One more 14-hour-long working day was coming to its end. Yelena Naumova, a 44-year-old taxi driver in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, was giving a lift to her last passenger.
A young woman in her taxi was complaining about her husband’s habit of drinking and beating her after work. There was nobody in the world she could turn to for help, the passenger confessed to Yelena. Every word in that story made Naumova’s hands on the steering wheel, her entire body, feel long-forgotten pain.
Yelena was covered in deep keloid scars. Fifteen years ago, her own husband, deadly drunk after their daughter’s birthday party, attacked her in their bathroom, splashed gasoline all over her beautiful young body and set her on fire with one strike of a lighter. Today a hard working provider and defender for her two young daughters, Yelena tries to help others.
“I showed my disfigured hands to the naïve passenger, who took her husband’s violence for passionate love and I told her: ‘I advise women to break up with their violent men before it is too late, as neither police nor authorities were on their side.’”
This story is the second part of an Across Women's Lives three-part series that ran Wednesday, today and Friday here on PRI.org, with related stories on PRI's The World as well. Check back to pri.org/womenslives for future stories.
Thousands of women are shot, thrown out of the windows or beaten to death by their family members in Russia, which has domestic violence rates upwards of 30 times higher than most European and Western countries.
“If he beats you, it means he loves you,” goes the Russian proverb, normalizing the mentality. “My own mother told me to tolerate the pain of beatings for as long as my husband provides for the family,” Naumova recalled.
And most abuse continues with impunity. On Tuesday, civil activists put banners on the walls at St. Petersburg subway to remind Russians of the more than 10,000 women dying every year from domestic violence. On Wednesday, four women activists were arrested for storming the Kremlin in defense of women’s rights.
This year, that Russian proverb, which sounds “medieval” to some young women, crept into federal legislation. Instead of inventing a strict new punishment, Russia's typical response to political dissent, parliament decided to get rid of the existing domestic violence law. The amendment stated that the punishment for men who beat their wives or children would be reduced to 15 days of jail, 360 hours of labor or a $500 fine for a first offense. Previously, the punishment was up to two years in prison.
Why? Because Russia’s most influential man, President Vladimir Putin, decided that authorities should not be involved in minor cases of domestic violence. “The shameful bill was promoted by four women, deputies in the Russian State Duma. Ii looks like they have neither experienced the violence, nor looked in the eyes of the victims,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker head of the “Anna” Association of Crises Centers in downtown Moscow.
There's more trouble for Pisklakova-Parker, too. Pisklakova’s center for victims was deemed a “foreign agent” and put on a list — part of a crackdown by the Russian government on civil society groups that criticize it. The labeling had a “paralyzing” effect on their work, she said.
As we spoke, the phone rang in the next room at the center. Their hot line provides free psychological and legal assistance to victims of domestic violence. Over 22,000 women called her center’s hotline in the past year. Within hours of the bill being passed, she took a call from a woman whose husband — a rich Moscow businessman — had kicked her repeatedly outside her son’s school.
What could she tell them now?
For 20 years, Pisklakova-Parker has been an early and often solitary advocate for criminal punishment for domestic violence. But today, thousands of volunteers and at least 200 other groups, both government and non-government, work in reducing domestic violence.
The latest report by Russian Interior Ministry included 9,704 women and 4,947 children as victims of domestic violence out of 14,213 crimes committed in Russian homes in 2016.
The legal changes seem to have sent a dangerous signal to men — Russia may be witnessing an escalation of attacks on women and children, causing severe injuries, Pisklakova-Parker said.
For generations Soviet and post-Soviet families found it shameful to discuss their personal issues outside of their homes. Women suffered quietly in Armenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and other former Soviet states. In 2006, Georgia adopted a law against domestic violence, but the number of physical abuse cases continued to increase: Police reported 1.5 times more cases in 2015 than in 2014.
Unusually for modern Russia, where a majority support President Putin’s decisions, the change to domestic violence laws provoked broad criticism, both within civil society and official circles, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the President’s Council on Civil Society.
The leader of a newly emerging civil movement, No To Violence, 27-year-old Anna Rivina has never experienced abuse. Her family lived in harmony, loving and supporting each other. This week, Rivina walked from door to door at the Russian parliament, distributing documents in support of a law against domestic violence. “To stop the violence, we provide Russians with information, participate in street pickets; we also collect voices of famous Russian men advocating for the law that is necessary for our country,” Rivina recounted.
Until such a law is adopted, Russian women are alone to protect their own lives and lives of their children. Back in Nizhny Novgorod, Yelena, the taxi cab driver, says she tells her her newly-married daughter Alexandra: “I will never advise you to tolerate even a minor act of violence,” she said.
It’s a small act of defiance in a nation struggling to win a battle against domestic violence.
But Yelena hopes it will make a difference.