Dispatch

Russians Don’t Understand Why Anyone Is Upset With ‘Girl Crazy’ Weinstein

In Putin’s Russia, discussion of sexual harassment and domestic violence are largely taboo.

Recording artist Taylor Swift, musician Este Haim, actress Jaime King, producer Harvey Weinstein, and recording artist Lorde attend The Weinstein Company and Netflix's 2015 Golden Globes After Party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Angela Weiss/Getty Images)
Recording artist Taylor Swift, musician Este Haim, actress Jaime King, producer Harvey Weinstein, and recording artist Lorde attend The Weinstein Company and Netflix's 2015 Golden Globes After Party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California. (Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — As the number of women alleging sexual assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein continues to mount, there is one country where the public doesn’t seem to believe the claims: Russia.

Never one for subtleties, especially if the United States is involved, Russia has reacted to the scandal erupting across America and Europe with a mixture of incredulity and bemusement.

Raising her hand to her mouth in a show of embarrassment, the Russian contestant for next month’s “Miss Universe” pageant, Ksenia Alexandrova, told reporters that Russia would never experience anything like it, thanks to President Vladimir Putin. The beauty queen didn’t elaborate on how the Russian leader would manage this. Russia’s “Miss World” candidate Polina Popova agreed, chiming in last week: “Everything depends on how a woman behaves around a man. You need to keep your distance, and everything will turn out fine.”

In Putin’s Russia, women’s issues have been sacrificed amid a rising wave of conservatism, coinciding with the spread of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church. Putin decriminalized certain aspects of domestic violence in February, and an anti-abortion debate is gaining traction. Just over a decade ago, Putin himself was caught making light of sexual assault with then-Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who was accused — and later convicted — of raping an employee. (The Kremlin later said Putin was making a joke that was lost in translation).

When it comes to Russia’s deeply patriarchal society, both sides of the political spectrum have gone after the victims in the Weinstein scandal, where dozens of female celebrities are accusing the media mogul of a litany of sexual misconduct, from unwanted advances to rape. They include A-list names such as Angelina Jolie and Rose McGowan, who are well known to Russian audiences.

“Why did you stay quiet all of these years?” TV Rain’s Mikhail Kozyrev asked of the women who claim Weinstein sexually harassed and abused them. “What prevented you at that moment from taking a step back to say, ‘I will never work with this person,’ or ‘Danger!’” said Kozyrev, whose channel is the country’s only form of independent television. (TV Rain is also the channel that recently broadcast an interview with a member of the infamous “Russian Troll Farm,” which allegedly was involved in trying to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Among other revelations, Russian trolls working there were required to watch “House of Cards.”)

Life, a pro-Kremlin tabloid site and television channel that has been covering the story with much enthusiasm, described Weinstein — whose name is transliterated into Russian as ‘Vainshtein’, a common Russian Jewish surname — in deferential and vindicatory terms, calling him a “sex machine” who is just “girl crazy.”

On major state broadcaster Channel 1, host Ivan Urgant opened his late-night talk show last week with the Weinstein revelations. “So it seems that in American show business, you can sleep your way in,” Urgant joked to his on-set audience. “It’s not like that here,” he said, before adding in jest that a male security guard in their TV tower once offered him entry to the building in return for sexual favors.

While the Weinstein scandal is raising questions about rape culture across the globe, and forcing other sections of the media, including journalism, to examine its own behavior, Russia has avoided such self-exploration. Issues of sexual harassment and domestic violence are largely taboo in Russia, though both are widespread, campaigners say.

But Russia’s nascent feminist movement has condemned the victim-blaming in the Weinstein affair. Addressing the “Miss Universe” contestant who thanked Putin for keeping Russia free from such scandal, women’s rights campaigner Alena Popova said talking about sexual harassment was a sign of a healthy society. “Perhaps you’re thanking the authorities because we have women who stay silent about harassment, because they’re told they’re at fault,” she wrote sarcastically on her Facebook page.

Popova — who is not related to the “Miss World” contestant of the same name — also pointed out that by law, Russia currently has few effective legal protections for women who are harassed at work.

There could also be a political element to Russia’s resistance to looking itself in the mirror, said film producer Victoria Smirnoff, the only Russian woman who has publicly accused Weinstein of making unwanted advances on her. Smirnoff, now 43 and living in Switzerland, said Weinstein pushed her into the bathroom of her hotel suite in the early 2000s in Beverly Hills, where he fidgeted with the zipper of his pants. The incident didn’t go further as her boyfriend saw something was amiss and knocked on the door.

She laughs it off now, saying she doesn’t consider herself a victim.

In an email exchange with Foreign Policy, she said that since writing about her experience on Friday, she has been inundated with Russian media requests but has refused to be interviewed by them, fearful they are seeking to sensationalize her case and distract attention from the country’s own woes.

“They won’t miss a chance to point fingers at America,” she wrote.

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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