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‘Uneducated trash mothers’ Russian celebrity becomes public enemy after criticizing poor people for reproducing

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Korobeinikov / TASS

TV host Alena Vodonaeva wrote a handful of posts on Instagram about Russia’s demography. Her remarks didn’t go over well and led to a scandal that’s lasted more than a month, even drawing comments from President Putin.

On December 25, model, actor, and television host Alena Vodonaeva wrote a long, emotional post on Instagram where she reacted to news from the Samara region about local officials asking private health clinics to refuse abortion services. “Unfortunately, we live in an impoverished and greedy country, and if you’re not sure you can provide yourself and your child with knowledge, medicine, food, and clothing, then you simply don’t need to give birth,” Vodonaeva explained.

Continuing her thought, Vodonaeva noted that children in Russia today are generally, “for the most part,” born to either rich people or “uneducated trash.” “I despise families who live in poverty and have three or four children. Why [do they do it]? How are they going to raise them? On money saved from government benefits paid out to large families? Or are they waiting until some mayor sees a story about their hard life on some local talk show and decides to gift them a newly constructed apartment?” she added.

In mid-January, Vodonaeva let loose another Instagram post, this time criticizing the state’s program to support birth rates and maternity. “The demography problem isn’t the size of the family subsidies but Russians’ standard of living. This million and change risks disaster for future generations if impoverished Russians or the trash who never have enough for the next bottle of vodka start making babies just for this million [rubles],” said Vodonaeva.

Vodonaeva’s posts on social media provoked sharp criticism from politicians and media pundits. Her remarks were discussed on the state television networks Rossiya 1 and Pervyi Kanal. Politicians like LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and State Duma deputy Natalia Poklonskaya, as well as TV host Vladimir Solovyov and actor Ivan Okhlobystin, condemned her comments about “trash” and having children just for welfare payments. (Okhlobystin, who’s known for his conservative, often homophobic, political views, also called Vodonaeva a “prostitute.”) The state news agency RIA Novosti alone has published roughly 30 reports about the scandal.

By January 18, the issue even reached Vladimir Putin, who didn't name Vodonaeva explicitly when he denounced the “immoral monsters” who oppose public support for families with children. A few days later, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin declared that Vodonaeva’s remarks about maternity should result in a fine for violating Russia’s law against insulting society. “She offended people, she offended our citizens and even labeled them with a certain status, this shameless woman. Therefore not only do we need to talk about this, but we also need to propose solutions that will reduce the stimulation of such conversations,” explained Volodin.

For her part, Vodonaeva has refused to recant her comments. Throughout the public controversy, moreover, she’s responded regularly to her critics. “Honorable deputies, I advise you to start with your own ranks. First, let the Milonovs and Vlasovs and Skabeevas and Okhlobystins pay for what they’ve said. Let’s not forget Olga Gladskikh, who said as a state official that “the government never asked you to have kids. Make sure to fine her, too,” Vodonaeva wrote on her Telegram channel in response to Speaker Volodin. In an interview with YouTuber Irina Shikhman, she later added that she’s become disappointed in the Russian authorities generally and in President Putin personally. 

Police are now investigating Vodonaeva’s Instagram account and she faces felony prosecution for inciting hatred. Vodonaeva told Meduza that she refuses to delete the posts.

On February 10, journalists learned that law enforcement has launched a preliminary inquiry into Vodonaeva’s Instagram posts. “Vodonaeva was summoned for questioning at Moscow’s Tagansky district police department. Officers are interested in [her] publication about abortions and demography, which she published on Instagram. A related preliminary review is underway,” a source in the police told the news agency TASS

On February 11, Vodonaeva’s lawyer, Ekaterina Gordon, told Meduza that it’s still unclear who exactly filed the police report. Gordon suspects this person’s identity and other case details will come to light on the evening of February 13, when police will question Vodonaeva again. “Right now, we don’t even know the charges they’re trying to bring against Alena. It’s probably Article 282, but that’s just our guess,” says Gordon.

Vodonaeva’s lawyer says it’s not yet a foregone conclusion that the police inquiry will lead to a criminal investigation. “But Article 282 is often used to rein in those who get out of line. And clearly there have been well-known incidents where criminal cases were launched from nothing, and they started extremism or ethnic-hatred incitement inquires based on certain statements. All these criminal codes are basically political, in fact. If we see that this is part of a felony case and some kind of far-fetched ideas or pressure against Alena, we’ll work together publicly to defend against it. If necessary, we’ll order a linguistic analysis. It’s clear to any reasonable person that this was just Alena Vodonaeva’s opinion, which is her right,” Gordon says.

Speaking to Meduza, Vodonaeva said she’s been told that the police report was filed in response to her post about abortions, which she published first. She says she doesn’t understand the public’s fascination with her posts on social media: “I’ve read various entertaining theories that [officials] ‘at the top’ themselves don’t understand how this happened; that I’m a [Mikhail] Khodorkovsky ‘project’ and that’s why they’re ‘thrashing’ me; that I’m distracting the public from important amendments to the Constitution; and so on. But the only thing that I’ve really noticed is how the propagandists have obviously lost. Their methods didn’t work. I say this because I’ve never before received so many words of support as I’m getting now.”

Vodonaeva stressed that she has no plans to delete or edit her posts on social media. “I reached some personal conclusions about word choice in the future, but the attention from the police has nothing to do with this. And it doesn’t concern the essence of my posts so much as the form,” she explained.

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Story by Pavel Merzlikin and Petr Lokhov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock