MOSCOW -- Darya Ageny was 18 when she stabbed a stranger.
It was June 2018, and the aspiring artist was returning to her hostel in the Russian resort town of Tuapse, where she'd arrived from Moscow for a summer job at a children's camp.
A drunk man began trailing her and shouting lewd comments, and she quickened her pace. When he grabbed her by the arm, she cried out.
"I began screaming," she said during an interview in Moscow this week. "I'm sure someone heard me, but no one came to help."
The man pushed her against a wall and thrust his hand down her pants, and she said she reached into her handbag for a pocketknife she used to sharpen pencils and flailed it until he gave up and left.
She gathered up her possessions, which were left strewn over the ground, and was escorted home by a group of teenagers she soon encountered. They examined the blade she had used and tossed it into a nearby stream.
"That had a very negative impact on my case," Ageny said. The knife was later fished out by investigators looking into charges that leave the teenager facing up to 10 years in jail for inflicting grievous bodily harm.
Right To Self-Defense
Ageny's case has resonated among Russian women at a time when human rights monitors and feminist groups are fighting for the right to self-defense against sexual assault and for tougher punishments for perpetrators. In recent weeks, cases like hers have sparked protests and solidarity events across the country.
Last month, 28-year-old Kristina Shidukova was sentenced to eight years in prison for stabbing her husband to death as he allegedly tried to push her off the fourth-floor balcony of the couple's apartment in the Krasnodar region. More than 150,000 people have signed an online petition calling for Shidukova’s acquittal -- and even more have done so for Ageny.
Among the most closely watched of Russia's self-defense trials has been that of the teenage Khachaturyan sisters -- Maria, Angelina, and Krestina -- who stabbed their father to death in a Moscow suburb last summer after years spent enduring what they say was constant humiliation and sexual abuse. Accompanied by active media coverage, the sisters' trial has fueled discussions about Russia's approach to domestic abuse, violence against women, and self-defense.
"All these cases are very similar," Alyona Popova, a prominent women's rights activist, told RFE/RL. "Why did they emerge? Because in our country victims of violence are never defended by the state. They are left alone to face their abusers, and are forced to use whatever weapons are at hand."
Russian criminal law allows self-defense in cases when a clear risk to one's life is present, an approach in line with that of most countries. But Popova says Russian courts typically fall back on the principle of "proportionality," which often judges the desperate actions of alleged victims as incommensurate with those of their attacker.
"This is a big problem -- a big gap -- in our legal system," she said.
There's also a lack of awareness about the resources available to victims of rape or assault, who often choose not to turn to police or press charges. After she was attacked on that June evening, Ageny promptly left Tuapse. She did not remember how her attacker looked, she said, and was sure she hadn't stabbed him.
"And I understood from the start that I'd meet with blame if I told anyone," she said.
A month later, investigators arrived at her workplace in Moscow to arrest her. The blade had penetrated the man’s intestine, she soon learned, and he had ended up in hospital, where doctors are mandated by law to contact the police in such cases.
Ageny was taken back for questioning to Tuapse, where she has been a regular visitor ever since. Told to stand alongside two other women "who looked absolutely nothing like me," she watched as her alleged attacker -- identified subsequently as 38-year-old married father Igor Storozhev -- picked her from a line-up.
"It was absurd," she said. "I had a flashback of how this man had tried to rape me a month before, and now he enters the room and identifies the 'criminal.'"
Ageny said she was then seated on a sofa beside Storozhev as investigators heard out both parties, with Storozhev claiming he had simply been reciting poetry to the teenager from Moscow when, frightened by his decision to take her hand, she produced a knife and stabbed him.
According to separate accounts from both Ageny and her attorney, Yevgeny Salomatov, Storozhev was asked during this joint interview to recite the poems by Sergei Yesenin with which he claimed to have serenaded Ageny that June evening. He reportedly declined, saying he no longer remembered them.
Salomatov urged Ageny to publicize her case. Once news of it emerged, she began receiving messages from rape and assault victims. Some simply wanted to share their stories; others wanted help.
"I understood that there's a huge number of rape cases in Russia that we don't know about, because women simply don't talk about it," she said. "What connected all these cases is that none of these women reported it to the police or their relatives."
Ageny described one case in which a woman who had returned with a man she was on a first date with to his apartment. She had locked herself in a room there when he attacked her and messaged Ageny for urgent help.
"We're so clueless about what to do that we write to total strangers instead of calling the police," Ageny said. She said she later traveled to a Moscow suburb to meet the woman and help her report the incident to the police.
"Women are afraid of being blamed -- by relatives, by society, and by the state," she said. "They're afraid to hear 'it's your own fault.'"
Against the backdrop of her arrest and prosecution, Ageny has emerged as a prominent advocate for justice for rape and assault victims. She launched a website and the Instagram hashtag #саманевиновата -- "it's not my fault" -- under which assault and rape victims are posting their stories and supporting one another.
Ageny is also working to bring attention to resources available to such women and to shed light on what she and others allege is a lack of action and an unsympathetic attitude on the part of state officials.
Her trial is yet to begin, as investigators continue to compile the case. In an interview, Salomatov said Ageny's main problem is a lack of evidence of her assault. She has no obvious injuries, and no witnesses to summon. It's her word against the word of her alleged attacker.
"This is the main legal shortcoming in Russia: There's no clear law on how to defend oneself when the perpetrator has left no physical mark," Salomatov told RFE/RL. With such cases adjudicated differently across Russia, victims often seek to drum up attention to their case and influence its outcome.
"Such cases need publicity. Otherwise the criminal cases could have reached the court long ago," Salomatov said.
For Ageny, the fact that she was forced to publicize her case despite its sensitive nature and her initial reluctance to discuss it says much about the unreliability of Russia's legal system.
"I shouldn't need to do this," she said of her campaign to attract media attention. "There should be fair courts."
She added: "But I don't want to be remembered as the girl who stabbed someone."