Close to home In Russia, where at least one in three women faces abuse, an interactive media project against domestic violence goes international
Note: This article contains images of violence against women.
Kirill and Nastya’s backstory may say they appear from the outside to have a normal life, but Project 911, an interactive multimedia project released in Russian in December 2018, shatters that illusion immediately. The main feature of the site, a role-playing exercise called Game 116, introduces the couple with unsettling graphics and the explicit knowledge that Kirill’s aggression has caused Nastya to become increasingly closed off to the world around her.
In this way, the project flips a common script. Rather than emphasizing that domestic abuse leans on the illusion of normalcy, it skips that illusion altogether, hinting that abusive relationships are, in fact, a kind of disastrous norm. It’s a very fair implication: even Russia’s state statistics agency has reported that one in five women in the country has encountered physical violence, while one in three has suffered emotional abuse.
Now, Project 911, which made the rounds of independent Russian news outlets when it was first announced, has released a new trailer that targets international viewers, drawing them toward an English-language version of its website.
Like the trailer, Project 911 foregrounds the fact that many social structures, both in the Russian state and in the home, do not hear victims’ voices or acknowledge domestic abuse as a problem. A 2017 amendment decriminalizing domestic abuse in Russia was approved almost unanimously in the State Duma, and domestic violence incidents subsequently multiplied. Top human rights officials argued that imprisoning “mildly abusive” husbands could leave mothers without breadwinners.
Similarly, Game 116 is technically interactive — users take on Nastya’s role and can choose to fight, scream, reach out, or plead — but it is also a no-way-out scenario. Nastya’s actions can only modify, not mitigate, the abuse she experiences because those she contacts for help do not believe she is in danger. The choices Game 116 appears to offer are also false in that they are physically difficult to make: words like “TALK” and “CRY” and “SCREAM” bounce around the screen to avoid the user’s rapidly clicking mouse, and time can easily run out before users realize they have missed their chance to click the space bar when “Fight back” was still available on the screen.
Interactive multimedia projects with pointedly slick graphics are nothing new in Russian, perhaps even more so than in English. Russian-speaking creatives have used similarly impressive websites to walk users through 20th-century history, create a social network of the Russian Revolution, run worldwide reading marathons, and organize accessible, high-quality online courses. These projects, however, aim to cause change almost exclusively through education. Project 911 makes the unusual move of attempting to cross over into direct social action.
Though the project was produced by a for-profit communications agency, Room485, it has no commercial goals. Even more notably, it was created in conjunction with leading Russian women’s organizations like ANNA, Nasiliu.net (No to Violence), and Project W that integrated real-world instances of abuse into its narrative. One of the project’s explicit long-term aims is to cause material change in both Russian law and the availability of resources for victims and survivors of domestic violence. To that end, Project 911 supplements the game at the center of its website with contact information for crisis centers and nonprofits, a quiz that identifies signs of abuse, and a request for new resources and collaborators who could broaden the impact of the project on and off the Web.
Project 911’s long-term goals really do require resources well beyond its current reach. However, even in what are hopefully its early stages, the project represents a very promising shift in approach. Its availability in English bodes well both for international anti-abuse movements seeking inspiration for creative activism and for those who understand the stakes of the Russian women’s movement and feel compelled to communicate those stakes outside the Russian-speaking world.