UFA, Russia — There’s a local rhythm to this city in the Urals — steady, predictable, with a touch of affluence. Unassuming oil executives filter in and out. At the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan each year, residents come together to dish out steaming plates of rice and lamb by the thousands.
Then a high-profile rape case split the city in two. And with it came layers of questions — over power, conscience, justice and feminism — that had not before hit Russian society so directly and with such urgency.
“It felt like the #MeToo hurricane sweeping across the world had finally reached Russia, including us in Bashkortostan,” said women’s rights activist Kristina Abramicheva, referring to the republic where Ufa is the capital, about 700 miles east of Moscow.
It began last year. A 23-year-old police investigator accused three colleagues of gang-raping her during a party after hours at work. The policemen were arrested, and a criminal investigation was launched.
That alone was a rare step. In a country where rape is the least-registered crime and where some forms of domestic violence were decriminalized two years ago in a law signed by President Vladimir Putin, a rape case involving high-ranking police officers playing out in the courts is virtually unprecedented.
The case also challenges views on the law and sexual violence in the region around Ufa, where Muslims make up around half of the population, and across Russia as a whole.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial — an appeal hearing is scheduled for Friday — the case illuminates the growing feminist movement in Russia and has sparked a larger conversation surrounding women’s rights in a country that has a paradoxical relationship with gender equality.
Communism afforded options for Russian women — including the right to vote and access to legal abortion — decades ahead of their Western sisters gaining them.
But deeply sexist attitudes toward women persisted, and Russia has been slow to embrace feminism, an idea that until this decade was treated by most Russian women with scorn. In recent years, online feminist communities have mushroomed across the country.
Abramicheva, 41, who is also a member of the political opposition, helped organize small protests around this city of 1 million last year highlighting violence against women.
Abiding by a Russian law that rallies by two or more people must be approved by authorities beforehand, individual women instead dotted themselves around Ufa. They hoisted signs saying “Only the perpetrator of violence is guilty!” and “It doesn’t matter how I dressed or how I behaved.”
The women — members of BashFem, a group of feminist activists in Ufa set up six years ago — were met with a torrent of online abuse from mostly men, forcing them to operate more underground.
Their protests were a response to the outpouring of blame placed on the accuser in the rape case, mostly via Kremlin-friendly tabloids that continue to divulge dubiously obtained details about the case that insinuate the police investigator made up her ordeal for financial gain.
Among their claims is the assertion that four people, including one of the defendants who weighs 250 pounds, could not fit into the toilet cubicle where the rape allegedly took place, as reported by Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Photos of the accuser scantily clad, as well as her full name, were taken from her social media accounts and have been widely published by Russian media. (The Washington Post does not use the names of alleged victims in sexual assault cases unless they consent to have them made public.)
An attorney for one of the defendants followed the same line, attempting to paint the accuser as unreliable and unstable.
“There is no evidence of rape here at all. The injured party is a very imaginative woman,” Aslyam Khalikov said. “She is known for having a drinking problem. She would drink and drive and show up for work drunk.”
Russian women’s rights activists say the culture of victim-shaming is ingrained in Russian society and endorsed by the country’s macho leader. Since Putin first took office almost 20 years ago, he has joked at least twice in public about raping women. He famously boasted that his country’s prostitutes are the best in the world and has ridiculed women for menstruating.
In an anomaly for Russia, all three men accused in the case — who range in age from 34 to 51 — were immediately fired after the alleged rape in late October. The accuser also lost her job.
The men were then sent to a grim detention center where they spent months. They are now under house arrest.
In the city of Chelyabinsk, just east of Ufa, policewoman Lyubov Gerasimova said the turn of events inspired her to speak out and accuse her boss of sexual harassment. The 45-year-old’s triumph was short-lived, however. The police are now taking her to court, accusing her of slander.
The case in Ufa follows another shocking outcome involving rape and police in Russia’s northeast Sakha Republic in February. The regional deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which oversees the police, was accused by a junior female colleague of attempted rape and subsequently sent to jail for five years.
In Ufa, officials from the provincial Ministry of Internal Affairs cannot comment on the case while it is ongoing, a spokesman said. Likewise, the parties involved are not allowed to speak to the press, by Russian law. The accuser’s attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“In Russia, it is shameful to say you have been raped,” said Mari Davtyan, a Moscow-based lawyer who regularly defends victims of sexual assault. “Police don’t believe women, and women are extremely vulnerable at their workplaces as a result.”
According to official statistics, 3,500 cases of rape or attempted rape were registered across Russia in 2018, representing one-fifth of 1 percent of all crime. Out of every 10 rape cases Davtyan defends, on average one will reach a police officer’s desk, let alone be investigated.
The Ufa trial has opened up a discussion on consent, Davtyan said.
“There are no distinctions made in the law if a woman is incapable of giving her consent,” she said, such as being intoxicated.
When the moment of reckoning known as #MeToo first erupted in the United States just over two years ago, many in Russia watched with disdain from the sidelines.
As allegations of abuse against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein piled up, several Russian actresses came out in support of him, saying the women accusing him should have known better.
Early last year, a handful of female journalists and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman accused lawmaker Leonid Slutsky of sexual harassment. Their claims were dismissed by the parliamentary ethics committee, and later Slutsky boasted of how he had kept #MeToo out of Russia.
The fledgling movement suffered another setback two months ago when the editor in chief of the independent Russian-language Meduza news outlet returned to his job. Ivan Kolpakov had previously resigned amid claims of sexual harassment. Russia has no law that addresses harassment in the workplace.
“Still, what we’re seeing is better than nothing,” said Julia Kitova, a member of BashFem in Ufa. “We are a young democracy. We’d rather have a drop in the ocean than no drop at all.”
Natalia Abbakumova in Moscow contributed to this report.