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'I'm Not Afraid': Online Revelations Of Sexual Violence Spark Debate In Russia

  • Robert Coalson

The I'm Not Afraid To Speak initiative has produced a potentially far-ranging discussion in Russia that goes to the roots of child-rearing and public culture both in Soviet times and in post-Soviet Russia.

The I'm Not Afraid To Speak initiative has produced a potentially far-ranging discussion in Russia that goes to the roots of child-rearing and public culture both in Soviet times and in post-Soviet Russia.

An online outpouring of accounts by women who have suffered sexual violence has provoked a far-ranging, stormy debate in Russia -- and the authorities seem intent on quashing the discussion.

On July 13, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church urged Russians not to participate in the initiative, which has brought an issue often kept under wraps out into the open in an unprecedented way, and instead to turn to the church for consolation.

"The church is not just a community of people who praise God," spokesman Dmitry Roshchin said. "It is a way of viewing the world that has answers to all the questions of human life."

The online phenomenon began on July 5, when Ukrainian journalist and activist Anastasia Melnychenko posted about the sexual harassment and violence she has endured since the age of six using Russian- and Ukrainian-language hashtags meaning "I'm not afraid to speak" (#яНеБоюсьСказать #яНеБоюсьСказати). Since then, thousands of women in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries have posted their own heart-rending accounts.

"The purpose of this action," Melnychenko told RFE/RL's Russian Service, "is to change public opinion and form new norms under which it's not covered up with silence and victims are not blamed. I hope this action will grow into something more."

Immediately, the women's posts prompted varied responses from men.

"I have two daughters and I am in shock from what I am reading," wrote Ivan Sipko on Facebook. "I simply didn't know. Now I am afraid for them."

"Before this tag appeared, I did not know that women so regularly endured gender violence," wrote Ukrainian Ruslan Smeshchuk. "Although I do think I have seen various dark sides of life. For this reason, this project is very useful."

Other reactions were less sympathetic and more aggressive.

"What is the point of speaking about all this now on Facebook," wrote a Facebook user named Jaroslav Francisko. "Is it supposed to make you feel better?"

"There's no need to read and write about this," wrote another, Nikolay Markov.

Official Hostility

Although there has been very little coverage of this Internet phenomenon in Russian state media, there are signs that the ruling elite there agrees with Markov. State news agency RIA Novosti ran an opinion piece that, although it included links and texts of many of the posts of sexual-violence victims, was headlined: Women Hate Men And Are Talking About It Openly.

The Kremlin-friendly Vzglyad newspaper ran a commentary on July 8 that denounced the initiative as "yet another attempt to globalize Russia, to shake our criteria of good and evil, to move Russian society in the direct of 'correct' tolerance," author Pyotr Akopov wrote. "It is symbolic that it all began in Ukraine."

"Thank God the majority of Russians understand what this is leading to and will not be taken in by the Internet manipulations of those who don't care about either women or men," he added.

Bringing Together 'Two Hells'

Indeed, the I'm Not Afraid To Speak initiative has produced a potentially far-ranging discussion in Russia that goes to the roots of child-rearing and public culture both in Soviet times and in post-Soviet Russia.

Writing for the Russian version of Forbes, journalist Sergei Medvedev (who contributes to RFE/RL's Russian Service), said it brought together "two hells" -- "the women's hell of pain, fear, and incomprehension, and the hell of the cynicism found in the comments."

"This is not a 'war of the sexes' or a session of feminist propaganda," Medvedev wrote. "Society has not split between men and women or between perpetrators and victims. The division has formed between those who accept violence as a norm of social relations and those who reject it and are willing to speak against it."

Writing on Snob.ru, journalist Andrei Movchan compared the effort to reduce violence in society to an attempt to get rid of a mosquito infestation. It isn't enough to set up mosquito nets, he said -- "in both cases, you need to drain the swamp."

Independent journalist Ksenia Kirillova, who also contributes to RFE/RL's Russian Service, wrote on the Novy Region site that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is continuing the Soviet tradition of ignoring or sometimes encouraging low-level violence as a means of social control.

"Many [participants in the online initiative have told me about Soviet teachers who had the habit of publicly humiliating children of 'enemies of the people' and, later, the children of dissidents or religious believers," Kirillova wrote. "And little has changed in our time."

"The state is cultivating the image of the bully, unrestrained young men who are allowed to do whatever they want with any outsider with the full connivance of 'the grown-ups.'"

"Why are the Kremlin propagandists so alarmed when they see women baring the pain they have endured all their lives," Kirillova wrote. "Most likely they are afraid of this -- that sooner or later someone will notice that the roots of this violence go back to the school classroom, when from the beginning there is no development of the right to individuality, of elementary tolerance, of prioritizing respect for the personality.... Beaten women and raped girls are a side effect of the machines for the production of bullies. And these machines don't like it at all when the victims of violence begin to speak about themselves."

RFE/RL's Russian and Ukrainian services and Current Time television contributed to this report
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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