Last year, Regina Todorenko, a Ukrainian-born pop star and host of a popular TV travel program was voted Woman of the Year by readers of Russian Glamour.
Last week, she was stripped of that title by the magazine, after a televised interview in which she appeared to blame women for violence inflicted upon them by their partners.
Toderenko apologized, saying she was opposed to all domestic violence and had used an “incorrect formulation.” The controversy was the latest reminder of how Russia and Ukraine continue to grapple with the fallout of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault of women that spread across the world beginning in 2017.
Long a subject in Russia considered suited for behind closed doors, domestic violence has gained new public attention in recent years, fueled by a new generation of women pushing back against many male-dominated norms in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
The #MeToo movement, which emerged from several major journalism investigations in the United States in 2017, further inspired activists to publicize, and shame, men in powerful positions in Russia.
Among those who faced public allegations of harassment or abuse were Leonid Slutsky, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament; and Stanislav Govorukhin, a top film director.
But efforts to raise awareness of the problem have often run up against a backlash from conservative politicians, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church. The same holds true for legislation: Russian lawmakers largely decriminalized domestic violence in 2017, and conservatives and the church have beat back efforts to reverse that legislation ever since.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in sweeping lockdown orders in Moscow and other major Russian cities, has resulted in uptick in calls to domestic-violence hotlines, according to the newspaper RBK.
For many women in Russia and Ukraine, Todorenko was a symbol of a younger, influential public figure who espoused progressive values. A native of the Black Sea port of Odesa, Toderenko began to rise to prominence in 2014 as the presenter on a Russian-language travel program called Heads Or Tails. A year later, she recorded a hit pop song called Heart’s Beating.
Her blogging, and social-media posts, earned millions of followers for her Instagram account, and media rankings put her among the top 10 influencers among Russian-language Instagrammers.
In December 2019, readers of Glamour magazine’s Russian edition voted her Woman of the Year.
On April 23, Todorenko participated in a video interview with Laura Dzhugelia, a founder of Peopletalk, a celebrity news outlet. Seated alongside her husband, Vlad Topalov, Todorenko mused out loud about why women would talk publicly about spousal or domestic abuse.
“You need to be such a psychologically ill person, yes, who goes before a camera and says ‘God, my husband is beating me,’” Todorenko said. “What are you doing? What is going on in your brain then?”
“Then comes the critical moment. ‘My husband beats me.’ But why didn’t you think about it? And what did you do to prevent him from beating you?” she asked. “What did you do to make him hit you?"
The reaction was fierce.
“What kind of an example are the publications that make her films and the brands that collaborate with her setting when they give her awards?” a woman named Katya Fedorova wrote in a post to Facebook. “Don’t you feel sorry for all these girls who will then…think that being beaten means love, and [they are] to blame?”
By April 25, Glamour’s Russia edition put out a statement decrying Todorenko’s comments, and saying she would be stripped of her title as Woman of the Year.
“Glamour categorically does not support Regina’s position. We want to emphasize that we are against violence of any kind, including bullying,” the magazine’s editorial board said in a post to Instagram.
Later on April 25, Todorenko took to her own Instagram account to apologize.
“Dear friends, I want to apologize for my incorrect formulation regarding domestic violence,” she said. “Once again, I want to emphasize that I am against domestic violence, and any violence in general.”
In a subsequent post, she said she did not understand the scale of the problem of domestic violence but that in previous days, she had received "thousands of stories from real women."
"Yes, I stumbled and made a mistake. But I am grateful that my stupid language has become a trigger that helped tens of thousands of women speak out," she wrote.
Other commentators responded online with laments that Russian society had changed little over the past three decades, and women are still judged -- by consumer brands, by advertisers, by media -- as merely appendages to a marriage.
"Thirty years have passed, and little has changed in our society. We still judge the success of a woman by having a man. I know that we are not you. But advertisers and big companies -- yes. They all need a sweet picture...a couple, wedding rings on their hands, a child playing three musical instruments, " another woman, Anna Sedokova, wrote in her post to Instagram