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Not talked about on TV Five years after Russia decriminalized domestic violence, women’s aid groups are busier than ever. Officials continue to sweep the problem under the rug.
Exactly five years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic violence. Since then, victims have been unable to press criminal charges for domestic battery unless it’s at least the abuser’s second offense — first time offenders only face administrative fines, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 rubles ($66 to $400). To find out what impact this legislation has had on Russia’s domestic violence problem, Meduza spoke to Diana Barsegyan — the deputy director of the aid group Nasiliu.net (No to Violence).
Please note. This interview has been summarized for length and clarity. You can read Meduza’s full Q&A with Diana Barsegyan in Russian here.
‘Officially, there is no such problem in Russia’
In 2017, the article on battery was removed from the Russian Criminal Code, and the authorities introduced administrative penalties for domestic violence instead. Five years have passed since this decriminalization of domestic abuse. And according to Diana Barsegyan — the deputy director of Nasiliu.net, a Moscow-based nonprofit that helps domestic violence victims, — Russian society has “come a long way” in that time.
“The attitude toward the problem has changed, it has become more noticeable,” the activist says. As she explains, high-profile cases like those of Margarita Gracheva (whose abusive husband cut off her hands) and the Khachaturyan sisters (who murdered their father after years of sexual abuse) have made the issue of domestic violence in Russia harder to ignore.
But although these cases have kickstarted public discussion, the decision to decriminalize domestic violence has still changed things for the worse. “We’ve found ourselves in a situation where the issue is not being discussed at the state level, there is simply no such problem on the agenda,” Barsegyan laments. “Accordingly, all of those institutions that should help victims don’t work.” Police officers and medical workers lack an understanding of what domestic violence is and how to interact with victims, she says: “A woman comes to [an emergency room] and says ‘I slipped.’ And the doctor replies: ‘Sure’.”
The way Barsegyan sees it, this type of response has a “destructive” effect. “When everyone pretends that this is some small problem that a narrow circle of activists is fighting against, it’s difficult for a wider audience to understand why the woman herself isn’t to blame [for the abuse] and why violence doesn’t necessarily just affect some marginalized families or families with addiction [problems],” she points out. “[This is] all due to the fact people have nowhere to get information — they don’t talk about what domestic violence is on TV. Officially, there is no such problem in Russia.”
In this context, domestic violence victims rarely seek help from the police. And for those who do press charges, the decriminalization law means that this arduous process may only lead to a fine that comes out of the family bank account. “In effect, the woman pays [the fine] herself. And then her lawyer has to say to her: ‘Wait until you get hit again. Then, perhaps, there will be criminal liability.’ For any person confronted with violence this is demoralizing,” Barsegyan underscores. “And, conversely, the changes in the legislation encouraged aggressors. The decriminalization showed that their actions are completely in line with the state’s idea of family relations, and that the law is on their side.”
‘Anyone can experience violence’
Two thirds of all women murdered in Russia between 2011 and 2019 were killed by their partners or relatives, according to a study conducted by the Consortium of Women’s Non-governmental Associations (Wcons) in 2021. Nevertheless, a push to introduce anti-domestic violence legislation has been stalled for several years now.
In particular, a draft law that defines domestic violence and delineates protective measures for victims of abuse has been languishing on the Senate’s website since November 2019. Diana Barsegyan says there was hope that the bill would be submitted to parliament by the end of last year, but this didn’t happen. And though some women’s rights activists are still advocating for the draft law, the legislation’s most prominent proponent, politician Oksana Pushkina, isn’t a State Duma lawmaker anymore (Pushkina did not stand for re-election in September 2021).
In the meantime, Barsegyan says, the growing awareness of the problem has led to an increase in the number of people turning to organizations like Nasiliu.net for help. “Before we worked five days a week, then we increased the number of hours and they were immediately filled with new victims. We added another [work] day and it also filled up instantly. We opened an SOS accommodation program for those who urgently need somewhere to hide, and it was also in demand immediately,” she recalls.
“It seems that for now this problem will never end, leastways through the efforts of nonprofit organizations alone. There’s a feeling that we have a long way to go to get to that moment when we can say: ‘Yes, we’ve provided help to everyone who really needs it’.”
While Nasiliu.net’s experience speaks to scale of Russia’s domestic violence problem, the country has a total lack of accurate statistics on the matter. “Only the state can provide truly representative statistics — it’s simply unrealistic for nonprofit organizations to gather data on all regions of Russia by hand,” Barsegyan explains. “There should be some kind of common record maintained by both the police and the hospitals.”
The domestic violence victims who reach out to Nasiliu.net are generally women between the ages of 25 and 55. But Barsegyan warns against trying to paint a demographic picture. “The assumption that there are certain groups of people who are prone to becoming victims of violence isn’t entirely accurate. Women with different levels of education and wealth reach out to us. They belong to different cultures, they may be of different nationalities. Anyone can experience violence,” she underscores.
Nasiliu.net also offers assistance to children and elderly people; during the pandemic, they received a lot of messages from minors on Instagram seeking advice on how to deal with abusive parents. The nonprofit also began studying the problem of elder abuse this year — Barsegyan says this is an issue that’s rarely talked about in Russia, and that those who are sick or in need of constant care are especially vulnerable. Moreover, elderly people are especially reluctant to seek help.
“An elderly mother can rarely actually go and file a [police] report against her own child,” Barsegyan says. “There was a case when a 90-year-old woman appealed to us. She ran away from her son’s beatings. She stayed with us for a couple days, but then she decided to go back: she said that she couldn’t do it because he was probably worried, not knowing where she was.”
Many elderly people who need help don’t even know that organizations like Nasiliu.net exist, or that they offer their services for free. “If the state wanted to help, this [outreach] is where its assistance would be very valuable. Elderly people could be getting information at clinics and [community] centers. But unfortunately, this isn’t happening,” Barsegyan laments.
‘The donations broke all records’
In December 2020, the Russian authorities declared Nasiliu.net a “foreign agent” — and this label has been detrimental to the organization’s work. In the year that followed, Nasiliu.net paid a total of 900,000 rubles (nearly $12,000) in fines for violating Russia’s “foreign agent” laws (one of the fines was handed down because the nonprofit failed to register on the blacklist of its own accord). “For us this is a serious sum,” Barsegyan underscores.
The “foreign agent” label has also created a serious dilemma in terms of funding: “You can’t take foreign funding, because this is ‘enemy money,’ but you don’t receive funding from the state — we weren’t really given state grants before, and now they don’t give them to us at all,” Barsegyan says.
The activist notes that Nasiliu.net saw an outpouring of support after it was designated a “foreign agent,” saying that “the number of donations broke all records.” Be that as it may, the nonprofit’s reputation has suffered. “We’ve begun to hear concerns from our partners often,” she explains. “People want to do projects with us, but after the words ‘foreign agent’ they decide that it would be better to go to some charitable foundation for cats and dogs.”
“[Here’s] a funny and sad example,” she continues. “We did a ‘Moscow Against Domestic Violence’ billboard campaign and put up large posters all over the city. We were terribly glad, because it seemed to us like an important step forward. Later, when we talked about how we could continue this campaign, [our partners] told us : ‘Yes, but only if you won’t write about your status.’ But we can’t help but write about our [‘foreign agent’] status, because otherwise we’ll get a fine.”
“It has become much harder for us to convey to people that we can help them,” Barsegyan concludes. “Because of this new status, it has become harder for people to trust us.”
Summary by Eilish Hart
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