Russian space researchers are heaping scorn on a Canadian woman's charges of sexual harassment in a Moscow isolation chamber, saying she may have been equally to blame for a dispute that nearly destroyed the international experiment.
Senior officials of the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems are annoyed by the growing controversy.
"Everything was fine," one Russian scientist said yesterday. "What's the matter? Does she say she was raped?"
Another institute scientist, Vadim Gushin, said the harassment incident would be considered "nothing" in Russian culture, despite the woman's complaints. "Who said it is sexual harassment? I don't see why her opinion should dominate."
The denials provoked a bitter and angry reaction from Judith Lapierre, the 32-year-old nurse and social-medicine expert from Gatineau, Que., who emerged this week from 110 days living with a group of male scientists in a metal isolation chamber that resembles the Mir space station.
"They don't get it at all," she said in an interview. "They don't think anything is wrong. I'm more frustrated than ever. The worst thing is that they don't realize it was wrong."
Ms. Lapierre says she was dragged into a corridor and forcibly kissed by a Russian scientist during a New Year's Eve celebration. Sources say the scientist was the commander of the research team, which is investigating the problems of long-duration space flights.
Ms. Lapierre's father, Graham, has said the incident prompted her to sleep with a knife under her bed because of fear that the man would return.
But the Russians reject her charges. They are suggesting that the entire dispute was provoked by the "aggressive" actions of three foreign volunteers among the two crews of scientists in the chamber, Ms. Lapierre said yesterday.
"They're saying that we are the aggressors. It was as if it was my fault."
At the heart of the controversy is a cultural and sexual issue: how to define sexual harassment.
Ms. Lapierre's father has described the New Year's Eve incident as "criminal sexual assault." But the Moscow institute denies that it was even an incident of sexual harassment, let alone an assault.
The incident happened when the scientists were drinking vodka at a party in the chamber to celebrate New Year's, the biggest holiday on the Russian calendar.
Mr. Gushin denied that the Russian man had used force to drag Ms. Lapierre into a corridor, away from the television cameras that monitored almost everything in the chamber. "He is a strong man and he could have pulled her into a private bedroom if he wanted to. Maybe he just told her that he wanted to show her something."
Mr. Gushin criticized the foreign volunteers -- Ms. Lapierre and two Japanese and Austrian scientists -- for demanding the removal of the Russian scientist and for closing a hatch to prevent him from visiting the adjoining capsule.
"In a space station, would you eject someone into space if you regard him as guilty? Can you imagine, in a space station, closing a hatch because the Canadians don't want to talk to another crew? Why couldn't we have dropped her from the experiment, since she broke the atmosphere of it?"
He added: "In the West, some kinds of kissing are regarded as sexual harassment. In our culture it's nothing. In this case, when she said she didn't want to do it, he stopped it and never repeated it. It wasn't sexual behaviour. The whole incident took no more than a minute, and he apologized for it. He had many opportunities to repeat it but he never did."
Ms. Lapierre's version of the incident is completely different. She says the Russian scientist forced his tongue into her mouth as he kissed her. "It was a sexual kiss," she said. "It was against my will. If it was normal, why did he pull me away from the cameras? For me it was unacceptable."
Sexual harassment is seldom considered a serious offence in Russian society, and many women consider it a compliment from a man. There are no Russian laws or official policies prohibiting sexual harassment. In informal discussions yesterday about the isolation-chamber incident, several Russian women said they would not have been offended or surprised by the scientist's behaviour.
Russian women's groups have long complained that Russian authorities do not take seriously the issues of sexual assault and harassment. Even complaints of rape or violence against women are often dismissed or ignored by Russian police, they say.
In the isolation-chamber experiment, the Moscow institute failed to select Russian scientists who had the right personalities and cultural sensitivity, Ms. Lapierre said.
"I don't know why they keep saying it was a cultural difference. Maybe it was cultural, but they should have known this was an international crew. The Russian crew had never left their country and had had no training or anything."
Even when she complained about the kissing incident, the institute failed to respond, she said. "They were trying to hide it. I got absolutely no support from the institute. This should never have happened. It was more than an incident, it was a crisis. I was expecting a quick response from the institute, but we had to fight and fight to get them to respond."
Several days after the incident, officials of the Canadian Space Agency -- which helped sponsor the isolation experiment -- travelled to Moscow to discuss the problem. But when they issued a statement on the incident, they did not condemn it as sexual harassment. Instead they said only that it could be considered sexual harassment in Ms. Lapierre's home country.
"Our Russian crew members say they need lessons on cross-cultural taboos," Mr. Gushin said yesterday. "We don't have any cultural training. This type of training is now being widely discussed in our medical groups for the new International Space Station."
Cultural misunderstandings can happen in both directions, Mr. Gushin said. "In Russian culture, if a woman sits on the knees of a man, it is regarded as a sexual challenge: the woman wants something from the man. In North America it would mean nothing."
Mr. Gushin refused to say whether he was referring to something that Ms. Lapierre had done in the isolation chamber. But Ms. Lapierre said she believes he was referring to an incident on Christmas Day, less than a week before the kissing incident, when the volunteers were posing for a photograph. "One guy was pulling me toward him, and he had his hand on my breast for the picture," she said.
Norbert Kraft, an Austrian scientist and member of Ms. Lapierre's research crew, said he disagreed with the institute's response to the sexual-harassment allegation. "They're trying to protect themselves. They're trying to put the fault on others. But this is not a cultural issue. If a woman doesn't want to be kissed, it is not acceptable." He challenged Mr. Gushin's claim that the Russian scientist never tried to repeat the kissing incident. "The next morning he wanted to kiss again," Mr. Kraft said.