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Russia’s most progressive media outlet finds itself on the wrong side of #MeToo

Ivan Kolpakov, ex-editor in chief of Meduza, who stepped down after harassment allegations // Ivan Kolpakov's profile image on Facebook

“You’re the only person at this party I can harass and get away with it.”

Ivan Kolpakov, editor-in-chief of Russian investigative news site Meduza, uttered these words as he grabbed a colleague's wife by the backside at a staff party.

In late October 2018, Galina Timchenko, the founder and publisher of Meduza, posted a message on her Facebook page saying that Kolpakov had been accused of inappropriate behavior at a staff party and stepped down pending further inquiry by Meduza’s board of directors.

The scene described above was soon in the news, thanks to leaks from the newsroom and investigations by other media outlets, along with Meduza’s own statements on social media. It sent shock waves throughout the Russian media industry.

Meduza is a Russian-language news outlet based in the neighboring Latvia where it was founded by the former editorial team of Lenta.ru, a once independent news website that in 2014 suffered a hostile takeover by a Kremlin-loyal publisher. Having set up base close to its target audience in Russia but far enough out of reach of the Kremlin’s censors, Meduza quickly became one of Russia’s most popular online news sources.

It also has the reputation of a rare champion of liberal values, publishing bold editorials condemning sexual harassment and leading a media boycott against a powerful lawmaker accused of groping women reporters in the halls of the Russian parliament.

But Meduza’s own progressive credentials came under a fierce attack as its own sexual harassment scandal unfolded, and the groping incident from the staff party became public knowledge. When the woman’s husband, who works at Meduza as a software developer, complained to the management, Kolpakov apologized to her and her spouse and stepped down as the publication’s editor — for two weeks.

He formally censured by the board of directors, and then reinstated. Meduza’s management deemed his actions inappropriate, but inconsistent with previous behavior and not grave enough for complete dismissal.

Ugly details kept piling up. One leak outed both the woman and her husband, despite their clear reluctance to be at the center of a public scandal. When Meduza’s management reinstated Kolpakov, the victim’s husband resigned in protest as Meduza’s software developer.

Soon thereafter, it was revealed that Meduza, with its vocally progressive editorial line, didn’t even have an anti-harassment policy in place.

A few supporters came to Meduza and Kolpakov’s defence, citing Meduza’s impeccable track record, calling Kolpakov a good friend and a great editor, regardless of his abusive behavior towards women.

Some downplayed the severity of the incident while others blamed the victim’s husband for not “dealing with Kolpakov like a proper man should have,” instead of making the scandal public and undermining his own publication. The tribalism of these statements caused yet more indignation:

Meduza’s statements and the outpouring of support caused a furor on social media, with loyalists pro-Kremlin outlets and commentators cheekily pointing out the hypocrisy of Meduza’s flawed liberal agenda and their failure to practice what they preach.

Many Russian feminists joined in the outrage. One, Nika Vodwood, wrote on Facebook:

Что-ж, Иван Колпаков сказал, что ему «за это ничего не будет» — так и случилось. Мир все то же говно, мудаки все так же без каких-либо последствий домогаются до женщин, и их жалеют, поздравляют и покрывают. Медуза — лицемерное говно, и никакие «прогрессивные» материалы не помогут это отмыть. Очень сочувствую сотрудницам издания и всем женщинам, которые лишний раз увидели, что что-то говорить бесполезно. В общем-то, я испытала это на практике сама, когда до меня домогался начальник (он все ещё начальник, а я уволилась в большой степени из-за этого). Ничего не меняется. Спасибо, Медуза.

Well, Ivan Kolpakov said that he’d “get away with it” — and so he did. The world is crap, assholes can still harass women with no consequences, they will be comforted, congratulated and their actions covered up. Meduza is hypocritical crap, and no “progressive” editorializing can make up for it. My heart goes out to their female employees and all the women who have learned yet another lesson: it’s pointless to speak out. I myself have suffered through the same in practice, when my superior harassed me (he’s still the boss and I had to resign largely because of it.) Nothing changes. Thank you, Meduza.

Adding more fuel to the fire, a short promotional video for Sol’ (Salt), a magazine in Kolpakov’s native town of Perm, surfaced on YouTube. In the 23-second clip, Kolpakov is shown chasing women down the street and pulling up their skirts. The video immediately was immediately removed from YouTube, citing nudity violations, but was quickly re-uploaded to other social media. What probably looked like a fun idea for a viral ad at the time dealt another major blow to Kolpakov’s reputation.

On November 8, Meduza’s English website put out a neutral, balanced recap of the events which included a few critical comments — and triggered yet another wave of consternation, as the flagship Russian website had been totally silent about the harassment scandal in its ranks up to that point. The recap piece had yet to appear in Russian as of November 9.

Many found the fact that Meduza chose to publish the piece in English first — a move clearly intended to address its relatively small foreign audience — disrespectful of its Russian readers. Others pointed out that the piece lacked some critical (and self-incriminating) details.

Finally, on Friday November 9, Kolpakov announced his resignation in a news story on Meduza’s Russian site — but it was too little, too late. The announcement quoted Kolpakov as saying: “This is the only way of neutralizing the crisis that’s engulfed the editorial team and minimizing the reputational damage.”

The news story made no mention of the nature of the allegations against Kolpakov. In a subsequent Facebook post Kolpakov appeared even less repentant and more confrontational. He said:

С этой минуты я не главный редактор «Медузы».

Я ухожу, потому что не вижу иного выхода. Потому что так будет лучше для «Медузы».

Все же позволю себе сказать, как я это чувствую. Я ухожу, потому что мне больно видеть, как вы уничтожаете то, что я строил. Потому что мне противна несправедливость. Потому что не все, что сломалось, нужно обязательно чинить.

По поводу так называемого инцидента. Я категорически отказываюсь признавать обвинения в харассменте и сексуальных домогательствах. Но я оказался в ситуации, когда невозможно и бессмысленно себя защищать. Впрочем, об этом как-нибудь в другой раз.

Effective immediately, I am no longer Meduza’s chief editor.

I’m quitting because I can see no other way out of this. Because it’s better for Meduza.

Let me finally say what I feel about this. I’m quitting because it’s painful to see you destroy what I’ve been building. Because I detest injustice. Because you don’t have to fix everything that’s broken.

Now, in regards to the so-called incident. I categorically refuse to accept the allegations of harassment and sexual impropriety. But I’m in a situation where defending oneself is impossible and pointless. But I’ll get there one day.

Kolpakov also added that he wasn’t leaving Meduza altogether, but will still be working with the publication in some non-managerial capacity. Not only did he refuse to accept responsibility for his alleged behavior, he also contradicted his own earlier Facebook statement where he admitted to an “ugly escapade” and “hurting an employee’s wife” while extremely drunk. RT Russian’s Twitter account snarkily noted:

Under Kolpakov’s [Facebook] post, where he denies the allegations of sexual harassment, his followers are asking him: why say sorry [in an earlier post] then?
Why indeed.

Sergey Elkin, a popular cartoonist, offered a satirical take on Meduza’s failure to live up to its own progressive standards:

okay, this is the end

The scandal has left Russia’s fragile independent media scene shattered, bitter and more factionalized than ever. In a pyrrhic victory for Russia’s #metoo movement, one of its biggest supporters has become the first-ever man to publicly resign over sexual assault accusations in Russia.

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