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Ekaterina Schulmann: Small fish in a big pond. 'Rybkagate' as a reflection of changing social norms

Russia's latest sex scandal, «Rybkagate,» is impossible not to comment on because it is like a drop of water that reflects several meaningful social and political trends. I will not give you a detailed overview of Navalny's film, as you can watch it on YouTube.  A most compelling creation, if you ask me.

Why talk about the scandal at all? What other insights does it offer, apart from a brief glance at the wondrous, enigmatic world of escort services? In fact, there is nothing enigmatic, let alone wondrous, about it, so this aspect is of little interest. What is truly fascinating about the story? First, any public scandal – that is, an emotionally charged discussion that involves a great many people – is valuable material for sociological analysis. Those who dismiss it out of hand as «yet another Internet squabble» are preternaturally serious about analyzing presidential candidates' poll numbers and drawing their conclusions about public opinions based on these shadows of a shadow.

An emotionally charged public discussion never arises out of nowhere. Not in the sense that there is no smoke without fire; the events everyone is discussing could have never taken place at all. However, if people become so emotionally invested in the debate, it points to a real issue that is being discussed under a variety of aliases. Regardless of the chosen alias, the issue is always very real. So, as we have said, the best source for tracking an extraterrestrial invasion would be tabloids; to learn about the public sentiment, browse through glossy magazines; and to observe the transformation of moral values, pay attention to scandals.

What are people talking about? What are their actual concerns? They are hardly outraged at the moral depravity among oligarchs and civil servants. Naturally, the core element of the film is the involvement of a high-ranking state official. He is indeed a high-profile political figure: over the last 20 years, he has been occupying extremely important governmental posts. So those who say «Let the man live!» are in the wrong, to say the least. The film exposes a classic non-monetary bribe – something many state officials know only too well. Free package tours, free pleasure trips for you and your family, any sort of commercial services that you get for free – all of the above qualify as a bribe if you are a civil servant. There can be no alternative perspective on this. This is the first takeaway worth remembering because it is easily overlooked in the heat of the debate.

The second point is the difference between Navalny's investigation and the incident with Katya «Mumu» or leakages of investigation data to the press – in other words, what used to be the prerogative of hypothetic LifeNews and has now been continued by very real NTV and Ren-TV channels. What is the difference? Firstly, instead of private individuals or social activists, the matter pertains to civil servants, who are supposed to abide by a specific moral code and the restrictions imposed on them by the existing legislation. Basically, any aspect of their conduct is a public matter. Secondly, and even more surprisingly, the entire investigation is built on data from open sources – no hacked mailboxes, no leaked home videos, no «revealed» investigation materials, which is sometimes the case with exposés released by our pseudo-media. All the information has been obtained from publicly accessible sources. Of course, it is one of the key characteristics of the miraculously transparent time we live in.

In fact, no one has truly realized how we ended up in the future, which has already become the present – now that we are here. You can access any social network and content created by their users, who write texts and upload photos and videos. Thanks to geolocation, you can easily pinpoint the location of any event. You can track routes of private yachts and jets, let alone publicly used vehicles, almost in real time with the use of completely open, legal, and mostly free online services. These possibilities are apparent even to me, although I am not an information technology expert (far from it).

Such all-encompassing transparency boggles the mind. Another reason why the investigation video is so engaging is the way it weaves multiple, tangled threads of information into a linear, cohesive storyline. As for the foreign relations aspect, if this is the link everyone was missing (remember how scientists were looking for the missing link between man and ape, discovering the Denisova hominin and several australopithecines?), are we looking at the connection between the Russian government and Trump headquarters? I am referring to the part about Paul Manafort and the debrief sessions he allegedly held for Deripaska for a fee, after which Deripaska relayed the information to Sergei Prikhodko, who had indeed been responsible for the country's foreign policy as Assistant to President and Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration. (His current post of Vice Premier, head of the Government's Executive Office, is not directly connected to foreign policy matters, but he started off as a foreign policy expert.)

Notably, if you have been following the U.S. media – which I am sure you have – this material looks more substantial than anything that has been written on the subject across the Atlantic. I would hate to stoop to the level of our Foreign Ministry and use expressions like «anti-Russian hysteria» or «farfetchedness of allegations,» but all they did was muddy the waters without offering any tangible evidence.

Thus, there was a story about an ex-employee of a Moscow Region prosecutor's office who moved on to become an attorney and approached Trump Jr. with offers like «Would you like some damaging material on Clinton?» – «And what do you want in return? – «When your dad becomes president, you remove my client from the Magnitsky List, where he does not rank very high anyway..." None of it was too convincing.

It is hard for me to judge what Americans made of such stories, but this one deals with more prominent figures at least – both in Trump headquarters (head of HQ) and on the Russian side. The officials in question are definitely high-profile, not some fixers acting as intermediaries on others' behalf.

However, let us say a few words about the aspect that concerns me the most –the transparency. In the larger public discussion, someone voiced an opinion that the incredible transparency is a consequence of utter, all-pervasive cynicism. That is, «Let them write and record anything they want – we couldn't care less.» Otherwise, it is hard to understand how the incident could have happened at all.

Let me give you the general outline. The female protagonist, Nastya Rybka (a pseudonym; Russian for «small fish») has an Instagram account, which is still active, by the way. She uses it to upload photos and video, writing posts about whatever comes to her head.

I first read about her a while back, in connection to her affair with Oleg Deripaska. I saw their photos together, but their union was devoid of any political or social connotation because, as a private entrepreneur, he is free to sail any vessel he likes in the company of anyone. In other words, it is not her first time in the spotlight. Apart from that, she published a book at EKSMO Publishing House in 2017, describing her experience. Interestingly, her «experience» is not just about having an affair with someone; she calls herself a «huntress» and writes about rich, prominent men she seduced for profit. Moreover, she did not do it of her own volition – she was carrying out the task she received from her coach, Alex Lesley. Essentially, her book opens a peep hole into the bleak and hostile world of pickup artists. A morose sight if I ever saw one. Don't go there because the entire industry feeds on nothing but human neediness, loneliness, god-forsakenness, despair, and stupidity. People of either sex attend a plethora of training courses where they learn how to win someone's affection and to feed off your fellow human, making him or her provide for all your needs. The idea is downright pathetic; nevertheless, a coach by name of Lesley offers a range of such courses, and he co-authored another book with Nastya Rybka. The degree of publicity these people enjoy chills me to the bones, notwithstanding the new age of transparency that we live in.

It is hard to understand why this industry is even allowed to exist. This is where people get the cynical attitude: «They can get away with anything. No one will oust Prikhodko, and Deripaska won't be as much as scolded because he's not even married.» It may be true – but only to some extent. The CEO of EKSMO Publishing House resigned from his position on Friday. The book had been published long before that, but he did not leave his post until now, which leads us to the conclusion that no one likes publicity all that much. Everyone has their bad moments, but not everyone gets caught. You can take my word for it: those who get caught are extremely displeased with their time in the spotlight. Such notoriety does nothing to strengthen their positions or grant them immunity in the merciless struggle for power they never stop waging. Consequently, if given half a chance, they would prefer to stay in the shadows forever. For them, publicity is not a way to promote themselves.

However, I do not believe it is possible for anyone to keep track of the entire information flow in the first place. In addition, these men are elderly and hardly keep abreast of modern technologies. They regard their pretty female companions as furniture, dismissing the possibility that the girls may start talking, or worse, writing books. That is, Nastya Rybka spent some time on his yacht, and after she left, no one thought to keep an eye on what she was doing.

Another eye-catching feature of the public conversation is a certain disappointment with the abyss between Russia and America: across the Atlantic, they have #metoo and the never-ending crusade for gender equality, while in Russia there is nothing but snickering and slut-shaming. Most people simply condemn the poor girl for earning her living in such a disgraceful way. In this respect I can only say that the vectors of American and Russian sex scandals are indeed opposite. American sex scandals deal with men who harass women and force them to do something either in exchange for career prospects or simply by threatening them with damage. That is, they resort to various methods of coercion, like Weinstein, who had been doing it for years before he was brought to justice. In Russia, sex scandals focus on women who offer themselves to men of standing in the hope of improving their social and financial status.

Nevertheless, those who are distressed by our dawdling in the global combat for gender equality should consider the following: what matters is that the «furniture» has spoken up, like in Chukovsky's tale «Fedora's Grief.» "And the poker said, 'I am no servant to Fedora!'"

What exactly the girls are saying is beyond the point. What matters is the fact of speaking. They are vocal and their voice has an audience – their Instagram followers and readers of their books. People of earlier sociocultural formations may see it as recklessness. However, I hope young people realize that transparency is their only chance to survive. Besides, I recall that one of the current presidential candidates once co-authored a book with Oksana Robski under the title «How to Marry a Millionaire.» Interestingly, the books deal with ways of seducing an oligarch or marrying a millionaire, but if you look at the authors, how do they actually make their living? They make their living on their own. Take Rybka, for instance. It is not as if Deripaska had loaded her with money. Has he given the yacht to her? Not likely. She will be lucky to get paid for the days she spent on board. How does she earn her living? She has written a book and runs an Instagram account, works in online advertising, teaches training courses... She even was a TV anchor once, so her sole occupation is intellectual labor – and I am not being sarcastic about it. The same goes for the presidential candidate who has written a few books and thinks of writing a few more – which is nothing but commendable. Neither of them has ensnared a millionaire so far. In the meantime, their profits keep growing. Consequently, we may be closer to gender equality than we think.

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