Domestic violence

When I started the first domestic violence hot line in Russia in 1993 (we named it ANNA, Association No to Violence), I was alone, answering calls four hours a day, every day, for six months. I was counseling people in person the other four hours. I couldn’t say no; there were so many women. I had no training, no distance, no boundaries. But at the same time, I don’t know how I could have done anything differently.

Without realizing what I was embarking upon, I began this work while a researcher at the Institute for Socio-Economic Studies of the Population within the Russian Academy of Sciences. While coordinating a national survey on women’s issues, one day I received a survey response I did not know how to classify. It described a woman’s pain and suffering at the hands of her husband. I showed it to some colleagues and one of them told me, “You have just read a case of domestic violence.” I had never heard this term before. It was not something even recognized in our post-Soviet society, much less discussed. I decided I needed to learn more about this mysterious phenomenon.

Shortly thereafter, I encountered the mother of one of my son’s classmates in front of the school. Half of her face was severely bruised. She wouldn’t tell me what had happened. One evening a few days later, she called me. Her story shocked me. When her husband was wearing a suit and the button fell off, and it was not fixed quickly, he took a shoe and slapped his wife in the face. For two weeks she couldn’t go out. She was really distressed, and hurt—physically and emotionally hurt—because half her face was black and blue. I asked her, “Why don’t you just leave him?” A very typical question. And she said, “Where would I go?” I said, “Divorce him. Get another apartment.” She said, “I depend on him completely.” And in this exchange, I saw everything: the way the abuser was consolidating control, decreasing self-confidence, and diminishing self-esteem. I also heard her story of how he would come home and go to the kitchen, touch the floor with his finger, and, if there was the slightest dirt, ask sneeringly, “What did you do all day?” The floors in Russian kitchens always have some dirt, especially if you have kids at home who are running around—the kitchen is often the center of family life in our small apartments. For outsiders, scenes such as I have just described might seem ridiculous, but I was to soon discover that they were commonplace. For this woman, our conversation was an opportunity to communicate with someone who didn’t judge her, who didn’t say, “What did you do wrong?” I didn’t realize that I had actually started counseling her. But I did realize from her story that from psychological violence comes physical violence.

So I started thinking that I should help her; I should refer her to somebody. And then I realized that there was nowhere to go. I cannot tell you my feelings. I really felt hopeless and helpless. In Russia there is a saying, “He beats you, that means he loves you.” I now knew the meaning of that saying. I asked myself, “What can you do about a cultural attitude?” But I knew what I had to do. I started the hot line. One cold January day, a woman called in and I started talking with her. After a few minutes, she stopped, saying, “I am not going to talk to you on the phone. I need to see you.” So I said, “Okay,” and when she came in, her first tearful words were, “I’m afraid my husband is going to kill me and nobody will know.” She told me her story. Her husband was very nice until she told him she was pregnant. At that point, everything turned upside down. He became very controlling. She was vulnerable and dependent: “I was terrified; his face was not happy. It was like he’d won. As though he was thinking, ’It’s my turn. Now I can do whatever I want to you.’” The danger was real.

My first reaction was, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do now?” I knew the police would do nothing. But I called the police in her district anyway. The officer seemed nice, but then he immediately called the husband and said to him, “What is your wife doing? And why is she going around talking about family matters? Look, if you do it, do it quietly.” I realized how hopeless the problem really was for her. Her problem became mine. I could not walk away. I called a woman I knew who was a retired lawyer and said, “I don’t have any money and this woman doesn’t have any money. But she needs help. She needs a divorce and a place to live.” In Moscow, housing is a big problem. When this woman married her husband, she traded her apartment to his family and now his brother lived there. So she had nowhere to go. She was trapped. Her story got worse. When their first baby was nine months old, her husband tried to kill her. “I don’t know how I survived,” she told me. The lawyer and I helped her file for divorce. That’s when the husband told her, “I will kill you and nobody will know. And I will just say to everybody that you ran off with another man and left your baby.” I started calling her every morning just to make sure that she was alive. For three months, the lawyer counseled us at each stage and helped us develop a plan.

In the midst of all of this, the situation took a scary turn. The woman called and said: “They know everything we are talking about!” Her mother-in-law worked at the phone company and we quickly figured out that she was listening to her calls. I said, “You know, maybe it’s better. Let them hear about all the support that you have outside.” So we started pretending we had done more than we actually had. On the next phone call, I started saying, “Okay, so this police officer is not helpful, but there are lots of other police I am going to talk to about it and your lawyer will, too. So don’t worry.” The next time she came to see me, and she said, “They became much more careful after we started talking that way.” Eventually her husband left their apartment, partly because the lawyer told us how to get him out, and partly because he and his family realized that she was educated about her rights now. Ultimately, they got a divorce. Her father-in-law came to see her and said, “You have won, take the divorce, and take back the apartment; you will never see my son again.”

Soon after this success, a friend of hers in a similar situation started legal proceedings against her own ex-husband and also got her apartment back. I was elated, and for the first time, encouraged! Even in Russian society, where there were few legal precedents, a woman who is willing to do so can stand up for her rights and win. But these stories are just a small fraction of the thousands we continue to hear day after day. Unfortunately, most of the women who call us do not know their rights, nor do they know that they do not have to accept the unacceptable.

There have been some bad moments along the way. One time I picked up the phone and a male voice started saying, “What is this number?” I was cautious since it was not common for a man to call our hot line like that. I responded with “Well, what number did you dial?” And he said, “I found this phone number in the notes of my wife and I am just checking—what is it?” I told him, “Why don’t you ask your wife? Why are you calling?” And at first he tried to be calm and polite, saying, “Look, I’d just like you to tell me what it is.” And I said, “If you don’t trust your wife, it’s your problem. I am not going to tell you what it is and I am not asking your name. If you introduce yourself maybe we can talk.” And then he started being really aggressive and verbally abusive and he said, “I know who you are. I know your name. I know where you are located. I know where you live. And I am going to come there with some guys and kill you.” My husband was there with me at the time and saw I was really scared, though I said to the man on the phone, “I am not afraid of you,” and just hung up. I still don’t know whose husband it was. He never came. Another time, my phone at home rang late at night and a man said, “If you don’t stop, you’d better watch out for your son.” This really scared me. I moved my son to my parents’ home for a few months. That was tough for a mother to do.

There are different estimations of domestic violence in Russia. Some say now that 30 to 40 percent of families have experienced it. In 1995, in the aftermath of the Beijing Women’s Conference, the first reliable statistics were published in Russia indicating that 14,500 women a year had been killed by their husbands. But even today, the police do not keep such statistics, yet their official estimates are that perhaps 12,000 women per year are killed in Russia from domestic violence. Some recognition of the dimensions of this problem is finally surfacing.

Under Russian law, however, only domestic violence that results either in injuries causing the person to be out of work for at least two years, or in murder, can be considered a crime. There are no other laws addressing domestic violence in spite of years of effort to have such laws enacted by the Duma. But, in my work and in our fledgling women’s movement, we have on our own expanded the functional definition of domestic violence to include marital rape, sexual violence in the marriage or partnership, psychological violence, isolation, and economic control. This latter area has become perhaps one of the most insidious and hidden forms of domestic violence because women comprise 60 percent of the unemployed population—and the salary of a woman is about 60 percent of a man’s for the same work.

A friend started working with me in January 1994, and by that summer we had trained our first group of women who began to work with us as telephone counselors. In 1995, I started going to other cities in Russia putting on training sessions for other women’s groups that were starting to emerge and who wanted to start hot lines or crisis centers. Next, we started developing programs to provide psychological and legal counseling for the victims of domestic violence.

By 1997, we had also started a new program to train lawyers in how to handle domestic abuse cases. Under present Russian law, the provocation of violence is a defense which can be argued in court to decrease punishment. This is perhaps the most cruel form of psychological abuse, because it all happens in the courtroom right in front of the victim. She is made to look responsible. The victim is blamed openly by the perpetrator. Regrettably, there are still many judges who will readily accept the notion that she was in some way responsible, and let the perpetrator avoid being held accountable for his actions. The final trauma has been inflicted.

At the start of the new millennium, we have over forty women’s crisis centers operating throughout Russia and have recently formed the Russian Association of Women’s Crisis Centers, which is officially registered with and recognized by the Russian government. I am honored to have been elected as its first president.

My parents have been incredibly supportive of my work. My father, a retired military officer, once said to me, “In Soviet times you would have been a dissident, right?” And my reply to him was, “Probably, because the Soviets maintained the myth of the ideal—where domestic violence couldn’t exist, officially.” The attitude during Soviet times was that if you are a battered wife, then you had failed as a woman and as a wife. It was the woman’s responsibility in our society to create a family atmosphere. It was up to her to maintain the ideal. That’s why women came to me who had been brutalized for twenty-six years. I was the first person they could turn to openly, and confide something they had to hide within themselves throughout their life. This is still true to a great extent today.

I am not an extraordinary person. Any woman in my position would do the same. I feel, however, that I am really lucky because I was at the beginning of something new, a great development in Russia, a new attitude. Now, everybody is talking about domestic violence. And many are doing something about it.

Originally appeared in Speak Truth to Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World by Kerry Kennedy.