As the U.S. reels from sexual harassment scandals, Russia asks: What's the big deal?

As the U.S. reels from sexual harassment scandals, Russia asks: What's the big deal?

Many Russians are having a good chuckle these days at the state of Western society as the long list of sexual violence and harassment claims against prominent American men grows by the day.

The notion that there's something shamefully wrong, misogynistic or potentially criminal about a man exerting his wealth or power over women has struck many Russians as a big "so what."

And in many cases, those gaffawing the loudest are Russian women.

Take actress Lyubov Tolkalina, a 39-year-old veteran of stage and screen who spoke to the online news site Medusa.

"If you get the role, what does it matter what you had to do to get it?" she's quoted as saying.

"How can you actually blame a man for sexual harassment?" she continued.

"Isn't that why he was created in the first place? If he has power that he uses this way, that's fine."

Object of mockery

Another Russian actress, 32-year-old Agniya Kuznetsova, chimed in with a blame-the-victim sentiment.

In reference to the scores of Hollywood actresses who've come forward with allegations against film directors and producers, she's quoted as telling Medusa "they got what they wanted."

"And actresses here [in Russia]," she continued, "are happy to agree to all sorts of propositions."

On late-night Russian TV, the topic of sexual harassment has become a popular object of mockery.

One comedy show that focuses on current affairs on Channel One, a widely viewed network, recently featured four men sitting around a coffee table yucking it up over the day's newspaper headlines.

"It's become trendy to hide it for a long time," said one comedian of the women who've come forward with allegations of unwanted sexual attention.

"It's trendier to admit it," replied his friend to chortles of laughter from the others.

"I admit it. I sexually harassed myself. I invited myself to my room. Now I'm asking for an apology," he said to more howls of laughter.

Social superiority

From actresses to comedians to Kremlin propagandists, Russians have seized on the continuing stream of sexual harassment revelations as an example of what they consider their social and cultural superiority.

Dmitry Kiselyov, the Kremlin-friendly host of a highly watched Sunday night talk show, recently suggested the parade of women coming forward with allegations against famous men represents "an explosive mix of political correctness" and "hypocrisy."

At the same time, he asserted that Russia demonstrates the most "harmonious relations between the sexes."

One of Russia's best-known film directors put the issue of sexual harassment another way.

"I actually think the whole world has been built on it," said Andrei Konchalovsky, director of Hollywood hits such as Runaway Train and Tango and Cash.

"Men must make passes and women must resist.

"Thank God," he concluded, "we live in a country where political correctness has not reached the point of absurdity."

Advocate disgusted

If there's any absurdity, Alena Popova would argue it's that Russia lags decades behind Europe and North America with neanderthal-like views on sexual harassment.

She's a women's rights advocate — a rare breed in Russia, where there are few champions for the cause.

"The reaction was awful," she told CBC News in an interview. "In our country, many think harassment is normal."

Popova, a former journalist who's written extensively on the issue of violence against women and operates a non-profit advocacy group in Moscow, has been using her blog to try to underscore that unwanted sexualized behaviour is not normal or acceptable.

"In domestic violence and harassment," she wrote recently, "one of the main problems is shame and fear of what happened."

Millions of Russian women, she continued, silently tolerate being mistreated and it can completely destroy their lives.

Weak legislation

In January, when Russia passed a new law reducing the penalties men face for assaulting their wives or partners, Popova waged a one-woman crusade outside the Duma, or parliament, camping out in the freezing cold to try to stop the legislation.

She was unsuccessful. Now in Russia, a man found guilty of domestic violence usually gets off with a warning. It takes a second conviction to face any sort of jail time.

"Statements to police and public censure of the aggressors are signs of a healthy society dealing with the problem," Popova said of what's been happening in the United States, the U.K. and Canada.

"But in Russia, we have the opposite situation."

Popova says many of the comments people write on her blog leave her exasperated.

'Don't live this life'

After one recent entry, a male writer dismissed the idea that unwanted sexual attention is harmful: "I know many cases where the solicitation continued and people eventually started a relationship that would be comfortable for both."

Another added: "Male testosterone is 20-30 times that of women. You don't like the way life is created? So don't live this life."

"I think it's abnormal if people think there is no sexual violence or sexual harassment," said Popov.

Overall, Russia's Interior Ministry reports that the rate of domestic violence is growing.

The Anna Centre, a non-governmental agency that operates a women's help hotline, reports that more than 49,000 Russian women were victims of domestic violence in 2016 — up from 31,000 in 2014.

The group's founder, Marina Piskalova-Parker, says it is very rare for a woman to use their confidential phone line to report sexual harassment because most have come to believe nothing will be done about it.

"In our society, sexual harassment is widely misunderstood. It's largely mistaken for flirting and compliments," she told CBC News.

"And when women complain, they are blamed for either wanting more or blackmailing a man."

Popova, the women's advocate, thinks "we are just at the beginning of a long road."

"It's in our culture and we need to change it."