In December 2017, Gracheva’s husband led her into a forest where he chopped off her hands with an ax — a final, horrific act after months of abuse.
On Instagram, she hashtags herself #TransformerMom for her right, bionic hand. Her left hand, preserved in the snow that fateful day, was reattached through several painful surgeries.
Now, the 27-year-old mother of two boys has become a media sensation across Russia, winning a book deal with a pro-Kremlin publisher and turning into a regular fixture on state-run television.
Her embrace by Kremlin-backed media is all the more stunning in a country that decriminalized some forms of domestic violence nearly three years ago and where disagreement with government policies is rarely aired.
“How many cases have there been since mine; how many women have been killed? And the government just sits, frozen, unable to do anything,” Gracheva told The Washington Post during a recent tour for her book, “Happy Without Hands.”
The lead-up to the attack on Gracheva follows a familiar pattern in a country where a woman is killed by her partner every 40 minutes, according to human rights groups. After her husband threatened her with a knife, Gracheva went to the police in her town just south of Moscow but found them dismissive and uninterested.
“The police in this country don’t take us seriously,” she said.
But there are small signs of change. A growing chorus of voices within government and society are demanding that the country finally — and for the first time — adopt a law against domestic violence. Russia is the only country in the 47-member Council of Europe lacking specific legislation protecting women from domestic violence.
Gracheva believes the only reason her husband was given his long prison sentence of 14 years was because of the media attention she received.
Before her tragedy, she would have shied away from any limelight, but she now acknowledges it serves her cause.
“If knowing my face means more awareness of women’s suffering, then so be it,” she said.
These days in Russia, domestic violence dominates the headlines in ways it never has before. It’s becoming increasingly harder for Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in his daily phone call with reporters, to deflect the nation’s growing alarm over the issue.
The shift in mood has been accompanied by street protests and an explosion of artistic and cultural activity tackling the subject, including plays and video games.
A string of high-profile cases have also riveted the nation.
In October, a top manager at a unit of one of Russia’s largest banks, Alfa Capital, was fired after his wife accused him of beating her.
Moscow is following closely the prospect of prison sentences for sisters who took revenge on their father, Mikhail Khachaturyan, after years of sexual and physical abuse. Two sisters were declared “aware of their actions” and could face charges of premeditated murder in the death of their father, who was stabbed as he slept last year. A third sister, the youngest, was not expected to face charges, investigators said.
And last month, the grisly killing and dismemberment of a young academic by her lover and colleague in St. Petersburg took public outrage up another notch. He had been accused of violence against women in the past.
The case even elicited criticism from one of the most popular pro-Kremlin commentators, Dmitry Kiselyov, whose weekly show stands as a barometer for state-ordained public opinion under President Vladimir Putin.
“It’s pretty strange that we don’t even have the term ‘domestic violence’ in Russian legislation,” Kiselyov said during a segment dedicated to the issue.
Mari Davtyan, a prominent human rights lawyer who is representing Gracheva, said the cases have “helped the government understand that we are not dealing with violence in the right way.”
Lawmakers and activists have been trying to push through a domestic violence bill for half a decade. This time, though, feels different. When the head of the upper house of parliament, Putin loyalist Valentina Matviyenko, was reelected in September, she said domestic violence would be a priority of the current session.
Another influential government official, human rights ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova, this summer called for Russia’s “speedy development” of a law combating violence against women.
“Hard work on the bill is happening right now, and we’ve seen some positive action from the government that points to the bill being submitted to parliament for a first reading this winter,” Davtyan said. The new draft law includes regulations on restraining orders and stalking, currently missing from any Russian legislation.
By Russian law, the bill would need to pass three readings before heading to the desk of Putin, whose support for conservative policies was behind the decriminalization in the first place.
Davtyan said the fact that two women from Putin’s United Russia party are working on the bill gives her hope. “It’s a pleasant surprise,” she said.
The bill faces substantial opposition, however, especially from the male-dominated upper echelons of Russian society, where Putin has cultivated the image of a state that caters to traditionalist and macho attitudes.
“We live in a patriarchy. We live in a country where our president says the very word ‘gender’ destroys families,” Alyona Popova, a lawyer and activist who has helped draft the bill, told a feminist festival in Moscow in late November.
The European Court of Human Rights has taken up the cases of Gracheva and three other Russian women. In responding to the court recently, Russia’s Justice Ministry downplayed the scope and even the gender element of domestic violence.
“It is logical to assume that male victims suffer more from discrimination in such cases,” said Deputy Justice Minister Mikhail Galperin. Relatives of Russian women killed by their partners angrily responded, demanding that he resign.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has enjoyed a meteoric rise in influence under Putin, has traditionally opposed domestic violence bills. Last month, Christian groups organized small protests across the country at which people held up signs reading, “My house is my fortress.” One of the organizers said a domestic violence bill would “put men off marriage.”
But it’s unlikely the church would resist government pressure.
“Our church is influential because it is a department of the state,” said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist who has worked on the bill. “And if there is political will to adopt the law, the church will not oppose it.”