scandal “boosted my gravitas rather than took it away.”
“Attempts to make Slutsky into a Russian Harvey Weinstein look like a cheap and crude provocation… and are bound to fail,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
He proceeded to joke with his colleagues in the comments about dividing up female journalists, as another MP suggested he could also “take a couple”.
“We’ll discuss,” Slutsky replied.
Fellow lawmaker Anton Morozov went as far as to say the women were actors in a conspiracy. “Perhaps Russian journalists received an order from the West to compromise him,” he told Meduza news website.
Most female members of the Duma also lashed out at Slutsky’s accusers.
Oksana Pushkina, the only lawmaker who stepped up in the journalists’ defence, said fellow female lawmakers warned her that attempting to fight sexual harassment would harm Russia’s already low birth rate.
“It’s a catastrophe that we speak in such terms,” she told AFP.
Pushkina has proposed a bill on sexual harassment that would “make men control their hands and their emotions” in the work environment, but so far she has seen no support from her colleagues.
“I was told it would take me 15 years to make this law a reality,” she said.
– ‘Nowhere to go’ –
Women’s rights were in theory at the centre of the early Soviet project and International Women’s Day, March 8, remains a public holiday in Russia.
But in reality the main change to most women’s lives in the USSR was that they were expected to have a job as well as run a home.
In recent years those rights have suffered additional blows as the government extols conservative views on gender roles and labels feminism a hostile Western trend.
Punishment for domestic abuse was softened last year, for example, with most abusers now only paying a fine and facing no time in custody.
Even cases of rape rarely make it to trial, said Pushkina. “Sexual harassment cases all fall apart at the stage of a complaint.”
President Vladimir Putin, who has led the country for almost two decades, is certainly no feminist.
In 2006 he appeared to praise the sexual stamina of Israel ex-president Moshe Katsav who was subsequently forced to resign over rape accusations.
“What a powerful guy he turned out to be! Raped ten women! I didn’t expect that, he surprised us all! We all envy him!” Putin was quoted as saying at the time by Kommersant newspaper.
“Chances are, nothing will happen to Slutsky and he will keep his mandate,” said Alyona Popova, who heads feminist association The W Project.
Rusova was also pessimistic. “People will take the side of the person of authority, because our society is such that it is easier to blame the woman,” she said.
“When you find yourself in this situation, you have nowhere to go.”