TV presenter and ex-presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak sparked debate this week after her video interview with kidnapper and serial rapist Viktor Mokhov. In 2000, Mokhov seized two under-age girls and imprisoned them in a specially-built cellar, where he kept them for four years, raping them repeatedly. For his crimes, Mokhov spent 17 years in prison, but was recently set free and returned to his home near the city of Ryazan. The interview was watched by over 5 million people.
- Sobchak was met with a flood of criticism for the film that contained the interview. Her most radical critics said you should never give a public platform to such criminals. To which many people — including Sobchak — responded that a journalist’s job is to investigate both good and evil. Less radical critics said the problem was with how Sobchak chose to tell his story.
- So, what’s the problem with the film? Firstly, the tone: Sobchak and Mokhov sit opposite one another on stools and Mokhov sips coffee from a cup. I.e. it looks exactly like almost any other YouTube interview. And Sobchak jokes repeatedly with Mokhov, for example asking him when he lost his virginity:
Sobchak: “You were aged 29 when you first had sex?”
Sobchak [with disbelief]: “You were 29 when you first had sex?”
Mokhov [laughing]: “Yes. Perhaps you had it earlier?”
Sobchak: “A little bit, yes.”
- There are lots of such moments in the film. Sobchak later said that — as Mokhov committed sexual crimes — it was necessary to ask him questions about this side of his personality. But it’s at the very least debatable whether it’s ethical to give a rapist a platform to talk about the sexual positions he used when raping his victims. And it’s odd that Sobchak chose to use the word ‘sex’ instead of ‘rape’ when talking about what he did to the underage girls held in his cellar. Is what Sobchak did really a journalistic investigation? Or is it the legalization, even glorification, of evil? Mokhov himself said that all the attention from journalists since his release has been a “thrill”.
- Another criticism of Sobchak was that she reportedly paid Mokhov 50,000 rubles ($660) for the interview. Sobchak denied this. To be fair, Mokhov has made several media appearances in recent weeks and said he earnt a “pile of cash” from Moscow talk-shows.
- Many Russian journalists working in the true crime genre say that the point of ‘talking with evil’ is to illuminate systemic problems, not wallow in lurid details. But such questioning is absent from Sobchak’s film. One obvious issue is why 17 years in jail did not change the unrepentant Mokhov? Nobody in the film is asked about this: neither Mokhov himself, nor the investigators and psychotherapists that Sobchak also interviews. Another is the length of Mokhov’s sentence and whether he deserved to be released (at trial, an estimated 900 episodes of violence were not treated individually, so the sentence was capped at 17 years).
- Perhaps one of the most chilling moments of the interview is when Mokhov explains that, as one of his victims “no longer gives birth”, he needs to “set about her again” (this woman gave birth to two of his children while in captivity). It’s important to remember there are no restraining orders in Russia, and Mokhov’s victims have no formal ways to protect themselves from him.
Why the world should care
Ethical questions are the subject of intense discussion in Russia, just like other countries. But there are some peculiarly Russian dimensions to these debates. In the wake of Sobchak’s interview, officials suggested it should be made illegal for convicted criminals to talk to the media. But it’s laughable to think that a ‘no interview no problem’ would be an adequate way to protect Mokhov’s victims.