The sanctuary for women is nestled next to a monastery deep in the Moscow suburbs, down a narrow snow-covered road past a white archway. Its name, Kitezh, is a reference to a Russian myth about a city hidden under a lake to protect its residents from attack. It fits for this tan-and-white house, a shelter for victims of domestic violence who fear they aren’t safe anywhere else.
Inside are green walls and rooms with bunk beds. Drawings of butterflies are displayed on a bookshelf. One woman with two children came here after she was raped by her husband. Another was choked by her father before he kicked her and her young son out of their shared home. A third woman’s story is so traumatic she can’t bear to share it.
The rise of the #MeToo movement has pushed women’s issues to the forefront in the United States and other parts of the world. But deeply patriarchal attitudes still reign in Russia, as President Vladimir Putin’s government implements policies emphasizing the country’s alleged traditional values — including scaling back protections for abused women. It’s been a year since Russia decriminalized all but the most egregious or repeated domestic violence, and the penalty for a first offense that results in bruising or bleeding — but not broken bones — is a minimal fine or a maximum 15-day prison sentence.
The Russian Interior Ministry has estimated that 40 women a day and 14,000 women a year die at the hands of their husbands, while 600,000 face violent domestic abuse each year. Those numbers are incomplete because research indicates that as many as 60 to 70 percent of Russian women do not report domestic abuse.
“People have started to feel like there won’t be any punishment,” said Alyona Sadikova, director of the Kitezh shelter, run by a nongovernmental organization whose main sponsor is Rostelecom, a long-distance telephone provider. A few feet away, the 5-year-old daughter of one of the women staying in the shelter folded pink-and-silver wrapping paper before pushing around a pink baby carriage.
Kitezh is often a last resort for these women and their families. Some stay for three months. Some leave after a few days. Some return to their abuser. The stories of how they got here are often similar.
They called the police first. But with the penalty for domestic violence lessened to keep government from intervening in family matters, authorities are hesitant to act and often encourage reconciliation.
After one woman at the shelter filed a report, she said, she saw the officers she spoke to smoking outside with the husband who beat her.
Many women don’t know that a doctor has to note the extent of their bruising in great specificity to prove injury. If a woman’s husband is deemed guilty, the fine is typically taken out of the family account, so the woman is essentially helping to pay for her husband to avoid prison.
Conservatives aligned with the influential Russian Orthodox Church helped the legislation to decriminalize domestic violence breeze through parliament by citing the importance of maintaining “traditional families.” Yelena Mizulina, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, told reporters in 2016 that women “don’t take offense when they see a man beat his wife” and that “a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” She reasoned that the problem isn’t domestic violence, but a lack of respect and affection in relationships, particularly from women.
“The state just stopped calling these actions criminal actions,” said Nadezhda Zamotaeva, director of the Sisters Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Moscow. “The abuser now does not think that he’s committing a crime. He does what’s permitted, and he does what the state approves.”
Women outnumber men in Russia. According to 2015 data from the United Nations, Russia has among the fewest men per 100 women (86.8) of any country in the world. The divide begins around age 30, as suicide, alcohol and alcohol-related accidents begin to take a toll.
“If you even have a husband, you’re happy,” journalist Anna Zhavnerovich said. “He’s drinking and beating you, but at least you have one. If you’re born a boy, then it’s like you’re already a czar. If you’re born a girl, you didn’t get lucky. Just by birthright, men are on top of the world and the head of the family. So, women think if they complain, then maybe he will leave, and it’ll be worse. Even in today’s world, where women are taught to strive for something more, it’s better to be wed. Maybe you won’t marry well, but you’re considered lucky because you’re the one who married out of your 10 girlfriends.”
Zhavnerovich’s story isn’t so different from those of the women at Kitezh. She filed a report with the police a week after she said her boyfriend beat her unconscious in 2015. She was offended by the authorities’ line of questioning. They asked her why she didn’t have any children and whether she was married, she said. Zhavnerovich said she felt the police were suggesting that the attack was her fault. She didn’t hear anything for several weeks, and the case was eventually dropped. The boyfriend was never questioned.
An episode of victim-blaming caused Ukrainian activist Anastasiya Melnychenko to start the #ImNotScaredToSpeak social media campaign. She was angered by an online discussion in 2016 that questioned what a rape victim was wearing or if she had been drunk. Melnychenko then shared her story of sexual violence and harassment, which started at age 6. The hashtag went viral, and other Ukrainian and Russian women followed suit. But there was online backlash, too, even from other women.
In an interview about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Russian actress Agniya Kuznetsova told the website Meduza that the victims had “themselves to blame, they don’t have to act like prostitutes. Poor man, I feel sorry for him.”
With heightened political tensions between Russia and the United States, some of the pushback on stricter domestic violence legislation is often associated with fighting influence from the West. It’s what activist Alena Popova sees as the main hurdle as she lobbies members of the Federation Council to support a law that would create restraining orders. An online petition in favor of such legislation has collected more than 250,000 signatures, and Popova is hopeful that the law will be reviewed by the Russian parliament’s Committee on Family, Women and Children within the next six months.
“I’m literally running after these [parliament] deputies,” Popova said. “Just last week, for 22 minutes a deputy was in the men’s room so as to not see me. I asked him, ‘Do you think I will just leave? I will wait for you.’ ”
A restraining order could offer some protection for the women staying at the Kitezh shelter. On a recent day, just as Sadikova, the shelter director, started to list the tragic stories that lead women to the house, she got a phone call. The person on the other end of the line wanted to know if she had room for another woman.
“We’ll definitely take her,” Sadikova replied.
Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report.