Visible and Vicious in Russia

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, right, during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court at which he was appealing his detention before his second trial in 2009–2010, Moscow, April 2011. He was pardoned by President Putin and released in December 2013.
Alexander Natruskin/Reuters
Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, right, during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court at which he was appealing his detention before his second trial in 2009–2010, Moscow, April 2011. He was pardoned by President Putin and released in December 2013.

In August the Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova wrote a bitter post on her Facebook page. The previous day, her twenty-seven-year-old sister Oksana, who has autism and cerebral palsy, was taking a customary walk with her caretaker in Nizhny Novgorod, where she lives. They stopped at a café in a park and ordered a chocolate bar for Oksana. Then the owner of the café told them to “get out of here,” Vodianova wrote. “You are scaring the customers.” The caretaker asked to be allowed to stay until Oksana finished her chocolate bar. The café’s security guards intervened, threatening to call a psychiatric ambulance or to lock Oksana in the cellar. The caretaker called Vodianova’s mother at work, and she rushed over to take the young woman away.

Before she left, Vodianova’s mother told the café owner that she would report him to the authorities. But by the time Oksana, her mother, and her caretaker reached the park entrance, a group of policemen was waiting for them. The mother was detained and taken to the police station, where she was told that she would be charged with hooliganism, which in Russian law is defined as a “crude disturbance of the social order.”

Vodianova, who has been on the covers of many of the world’s glossy magazines, is adored in Russia. She came from a working-class family in Nizhny Novgorod, a large industrial city on the Volga, became a model as a teenager, then moved to Paris, and soon married the English aristocrat Justin Portman (divorcing him in 2011). She now is the head of a charity for children with physical and mental disabilities and other challenges, including economic ones. Her organization, the Naked Heart Foundation, runs camps and builds playgrounds.

Vodianova’s post went viral. First, people on Facebook called for a boycott of the café. Then the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor’s office ordered an “inspection” of the café, usually prosecutor-speak for a shakedown. Then the Investigative Committee, a federal agency, announced that it would charge the café owner with the crime of “demeaning human dignity on the basis of belonging to a particular social group, committed publicly with the application or the threat of violence.” Vodianova protested that the café staff ought to be educated, not punished, but she could not control what happened next. Within two days of the incident, the café lost its lease and shut down. Criminal…



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