MOSCOW—For as long as anyone can remember, theater and movie directors, rich sponsors of art, dancing masters and acting coaches here in Russia have demanded sex from young actresses, ballerinas, and students in exchange for a part in a movie, a role in a play, or promotion in the ballet.
Indeed, this story is as old as Russian theater, and society has treated the issue as a routine, a commonplace, that nobody talked about and nobody would want to see brought to a noisy courtroom. In fact, modern Russia’s artists cannot remember a single famous sexual harassment lawsuit filed by an abused actress.
But the case of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in America is giving us a glimpse into this sordid world of our own. Since the scandal broke last week, Russian news outlets have quoted a Moscow-born actress, Viktoria Smirnoff, talking about Weinstein pushing her into the toilet in a room of Beverly Wilshire hotel.
“He pushes me in, locks the door and makes strange movements,” Smirnoff, who is based in London, wrote on her Facebook page. Then just as Weinstein was unzipping his pants, her boyfriend knocked at the door. “Harvey says: seems it’s not comfortable here, let’s go to my room,” Smirnoff didn't, but she did give a vivid account of her refusals and his persistence.
Neither the episode described by Smirnoff, nor stories told by Emily Nestor, Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, and other Hollywood celebrities about their ordeals with Weinstein surprised Russian artists.
“It took Hollywood actresses decades to make Weinstein’s behavior public, so it does not surprise me that in Russia actresses are quiet—they will disappear the day they talk,” Victor Shenderovich, a Russian dramatist and actor told The Daily Beast. “The fact that sexual harassment of young actresses by old directors with authority has become a norm, a routine, that nobody ever talks about is a catastrophe.”
Outside the world of art, violence against women is a common thing in Russia. To make matters worse, women as well as men often think of domestic violence as family business that should not become a state matter.
Last year’s Interior Ministry report said that, officially, 9,704 women and 4,947 children were victims of domestic violence. Very few Russian cities have shelters for battered women to escape from their abusive husbands or boyfriends. In a recent flashmob campaign on social media hundreds of women acknowledged publicly that they were rape victims.
But if in case of domestic violence activists push to enact more protections for women’s rights, Russian actresses and ballerinas prefer to mute the issue, and avoid making their painful stories public, as something shameful, dirty, or even as a betrayal of their artistic community.
The Daily Beast interviewed three Moscow theater and movie actresses—each one of whom was a victim of sexual harassment by well-known directors aged, respectively 62, 74, and 82.
Xenia remembered that during her second year at Moscow’s theatrical university she went for a job interview to the office of a famous director, whose name she preferred not to be mentioned in this article. The director was more than 40 years older than the student. “He closed the door and told me to take off all my clothes,” Xenia said. “I asked him what for, and he immediately kicked me out, grumpily yelling that he had no interest in actresses who ask questions instead of doing what they were told to do.”
Several of Moscow’s leading theater directors exchange parts in the plays they stage for time in bed. Those notorious for hitting on younger actresses become the butt of jokes, but not prosecutions: “How was your rehearsal?” one young actress asks her girlfriend. “It went well,” says the other,” but Iosif complained about my feet being too cold.”
Anna Pukhova, a Moscow-based actress, told The Daily Beast that in the beginning of her career she had been traumatized by two intimate offers, which she turned down, each time losing job opportunities. In both situations the directors were more than 30 years older than Anna.
“All my life, since school, I’ve heard that the bed opens doors in theater, but I refused to believe that such a disgraceful thing could be true,” said Pukhova, who is now a theater director herself. “There is always a chance to say ‘No,’” she says, but at the cost of losing a job or a place in the university program.
A few years ago the country’s biggest theater, the Bolshoi, the stage that most ballerinas and musicians consider “the cathedral of performing arts” was in the center of a disgraceful scandal.
Former Bolshoi prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova publicly painted life there as a bleak experience on one of the most popular Russian networks, NTV. Volochkova, 41, claimed that theater’s general director “turned Bolshoi into a giant brothel,” where ballerinas were forced to provide intimate services to the theater’s financial patrons.
Volochkova had serious reasons to criticize the theater. In 2003, the Bolshoi’s general director, Anatoly Iksanov fired her for becoming too fat. A decade later the ballerina told the country: “Girls are invited to take turns by the administrator, who explains that they are going to a party,
with dinner and a follow-up, in bed, and going all the way."
Later, when her accusations were republished widely, many accused Volochkova of spoiling the company’s reputation.
“To be honest with you, I don’t care about what they say or think of me,” Volochkova told The Daily Beast, admitting that during her career at the Bolshoi she attended such “gala nights” arranged for ballerinas and Russia’s richest men.
Members of the corps de ballet shared their fears with Volochkova, that if they refused to go to bed with oligarchs, the theater’s sponsors, they would lose their parts in ballets.
Her claim that the Bolshoi was a “brothel” may be too strong. Ballerinas could say no, and still keep their jobs. But a part of Volochkova’s story certainly was true. The Daily Beast spoke with ballerinas about particular after-performance parties that took place in London and Dubai. Just as with actresses, not all ballerinas agreed to have intimate relationships with their abusers, and one of the Bolshoi’s soloists, Anastasia, had to loudly send a Russian oligarch “to hell” at the London party—so loudly that everybody in the room could hear; and even after that she still had a job.
Most male theater directors believe that if actresses are victims of sexual abuse, that is the victims’ fault. For as long as there is such a stigma, Russian theater will be hiding the issue of sexual harassment, an embarrassing and ugly backdrop to the brilliance of the country’s performing arts.