“For the first three years of our relationship he was kind; he bought me flowers and gifts. We didn’t have any problems. But when I was six months pregnant with our first child, he started to beat me,” says 38-year-old Irina Petrakova, a lawyer living in Moscow. “He started punching me in the stomach. I was six months [pregnant]. Over the years, it got worse and worse—he beat me more often and it was more severe. When my son was three, he started beating him, and when I intervened, he got violent with me.”
After leaving the hospital following one brutal attack, Petrakova filed for divorce from her then-husband, Alexei, and moved into a new apartment with her children. “This is the fourth flat because he kept finding us and beating us,” she says. “I complained to the police, but they said it was nothing out of the ordinary and advised me to find a man and start a new life without bothering them anymore.” In her testimony to the police, Petrakova outlined more than 20 cases of abuse during their marriage, but she says Alexei only received 120 hours of compulsory work as punishment for two of the beatings.
In Russia, 40 percent of all violent crimes are committed by the victims’ family members, according to government statistics, with about 14,000 women killed each year—a rate of one woman every 40 minutes. Sexist attitudes in Russia fuel the problem, with beatings dangerously described as a form of affection: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.”
“Women are [held] responsible for an emotional atmosphere,” says Marina Pisklakova-Parker, founder and director of the Moscow-based ANNA National Center for Prevention of Violence. “An admission of domestic violence is an admission of [their] failure.” In 2015, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women addressed domestic violence in Russia in a statement that expressed its concern “about reported barriers that women are facing when they seek justice, including social stigma and negative stereotypes, [and] lack of awareness of their rights.” But since then, the situation for Russian women has gotten worse, not better.
In 2017, the Russian parliament voted 385 to 2 to decriminalize any domestic violence that does not cause “significant injury” (defined as requiring hospital treatment). Emotional and psychological abuse don’t count. Nor do physical assaults, unless they cause broken bones or concussions—bruises, scratches or bleeding aren’t taken seriously unless there are repeated beatings within a year.
Supporters say the law is designed to limit state meddling in the family and to “preserve the tradition of parental authority.” It was introduced by ultraconservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina, who has said, “A man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man,” and that it was ridiculous that a family member could be labeled a criminal for “a slap.”
The law is a symptom of intensifying conservatism in Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church has become vastly more powerful since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and feminist activists view with alarm the increasingly close partnership between President Vladimir Putin and the church. Having long advocated for less “interference” in family life, the church strongly backed the law decriminalizing domestic violence. In 2015, a church commission proclaimed that it views the notion of domestic violence in terms of “radical feminism where a man is often portrayed as a potential aggressor.”
Mayor Yevgeny Roizmanmayor of Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, said the effects of the new law were immediately palpable. Just two days after the bill was signed, he announced on Facebook that the number of domestic-violence-related calls to the city’s police had more than doubled.
“The law sends a message that physical violence in the family is not a bad thing,” Pisklakova-Parker says. “It was already very difficult for women to prosecute their abusers; now it’ll be not possible.” Activists argue the law is likely to worsen a system in which Russian police don’t take cases of domestic violence seriously, providing little help to women who report such assaults.
According to the ANNA center, some 72 percent of women who sought assistance from a national helpline never reported the abuse to police, and of those women who did, 80 percent were unsatisfied with the police response. Women who report violence to the police are often sent back to their abusers.
When 36-year-old Yana Savchuk, a resident of Oryol, 200 miles south of Moscow, told police in November 2016 that her boyfriend was going to kill her, the officers who arrived at her doorstep mocked her. In the interview, which was recorded on her phone, one of the officers assures her, “If you get killed, we will definitely come to examine the body.” Less than an hour after they’d left without offering her any form of protection, Savchuk was beaten to death by her boyfriend.
Women police officers could make the difference in cases such as Savchuk’s. Studies carried out by the International Association of Women Police Officers show that women improve a department’s response to reports of domestic violence. But in Russia, the women who make up 20 percent of the police force are mainly consigned to administrative duties. And rarely do they have the authority to punish those officers who neglect domestic-violence cases.
Activists say they’re taking some small consolation in that the new legislation has sparked increased public discussion about women’s rights. “The most important thing is to put domestic violence as a social problem on the map,” says ANNA’s Pisklakova-Parker. “Because these women are invisible.”
Almost two years have passed since Petrakova’s abusive ex-husband has come after her. It’s the longest her son and daughter have lived without violence. “We live in peace,” she says. But what about all the other Russian women who have been made even more vulnerable by the new law? Where will they find their peace?