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Sexism, harassment, and dating the faculty The controversy behind a student’s report on sexual misconduct at Moscow State University

Source: Meduza
The first building of Moscow State University's Humanities Faculty
The first building of Moscow State University's Humanities Faculty
Ekaterina Bykova / Shutterstock.com

An article from the student outlet Doxa about harassment in Moscow State University’s (MGU) Philology Faculty has been the subject of widespread and contentious discussion online. Against the backdrop of its publication, one faculty member has resigned — a professor from the Russian language department, Sergey Knyazev. Nevertheless, the faculty’s leadership has refused to investigate the situation. Meanwhile, one female student has begun to receive threats from teachers because of her activism, and some people have found errors in Doxa’s reporting. One of the report's main figures claims that its author never even contacted her directly. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova breaks down the Doxa report and the controversy it has inspired. 

How the philology faculty reacted to Doxa’s publication

On May 7, 2020, the student outlet Doxa released a series of reports about problems with sexual harassment, and the ethics of relationships between students and faculty members. They also published a poem written by a student from the Higher School of Economics (HSE) Humanities Faculty, titled “The Higher School of Erections Closes for Quarantine.” The poem professes to “accumulate her personal experiences of harassment at the university,” as well as the experiences of others.

The next day, Doxa published an article by Ekaterina Zapletina, a graduate of MGU’s philology faculty, in which she spoke with students and graduates of the faculty “about sexism, harassment, and romantic relationships with the faculty.” Zapletina’s text came out after the end of April, when Daria Varakina, a student from the history faculty, revealed that she had faced harassment from the ethnology department head, Dmitry Funk. Regardless of the fact that this story was published in the media and on social networks, “the MGU history faculty did not take steps to resolve the conflict,” Zapletina wrote. 

The main figures in Doxa’s text are mostly graduates, and not current philology students. Anonymously, they recount facing harassment from faculty members in different years. In the article, it says that one instructor kissed female students in front of everyone. Another invited a female student to his dacha to meet his father, but as a result they ended up having sex. The last names of the faculty members are not included in the text, but the end of the article includes a note stating that these names are at the disposal of Doxa’s editors and they are able to provide them to MGU’s leadership, with the permission of their sources.

Without waiting for an official response to their report, Doxa published an open letter from undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and graduates of MGU on May 13. They called on the university leadership to develop mechanisms for protecting students from harassment, as well as the formation of a commission that will “make decisions on difficult cases.” The letter’s authors said that sexual relations between students and faculty members had become “a frequent and even common practice within the walls of the university.” “[Male and female students] are vulnerable to the problem of harassment from faculty members: instructors often allow themselves to make ambiguous hints, violate personal space, [and] flirt with students, which definitely oversteps the boundaries of academic ethics. To us, this seems unacceptable,” the letter says. 

Discussion about the letter continued on Facebook. That same day, a faculty member from MGU’s philology faculty, Tamara Teperik, published a post stating that she is against harassment and that “evil should be punished, but it should also be proven!” In the comments, one of the authors behind the open letter, philology student Maria Loboyko (nicknamed Masha) noted that she is personally dealing with stories and conversations with victims: “Can you imagine how difficult it is for victims of violence and abuse to talk about something, when it’s all over the news that [what] they need from her is names, names, names? This is not a story about department meetings. This is a story about trauma.” 

Another MGU philology faculty member, Tatyana Mikhailova, also joined the discussion: “A girl can always give the brush-off and not put herself in an ambiguous position. Admittedly, these Masha Loboykos cause squeamishness. We have a harassment problem to the same extent that there has always been everywhere, and, I hope, always will be.” In response to a request from Loboyko not to mangle her name, Mikhailova replied: “Masha, in the meantime I found a lot about you on the faculty’s website. I wrote your last name correctly, so it’s not clear what was mangled. I also learned about the department. 28th diploma defense?” 

Doxa soon published a defense of Maria Lobyoko on its website: “For the last three days Masha has received threats from instructors in her faculty: they hinted at potential problems for Masha, who is graduating from the philology faculty this year, with finishing university.” 

The philology faculty’s student council conducted its own survey about harassment among students. Of the 104 participants in the survey, 11 respondents said that they had been victims of harassment from faculty members. The student council noted that they also received 28 stories about harassment. 

Professor Sergey Knyazev’s resignation

On May 14, a professor from the Russian language department of MGU’s philology faculty, Sergey Knyazev, announced on Facebook that he was preparing to resign from the university, following students’ complaints about sexual abuse and harassment. “I want to say that I had relations with students,” Knyazev wrote. “I always thought that they were voluntary. I never deliberately used my official position for any purpose, in particular, I did not use it to coerce [...] I am very, very, very, sorry if my actions lead to someone suffering. I am truly sorry and do apologize.” 

Knyazev’s post gained roughly 700 likes; his supporters included students and graduates, as well as colleagues “You are leaving on your own for nothing. In these cases, stay until the end, since you are not guilty of anything. And it so happens that the authors have seen that they are a force and can blackmail the staff with any absurd accusations. On top of the fact that the [philology faculty] lost one of its best teachers, of course,” commented Alexey Kasyan, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAN) Institute of Linguistics. On his own Facebook page, he added that he thinks the story about harassment at MGU’s philology faculty is “made up...by the feminist Maria Loboyko.” 

On May 15, a new open letter appeared from students and faculty members — this time in support of Knyazev. It says that “the course of the discussion shows that there is no consensus in Russian academic circles regarding whether romantic relationships between faculty and students are acceptable or unacceptable, provided there is informed, mutual consent.” And that Knyazev is, “literally, one of the most important specialists on Russian phonetics and dialectology, as well as a teacher of the highest class.” “Depriving students of the opportunity to be his pupils, [to communicate] with him scientifically and academically, would be an irreparable loss for linguistic education at Moscow University.”

The letter also says that Knyazev’s resignation “will not resolve the problems stated in [Doxa’s] publication and the [open] letter at all.” “Building a consensus, agreeing on the boundaries of [what is] acceptable and unacceptable is only possible in the framework of a dialogue among all of the interested parties,” it said. “S.V. Knyazev’s leaving is the worst start for this kind of dialogue between sides that disagree with each other.” 

That same day, the philology faculty’s acting dean, Andrey Lipgart, told RIA Novosti that the faculty will not be carrying out any inquiries, so far as “this was a conversation between adults, simply exaggerating something from nothing, someone needs the hype.” Commenting on Knyazev’s resignation, Lipgart said that “there is no reason [for it] whatsoever in [Knyazev’s] confessions, just an intelligent person deciding to lighten his soul, it says there that nothing happened under duress.” “If someone raises a complaint this is decided in court. Therefore, how can there be inquiries?” 

The philology faculty’s former dean, Marina Remneva, also told RIA Novosti just about the same thing: “While I was dean nobody complained about any harassment [...] Sexual harassment is not possible here because, pardon me, we have no boys. And [as for] what the faculty are doing there — we have 60+ [female] teachers.” 

The only government agency that expressed any kind of concern about the situation was the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (also known as “Minobrnauki”), which stated that “the ministry knows about the appearance of the open letter from MGU students, but it is necessary to deal with each specific case.” Minobrnauki’s press service also said that “such cases overstep the boundaries of academic ethics, are damaging to the quality of education, the university’s reputation, and the education system as a whole.” 

The criticism being directed towards Doxa 

Soon after the publication of Doxa’s report on harassment, philology student Anastasia Pogarskaya spoke out. Identifying herself and Professor Sergey Knyazev in the text, she said he never suggested that she “take a candy out of his jeans pocket” (this phrase was used in the title of the report). Here is the excerpt from the text in full: “Once he was grading my classmate’s exam and for a long time didn’t want to give her a mark. After several hours, once she had clearly gotten nervous, he said for her not to worry and to take a candy from the front pocket of his jeans.”

In response, the author of the report, Ekaterina Zapletina, said that she was quoting a fourth-year philology student on an incident that happened to her classmate. At the time of publication, the author “did not know who exactly that phrase was used in relation to, other than the fact that it was another student.” However, she thought the most important thing was “to mention this situation, since it reflects the feelings of [female] students and the climate within the faculty.” Zapletina notes that the girl who told this story had saved an audio message from Anastasia Pogarskaya, “in which she describes her feelings from the situation differently than in the recently distributed post — including claiming that the offer to ‘take a candy’ took place and that it had sexual connotations.” 

Later, screenshots appeared on social media of correspondence between Zapletina and one of the main figures from the text (without revealing her name), in which the source complains that she did not give permission for her story to be published. Zapletina responded and said that they were talking about “the story with the trip to the dacha.” “I was talking with the source prior to publication, explaining that I was writing material about harassment and romantic relationships between faculty members and students. She gave comments to me, which were used in the preliminary version of the report. However, immediately after publication the source spoke with me and asked me to delete it.”

That same day, a video appeared on Facebook. Its author, Daria Shafrina, also said that she did not give Doxa permission to publish her story. In the video, she explains that she was recently in contact with her former classmate, Ekaterina Zapletina, who said that she was writing an article about harassment. She allegedly asked if Shafrina remembers her relationship with an instructor from the philology faculty, who she was in love with and “shed tears” over. Shafrina replied that she remembers, and underscored that it was not Knyazev. “You went somewhere with him,” Zapletina said. “Yes, I went. It’s my personal business where I went with him,” Daria says, repeating her own words. “And you don’t want to comment on this in terms of harassment?” Zapletina allegedly asked. “No, I don’t want to, because there was no harassment. How can I comment on something that [didn’t happen]?” Shafrina says in the video.

Shafrina also supported professor Knyazev. “Absolute gallantry, tact, and remarkable lack of interest in me. After all, he could have made a move [...] But he didn’t do it. And you know why? Well, because he is a sane person.”

That evening, Doxa issued an apology for the errors in its report, changed its title, and deleted several sections. 

How the discussion around the Doxa article is developing

Regardless of the errors in the text, many academics and social activists spoke out in support of Doxa and the outlet’s work.

Sergey Volkov, a graduate of the MGU philology faculty and now an instructor in the Higher Schools of Economics Philology Department, wrote that in the past, if he had been asked if he was subject to violence or bullying during his childhood, he would have said no. Only now “approaching the half-century mark,” has he recognized that this took place. “I understand [this] not because I became smarter, but because the world around [me] is identifying and naming these things. The world grew into this. Important work is being done now [so that] someone else will not have to live with [this] sticky and painful ambiguity later on.” In Volkov’s opinion, “naming, clarification, and processing is taking place” in the discussion in recent days: “People are beginning to recognize where they stand — or, if they don’t recognize [this], they are letting others see this point.” 

According to Olga Nikolaenko, an employee at Moscow’s Letovo School, “All sides are interested in the appearance of some kind of mechanism for regulating these types of issues — the teaching staff no less so than the feminist student movement.” Nikolaenko thinks that the lack of regulation leads to a false, “all-or-nothing,” situation: either the instructor stays and the university implicitly acknowledges what’s happening as the order of the day (which is wrong), or the instructor leaves forever. 

“I by no means think that a person who has relations with their female/male student is by default a bad person or a ‘pariah.’ Many quite rightly wrote that yes, we are talking about changing the norm. Yes, we are talking about not only the responsibility of the teacher, but also the responsibility of the university, which has never spelled out any rules," she says.

On the negative side, Nikolaenko writes that because of the confusion between roles, it’s difficult to talk about voluntariness when it comes to relationships between faculty members and students. “To brush-off an equal is not a problem, brushing-off someone who has authority over you is difficult and unpleasant. Putting students in this position is wrong [...] and even if ‘he simply offered [and] she simply refused,’ after that it’s horribly unpleasant, for example, to sit an exam or wait for a course assessment, or anything else.”

Story by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Eilish Hart