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Russian women find their voice as #MeToo movement spreads

Russian journalist Daria Zhuk had just walked her guest into the newsroom when she felt a hand slap her backside....

Posted: Apr 12, 2018 1:12 PM
Updated: Apr 12, 2018 1:12 PM

Russian journalist Daria Zhuk had just walked her guest into the newsroom when she felt a hand slap her backside.

Horrified, Zhuk says, she turned to the guest, Russian parliamentarian Leonid Slutsky, who then lunged toward her for a kiss.

Zhuk, then 24, was in her second year working as a producer and guest editor at the Russian independent media outlet TV Dozhd.

"I remember the helpless feeling I had," Zhuk tells CNN about the incident she said happened in November 2014.

"Here's this big man residing over you. He's a show's guest. I didn't know how to react. I told him something for sure. Something like, 'what are you doing -- what is that?

"But I was not able to defend myself properly, probably because I was scared."

During the weeks leading up to the incident, Zhuk says she had fended off Slutsky's unwanted advances delivered by phone and text messages, but she never imagined that it would get physical in person.

Zhuk is one of three female journalists who have accused Slutsky, chairman of the State Duma's committee on foreign relations, of inappropriate behavior toward them. Slutsky has denied all allegations.

By going public with her story, Zhuk hopes the conversation around sexual harassment, which is not a punishable offense in Russia, might change.

In some ways that conversation is already shifting. Zhuk and her colleagues' MeToo moments have been met with support from many Russian media outlets - an unexpected show of solidarity in a country where outspoken discord is often silenced.

The producer had first met Slutsky when he was a guest on another show. Shortly after that meeting, he invited her out for dinner. She declined. After she invited him to speak on the network's political evening program in November, Slutsky continued to send messages to her in a "vulgar, dirty way," and threatened to pull out of the show until the very last minute.

She consistently rejected him "politely," emphasizing that the invitation to appear as a guest on the TV station's "Hard Day's Night" program was purely professional.

When Zhuk told a senior male colleague about the indecent messages, he responded that the member of parliament was kind of an "awful person," but the independent network, which had been partially banned by the State, wanted him on the program to boost ratings. Determined to keep the show running smoothly, Zhuk says she chose a tactic of non-reply with him.

Patriarchal norms

Zhuk immediately reported the incident in the newsroom to two male colleagues who escorted Slutsky out after the show finished.

Aleksandra Perepelova, acting editor-in-chief of TV Dhozd who was a producer there at the time of the alleged assault, tells CNN the outlet didn't invite the lawmaker back after that incident.

"We have just now started developing a good habit to speak up loudly and discuss such things," Perepelova adds.

For nearly four years, Zhuk never spoke publicly about it, as is the norm in Russia.

"There is no understanding of boundaries, the line between flirtation and unacceptable behavior, harassment and touching," she says.

And those messages are ingrained early.

"I've encountered these kinds of problems even when I was a child... when I was a little girl, big men used to come up to me on the street and make indecent proposals. So, since my childhood I'm used to this happening. It's awful, but it's happening."

On February 22, Zhuk anonymously detailed allegations against Slutsky in a report published by her employer, TV Dozhd.

Slutsky denied the allegations, writing on Facebook on February 23: "Attempts to make Slutsky into a Russian Harvey Weinstein look like a cheap and crude provocation ... and are bound to fail."

CNN has been unable to reach Slutsky for comment on this story.

A culture of quiet

Last month, Ekaterina Kotrikadze, now deputy chief editor of New York-based RTVI television, also broke her silence on Slutsky.

Seven years later and now living halfway across the world, she says the incident is still not easy to talk about.

Kotrikadze was 26 at the time and covering regional politics at a Georgian TV station when she arranged to interview Slutsky in Moscow. Kotrikadze says she was asked to come to the interview alone so that it could be off the record.

When she arrived in his office, Kotrikadze says, Slutsky assaulted her.

"There was no conversation. He pushed me to the wall right away -- he tried to kiss me and touch me. I was shocked and astonished, and pushed him back," she remembers.

"He told me I wouldn't be able to go outside of the building because he had to sign some papers to let me out. But I ran to his secretary and she signed the paper -- then I ran away."

Like Zhuk, Kotrikadze had never spoken about the incident publicly for years. She attributes that silence to a combination of fear and to living in a culturally conservative environment that she says blames and shames women.

She was also worried about her personal safety and what speaking out could do to her career.

"[Slutsky] is a powerful man and Russia is in a world where the men decide."

Women's rights in Russia lag well behind those of many other countries, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report. Russia ranks 121 out of 144 countries for political empowerment and is in 71st place overall on the 2017 report, which examines gender imbalances in economics, the workplace, education, politics and health.

Kotrikadze, now 34, works in the United States, where she has reported extensively on the MeToo movement.

Slutsky refuted the accusations on TV Dozhd's website, calling them a "a crude reception during the [presidential] election campaign," alluding to Kotrikadze's Georgian heritage.

"Odd that they couldn't find some Ukrainians or Americans to accuse me of this," he said.

Signals of solidarity

In the run-up to Russia's recent presidential elections, Zhuk, along with Slutsky's third accuser, Farida Rustamova a journalist at the BBC, submitted their complaints to the Duma's ethics committee.

They faced push-back from many lawmakers, including speaker of the Duma Vyacheslav Volodin, who on March 7 told journalists working in parliament to find other jobs if they thought it was dangerous to work there.

Slutsky has suggested that the women's allegations were part of a political smear campaign.

Anton Morozov, deputy of the Duma, responded to the allegations sarcastically, writing a salacious open message to Slutsky that read: "Mr. Slutsky, this is outrageous! Share some of this with the other members of the international affairs committee. I'm prepared to take a couple of journalist girls myself," according to a screenshot captured by Buzzfeed of the comment posted to Slutsky's Facebook page.

On March 21, the Duma's ethics committee cleared Slutsky of multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Zhuk and Kotrikadze weren't surprised by the result and were concerned by the language the committee used, which branded them liars.

In the wake of the decision, some 40 independent media outlets staged a boycott, pulling their reporters from the lower house of parliament.

In retaliation, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin revoked accreditation from the boycotting media outlets. President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has repeatedly dodged questions on the matter.

In late March, speaking to students at a Moscow University, Peskov compared Harvey Weinstein's accusers to prostitutes, and questioned the Russian journalists' intentions in coming forward so late after their alleged encounters with Slutsky, RFE/RL reported.

Many Russian lawmakers continue to tow the Kremlin's line, but some have taken to discrediting the allegations in the form of personal attacks on the women.

After Slutsky was absolved of all of the charges the three women had launched against him, Raisa Karmazina, a member of parliament who sits on the ethics committee, said in an interview: "I was three hundred times more beautiful than them! And smarter than them! I've been working for 50 years...since I was 18. No one ever harassed me."

Surprising camaraderie

Zhuk and Kotrikadze don't expect attitudes to sexual harassment to change overnight -- but they do welcome the support, which they say continues to grow in unexpected ways.

Odnoklassniki, one of Russia's biggest social networks, has supported the media boycott -- even a bar located across from the Duma said it wouldn't serve Slutsky or members of parliament supporting him, donning a banner that read "Guys, you are not welcome till you change," on its doors.

And in an act of surprising solidarity, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova also accused Slutsky of indecent behavior: "Leonid [Slutsky] started saying things...that I found very unpleasant."

Last week, a group of protesters planned a single-picket demonstration outside the Duma with women taking turns standing alone next to a cardboard cutout of Slutsky that read: "I don't get handy. Well, maybe a bit," a reference to his comments after Rustamova, from the BBC, accused Slutsky of groping her.

Authorities quickly shut it down, saying the protesters didn't have the approval to demonstrate. In Russia, applications for rallies, protests or public events must be filed and approved by authorities.

Organizers say they plan to continue demonstrating with single-person protests until they get permission to hold a mass rally.

Displays of support are also happening discreetly.

Kotrikadze says she has received messages of support from female colleagues who work at state-run media. She says they can't boycott or speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

And Zhuk has received surprising messages too: some former high-level officials have written to her in support.

In Russia traditional values hold firm and the MeToo movement has largely been written off as a foreign conceit. But maybe Russians will look back at the Slutsky allegations as the beginning of a change.

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