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Russia: Violence Against Women -- 'If He Beats You, He Loves You' (Part 3)

For women in Russia, time seems to be moving backward -- not forward. That's the opinion of activists working to prevent the rising incidence of violence against women. Under communism, considerable efforts were made to raise the status of women. But many of those advances were reversed by the economic, social, and moral upheavals of the 1990s. In this third of our four-part series looking at the plight of battered women, RFE/RL looks at the case of "Vika."

Moscow, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- "Vika" was 22 years old when she decided to marry. Her husband was doing well financially and decided that she shouldn't work, but stay home "and cook dinner."

Soon, he started insulting her, counting every ruble she spent and secretly following her around. One day, about three years into the marriage -- just before one of Vika's increasingly rare outings -- he blew up. Vika recalls:

"There was this one dress that I really liked. He literally ripped it off my body, ripped it up, because he thought that if I would go out in it -- it was this tight kind of dress that I really liked -- it could provoke other men. He was a very jealous person, actually. He even forbade me to wear make-up and to go see my friends. It didn't come at once, but little by little," Vika said.

The first physical abuse came while she was pregnant. Vika admits that the idea of leaving him at the time briefly ran through her head. But the thought of having a child without a job was frightening. A friend gave her the following advice.

"She told me: 'you know, that's our lot in life, that's our fate. It's better to put up with it. How are you going to bring up your child otherwise, how are you going to earn a living?'" Vika said.

The turning point for Vika came the day her husband almost killed her. During an argument, Vika had run to the window to call for help, or to scare him that she would throw herself out. She explains.

"He grabbed me by the shoulders. There was this cord hanging from the curtain. So he grabbed me and the cord, and then wrapped it around my neck and started pulling it tight," Vika said.

Vika says she can't remember how it ended but says the incident convinced her to get away. She spent several weeks at a girlfriend's house outside of Moscow, summoning up the courage to get help from a crisis center. The center helped her obtain a divorce and start a new single life. She now works as a biology teacher in a private school.

Alexandra Kareva, a lawyer for the Russian association of women's crisis centers called "Stop Violence," says Vika's story is increasingly familiar. Nearly 100,000 women called the group's hotlines last year.

Kareva says the growing incidence of violence against women corresponds to a deterioration in how society views women. She says the "positive, empowered" image of women that was common in Soviet propaganda has been replaced with a new, more submissive image -- women as "sex objects, cleaning ladies, and schoolteachers."

"In this sense, things are going backward because women are being forced out of the workplace. Everything is being done to push them out of the labor market and keep them sitting at home. What really upsets me is the [new] attitude toward women -- that they are either sex objects, or cleaning ladies, or school teachers. These are her three roles -- and that she should be submissive," Kareva said.

She concedes that in Soviet times, the plight of women was far from perfect. Women were -- as she says -- working like slaves. But she says Soviet propaganda -- posters of women as tractor drivers, for example -- at least helped to create an image of women as "strong and active."

Kareva says women today are bombarded with contradictory messages, and are more and more insecure about their rights. For instance, she says, many young women sign work contracts that include a clause forbidding them from getting married or having children. This, she says, is illegal.

In Russia, victims of abuse rarely come forward, and labor law cases rarely make it through the courts. Rape cases still rest largely on the opinions of the local police. Judges will often dismiss abuse cases and advise the wife to just "make up" with her husband.

After all, as a traditional Russian saying goes -- "if he beats [you], he loves [you]."

Kareva is hesitant to blame all of the problems on Russia's patriarchal traditions. She says there is a mix of factors, many related to social and economic insecurity.

She talks about the growing numbers of women responding to ads to "work" or "study" abroad -- often a front for human traffickers: "Most of [the women who respond to these ads] try to escape the insecurity in Russia, the difficult social and economic situation, the problems that exist in their unsettled private lives. Many of the women who go abroad, [hoping] to find themselves, build a better life, were actually victims in Russia of violence on the part of their partners, their parents, and see it as a way of getting away from the troubles they have here."

Kareva points out that Russian legislation on the whole has done little to promote women and to ensure their protection. But sometimes even legislation portrayed as progressive can have unforeseen pernicious effects.

A recent reform of the criminal code meant to improve Russia's slow court system allows for the police to refer victims to a so-called "people's courts."

But Kareva says this means in practice that a victim has no prosecutor or lawyer to help her. In the case of a battered wife, the woman must make the rounds of the neighbors and collect depositions supporting her claim of abuse. She's the cop, the prosecutor, and lawyer all in one.