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Supermodel Vodianova Ignites Firestorm After Russian Cafe Boots Disabled Sister

Russian supermodel and philanthropist Natalia Vodianova at a 2008 press conference in Novosibirsk.

Supermodel Natalia Vodianova has ignited a firestorm of discussion about the rights of the disabled in her native Russia after her autistic sister was kicked out of a Nizhny Novgorod cafe by the owner, who allegedly accused her of scaring customers away.

In an August 12 Facebook post, Vodianova wrote that her 27-year-old sister Oksana, who has been diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy, and Oksana's caretaker stopped at the cafe the previous day to seek respite from the heat.

After the caretaker ordered a snack for Oksana, Vodianova wrote, the owner of the cafe approached the two women and told them: "Why don’t you leave? You’re scaring away all of our customers. Go get medical help for you and your child. And then go out in public."

While Vodianova’s mother was on the way to the cafe to intervene, a security guard threatened to "call the crazy house" and "lock you in the cellar" if the two women did not leave the premises, she wrote.

After her mother left the cafe with Oksana and the caretaker, they were confronted by police who told them they were being "detained for minor hooliganism," wrote Vodianova, 33, who runs charities aimed at helping underprivileged and disabled children in Russia.

But the federal Investigative Committee said on August 13 that it has opened an investigation and that the cafe director and guards could face prosecution on charges of "insulting human dignity," a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

"Without any legal reason, the cafe director not only asked the unwelcome guests to leave the establishment but called for support from employees of a private security firm," Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement.

He said the director and his "loyal guards" had "rudely violated legislation protecting human rights."

Russian authorities "will always respond instantaneously to such unlawfulness and use every opportunity to hold culprits criminally responsible so that others would not even think of doing the same," Markin said.

A local police spokesperson had earlier been quoted by Interfax as saying that “both participants in the conflict filed complaints against one another.” But it was clear from Markin's statement that neither Vodianova's mother nor Oksana's caretaker would face prosecution.

Vodianaova's Facebook post surged through social media and traditional news outlets in Russia, where rights activists say disabled people continue to face numerous obstacles to societal integration.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said that people with disabilities people in Russia consistently encounter discrimination by employers, poor health care, and inadequate opportunities for education.

In a report last year, HRW said the Russian government had made some progress in efforts to help disabled children but that more needed to be done.

As RFE/RL reported at the time, the HRW report found "that nearly 30 percent of all Russian children with disabilities are removed from their parents and live in state orphanages, where they face neglect and sometimes violence."

"In Russia, when a child is born with a disability, parents face pressure from doctors to give their children up. Children end up in orphanages, where they may face serious abuse and neglect," said the report’s author, Andrea Mazzarino.

The Paris-based Vodianova, a regular on billboards and fashion-magazine covers who has modeled for iconic global brands like Calvin Klein and Gucci, told the U.S. magazine Glamour that her mother refused to give Oksana up and that she pursued a modeling career to help provide for her struggling family.

Vodianova's account of the incident at the Nizhny Novgorod cafe was shared more than 13,000 times and garnered more than 34,000 likes on Facebook within hours after it was posted on August 12.

She said she decided to go public with the incident because "this is not an isolated case."

"Unfortunately, this is the reality experienced by all families raising children with special needs," she wrote. "It's difficult for me to discuss this, but I understand that this is an alarm bell for society that must be heard."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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