Russia’s second #metoo moment lays bare the fractures of ‘liberal’ society

The Bell

Meduza editorial staff, editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov seated on the right

Disclaimer: Meduza is one of The Bell’s competitors. While some employees at the two outlets are friends, the author of this analysis is not directly acquainted with anyone referenced.

What happened

Russian society is muddling through its second sexual harassment scandal of the #metoo era: this time in its small — but influential — independent media industry. The accused is the editor-in-chief of Meduza, Russia’s largest independent news operation and a passionate advocate for women’s rights. After a series of unfortunate attempts to manage the situation, the editor eventually resigned. The incident was a gift for Russia’s state propaganda machine, but also triggered a heated debate over the media’s moral authority.

  • According to Meduza’s own account, at the company’s annual corporate party on October 20, editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov “became intoxicated and groped the buttocks of an employee’s wife”, telling her: “You’re the only one at this party I can harass and get away with it.” Kolpakov says he doesn’t remember the incident, but the husband of the woman involved (according to sources he was Meduza’s head web developer) reported the incident two days later and demanded action be taken. As a result, Kolpakov was suspended and Meduza, realising they couldn’t stop leaks to the media, made a public statement. Two weeks later, the company’s board of directors announced that Kolpakov’s suspension was sufficient punishment — and he was reinstated. But when it emerged that the husband of the woman involved, apparently unhappy with the outcome, had quit, the public pressure on Meduza became too much. This Friday, Kolpakov announced his resignation, though he denied the harassment accusations and blamed the public for “destroying” what he had built.
  • The events at Meduza are the second sexual harassment scandal in Russian since the emergence of #metoo. The first saw accusations of harassment made earlier this year by female journalists against influential lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, leading to a boycott of the Russian parliament by media outlets, including Meduza. But the incidents are not very similar: society has different expectations of an editor-in-chief at a private news outlet and a parliamentary deputy; Slutsky’s behaviour was systematic, whereas in Kolpakov’s case, Meduza says there was just one incident; and Slutsky is alleged to have seriously harassed the women, while Kolpakov’s actions could be construed as a stupid joke. Nevertheless, the revelations about Kolpakov led to a wave of gloating by state-owned media and upset parts of liberal society.
  • It doesn’t take a genius to realise that alcohol-fueled corporate parties with similar sexual harassment are common in Russia. But it has never before provoked such widespread discussion. The resonance of the public accusations is explained by two factors: the outreach of the global #metoo movement and the whiff of hypocrisy. Since its creation in 2014, Meduza has claimed the a role as moral arbiter that most other Russian quality media outlets abandoned. Moreover, last year Meduza hired the former editor of Russia’s leading feminist publication, Wonderzine, with — as Kolpakov said at the time — the specific goal of strengthening the focus on gender equality. During the Slutsky scandal, Meduza published an editorial calling for his resignation.
  • After Meduza’s board of directors announced Kolpakov’s reinstatement, he had been believed to escape lightly because of his importance for the company and his personal relationship with Meduza founder and CEO Galina Timchenko. She described him this week as “one of the most important and dearest people” in her life and “the best editor in our country.”

Why the world should care

The complex reaction of Russia’s intelligentsia to this tussle at the country’s most popular independent media outlet reveals the extent of divisions over #metoo. We have written in the past that Russian officials can only nominally be divided into liberal and conservative camps: the Meduza scandal shows that the same is true for Russian society as a whole.

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