Anna Zhavnerovich went to the police a week after she said her boyfriend beat her unconscious, determined to make sure that he was arrested and brought to justice. She was surprised by some of the questions the Moscow police officers asked her when she recounted what had happened, her face still painfully swollen and discolored.
“They asked me why I did not have any children,” she remembers, “they asked me if I was married.”
Beneath their line of questioning was the suggestion that somehow the attack was her fault.
They told her that they would investigate, but a few weeks later she received a letter informing her that the case had been dropped. Her ex-boyfriend had not been questioned and no further action was proposed. When she tried to hire a lawyer to start a private suit, she was told that the police had lost her files.
Zhavnerovich, 28, a journalist at fashionable Moscow-based online lifestyle Web site W-O-S, chose instead to write an article about what had happened to her. Its publication last month attracted much attention, highlighting an issue that for decades has been an almost taboo. Zhavnerovich was bombarded with hundreds of e-mails and Facebook posts from women who wanted to tell her that they, too, had been beaten by partners and struggled to get authorities to register a complaint.
“I think people were surprised to read that this was happening in young, fashionable Moscow circles — not something to do with alcoholics in some remote, backward village somewhere. That is why it triggered such a huge reaction from the public,” Zhavnerovich said, “judging by the responses I have had, the scale of the problem is enormous.”
The interest her account provoked chimed with a political shift in attitudes to this issue, which is finally edging toward the political mainstream.
After decades of failed attempts to draft legislation that identifies domestic violence as a crime, politicians at the Moscow Duma hope to debate a new law during this session of the legislature that would make it easier for victims to prosecute their attackers, as well as introduce a series of preventative measures, such as restraining orders and behavioral therapy for offenders.
Politicians have already considered — and abandoned — more than 50 draft versions of a law on domestic violence since the early 1990s, but this time there is muted optimism from campaigners, who say a series of high-profile cases are finally bringing this hidden issue into the open, strengthening demand for improvements in the way complaints from women are handled.
The current debates over how Russia deals with domestic violence reflect changing attitudes about women, in a nation where family values remain conservative. It touches on a perplexing Russian paradox — that while the Russian government has long promoted equality in the workplace, attitudes toward women remain patriarchal. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which was considering the issue of domestic violence, expressed concern in 2010 at the “state party’s repeated emphasis on the role of women as mothers and caregivers.”
“If he beats you, he loves you,” goes a well-known Russian proverb, a wry articulation of an acceptance that being hit by your husband is simply an everyday part of human relationships. Marina Pisklakova, head of ANNA, a Moscow-based charity that has been fighting for improved support for victims of domestic violence since the 1990s, said that the violence itself is a global problem, but that Russia is unusual in having such inadequate legislation.
“We desperately need the legislation because when there is no legislation, it makes it look like this is something that is tolerated by society, so the legislation in itself will be a powerful statement that this is not something that is acceptable — and I think that will have an impact on behavior,” she said.
There is no separate classification for domestic violence, so there are no reliable statistics on prevalence, but the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs estimated in 2008 that it occurred in 25 percent of all families and that 14,000 women die every year “at the hands of husbands or other relatives,” with nearly 65 percent of all homicides related to domestic violence.
“The reporting is very low. It is a very concealed issue,” Pisklakova said, “[However,] things are changing; there is not as much denial as there was.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin had indicated that he would support the bill, but elsewhere there has been hostility to the proposed legislation. A Russian Orthodox archbishop, and Russia’s official children’s rights ombudsman, criticized groups campaigning on this issue in March, accusing them of disseminating “anti-family propaganda.”
Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov wrote on Instagram: “The family is the safest place. Far more crimes happen in public places, on transport and in stores... Constant and excessive use of the term ‘domestic violence’ serves to intimidate families and parents.”
He advised the government against Russia signing a Council of Europe convention on preventing domestic abuse, arguing that it would be against Russia’s “national interests.”
Currently, the only cases that get serious consideration from police and the courts are those where the woman has suffered serious physical injuries or been killed. The onus is on women to file a case, but most lack the necessary legal expertise, let alone money for a lawyer. The system is so complicated that 90 percent of filed cases are dismissed for technical reasons and just about 3 percent result in criminal convictions of any kind.
A fine of 50,000 rubles (US$905) is the most likely outcome, therefore police are reluctant to accept the bureaucratic work involved in processing a case, said Nikolai Levshits, who works with the charity Russia Behind Bars.
The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women concluded in a recent report: “The lack of a specific law on domestic violence in Russia is a major obstacle to combating this violence.”
The emerging campaigns for improvement reveal the strength of the Internet in empowering previously voiceless groups of people. Alyona Popova, a campaigner on this issue, whose change.org petition calling for legislation gathered 120,000 signatures within days of being launched, said that she became involved after a friend was violently beaten by her boyfriend.
“After 24 hours, he visited her in hospital carrying a huge bunch of flowers and she responded by telling me: ‘He is perfect; he is my future. Perhaps this was all my fault.’ This is a powerful woman, an entrepreneur who runs her own business, and her response was not unusual,” she said. “Most women do not go to court. They feel shame; they blame themselves.”
She is concerned about the number of women in prison for murder committed in self-defense. “They get no protection from the police, so in the end they take a vase and hit him on the head,” she said. This is an area little-studied in Russia, she said.
“No one has any interest in collecting these figures,” she added.
Campaigning is beginning to break a taboo. When allegations emerged that the popular actor Marat Basharov had beaten his actress wife, Katya Arkharova, so violently in October last year that she was in a coma, the subject was widely debated on television.
“When famous women start talking about it then things begin to change,” Popova said, but she is not certain that new legislation will pass. “Most of the deputies are men and there is a perception that these are family matters that should be dealt with in the family. I am not that optimistic.”
In 2013, there were 43 shelters across Russia with beds for about 400 women — which represents just 3 percent of the total number of shelter spaces for female victims of violence recommended by the Council of Europe.
However, the Moscow government last year built a 35-bedroom, well-equipped complex for women who have experienced domestic violence, with facilities for therapy and psychological support for children — another clear sign that attitudes are changing.
Natalia Zavialova, head of the state-run center, said of the 200 women who had stayed in the shelter over the year since it opened, only one had taken her case to court; the rest were unwilling to confront their former partners, or were simply overwhelmed by the difficulties of the legal process. However, she senses the start of a shift in the seriousness with which the subject is treated.
“People are beginning to talk about the subject more openly and have begun to understand that places like this are essential,” she said.
Zhavnerovich said she wrote the article to help other women understand what they need to do if they are beaten by boyfriends or husbands. Written in the form of short diary extracts, the piece is her account of what happened to her, beginning with the night before New Year, when she and her boyfriend decided to split up after three years together. They agreed, calmly, that this was for the best, and went to sleep.
At about 4am, she awoke to find him screaming at her and hitting her head with his fists. She regained consciousness, aware that blood was streaming from her face. It took her a while to decide what to do; when her boyfriend left the apartment to go to the local pharmacy to buy antiseptic cream, she called a friend to come and rescue her.
Initially, she did not want to approach the police, convinced that it would be a useless exercise. Her friends offered, quite seriously, to go and take revenge with a baseball bat, also certain that there was little likelihood of a constructive response from an appeal to the police.
After a week, still reluctant to leave her friend’s apartment because her injuries were so horrific, she decided to at least try to register a formal complaint. She showed pictures of her face taken on her iPhone, unrecognizable because of the injuries.
After her article was published, several lawyers offered their help, but even with discounts — offered in the hope that she would be writing about their services — she estimated that the bills would run up to about US$10,000 equivalent to more than six months’ salary.
“I am in a well-paid job, but there is no way I could afford that,” she said, “besides that the whole process is so incredibly complicated, you would have spend all your time on preparing the case, collecting the documents, proving you were a victim, acting as a private detective and a lawyer. Most women just do not have the time or the skills.”
She was lucky in that eventually a lawyer agreed to take on her case pro bono and she thinks there will be a hearing within the next two months. She hopes that her ex-partner will get some kind of community service sentence.
“I am not bloodthirsty, hoping for revenge, but I do want the case to go to court. At the moment, I am the one made to feel guilty,” she said.
She has received such toxic abuse from online commentators that she no longer reads them, but there has also been support — and within days of publication the article became the most read article in the Web site’s history.
“Women have been emancipated since the Soviet Union, but they have never been feminists; that movement is beginning now,” she said.
Zhavnerovich is happy to have helped drag the subject out of the shadows.
“This was such an unmentionable subject. It was always there, but no one ever talked about it. I felt I had a responsibility to tell people about what happened to me,” she said.
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