‘Back then I was silent’ After suffering years of harassment in Russia’s entertainment industry, former pop star Zhenya Ogurtsova decided to speak out
In the late 2000s, Ranetki was one of the most popular pop-rock groups in Russia. Their concerts drew thousands of fans and an eponymous series based on their lives had a prime-time slot on the television network STS. But as their popularity gradually faded, Ranetki fell apart. In June 2021, one of the girl group’s original members, Zhenya Ogurtsova, published a memoir titled “Ranetki: A Winning Ticket to Hell.” In her book, Ogurtsova talks about the psychological pressure and harassment that she and her bandmates (who were minors at the time) were subjected to at the hands of various producers and other people from their “management team.” Other former Ranetki members have also confirmed that they suffered emotional and sexual abuse during that time. Meduza spoke with Zhenya Ogurtsova about the harassment the group members faced and why she decided to finally speak out about it.
After years of keeping quiet about the abuse she faced in the music industry, Zhenya Ogurtsova says stories she heard from other young women who worked with Ranetki’s former producers and managers motivated her to write her new memoir. “As it turned out, the situation there remained the same: the same violent actions, harassment, alcohol, jokes below the belt, and very lewd behavior toward girls,” she tells Meduza. “Each time I asked myself: am I to blame for this? Back then I was silent, now other girls are silent, and this horror continues. I needed to talk about it.”
Though she’s “a little afraid” to name names, Ogurtsova says that “big and influential people” in the industry (directors and producers specifically) put “severe emotional pressure” on the teenage members of the all-girl group. Fear of backlash from these powerful individuals almost stopped Ogurtsova from writing her book. “At one point I deleted everything and thought ‘What if a brick suddenly falls on my head?’ I know these people and I’m not very convinced that they’re psychologically healthy, so I’m not ruling out this possibility,” she says. “I wrote an [additional] little booklet that reveals all the details, including last names — in case a brick does fall on my head.”
Nevertheless, Ogurtsova believes that shedding light on harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry is still worthwhile, even without identifying all of the perpetrators. Most of all, she hopes her experiences serve as a warning to young performers and their parents. “A lot of people dream of getting into show business, going on stage, they see a perfect picture when in fact a lot of obscene things are happening behind the scenes,” she explains.
Ogurtsova says her book has elicited mixed reactions. “Many people who worked closely with us didn’t always know about what was happening. For example there was a PR woman [who] worked for us — after the book was published, she wrote that she was very sorry. She was horrified,” Ogurtsova recalls. “Former Ranetki fans were very supportive. Their opinion was divided: some wrote ‘we knew it’ and some were in complete shock.” The group’s former producers, directors, and managers, on the other hand, “fell silent” after the book came out, she says.
Ogurtsova was 15 years old when she became part of a Ranetki and she says that the group of teenage girls was always encouraged to think of their producers as “family.” “This idea was hammered into our heads from the very beginning. The producer was ‘Paper Ranetka.’ You need to go only to him with all your problems. Trust all your secrets only to him. And don’t tell anyone anything,” she recalls. “We really believed in this. If something happened I’d say nothing to my mom, but I’d go to the producer or to the girls.” Ogurtsova explains that this created a “vacuum,” which, in combination with the fact that many of the girls in the band had problems with their own families, ensured that nothing got out: “We kept everything secret from everyone, because this was our ‘family’.”
According to Ogurtsova, “99 percent of the emotional abuse” came from the group’s main producer, Sergey Milnichenko — who married Ranetki’s lead guitarist, Natalya Shchelkova, in 2009. In her book, she recalls how the group’s drummer, Nyuta Baidavletova, turned to Milnichenko after a member of the management team harassed her. “It really scared her and she told the producer about everything. He replied that she was making it up,” Ogurtsova says. As she describes in her memoir, the girls were actually encouraged to form relationships with older men to help Ranetki professionally: “We were advised to fall in love with someone from the STS TV channel’s production staff or from among the concert organizers.” (Sergey Milnichenko read Meduza’s request for comment but didn’t respond to it. In conversation with RIA FAN, the producer called the contents of Ogurtsova’s book “fantasies” and underscored that he has “the warmest memories” of her).
At the time, Ogurtsova didn’t tell anyone about what was happening, not even her mother. “In your mind you understand that this is wrong, but if I had told my mother about this, perhaps she would have taken me away from there, and I would have lost this ‘family.’ And at the time, it seemed that it was impossible to live without them,” she tells Meduza. “I told my mom all of these stories three or four years ago. Of course she was horrified and very upset. She hated the producer for a very long time.”
Ranetki’s tours kept a grueling schedule — Ogurtsova says they sometimes played as many as 36 concerts in 30 days: “We played three concerts a day. Each day was a new city.” The girls always flew economy and were put up in hotels where they had to do their own laundry between shows; at one point, they were expected to feed themselves on 1,500 rubles per day. “It was absurd: one of the coolest bands in the country and they didn’t even provide meals for us,” Ogurtsova recalls. “We also didn’t receive a single ruble from the sale of merchandise. As was explained to us, the TV channel STS had the rights to all of it, but at STS they said that the record label had the rights. We had no way of knowing what was actually the case. We only made money from the concerts.”
The girls in the band thought they were making good money at the time. For their starring roles on the television show “Ranetki,” they were paid the average monthly salary in Moscow. But Ogurtsova recently found out that according to documents from STS, obtained by the group’s former bassist, Lena Tretyakova, their official salaries were higher. “Moreover, we gave around 30 percent of pay to our producer,” Ogurtsova explains. “According to the contract, our producer received exactly the same amount we did. That is, he was like a sixth member of the group. But in fact there were completely different amounts.”
At 16 years old, Ogurtsova developed acute pancreatitis and went on tour despite “constant attacks.” “They would give me an injection of painkillers before the concert. I had terrible anemia, I couldn’t eat anything, during the concert I’d faint three or four times. I had a technician who ran around all the time and caught me, he gave me smelling salts,” Ogurtsova recalls. “After the concert they’d give me another injection and it was all repeated the next day.” When she asked to leave the tour, her managers said they’d “talk about it tomorrow,” and she kept on working.
In fact, Ogurtsova stayed with the group until 2013 — she says she believed in the project “until the very end.” “When the [other] girls abruptly announced their departure, I was shocked and condemned them. At the time, I was on the side of the producers and didn’t support their decision,” she recalls. “It was only when I went to a psychologist for therapy that I realized how right they were.”
The group’s lost popularity after 2011 and Ranetki disintegrated as the money dried up. “We stopped going on tours, the concerts fell off, and we found ourselves without a livelihood,” Ogurtsova explains. “Our earnings were zero, meanwhile they [the producers and managers] continued to pressure us and say that all the unsuccessful projects were because of us. This pressure and lack of money prompted the [other] girls to just leave.” Ogurtsova says she suffered a nervous breakdown around this time. “I was completely lost. I didn’t understand who I was because I thought if I wasn’t Zhenya ‘Ranetka,’ then who was I at all?” she tells Meduza.
Ogurtsova tried pursuing a solo career, but says she didn’t make much money. Eventually, she went home to live with her mother and spent three years working as a part-time sales assistant in an adult sex store, while doing “mini-tours” on her days off. “I was able to get back on my feet by 2014, I got married and in 2015 I went on maternity leave and since then I’ve been living a normal life,” she says.
Over the years, Ogurtsova tried to organize Ranetki reunions, but the performances always fell through. She and her former bandmates then decided to become bloggers and launched a YouTube channel (it has 250,000 subscribers). These days, Ogurtsova is most active on Instagram.
Reflecting on her experiences and the release of her new book, Ogurtsova says she hopes it leads to more open conversations about harassment and emotional abuse. “When you start telling these stories, many people see themselves in them and begin to treat it differently,” she explains. “I believe that the more we talk about this, the more people will advocate for [their personal boundaries].” As for working in the entertainment industry, Ogurtsova says that at the end of the day, she still thinks it was cool. “In this sense, I’m an inappropriately positive person,” she concludes. “But there are girls from the group who think this was the worst period in their lives.”
Summary by Eilish Hart