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The dark side of World Cup fun in Russia: Online mobs are bullying women getting ‘too friendly’ with foreigners

Fans from abroad are talking selfies with Russian women near the Red Square // Screencapped from CBC News by Runet Echo

Despite the grim predictions, the World Cup in Russia has stunned even the most skeptical of observers. Social media posts and newspaper columns are praising not just the event's superb organization, but its genuinely festive atmosphere, with thousands of ordinary Russians celebrating together with guests from across the globe, geopolitical tensions be damned.

The revelry hasn't been strictly platonic. In fact, tongues are wagging over just how cosy Russians might be getting with adrenaline- and booze-fueled crowds of foreign fans.

But discussion surrounding the matter in Russia has gone far beyond simple observations or generalized scandal; instead, it has focused heavily on condemning the behavior of Russian women — so much so that pages on Vkontakte, the largest domestic social network, have sprung up with the specific purpose of naming and shaming “Natashas”, a derogatory slur for Russian women who go out with foreigners.

There’s a Vkontakte public [page] where guys are uploading pictures and videos of girls having fun with foreigners (yes, that includes having sex with them too) and then subject[ing] them to mob bullying and harassment. [Senior Russian lawmaker] Pletnyova’s mission is alive and well. It’s going to be a fun and jolly New Year. Our Motherland never disappoints.

The tweet refers to a highly controversial comment made on the eve of the World Cup’s opening game by Tamara Pletnyova, a lawmaker in the Russian parliament. Pletnyova, who heads the parliamentary committee for children’s, women’s and family affairs, infamously discouraged Russian women from engaging in mixed-race sexual relations with foreign visitors.

One of the most notorious and popular Vkontakte pages, at almost 5,000 subscribers, is called Buceta Rosa — a reference to an incident in which a crowd of Brazilian fans surrounded a Russian TV presenter and goaded the unsuspecting woman into chanting an obscene song with them. This caused an enormous scandal in Brazil itself, with many commenters saying they were ashamed of their compatriots and denouncing the prank as both sexist and racist.

Vkontakte’s administration has already reprimanded the Buceta Rosa page owners, forcing them to moderate comments which often consist of nothing but verbal abuse and threats against the women in photographs parsed from social media. However, even with the comments being more tightly policed, Buceta Rosa is still online and quickly gaining new users, especially after local media reports about it.

Similar online operations have also sprung up. Videos have surfaced of vigilantes harassing and even physically assaulting Russian women walking the streets of Moscow in the company of foreign men. BBC Russian talked to some of the victims: one respondent saw her selfie with a Brazilian fan reposted by a neo-Nazi Vkontakte page, after which she said she started receiving rape and murder threats. She is reportedly so traumatized by the incident that she is considering getting psychological assistance to deal with its effects.

The debate is now raging on a national level. Moskovsky Komsomolets, a Soviet-era tabloid and one of the most popular daily newspapers in Russia, published an op-ed titled “The age of sluts: why Russian women are a disgrace to themselves and the country.”

The author argued that the promiscuity displayed in the presence of thousands of overseas guests was symbolic of a general moral collapse in Russia:

Можно сказать, что тут за них стыдно. Но, боюсь, слово «стыд» тут будет выглядеть атавизмом. Это чувство многим российским девицам неведомо в принципе. Говорить о нем — все равно что цитировать исламскому радикалу Нагорную проповедь. У российских девиц, окучивающих иностранцев, понятия стыда, морали, нравственности напрочь вычеркнуты из сознания.

We could say that we are ashamed for them. But, I’m afraid, the word ‘shame’ here is hopelessly anachronistic. The feeling is strange to many Russian young ladies. To shame them is the same as preaching the Sermon on the Mount to an Islamic radical. These Russian ladies cavorting with foreigners are utterly devoid of any shame, morals or virtues.

The article — at the time of writing read by almost half a million people — caused an enormous backlash online and sparked a Change.org petition demanding that the paper pulls the op-ed and apologize. Wonderzine, a feminist online outlet, pointed out a larger, sexist media trend:

Мы привыкли слышать, что русские женщины — «самые красивые», а их внешность представляет отдельный предмет «национальной гордости». К сожалению, за комплиментарными словами прячется убеждение, что тело россиянки принадлежит не ей, а её стране. Незадачливые женщины просто забыли об этом на время мундиаля и решили, что могут проводить время с иностранцами где и когда пожелают, не отчитываясь перед родиной. Но медиа, даже либеральные, распорядились иначе: «Радио „Свобода“» выпустило документальный фильм о том, как россиянки разыскивают иностранных болельщиков, а «Чемпионат» пошёл «клеить иностранцев с русскими красавицами». Успехи российских мужчин среди иностранок остались незамеченными.

We are used to hearing that Russian women are ‘the most beautiful’ and their physical appearance is a ‘public treasure’. Unfortunately, these compliments conceal an attitude where a Russian woman’s body does not belong to herself, but rather to her country. Some hapless women simply forgot to keep this in mind for the duration of the World Cup and thought it was up to them to choose whether to spend time in the company of a foreigner, whenever and wherever they felt like without neglecting their duty to the Motherland. But many media, including some liberal outlets, had a different agenda. Radio Liberty published an online documentary about Russian women courting foreign fans, while Championat.ru went ‘foreign fan-hunting with Russian beauties’. Russian men’s similar adventures among foreign women went unnoticed.

Zalina Marshenkulova, a prominent journalist and feminist activist, also pointed out the discrepancy between the treatment of men and women:

I don’t understand this obsessive aggression against girls going out with foreigners. Guys, no one’s keeping you from flirting with other foreign men and women, right? No one’s calling you freaks for it and all

Others have pushed back against shaming of women. Yuri Dud, a sports journalist, blogger, and the host of his eponymous, wildly popular online talk show, wrote an op-ed on sports.ru, one of the oldest sport news websites in Russia, of which he is the editor. He expressed disgust at the outpouring of hate in the comments under his Instagram photo of two fans — a Russian woman in a traditional dress and a Mexican man in a sombrero — holding hands.

Cosmopolitan Russia’s website also wrote a sharp rebuke to Moskovsky Komsomolets’s article and called out the “double standard” of women's treatment in Russia:

Но вернемся к сексу: мы уже много раз писали о «двойных стандартах» в нашем обществе. Мужчина, часто меняющий партнерш, — «жеребец», женщина в такой же ситуации — «шлюха». Для мужчин открывают курсы пикаперов, где учат «снимать давалок на один раз», — для женщин открывают секс-тренинги, где учат глубокому минету и объясняют, что анальный секс можно и потерпеть, раз мужчине это нужно (то, что это ему прямо жизненно необходимо, даже не подвергается сомнению). Женщина, ставшая жертвой изнасилования, — шлюха и сама виновата. Мужчина в той же ситуации — практически национальная святыня: после трагической истории с изнасилованием задержанного бутылкой из-под шампанского прошло уже семь лет, но ее до сих пор вспоминают как страшное, нечеловечески жестокое преступление против личности. И это совершенно правильно. Вот только изнасилованным и даже убитым женщинам такого отношения не полагается. Вспомним хотя бы жуткую историю смерти Тани Страховой и реакцию общества на нее.

But let’s get back to the sex: we’ve often wrote about the ‘double standards’ in our society. A man juggling sexual partners is a ‘stud’ while a woman in a similar situation is a ‘slut’. Men are offered pick-up lessons where they can learn such skills as ‘tapping ass for a one-night stand’ while women are taught to do deep throat and anal which is worth the pain as long as your man wants it (that this is his basic need to have it isn’t even disputed). A rape victim has only herself to blame because she’s a slut. A man in a similar situation is almost a national saint. It’s been seven years since the tragic death of a man who, while in police custody, was sodomized with a champagne bottle, but it’s still remembered as a horrific crime against humanity, as it should be. But women who are raped and even murdered aren’t considered worthy of the same attitude. The grim story of Tanya Strakhova’s death [a young woman strangled to death and raped post mortem by an ex-boyfriend who then killed himself, with the sympathies of thousands of Russian online users strongly on his side] and the society's reaction to it is a testament to that.

The World Cup euphoria will fade in a few weeks, but hard questions about women's rights in Russia are still lingering.

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