Russia’s Ugly Little Secret: Misogyny


Glass breaking, overturning furniture, muffled thuds. A woman screaming from a downstairs apartment: “I’m being killed! I’m being killed!”

It’s midnight, and three floors up, in a cozy kitchen with a kettle on the boil and pipes gurgling behind the curtains, neighbor Tania Kucherenko shrugs off any suggestion that she should call the police.

“It’s the same every Saturday night. The husband comes home drunk and beats her. There’s nothing we can do,” Kucherenko, a 42-year-old teacher, says nervously. “It’s best not to interfere.”


Violence against women is perhaps Russia’s most invisible problem. It is the underside of a surface culture of sentiment and gallantry, in which men help women into their coats and out of cars and buses, open doors for them, light their cigarettes, drink toasts to feminine grace and beauty, call women “girls” until they are 50 and buy bunches of red carnations to give them every March 8, International Women’s Day.

At the same time, contempt for the female sex runs deep. Among its more dramatic expressions are the possibility that women who dare leave their husbands can lose their legal status and right to a home; the expectation that a woman applying for a new job should be ready to sleep with her boss; and even the growth of a slave trade of women bartered internationally for sex through organized crime groups.

Usually, however, this contempt takes physical form in black eyes and broken bones. Many men will laugh and tell stories about the neighbor who gets drunk and beats his wife; a surprising number of women, in strict confidence, tell close friends about the times their husbands have beaten them.

The Russian government recently suggested that violence occurs in one out of four families here, said Martina Vandenberg, former coordinator for the Newly Independent States-U.S. Women’s Consortium, a Moscow-based umbrella group of women’s organizations from Russia and other ex-Warsaw Pact states as well as from the United States.

But the government does not collect specific statistics on violence against women. Such attacks are hidden in statistical items such as “light bodily injury” and “hooliganism.” The attitude of passivity in Russia is such that, between 1995 and 1996, the number of rapes reported to the police fell from 12,515 to 10,888--a drop of 13%.

Victims Are Reluctant to Press Charges

Such official figures--in contrast to the nearly 100,000 rapes reported in 1995 in the United States--are virtually meaningless, women who have experienced domestic violence agree. All they show is that victims seldom bother going to the corrupt and mostly male police, knowing in advance that they will not get a sympathetic hearing.

“Why bother with the police? You’d need to show them medical certificates proving your bones were smashed before they’d even begin to listen,” said Natasha. This poised, highly educated, 26-year-old economist recently divorced her 42-year-old entrepreneur husband after enduring eight years of physical abuse. “Even if you did get compensation for assault, it would be a tiny token sum, like $20, and then he would be home again--and angry again.”

Zinaida Batrakova, deputy chair of the Moscow Union of Lawyers, believes that women’s hesitance about pressing charges against violent partners is the start of a vicious spiral that makes police reluctant to weigh in on their behalf.

“A woman being beaten up by her husband would call for help. Then, facing jail or a fine that would sit on the family budget--and the fact that the situation would be worse when he got out of jail--many women would beg the police not to put the man in jail,” Batrakova said. “The police start to think of it all as a joke, even when it is very serious.”

Natasha never mentioned the issue of domestic violence in her divorce, which came through as her husband earned his first post-Soviet big bucks. Right afterward, he bought his first luxury apartment. She has no legal right to a share of it. He also has custody of their 7-year-old daughter. But Natasha isn’t sorry that she took the quiet way out of her brutal marriage.

“Even now, my ex-husband still calls me and says if he’d only beaten me more, and more often, I would have been a better wife,” she said. “In Russia, everyone expects men to beat their wives. It’s considered normal.”

Fall of Soviet Union Exacerbates Problem

The wrenching changes in every Russian life over the past decade have only made a traditional problem worse, according to Natalia Gavrilenko, deputy director of Women in Danger, one of just two shelters for battered women in a country of 150 million people. A clean, bare dwelling place in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, it is designed to house 17 people but is often packed with up to 30.

“In Soviet days, at least there were authorities that battered women could complain to--their employer, their local party organization or the trade union representatives. They could ask the bosses to influence their husband to behave better,” Gavrilenko said, referring to an era when alcoholism and cramped, claustrophobic housing were the average family’s worst problems.

“But with perestroika, those avenues were closed off,” she added. “Suddenly, women faced worse violence because the times became so stressful. Men suddenly threatened with unemployment, instability, unbelievably high prices and crime on all sides were far more likely than before to take out their resentments on the women at home.”

Gavrilenko says hundreds of thousands of crimes against women are committed in Russia each year, and the assaults are increasing. She calls the secretive violence that has ripped through Russian homes since the Soviet Union’s collapse an “undeclared war.”

The only real solution she can see would be an overall improvement in Russia’s economy and living conditions, which might give men back their lost self-respect and soften their tempers. Meanwhile, she works with a team of social workers, lawyers and psychologists to help the women who have flocked to the center since it opened last year salvage lives independent of their abusive ex-husbands.

The center’s first aim is to help Russian women overcome their reluctance to go to the police and the courts. Its lawyers pursue divorce and assault cases; they also fight for their clients’ right to a propiska, the hard-to-get residence permit. Many fugitive wives lose their propiski--and their official right to live and work--by fleeing their family homes; without new permits, it is almost impossible for them to make a fresh start.

Small, dark and with a shy smile endlessly playing on her lips, Sveta has been living in one room at the shelter for the last three months with her 10-year-old son, Vitya. She is reluctant to talk about the alcoholic husband whose assaults forced her out of the overcrowded communal apartment they shared with other families. Now she is waiting for a divorce to come through, hoping that the settlement will give her a clear share of former family possessions--including a right to part of the family living space now registered in her husband’s name, and therefore the right to a propiska of her own.

Until then, Sveta cannot legally find a home or job. She is feeding herself and Vitya by making elegant, beautifully finished fur hats at the sewing machine in a corner of the little room. Because she has no propiska, however, she cannot even get the permit she would need to sell the hats to local stores. So she is forced to hawk them on the street, at knockoff prices, earning what she says is “about $6 a day, on a good day.”

Russia’s unwieldy legal system does little to help women such as Sveta move on. “Court cases can go on for years. There is no law obliging people to show up for every hearing, so husbands who don’t want to compromise can just stay away and drag out the process even further,” Gavrilenko said.

Gavrilenko also worries that the shelter--whose clients so far have mostly been middle-class and educated women “who’ve heard our radio ads and realized there is an escape route"--is failing to reach a desperate lower layer of society, the less-educated women who have not yet begun to believe that any way out of their private misery is even possible.

A Tradition of Gender-Based Roles

Following the worldwide trend toward what Vandenberg calls “the feminization of poverty,” this low-status female underclass has been growing in Russia since the Soviet collapse.

The World Bank estimates that the average working woman in Russia earns 71% of what a man does an hour. Women are banned from more than 460 well-paid job categories by the Labor Ministry, which considers these jobs harmful to their reproductive health. Within Russian families, most spouses have kept traditional gender-based roles, with working women shopping and cleaning and cooking while their men drive and change lightbulbs. But Soviet-era child-care programs have collapsed from lack of state funding, putting new pressures on women to stay home. More than 70% of the officially unemployed are women.

Even in the thriving businesses of now-glitzy Moscow, few women expect equal pay for equal work. No one raises an eyebrow at job ads for women stipulating that only the young need apply, and even then only those who are leggy, scantily clad and bez kompleksov--without hang-ups, or willing to have sex with the boss. Women who prefer to work at their workplaces must specify bez intima--without intimacy--and face the consequences.

There are few government initiatives to help shore up women’s position in a strongly hierarchical society in turmoil and protect them from abuse. A domestic violence law has yet to go before the parliament.

“The Russian government has issued proclamations. President Boris Yeltsin has published decrees. All the verbiage amounts to nothing in light of the fact that no money has been allocated to make good on the promises,” Vandenberg wrote in the Moscow Times newspaper.

“Invisibility--and denial--are no longer an option,” she added.