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‘I felt I wouldn’t survive to age 18’ How a Russian teenager faced years of abuse from her own mother and finally tried to escape

Source: Meduza

On September 6, Zhenya Rodionova, a 15-year-old girl from the Moscow region, published a post on Instagram asking for help. A few days later, she reposted it in a group called Anonymous Haters on the Russian social media network VKontakte. Zhenya wrote that she was “in a rather difficult life situation” and needed the help of a lawyer, because she had been “beaten up once again” and now was staying in a shelter.

“On Monday at 11 am, I contacted child protection services to make a statement about my mother, because on September 6, my mother hurt me again,” the post says. “The child welfare authorities in my city are clearly not inclined to help me. One of the employees simply said, ‘We don’t choose our parents,’ and, ‘So what? I also beat my daughter sometimes.’”

A night with eyes wide open

Zhenya Rodionova told Meduza that her mother, 50-year-old Elena Rodionova from Balashikha, woke up at 5:00 AM on September 6 to get ready for work — she is a cashier at a railway station. On the kitchen floor, she found a puddle of spilled milk near the refrigerator, woke her daughter, and beat her for 10 minutes with a belt that had a metal buckle. When Zhenya began to cry and asked her to stop, the girl said, her mother began to beat her even harder, demanding that she “shut up.” Photographs taken three days later were made available to Meduza: They show bruises on the teenager’s back and legs, as well as clear marks and bruising from blows inflicted by a belt. 

After that, Zhenya said, she had a panic attack and realized that her previous dream — “to somehow survive with my mother until the age of 18 and then run away as far as possible” — might not come true. Because of regular brutal beatings by her mother, Zhenya said, she had already thought about suicide more than once, but had convinced herself that it was not an option. This time, her suicidal thoughts grew stronger: “I seriously felt that, soon, I wouldn’t be able to dissuade myself from this [suicide] and simply wouldn’t survive to age 18.”

From ages three to 10, Zhenya lived with her grandmother and grandfather in the Penza region. At the time, her mother worked in another city and occasionally visited her daughter. Each visit, Zhenya said, was accompanied by beatings. Her grandparents could not protect her because they themselves were afraid of their daughter.

When Zhenya was seven, her grandfather died, and in 2015, when she was 10, her mother took her to live in her home in the Tula region where she worked. After that, according to Zhenya, her mother regularly beat her. Often, she said, her mother woke her up to beat her in the middle of the night. Zhenya recalled that once she set the television on a timer, and while her mother was watching a film, the TV shut off. Her mother didn’t believe Zhenya’s explanation and decided that she had broken the TV. She made Zhenya stand in front of her all night with her eyes open, the girl said. Her mother did not sleep that night either — she lay in bed and made sure her daughter did not sleep a wink.

Zhenya also recalled how annoyed her mother became when their cat, Semyon, ran around the apartment at night. Sometimes, when the cat went wild, she said, her mother would wake her up, scream at her, and beat her for allowing it. When Semyon was in a playful mood, Zhenya often had to stay awake and pacify the cat so he would not interfere with her mother’s sleep.

Valery Trubin, who used to live with Elena Rodionova, told Meduza they were together for about four years starting in 2011. He said Rodionova was extremely strict with her daughter, and he tried to protect the teenager from her mother’s attacks. “Once, I came home, and Lena was hitting Zhenya really hard on the head. I was shocked. I pushed her [Elena] and said that she should not dare to beat her daughter,” Trubin said. After that, he said, Rodionova did not beat Zhenya in his presence. Trubin admitted that he wanted to leave Rodionova many times, but he had developed a good, trusting relationship with Elena’s daughter and did not dare to leave the family out of pity for her.

However, Trubin and Rodionova had another quarrel in early May 2016, and he left. Zhenya said that on one occasion after Trubin left, her mother scolded her because the 11-year-old was “not tall enough" to hang her pantyhose to dry. Zhenya said Rodionova grabbed a computer cord and beat her with it "all over my body: shoulders, back, buttocks, legs." A few days later Rodionova and her daughter met Trubin at a cafe. When her mother went to the toilet, Zhenya showed him a black bruise on her leg. Trubin told Meduza that he decided not to berate Rodionova so that she would not beat Zhenya even more afterwards.

After that incident, Trubin said, he made peace with the mother and returned to her out of pity for her daughter. However, after a few days he couldn’t stand it and left the family for good.

“No harm to her health”

About two weeks after the incident with Trubin, a medical checkup took place at Zhenya’s school — the children were checked for lice and skin diseases. Zhenya said the nurse, after seeing abrasions and bruises on her body that were still noticeable after a few weeks, asked about their origin. She admitted that her mother had inflicted them.

The same day, a policeman was called to the school, and Zhenya was taken away for a medical examination. A criminal case was initiated against Elena Rodionova under Article 116, Part One of Russia’s Criminal Codex (“beatings or other violent acts that caused physical pain”) and an investigation began. During the six-month investigation that followed, Zhenya’s mother constantly forced her to change her testimony. “At first, I was forced to say that I fell off a bicycle onto a metal bar. Then, when she realized that Mr. Trubin had completely abandoned her, she made me say that he had beaten me and also accused him of harassing me. He supposedly touched me on the inside of my thigh and showed me porn.” Zhenya said she gave the testimony that her mother insisted on — however, she now claims that Trubin never beat or harassed her.

At a trial in December 2016, Elena Rodionova pleaded not guilty and refused to testify. According to her case file (Zhenya provided a copy to Meduza), during the pre-investigation inquiry, Rodionova said that she had never beaten her daughter and did not even yell at her — only sometimes “raised her voice when she did not listen.” Her mother stated that Trubin had beaten Zhenya; she also told the court that Trubin had repeatedly beaten her.

In the same file, there is a report from a psychologist who made an assessment to determine whether Trubin was abusing Zhenya. The psychologist concluded that “the girl showed confidence in her grandmother and was friendly to her stepfather … She didn’t show affection for her mother, but there are no concerns about harassment.”

The school nurse who found bruises on Zhenya’s body told investigators that the girl immediately told her about the beatings by her mother, and responded to the nurse’s question about her mother’s partner by saying that he never molested her. The nurse added that Zhenya was always reserved, hardly ever communicated with other girls, often missed school, dressed sloppily, and seldom changed clothes.

An educational psychologist from Zhenya’s school told an investigator that the girl approached her in October 2015, gave her poetry to read, and asked for the psychologist’s advice. It seemed to the psychologist that her poems were suicidal. Later, when Rodionova was called to the school because of her daughter’s absences, she said that Zhenya didn’t need to see a psychologist because she already had good relations with her stepfather. Rodionova attributed her daughter’s absences to illness but did not explain the illness. The psychologist found Rodionova "imperious." She added that Zhenya's grandmother had called the school and asked that the girl be removed from her mother’s custody.

The magistrate of Section 53 of the Tula region’s Yasnogorsk judicial district decided that Elena Rodionova had inflicted a “minor” beating on her daughter. The court concluded that the mother, “due to a sudden onset of personal hostility,” administered at least seven blows to her daughter's thigh, buttocks and shoulder with an unidentified object, causing bruising on the teenager’s body, but that this did not harm her health. Rodionova was given a fine of 7000 rubles (about $115).

Because of Rodionova’s statement about Trubin harassing her daughter, the police carried out a pre-investigation check, Trubin said. However, six months later, the investigation was closed for lack of concrete evidence, he added. Trubin said that although he felt sorry for Zhenya, he no longer intervened in the affairs of the family.

In 2017, Rodionova asked a court to establish the paternity of her daughter, naming the father as Sergey Tyurin, to oblige him to pay child support for Zhenya. Tyurin told Meduza by telephone that he was not officially married to Elena: “We were together a couple of months and she got pregnant [with Zhenya].” He had never seen his daughter. After the first minute of the conversation, Tyurin handed the phone to a man who introduced himself as Viktor Denisov, Tyurin’s lawyer “in all matters.” He told Meduza‘s correspondent that Tyurin is “neutral” on the issue of depriving Rodionova of parental rights, and “has nothing to do with this family [Zhenya and her mother].”

Zhenya leaves home

Zhenya said that after the trial, her mother came to the conclusion that she could beat her with impunity and began to treat her even more harshly. Rodionova felt ashamed around other people in their town, her daughter said, so they moved to Tula and then to Balashikha, which is near Moscow. In her new school, Zhenya gradually became friends with a classmate, Maria, and began to tell her about her problems.

Maria’s mother, Gidaya Shvedova, confirmed to Meduza that, starting in the winter of 2019 as the girls’ friendship deepened, Zhenya began to confide to her friend that her mother was beating her but asked Maria to keep the beatings a secret “because she was embarrassed by them.” Shvedova said that when her daughter first told her about her friend’s problems, she was skeptical: “This isn’t my family family, and the child is just an adolescent — all kinds of misunderstandings could come up between her and her mother.” However, Shvedova’s daughter continued to tell her regularly that her friend was being beaten at home.

Finally, Shvedova concluded that Zhenya was telling the truth when the girl showed her messages from her mother "in which the mother poured an amount of profanity and aggression on her that you wouldn’t use against your worst enemy." In addition, Shvedova saw how frightened Zhenya was every time her mother called her. Early in the spring of 2019, Shvedova said she went to Balashikha’s child welfare services, said she knew of a girl who was being severely beaten by her mother, and asked how she could help her. Shvedova said they were skeptical of her story: “Maybe the girl herself is dysfunctional, or uses profanity, or doesn’t do well in school.” The officials added that in such cases, there is only one solution: to partially or completely deprive the mother of parental rights. Shvedova told Zhenya about the meeting, but she nonetheless decided to “hang on until adulthood and then run away.”

However, Zhenya’s mother beat her again on September 6, and three days later, the girl fled to the Shvedovs. When she left home, she took some things with her for the first time: two phones belonging to her mother and 55,000 rubles (about $900). Zhenya considered this money her own: she said this sum included the child support paid by her father for several months, as well as the salary she had received for working as a cleaner in the summer. Almost all the money she earned was taken from her by her mother, she said. Zhenya planned to spend the money on a lawyer who would help her take away her mother’s parental rights.

Employees at the child protection where Shvedova took Zhenya asked about the teenager’s relationship with her mother. Then, they sat with Zhenya and Shvedova to call Elena Rodionova on the speakerphone and tell her they wanted to talk with her. A minute later, Rodionova called Zhenya. The child welfare officer asked the girl to put the phone on speakerphone. Rodionova asked why child welfare services was calling. The girl replied that neighbors had complained about screams from their apartment on September 6. Shvedova, who was present during the conversation, said Rodionova seemed convinced by her daughter’s explanation and planned to talk to the neighbors, saying they “always stick their nose” in other peoples’ affairs.

The child protection officers promised Zhenya they would talk with her mother and sort out the situation. However, when they left the building, “Zhenya was terrified by the thought that she would have to go back to her mother that day,” Shvedova said. The girl was afraid that Rodionova would beat her again when she found out about the complaint to the authorities. Shvedova called a free legal aid hotline and asked how to ensure the child’s safety in such a situation. The lawyer recommended that Zhenya file a statement about the beating with the police and was surprised that the child protection officers had not suggested that she do this. The administration of Balashikha’s child protection services refused to comment to Meduza on the Rodionova case.

After Zhenya and Gidaya Shvedova filed a statement with the police, the girl was sent for a medical examination, where signs of beatings were noted. After that, Zhenya was told she could live in the infectious ward of the city hospital for the duration of the proceedings, since there were no empty places at Horizon, the local social and rehabilitation shelter for minors. A few weeks later, Zhenya said she wrote to the regional Ministry of Education and told her story. The next day, she was called by a ministry employee and promised that guardianship officers and a psychologist would visit her. A guardianship employee came the next day — and after a couple of days, she had a bed at Horizon. She has been living there ever since.

Help from Czech terrorists

After Zhenya left home, Elena Rodionova filed a complaint with the police, her daughter said. She accused Zhenya of taking things that did not belong to her and demanded that her daughter return them. Zhenya soon returned both phones. She said her mother also called her many times and wrote text messages, threatening her and demanding that she return home. Zhenya said she is still very afraid of her mother even though they are not living together. When Rodionova has come to the shelter and demanded to see her daughter, Zhenya has refused, but employees have persuaded her to meet with her mother. “On December 19, a trial will be held to deprive [Elena Rodionova of her parental rights], and I'm so scared. I need as much publicity for my situation as possible because I can’t go back home,” Zhenya wrote on December 18 in a new post on Instagram. On December 19, a preliminary hearing in the parental rights case took place at the Balashikha Railway Court (records of the proceeding are confidential). The court declined to comment to Meduza.

Gidaya Shvedova said she was ready to take Zhenya in and raise her. Zhenya considers this the best option, as her 80-year-old grandmother, who has offered to take her, already has difficulty caring for herself. “Also, she will not be able to protect me from my mother, because she is scared to death of her.” Meduza asked Viktor Denisov, the lawyer for Zhenya’s father, if his client would be willing to bring up his daughter. He replied, “Sergey [Tyurin] lives in the middle of nowhere in the Penza region. The girl would not want to live there. At this age, she’ll want to live in a big city. Besides, Sergey has his own family here.” Zhenya told Meduza that she would not mind living with her father, although they barely know each other.

Shvedova said that in the fall of 2019, Elena Rodionova filed a statement with the police, claiming that members of Shvedova’s family were “Czech terrorists on the run” and that they were harming her daughter by teaching her the words “gender” and “sexism.” Shvedova said those allegations could stem from the fact that the family recently sold a house in another town near Moscow – thus, “on the run” – and that they were “Czech terrorists” because Shvedova’s daughter is studying Czech and plans to attend medical school in the Czech Republic.

Among other things, according to Shvedova, Rodionova accused her of distributing pornography because she had joined a group about LGBTQ issues on VKontakte. Shvedova emphasizes that she never reposted information from the group. She said she joined because she was trained as a psychologist and was “just curious about what experiences LGBT adolescents and their parents have.” However, she was called by the police for clarification.

Zhenya said her mother constantly files complaints about employees from all the institutions with which she interacts. In November, Zhenya left the shelter with a teacher to go to a grocery store where she bought sweets, paying with her personal bank card. Afterwards, she said, her mother looked at her daughter’s bank account to track the purchase, went to the store, and demanded recordings from surveillance cameras. She found a frame where there was no teacher close to Zhenya, then filed a complaint accusing the shelter staff of letting children go into the city unaccompanied and demanding that Zhenya be returned to her.

The teen says that her mother is now feared by child protection services, by her school, and even by the police: “Every day, there’s at least one complaint coming from my mother against all these institutions, and for every one of them, people have to stop what they’re doing and give her an answer.”

When a Meduza journalist called Elena Rodionova, she refused to answer questions and hung up. Half a minute later, she called back and said she would file a lawsuit because the Meduza correspondent had used her personal data – her phone number.

“A mother is sacred”

The commissioner for children’s rights in the Moscow region, Ksenia Mishonova, told Meduza that Zhenya sent a request to her official address in November. They talked by telephone, and a few days later, Mishonova met with the teenager. “In three years in my position, this is the first time I have encountered a case where the child so categorically insisted on separation from the mother,” Mishonova said, acknowledging that initially it was difficult for her to believe that Zhenya’s story was true. “Of course, we wanted to see for ourselves the facts that the girl stated in her letter. I went to the [shelter] and talked with her for about three hours. At first, I wanted to convince the girl that a mother is sacred. But the girl has a protective wall. She has completely stopped trusting adults.”

The children's ombudsperson admitted that she sees virtually “no real chance to help this family restore relations,” and she promised to petition to take part in the trial, saying she “will act in the interests of the child,” while declining to say exactly how.

After Zhenya’s story began to spread on social networks, Olga Batalina, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, took notice. She told Meduza that she had learned about the case on the morning of December 18 and quickly got in touch with State Duma deputies representing the Moscow Region, asking them to contact child protection services and take collective steps to protect Zhenya in court. “I saw very different stories, so the most important thing for me is that the child welfare service does not remain silent in court. It could happen that they appear in court, lay out the documents, and do nothing more than that. Since they will be the only party representing the interests of the girl in court, it is very important that they care,” Batalina said.

Aside from several posts asking for help, Zhenya’s VKontakte page only has a couple of entries. One of them is a repost dated December 5. It’s a meme based on the popular “I bet he’s thinking about other women” format, but instead of domestic infidelity, it references a very different social issue. The post reads, “Her: I bet she’s thinking about all her halfway decent domestic violence laws. Me: halfway decent domestic violence laws, oh, my dear halfway decent domestic violence laws!” The future of domestic violence legislation in Russia remains unclear.

Story by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Carol Matlack