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Russia: Domestic Violence Persists

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Tomorrow (8 March) is International Women's Day, an event widely celebrated throughout Russia. For Russian non-governmental organizations concerned with the condition of the country's women, it's an annual opportunity to focus public attention on the problem of domestic violence. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the NGOs so far have not had great success.

Moscow, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Sales of flowers, chocolates, and perfumes in Russia each year peak on International Women's Day. But for tens of thousands of Russian women, the real treat would be to escape the tyranny and frequent violence of the husbands who buy the gifts.

Women, not soldiers, are the victims of Russia's most lethal war. According to official statistics, some 12,000 women a year are killed by their spouses as a result of domestic violence. Similar figures in the United States, for example, are much lower (the U.S. Justice Dept. says that about 1,400 women were killed by husbands or boyfriends in 1992). NGOs have been publicizing the figure for years, and a growing number of women's organizations throughout Russia have set up psychological support groups and hotlines, as well as six shelters for abused women. But domestic violence has not abated.

Specialists point out that bad social habits are hard to break and cite Russia's long-established patriarchal traditions. Psychologist Larisa Babitskaya works for the Yaroslavia Center in Yaroslavl, a city 400 kilometers north of Moscow. She says that throughout the Soviet period domestic violence was a taboo subject, inherited from Russia's traditional male-dominated society.

Babitskaya told our correspondent that to date NGOs have had only limited success in convincing women that they are victims. As for getting the message across to men, she said that is a far more distant aim.

"In the Russian mentality, domestic violence has never been considered a crime. Isn't our favorite adage, 'If he beats you, that means he loves you?' That's why what we're trying to achieve first is to get women to realize that it's not right [to be beaten.] And even when [a woman] finally understands what is right, tens of years can go by before [she] seeks help. It's only at that point that we can address ourselves to men."

Some officials share Babitskaya's views. Yury Pigolkin is one of Russia's handful of forensic doctors allowed to conduct medical examinations to provide legal evidence of violence. He also speaks of the Russian attitude that makes it difficult to punish wife-beaters effectively, short of sending them to Russia's already overcrowded jails.

"Our society is extremely aggressive, going from one war to another. This creates a kind of citizen to whom the principles of conduct generally acknowledged in the U.S. are not applicable. Programs made for Americans are powerless here. This is mainly due to economic factors: when a person is poor, when he's destitute, when he's barely surviving and not able to pay his rent, it's [hardly effective] to impose a fine on him."

Russian men prone to violence often refuse to see their actions as criminal, and they receive more understanding than condemnation from the police, who regularly fail to file complaints about what they call "private family affairs." A 1998 report on violence and women in Russia by Human Rights Watch -- based on interviews with the abusers as well as the abused -- showed that the prevailing mentality tends to see victims as "deserving" their fate.

Official resistance to the issue was obvious at a roundtable in Moscow this week (5 March) that brought together NGOs and Russian health and law-enforcement officials. For example, Interior Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kurkin said that the number of declared cases of rape have been reduced by a half in the past eight years. That was so, he said, because women don't complain about rape anymore "because their moral standards have been corrupted by sex on television."

As for domestic violence, Kurkin said, it was mainly the result of growing alcoholism and "could be resolved if alcoholics were forced to get treatment."

Few experts on domestic violence in Russia accept Kurkin's explanations. Most say that domestic and sexual violence's underlying cause is an unbridled need for control. Alcoholism or difficult social conditions, they add, are extra risk factors but not a necessary condition for the violence.

Babitskaya points out that abusive husbands do not always mistreat their spouses physically. She tells of a young Yaroslavl housewife, married to a rich local businessman, who sought and received psychological support at her center.

"The woman said her husband gives her the exact sum of money she needs for shopping. He counts it down to the last kopeck -- what brand of bread and milk she buys, and if she has to take [public transport], he pays out according to her exact itinerary. She didn't have a single ruble extra. And she lived like that for two years before calling us. She described [her situation] as slavery."

Babitskaya says that this is an example of what she calls "a new trend in Russian domestic violence," very different from the Soviet model. It is found, she says, either in families where -- because of the past decade's economic upheavals -- the husbands can't find work and suffer a drop in self-esteem, or in rich families where a jobless wife is now considered a status symbol for the husband.

"Women here are very dependent. That's a change over the past years because a lot of women [now] don't work. In Soviet times, that was not so. Everyone worked under the same conditions. Now a man often forces his wife to leave her job to take care [of him and] their children. And then, when she wants to leave him, she is unable to divorce because she owns nothing and has not the slightest hope of earning money."

In addition, existing Russian legislation usually favors the man's side in domestic quarrels. Even in cases where divorce is sought by the wife because of domestic violence, the law does not provide for her to receive any alimony.

Babitskaya says that the lack of legal protection for women is a direct inheritance from Soviet times. She cites the continuing acute shortage in housing as a major reason why leaving a violent husband is often impossible. Because there is no other place for her to live, the spouse or ex-spouse remains trapped in a cycle of violence.

"There are a lot of former spouses who continue to live together because they have an apartment that they can't exchange [for two separate ones] They're already divorced, but they can't separate. Such a situation can even increase violence. We were confronted with this many times: apparently [in such a situation], the former husband actually feels that he's beyond the law since he is not a husband anymore. At that point, the abuse manifests itself with new force."

Support organizations for Russian women are modest in their expectations for progress in the near future. They say that the state is dragging its feet, shying away from its responsibilities to provide protection -- for example, by setting up more shelters for abused women. Only six shelters exist, and all are the result of private or local initiatives. There are no shelters yet in Moscow.

At the 5 March roundtable, Maria Mokhova, who works with the "Sisters" hotline service asked Interior Ministry representative Kurkin whether a special team could be set up to treat and examine the victims of domestic and sexual violence. Rape victims often have to wait several days before the administrative process turns them over to a forensic doctor, by which time all evidence has often disappeared.

Kurkin smiled and then replied: "We can't set up something like that just for you!"