Fear, shame and condemnation by society is what domestic violence and harassment victims have to face in Russia. According to statistics, every 10th Russian faced domestic violence in their family, while sexual harassment at the work place is experienced by every 6th person. However, the voices of the hurt are becoming ever louder.
He told me men never beat real women
Beatings in the family, as long as they cause only physical pain but do not harm the victim’s health, are no longer considered criminal offences as of February 2017. The law that decriminalized domestic violence was initiated by senator Yelena Mizulina. She claimed that a criminal penalty for beating a relative used to cause irreparable damage to family relations and made it possible to send a parent to jail “just for slapping” a child.
Feminist and sociologist Asya Osnovina, who has been working with the St. Petersburg Emergency Response Center for Women for more than 10 years, claims that at the time when the law was being adopted, many human rights activists and researchers supported it, as it could potentially soften strict criminal legislation in Russia. “Criminal law enforcement does need reform, but it is unclear why liberalization is bound to take place at the expense of an acute and sophisticated problem like domestic violence,” she said.
More than 160,000 total cases of domestic violence have been received by the Russian courts. Summarizing the results of the year, the head of the Interior Ministry, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, noted that in the overwhelming majority of administrative cases of family beatings the offenders are fined but not arrested.
“All too often this measure is not an efficient deterrent, and when it comes to close relatives, it imposes an extra financial burden on the family as well,” said Kolokoltsev, de facto admitting that decriminalization of family beatings does not solve the problem of domestic violence.
According to Rosstat (Russian Federal State Statistics Service), 16 million women in Russia experienced domestic violence in 2016, and this figure is constantly growing. That being said, very few cases are reported to the police and an even smaller number of cases finally get to the court.
Galina is 34 years old. Her husband started to beat her after the birth of their second child. “The first couple of times they were just very heavy slaps in the face. He begged for forgiveness and promised it would never happen again. Then he started to persuade me that men never beat real women and, if he beat me, it means I behaved like a man,” said the woman. Over 12 years of marriage Galina gave birth to five children. The last pregnancy was difficult because of the heavy morning sickness and her husband’s failure to help in any way. “When I complained to my husband that I was having a hard time and that he wasn’t helping me at all, he beat me up, even though I was pregnant. He beat my head against the floor, choked me, tried to tie me to the radiator, whipped my legs with a belt and threatened to kill me. I cried for help. As it turned out later, the neighbors heard my cries but decided not to meddle in “family affairs.” I spent almost 24 hours locked in, without food and water. He hid my cell phone and keys and I could not get out of the apartment,” she said. When her husband fell asleep, she managed to make it to the computer and send a message to her sister. The latter called the police and Galina managed to get outside. “I immediately filed for divorce. I photographed the beatings and filed a complaint with the police over the incident. However, the police told me there was not enough proof since I didn’t even have any broken bones. At the beginning, they did not want to accept the complaint, saying that my husband and I would make up the next day and they would be left guilty. I still haven’t managed to hold my husband accountable: the complaint had been improperly drawn up and the court rejected the case. And I didn’t have the strength to file another complaint.”
Marina Pisklakova-Parker, founder of the Anna emergency response center for women, confirms that domestic violence victims turn to the police for help only in the most extreme cases — when their life is threatened. And most of the time they take their complaints back because they are financially dependent on the offenders and live with them under the same roof. That is why the official statistics on domestic violence is only the tip of the iceberg.
Galina recounts that she was forced to live with her husband for another year after the divorce because they both owned the apartment. “I was once laying with the baby in the bath. My then ex-husband started to demand that I should get out immediately and cook him breakfast. When I refused, he dragged me out of the bathroom by my hair. My daughter fell on the floor. Luckily, she wasn’t badly hurt — I managed to cushion the fall. He was dragging me by the hair and requesting full submission. When he left, I changed the door lock and didn’t let him in anymore.” However, even afterwards Galina had to deal with her husband now and then, as he visited their children once every few months.
Experts emphasize that domestic violence includes not only beatings or rape, but also psychological abuse. “Gender stereotypes are still persistent in Russia: a woman is supposed to keep a balanced psychological atmosphere in the family. She tries to deal with the problem of domestic violence by herself, thinking that conflicts are to blame. But domestic violence is not just conflicts, not an individual episode — it is systemic behavior,” points out Pisklakova-Parker.
According to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), one-third of the Russian population is aware of beatings in their acquaintances’ families, while every 10th person has encountered domestic violence in their own family. Despite the fact that the majority of Russians (79%) criticize all types of family violence, every fifth person allows the possibility of using physical force toward a spouse or a child. A person who has experienced violence is perceived not only as a victim (43%), but also as a provocateur and the guilty party (44%).
Galina remembers being morally destroyed not only by abuse, but also by the reaction of the people around her. “I was looking for support, but in response there was only condemnation: ‘A man would never beat a normal woman! Do not wash your dirty linen in public!’ It’s really embarrassing and insulting.”
Experts unanimously agree that decriminalization of beatings has become a sort of green light for domestic oppressors and a signal to victims that there is no point in waiting for the state’s help.
According to Osnovina, it is corruption that prevents law enforcement authorities and courts from protecting the interests of the most vulnerable people, i.e. the ones who have no money and no place to go — women and children. “When it comes to female migrants, refugees, disabled people, homosexual or transgender people, i.e. the ones discriminated against in Russia, it is impossible for them to get effective and timely protection from domestic violence due to various administrative barriers.”
Yulia Antonova, a senior lawyer for Legal Initiative, pointes out that there is no special legislation on domestic violence in Russia; there is only common law. For instance, there is Criminal Code article 133, “Coercion to acts of a sexual nature,” but it is practically not applied.
“In order to solve the problem of domestic violence we need to adopt a special law and to shift the beatings from administrative procedure to private prosecution,” she said. She noted that, apart from the above, it is also necessary to raise awareness in policemen, who often do not take victims’ complaints into account.
In a number of countries, including the majority of the former Soviet republics, specific legislation on the problem of domestic and partner violence is integrated into national strategies aimed at overcoming gender inequality, which envisage not only punishment for rapists, but also rehabilitation and preventive measures, including educational courses in schools. “I can’t get rid of the feeling that there is the goal of imposing division in society, making gender tensions intractable, so that it is difficult for people to unite,” said Osnovina.
Experts point out that women and children are not the only ones suffering from domestic violence. The elderly are just as vulnerable. As a rule, a parent experiencing violence from her/his own child tends to tolerate it.
“There is also violence toward men. Women use psychological manipulation rather than physical violence. Sometimes it is hard to discern. But even here the goal of the oppressor is to assert power and establish control over the other. In this case, gender stereotypes also have a negative impact. For a man, saying that he is experiencing any type of abuse from a woman means admitting that he is not a real man. In our society masculinity is first and foremost machismo,” noted Pisklakova-Parker.
A year after family beatings had been decriminalized, the State Duma started to draft a bill on domestic violence prevention, which was designed to introduce protection orders. However, the bill has still not been considered.
“The solution to the problem of domestic violence is rather a question of political priorities. Whether our government would be willing to pay attention to this issue and strengthen families by engaging in the problem professionally rather than by forcing the victims to stay with the oppressor, to develop an effective system of prevention, including protection orders and re-education programs for aggressors. Psychological work with domestic tyrants may bear fruit, but it is necessary for them to be sent to psychologists by the courts,” Pisklakova-Parker said. “Unfortunately, right now I don’t see that the state has made the problem of domestic violence its priority.”
According to opinion polls organized by the “Levada” center in 2017, 18% of both male and female Russians (i.e. every sixth person) have encountered sexual harassment at the workplace. However, if domestic violence has been widely discussed for several years already, the problem of harassment has become subject to public discussion at all levels only after the scandal with State Duma member Leonid Slutsky. In February 2018 several Russian journalists accused Slutsky of sexual harassment. The TV channel RTVI’s deputy chief editor Yekaterina Kotrikadze, BBC Russian Service’s correspondent Farida Rustamova and TV Rain’s producer Darya Zhuk all spoke publicly about the harassment. Slutsky himself called the accusations a provocation and noted that the attempts to make “a Russian Harvey Weinstein” of him were doomed to fail.
Several days later State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin, while congratulating parliamentary correspondents on International Women’s Day, advised the journalists who were frightened to work in the Duma to “find a new job.” He was supported by Tamara Pletneva, the head of the Duma committee on Family, Women and Children. However, her deputy, Oksana Pushkina, announced that she would incorporate the term “harassment” into the bill on gender equality, which had been presented to the Duma in 2003 and is still being refined.
The discussion was then continued by presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov: he compared the journalists to the Hollywood actresses who had accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment and called them prostitutes.
He said: “Maybe he [the producer] is a bastard, but none of them came to the police and said they had been raped by Weinstein. No! They wanted to make $10 million. What do you call a woman who sleeps with a man for $10 million? Maybe it’s rude, but you call her a prostitute.”
Throughout all this time, Slutsky’s opponents and supporters organized single pickets in front of the State Duma. The applications for mass demonstrations requesting punishment for Slutsky were repeatedly declined by the Moscow city administration.
At the beginning of April, the human rights activist Alyona Popova launched a website that allowed people to address the Prosecutor General’s Office and Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin with the request to annul Slutsky’s parliamentary immunity and to start an investigation, as well as to discuss the introduction of the gender equality bill with amendments on harassment prepared by the parliament member Pushkina.
The Slutsky story of sexual harassment acted as a trigger for the wave of harassment claims. For example, a journalist from the digital news channel Nastoyashchee Vremya, Renat Davletgildeev, accused Duma member Vladimir Zhirinovsky of harassment, and Radio Liberty journalist Darya Komarova claimed that the movie director Stanislav Govorukhin offered her a role in his film in exchange for sex. At the end of April, a 17-year-old biathlete named Anna Moiseeva reported sexual harassment by her coach Sergey Tutmin from the Moscow Region Sports Center.
At the end of May, it became known that several underage female students had accused Zurab Nanobashvili, the art director of the Volgograd drama theater, of harassment. According to the girls, he touched their breasts and hips during classes, stuck his hand into their pants and kissed them. “During classes Zurab Anzorovich was very oppressive and cruel. So even when he started to harass me, I was paralyzed and couldn’t resist him”, told one of the students to the Meduza newspaper. Moreover, one of the Nanobashvili’s ex-students and a drama theater actress accused him of rape and attempted rape. Nanobashvili himself refused to give comments on the matter and hoped for the “impartiality” of the Investigation Committee. The girls’ complaints are currently under investigation.
The prohibition of harassment is not directly regulated by the law in Russia. In the Criminal Code there is article 132, “Violent acts of a sexual nature,” but there is little legal practice concerning harassment at the workplace. Moreover, there is article 133, “Coercion to acts of a sexual nature,” which includes blackmailing and taking advantage of the person’s financial dependence, which is also a form of harassment.
Anastasia, who is not willing to share her last name, is 24 years old. At her first place of work she was harassed by her boss. At first he was just paying her compliments about her appearance and praising her for her work. “Later he started to say that I looked really good in skirts, dresses and high-heels, that I could mesmerize anyone with my appearance. One day he told me that he could rent me an apartment and that if I were nicer to him, he would raise my salary,” she said. All these offers confused and embarrassed her. Anastasia took her boyfriend to all corporate parties on purpose — that way she avoided physical harassment. Soon the atmosphere at work started to be totally unbearable, so she decided to quit. “When I shared this story, all women confessed that they had faced something similar. But the majority insisted it was the norm; it was men’s nature. For a while I really started to believe that these women were right,” says the woman. Anastasia thinks there is no point in starting a lawsuit: she has no proof. Moreover, she is afraid that this would harm her career.
“Special norms prohibiting sexual harassment should be spelled out in the Labor and Civil Codes as well as, for example, in corporate ethics codes or employment contracts,” said Antonova, the lawyer. Osnovina adds that it is insufficient to pass a law prohibiting sexual harassment in Russia. In her opinion, “the abuse of power under the conditions when the person responsible cannot be removed from office and there is no transparency is a systemic problem in Russia that requires a corresponding solution, and harassment is but one of its manifestations.”