- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

MOSCOW Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss.

But in an experiment to study the tension and loneliness of long-haul space travel, a kiss has become an international incident between Russia and Canada.

Russian participants say the kiss was a gallant gesture of affection toward a Canadian astronaut, but the woman claims she is a victim of sexual violence.

Judith Lapierre, 32, the only woman among eight guinea pigs confined to a replica of the Mir space station for 110 days, has forced scientists to rethink plans for future stations by complaining of her ordeal at a party to celebrate the arrival of the year 2000.

The New Year's Eve party inside the mock-up station outside Moscow was enlivened by a few shots of vodka, but the festivities rapidly swung out of control with a violent fight between two Russians and the stolen kiss.

The brawling Russians had settled their differences in minutes, but later the Russian commander grabbed Mrs. Lapierre, pulled her out of range of the observation cameras and gave her a full-blooded kiss.

"An unwanted French kiss when the woman says no is completely unacceptable," Mrs. Lapierre, a Canadian from Quebec, said on Wednesday. "He was really aggressing my personal space."

Russian scientists have attempted to play down the incident by blaming it on a clash of cultures, the politically correct, puritanical West and the old-fashioned gallantry favored by Russian men.

"The kiss happened, no one is denying that," said Vadim Gushin, a Russian psychologist in charge of the project. "The question is what importance was attached to it by the parties involved."

In Russia, there is no real distinction between a kiss on the cheeks and one on the lips, especially at parties or celebrations to mark red-letter days, the project's controllers say.

"It was not a kiss on the mouth," countered Mrs. Lapierre. "He was very intrusive with a kiss with the tongue. That's very different from a kiss on the lips."

Mrs. Lapierre's crew, which included an Austrian, a Japanese man and a Russian, had been specially selected to maximize the potential for conflict and cultural misunderstanding.

However, the biggest rift appears to have emerged between Mrs. Lapierre and the macho Russian cosmonauts who shared their isolation chamber.

Girlie posters and the men looking at pornographic Internet sites she could take, Mrs. Lapierre said. But she drew the line at the use of physical force, either in a fight between crew members or against a woman.

"I'm not a crazy lady. I knew I was coming to a man's place," Mrs. Lapierre said. "But for me, this was absolutely out of the ordinary and unacceptable."

The project's Russian supervisors have conceded that they were insensitive and should have given Mrs. Lapierre more support. But they also argue that she should have been more flexible and tolerant herself.

"We didn't understand the weight of the moral pressure she was under," Mr. Gushin said. "But I think she would do well to appreciate the moral and psychological stress she has caused the Russian members of the crew. She would have done well to study Russian culture a bit more.

"The problem of sexual harassment is given a lot of attention in North America but less in Europe. In Russia it is even less of an issue, not because we are more or less moral than the rest of the world; we just have different priorities."

Despite the personality clashes and fallout afterward, the project has been hailed as a success by Russian psychologists, who say it has made an important contribution to plans for the International Space Station.

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