Inga’s husband came home one day with a big sports bag and several axes, which he said he would use to kill her and their 3-year-old daughter. The bag was for their body parts, he told her, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documenting what the advocacy group says is the Russian state's dangerously inadequate approach to domestic violence -- a severe problem the report says is often aggravated by the actions of the authorities.
Inga, a 42-year-old from a village in the Urals, had every reason to believe her husband was dead serious.
For four years, between 2014 and 2018, he had beaten her repeatedly, including when she was pregnant, breaking her nose and several ribs and knocking out most of her front teeth, she told HRW.
Inga’s case, along with dozens of accounts of sometimes horrific violence suffered by women at the hands of their husbands or partners, is documented in an October 25 report titled I Could Kill You And No One Would Stop Me: Weak State Response To Domestic Violence In Russia.
After the girl was born, Inga said, her husband attempted to choke her and then kicked her mother and daughter out of the house in subzero temperatures. So when he threatened them with dismemberment and then popped out to buy alcohol, Inga took her daughter and ran away. She filed a report with the police, but the police officer who talked to her husband ended up laughing with him, she said.
“I knew then I was completely on my own,” Inga said.
She eventually fled to a shelter in another city.
Video from March 2017
In months of research for the report, HRW says it found that serious gaps in Russian legislation, the lack of protection orders, and inappropriate police and judicial conduct deprive women of protection, even when severe physical violence is involved.
There are almost 79 million women in Russia, about 54 percent of the population.
The report says the Russian authorities often treat victims of domestic violence with overt hostility and refuse to investigate or even register their complaints, instead pressing the victims into a process called private prosecution, which is both unfair and burdensome, since the victim must provide all the evidence and support all the costs.
“Survivors of domestic violence found the process of private prosecution overwhelming and ineffective, and for this reason decided to forego it altogether,” the report says.
HRW urges President Vladimir Putin's government to "condemn at the highest political level all forms of gender-based violence, including domestic violence."
The 84-page report details the hurdles the victims face in reporting abuse and getting help. It is based on 69 in-depth interviews and on accounts by lawyers, activists, women’s rights groups, shelter staff, and government officials.
Twenty-seven of the women interviewed were survivors of domestic violence aged 22 to 45, coming from all over Russia, both from urban and rural areas.
Video from April 2017
The physical violence described by survivors and others interviewed for the study included being choked, punched, beaten with wooden sticks and metal rods, burned, thrown out of windows, and raped.
The violence was sometimes fatal, like in the case of Anastasia Ovsyannikova, whose partner beat her over the course of several hours in December 2017 before neighbors alerted police.
However, police left without further investigation, and it was Anastasia’s father who later took her to the hospital, where she died after six days, diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
Her abuser was eventually tried and convicted.
Besides physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence often comes in the form of economic and emotional abuse, and “women make up the overwhelming majority of survivors,” the report says.
Although official studies have found at least 1 in 5 Russian women has been subjected to it, domestic violence is still very frequently considered a private, “family” matter, the report says, adding that Russia “does not have a national domestic violence law.”
Moreover, in February 2017, Putin signed amendments that decriminalized first battery offenses among family members, legislation the report calls “a serious setback that reduced penalties for abusers and put survivors at even greater risk.”
The report recommends stronger police action in response to reports of abuse. Authorities including police, judges, and in some cases even service providers advise women seeking protection to reconcile with their abusers or avoid “provoking” them, it says.
Despite repeated calls by women’s rights groups and lawyers, the report says, Russian legislation does not provide for protection orders that would shield women from recurrent violence by banning contact between a victim and the perpetrator. It also does not take into account that the victim and the abuser often live together and have children, frequently making the former economically dependent on the latter.
"The government should introduce protection orders that allow for immediate and longer term protection for survivors of domestic violence. At the moment, women who try to seek help from the state continue to be abused by the perpetrators because there is no measure in place to protect them," Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at HRW, told RFE/RL.
There is limited space in specialized shelters for domestic-violence victims, she said, and some state-run shelters employ “daunting” bureaucratic procedures that mean they may take weeks to accept survivors -- who are often under threat of further violence.
“Russia is incredibly behind in terms of shelter spaces, and it must ensure that there are enough support services in place for survivors of domestic violence,” Gorbunova said.
“Women who face domestic violence, especially in rural areas, do not have effective access to support services, including emergency shelters,” she said.
The report calls on Russia to urgently adopt a comprehensive law treating domestic violence as “a standalone criminal offense to be investigated and prosecuted by the state, rather than through private prosecution.”
It also urges Russia to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention On Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women And Domestic Violence.
If the authorities do not act to change the situation, it will continue to put lives at risk and leave survivors to face abuse on their own, HRW concludes.