‘I defended my life as well as I could’ Meet the Moscow teen trying to educate women about their rights when sexually assaulted, as she faces felony charges for protecting herself
A 19-year-old woman in Moscow named Darya Ageniy has launched a new campaign on social media in support of victims of sexual violence. She says she survived an attack last summer in the city of Tuapse, where an intoxicated local man tried to rape her. In self-defense, Darya stabbed the man with a pencil sharpening knife, leading to an investigation in which she is a suspect. If convicted, she faces time in prison. The man in question denies forcing himself onto Darya, saying that he only wanted to read poetry to her. Meduza special correspondent Pavel Merzlikin spoke to Darya Ageniy about the felony case against her and about how her Internet project might change Russians’ perceptions of sexual violence.
In late June 2018, Darya Ageniy accompanied a group of children on a trip from Moscow to a summer camp in Tuapse. She was 18 years old at the time. According to the terms of her contract with the organization managing the children’s retreat, Ageniy was supposed to travel with the group to the Black Sea, and she was then free to return home, by herself, whenever was convenient for her. After escorting the children, Darya decided to stay in the area for a few days.
She says a local man attacked her, on her first day in Tuapse. The man tried to rape her, she says, but Ageniy managed to fight him off with a pencil sharpening knife. Having suffered no major injuries in the attack, she didn’t report the incident to the police, and returned home to Moscow. A month later, police charged her with inflicting grievous bodily harm. According to the man in Tuapse who Ageniy says attacked her, he never forced himself on her, and had only walked her to a hostel, with her permission, and read her poetry by Sergey Esenin. Before reaching the hostel, the man says, Ageniy said she had to go, which upset the man. He then supposedly grabbed her by the arm, at which point Ageniy allegedly started screaming and stabbing him with the knife. A criminal investigation is ongoing.
What’s the current status of your criminal case?
It’s still at the preliminary stage with the Investigative Committee. The case has already been sent to the prosecutor’s office several times, but they’ve disagreed with the charges against me [inflicting grievous bodily harm]o, and they keep sending it back. In the prosecutor’s office, they’ve also noted that not all the witnesses were questioned, and no forensic testing was conducted.
You didn’t initially file a police report about the attempted rape. After you learned about the charges against you, did you try to file a report then?
Yes, but for some reason they still haven’t accepted it, even though it’s been more than a year now.
Why didn’t you file a police report immediately?
First, I didn’t even seem to have been bruised. Maybe I was, but I don’t think the police would have paid any attention to this. Second, I was sure that I hadn’t done anything bad to the guy — there wasn’t even any blood on the knife. I thought he was alive and well, and still boozing it up somewhere in Tuapse, and the only thing left for me to do was leave. Anyway, nobody would have agreed to file the report. It wasn’t even rape, but attempted rape. I think they would have just laughed about it.
Even if I’d filed a report and they’d accepted it, I would have had to stay in Tuapse for a while — and I absolutely didn’t want that. Jesus, that guy lives in the city, he knows where I live, and he knows what I look like. That thought hardly thrilled me. That’s why I left the next morning, and didn’t tell anyone [about what happened]. I thought the whole situation would end there.
The case was opened because the man went to the hospital to treat his wounds?
Yes. An ambulance came for him. One of his relatives probably called it — he’s married and has a small child.
When the detectives first showed up at my home, they initially said I’d nearly killed him. They said four of his internal organs had been injured: his intestines, lung, liver, and stomach. For a long time, I struggled to understand how a little pencil sharpening knife could inflict such damage. But in the end, it turned out that I’d hit him in the stomach, and injured only his intestines. He spent two weeks in the hospital, got out, and went back to living and working quietly, but this is considered to be grievous bodily harm, because an internal organ was wounded.
Have you been in contact with the man during the investigation? Do you have any idea what kind of person this is?
I’ve seen him just twice in all my life. The first time was when he attacked me, and the second was when he came for the police lineup, when I stood there when a sign that said “number two,” alongside two women who looked absolutely nothing like me. He entered the room and said that “number two” had done it. Immediately afterwards, we had a face-to-face confrontation, where I explained my version of what happened, and he gave his, about Esenin’s poetry. My attorney, by the way, asked him to recite at least one verse by Esenin, but he refused.
During the encounter, he was extremely nervous. He panicked, when I described everything. I think he realized that his version of events is completely divorced from reality. After all, there are facts that can be checked. For example, he says I approached him and asked where I could spend the night in town. But I’d reserved a spot at this dumb hostel through Booking.com in advance, and I’d already checked in. I’ve even got some photos I took from the window of this hostel. And there are several more inconsistencies [in his story], but they’re still not really accepting my version.
Although, there are of course many things that are impossible to prove, like the fact that he tried to rape me. In Russia, it’s not always possible to prove rape. There’s only definite proof if the rapist leaves biological traces on the body.
Do you know which direction the investigation is leaning?
Right now, even my attorney is having a hard time figuring this out. The investigators stopped sharing information with us, when we started working with the media. They told us immediately that they wouldn’t tell us anything, because we’d go on television and say nasty things about them.
Do you think you’re in danger of going to prison?
Of course. Most likely, they’ll drop the Article 111 charges [deliberately inflicting grievous bodily harm] because there was no intent. They’ll probably come after me for exceeding the limits of self-defense, and there’s a good chance I’ll be sent to prison. Broadly speaking, the guy was injured, and I didn’t have a scratch on me. And psychological trauma isn’t considered an injury [after the incident in Tuapse, Ageniy worked with a psychologist and took antidepressants].
What brought you to launch your project in support of sexual-violence victims, and not stop at your own experience?
Of course, everything I do, I’m doing first and foremost to keep myself out of prison. I really don’t want to up and lose nine years, considering that’s half of the time I've been alive. Initially, I started talking to the media about my story to get some visibility and generate interest in the case. This worked partly: As soon as the media got interested, the Investigative Committee got off its butt and finally got to work. It’s kinda lousy, really — do we need to bring in the media every time, just to get people to do their jobs?
Afterwards, I started getting messages about similar cases from older women, younger women, and girls who weren’t even 18 yet. Either someone had tried to rape them or had raped them. But either they told no one, or they told their parents, who didn’t file a police report. There were a lot of them.
Why didn’t they tell anyone?
Often, victims don’t talk about the violence because of fear and shame. Many aren’t sure the police will help them. Maybe they don’t remember exactly what they attacker looked like, or they’re afraid of the man, because it’s often someone they know personally. People are afraid to put these stories out in the open.
Every day, I was reading at least 10 absolutely horrifying stories that arrived in my inbox, and I realized that this is a global problem. The official statistics available today are a complete lies. According to the “Sisters” Center, which helps victims of violence, just one in 10 victims actually files a police report. And the police only accept one of every five reports.
I decided that the root of the problem is actually in the absence of reliable statistics. We don’t realize how global this problem is. We aren’t seeing it entirely, and we don’t think it’s so big that it needs to be addressed. So 3,000 are raped in a year — “oh well, it happens.” But the number is much higher. I can’t be sure, but I think we only know about one in every 100 cases. And one of the most common reasons victims don’t talk about sexual violence is being judged by society.
Have you encountered this yourself?
Yes, when I came forward about the attempted rape, even some pretty close friends started scolding me for going alone to Tuapse. There was always a subtle hint of judgement in their voice, as if I were to blame. And on social media it was even worse.
Why do you think people react this way?
I don’t know. For some reason, I think the people who judge me are in many respects potential attackers themselves. Here’s what I believe: If a guy thinks it’s okay to rape a woman, if she’s dressed seductively, or in a lot of make up, or drunk, then I don’t rule out that he might act on this himself. I can’t think of any other reason for the judgement. Maybe they’re just justifying themselves. But I could be mistaken.
What about judgement from women? Are they just comforting themselves by saying that everything will be okay, if you only “behave”?
Probably, but this is a bizarre stereotype. Outward appearances very rarely affect whether or not a rape will be committed.
It’s often said that victims of sexual violence also face judgement from the police and state investigators.
This was awful actually. After I said the man tried to rape me, they immediately started asking what I was wearing, and how long my skirt was. Had I provoked him? I had to prove that I was wearing a normal-length skirt. If I’d said I was in a skirt that ended 10 centimeters above the knee, they’d have just told me that I was to blame.
The detectives asked me another very strange question: Why hadn’t I called the police, when he tried to rape me? (That is, instead of fighting back.) They also asked why I was walking around alone in Tuapse in the evening, and so on.
Has there been any adequate response from the police?
Yes, at one point, a young woman investigator took over my case. It felt like she actually sympathized with me, and when I gave her my testimony, I saw that she was genuinely affected by it. But then for some reason she transferred the case to the prosecutor’s office, with Article 111 charges. They just changed my investigator, and now it’s this mean older woman.
From your point of view, is the stigmatization of victims the main problem in combating this kind of violence?
First, yes, society immediately blames the victims. But on top of this, people have this idea that there’s some kind of shame in having been raped — that you’ve been tainted and you’re supposedly no longer a person.
Another important thing about your story is that you’ll likely be charged with exceeding the limits of necessary self-defense. The enforcement of this statute is often criticized in Russia. What do you think about it?
Honestly, I don’t understand any of it. When everything had just started and the detectives came to my home, I was sure that I’d tell them that he tried to rape me. And they’d tell me to go rest, and promise that everything would be okay. I thought they’d understand that I was a young woman at night in an unfamiliar city, and next to me was a drunk adult man. I didn’t think there’d be any questions about how I defended myself. I defended my life as well as I could. I was always under the impression that you can defend yourself with whatever is available, if someone attacks you. Because you’re protecting your own life, and it’s more important than anything else.
I’m still pretty new to all these legalities, but I’m trying to wrap my head around our laws, and figure out what to do, so these cases are fewer. To figure out how to correct these laws properly.
In general, it seems to me that the authorities just don’t give a damn about us and our lives. They truly don’t care who goes to prison or for what. And it’s the same police force that has its crime statistics and bonuses for caseloads. I asked my attorney why the Investigative Committee is charging me with Article 111, instead of reclassifying it to the less serious statute on self-defense. He said they’d get a bigger bonus, if they transferred the case under a more serious statute.
I’m still convinced that you need to defend your own life by whatever means available, if there’s real danger. But we need to account for the fact that we live in Russia, where it’s hard to prove in court that there was real danger. Until the laws have been reformed, we have to learn how to defend ourselves and do this properly. For example, I now advise all girls to carry pepper spray, not knives. I recently conducted a survey on Instagram, where I have an audience of about five or six thousand, and just 13 percent of them carry pepper spray, and a lot of them carry knives for self-defense. This is extremely bad and it’s wrong. Since the government and the police aren’t going to protect us, and as long as we’re not protected, we should be capable ourselves and learn to defend ourselves properly.
Why did you decide to launch this particular campaign on social media, where people pose for photos with the hashtag #samaNEvinovata (notMYfault) written on their bodies?
Women are often branded with the words “it’s her own fault.” But here we’re saying, “It’s not my fault.” In fact, the hashtag and the idea for this came up completely randomly. Anyone can participate in this campaign, and completely different people have been supporting us. It turns out that people start writing a post in support of sexual-violence victims, and they remember that someone once groped them or tried to rape them. If you look at the posts, you see that many of them include personal stories. And I’m glad that older women, younger women, and girls are talking about this. But men are also supporting the campaign, which makes me especially happy.
Besides the campaign on social media, what else are you doing publicly?
In addition to the campaign, I launched a petition in defense of the victims of sexual violence and harassment, and a website that will soon have information about this problem. I now realize that I might not be in my current situation, if I had certain knowledge back when I was in Tuapse. For example, if I’d known that I needed to run to the police immediately, in any case. And that I shouldn’t have taken a shower, but gone straight in for a forensic examination. And that I needed to have spoken immediately and as loudly as possible about what happened. And that there are right and wrong ways to defend yourself, from the law’s point of view.
That’s why one of the project’s goals is to provide information. I want to create little instructions about what to do if you’ve been attacked, and post them at least around Moscow and the surrounding area. (For now, I don’t have the resources to do more.) I want to create a pamphlet about what to do if you’re attacked in an elevator, and I want to collaborate with [the ridesharing services] Yandex.Taxi or City-Mobil, so they posted instructions about what to do if you’re attacked in a car, so everyone knows what numbers to call, and so everyone knows that centers exist to support victims of violence. I want people to know how to act during attacks and afterwards. Because we can’t eradicate violence in itself. It's always been with us, and it always will be.
Do you think Russian society will be able to overcome this problem with violence in the near future?
I personally don’t think I’m changing anything in society or in people’s heads. Really, the campaign is needed mostly to see the statistics and how society generally reacts to this. And after launching [the project], I saw that there are more positive comments than negative. And it’s very important, that the male gender is also supporting the campaign. I’m happy to know that something is changing. But I don’t know when we’ll stop hating victims. I can’t give any time frames here.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock