One of the biggest challenges faced by Russian women is the epidemic of male violence enabled by a cultural and political climate which permits and even encourages the abuse of women by men.
In December 2020, a popular YouTuber beat his pregnant girlfriend, Valentina ‘Valya’ Grigoryeva, during a livestream as his followers sent him payments totalling $1,000. The men following Stanislav Reshetnyak’s channel could pay him to inflict abuse on her for their amusement, including, in one instance, pepper-spraying her in the face. On the night that his abuse took a fatal toll for Valentina, he forced her to sit outside in the freezing weather in only her underwear, at the behest of his followers. Paramedics pronounced Valentina Grigoryeva dead as Reshetnyak continued to broadcast live. Law enforcement authorities later stated that Grigoryeva died as a result of head injuries he inflicted on her, with a medical examination finding traumatic brain injury, cerebral hemorrhage and multiple bruises on her body. In April 2021, Reshetnyak was found guilty of manslaughter rather than murder, and was sentenced to just six years in prison.
For comparison: in July 2019, 28-year-old Kristina Shidukova was sentenced to eight years in prison for killing her husband in an act of self-defense, as he attempted to push her off the fourth-floor balcony of their apartment in the Krasnodar region. More than 150,000 people signed an online petition calling for Shidukova’s acquittal.
The case of YouTuber Reshetnyak highlights how the abuse of women for entertainment results in deadly consequences. In 2020, two brothers tortured their neighbor, Nina Rudchenko, for two hours before burying her alive. Rudchenko had passed out from being beaten and when she awoke, she dug herself out of her own grave. The body of another woman was found in a forest outside of St. Petersburg last year, buried up to her neck in what media outlet The Sun described as a traditional exceution carried out on women who kill their husbands.
In 2017, Vladmir Putin signed a bill ending prison sentences for first-time domestic abuse offenses, a policy which has caused domestic violence to skyrocket. That year, official data from Russia’s own interior ministry revealed that at least 12,000 women were killed annually as a result of domestic violence.
The following year, 2018, Russia's Human Rights Ombudswoman, Tatyana Moskalkova, said, “I believe that decriminalization was a mistake… a person who is in the family space is not protected from family members who do harm unto them without it being considered a crime. Looking at statistics of appeals, we saw that after the law decriminalizing beatings was passed, the number of complaints on this issue increased significantly.”
According to official Russian government statistics that undoubtedly under-report the situation, a massive 40% of all violent crimes are committed within the family, and 70% of crimes within families and households are against women and children. This correlates to an average of 36,000 women being beaten by their partners every day and 26,000 children being abused by their parents every year. A famous Russian proverb states: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.”
A recent study by the Russian Consortium of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations found that of the over 18,000 women killed in Russia between 2011 and 2019, 9,868 were killed by their partners, or 53% — the highest figure in the world. Another 13% of femicides were committed by family members. “Our research confirms the hypothesis that the most dangerous place for a woman in Russia is at home,” concluded the study’s authors.
In December 2020, the Russian parliament approved a law criminalizing slanderous comments in the media or online, with the ability to punish such behavior by up to five years in prison. This includes accusations of rape or domestic abuse; due to the country’s so-called ‘traditional values’, discussion of family affairs is considered taboo.
Russia is also one of 20 countries in the world that still allows a rapist to escape conviction if he marries his victim, and research published by The World Bank gave the nation a score of 0 in protecting women from violence, based on seven criteria. In some instances, women fleeing an abusive household have been arrested and not heard from again — in October, two women at a crisis shelter in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority republic in Russia’s North Caucasus, were detained by police, then disappeared.
In addition, female genital mutilation occurs in the northern Caucaus region with impunity. In August 2016, Project Stichting Justice Initiative (SJI) published a study titled “Female Genital Mutilation Carried out on Girls,” which estimated that around 1,240 girls each year in the Caucus region are victims of FGM. In response, two Russian religious leaders defended the abusive practice. Both Ismail Berdiyev, chairman of the Coordination Centre of North Caucasus Muslims, and Vsevolod Chaplin, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that female genital mutilation should be done to all women to minimize their sexuality. “Women’s sexuality needs to be reduced,” Berdiyev declared. “It would be good if all women were cut. The Almighty created women to give birth to children and bring them up.”
Russia is one of just a few places in the world where commercial surrogacy is entirely legal (including Ukraine, Georgia, and some US states). Foreigners and citizens alike can pay for the use of a woman’s womb in order to purchase a child. As is the nature of the industry, marginalized low-income women are the primary targets.
This year lawmakers have begun criticizing the industry. Irina Yarovaya, a deputy speaker of the Duma, Russia’s parliament, in opposition to surrogacy, said, “Russia is not an incubator,” and there has been some political motivation to reel in the market.
The apparent trigger for this shift is the death of a baby boy who was born to a woman in a surrogacy contract for a Filipino family last year. The boy was discovered in a flat outside of Moscow where three other babies were being nursed for different Filipino families, including twins who were reserved for Fredenil Hernaez Castro, a member of the Philippines’ parliament. Fertility doctors were arrested for human trafficking and the babies were sent to orphanages.
Additionally, The Guardian reported in July 2020 that as many as 1,000 babies born to Russian women in surrogacy contracts for foreigners were left stranded as a result of pandemic travel restrictions. However, most opposition towards the surrogacy seems to stem from a conservative political climate which is hostile to same-sex attracted individuals, rather than out of concern for the exploitation of women and children. Gay men and lesbian women are routinely subjected to abuse.
For instance, in June, it was reported that Khalimat Tamarova, a lesbian woman and the daughter of a close associate of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, had been forcibly removed from a crisis shelter by police. Tamarova had run away from home due to ongoing violence. Her father arrived at the shelter, Marem Group in Makhachkala, with two men claiming to be police officers on the evening of June 10, and took Tamarova with them. According to France 24, two Marem Group volunteers and two women living in the shelter were also arrested by police that day. Anna Maylova, Tamarova's friend who helped her flee to the women's shelter, told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper that she resisted efforts to detain her, saying she “was dragged along the asphalt by force.”
Prior to leaving her home, Tamarova had uploaded a video addressed to police in which she asked them not to look for her. “I left home of my own free will, to escape ongoing violence and threats,” she said in the video, filmed on June 6. “I am asking for no missing persons notices to be issued, and that no information about my whereabouts be released, as it would put my life in danger.” Tamarova told volunteers at the Marem Group shelter she wanted to divorce her husband, but her family refused to allow her to return home and threatened to kill her.
The following Monday, June 14, Tamarova appeared on Chechen state television reversing her statement. According to human rights activists, Chechens who lose favor with the Russian republic's authorities regularly appear on television to give forced apologies. Her whereabouts are currently unknown.
In July 2018, three sisters, Krestina (19), Angelina (18) and Maria Khachaturyan (17), admitted to killing their father, who had subjected them to years of mental, sexual, and physical abuse. On 27 July 2018, the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan called each of his daughters into his room one by one, cursed them, and pepper-sprayed them in the face, accusing them of not cleaning the apartment sufficiently. Maria, the youngest of the three, would later describe this moment as “the final straw”.
Krestina, the eldest, who passed out from the effects of the pepper spray, awoke to find that her sisters had stabbed their father with his hunting knife. Angelina called the police and confessed to attacking Mikhail Khachaturyan in self-defense. In June 2019, prosecutors indicted all three daughters on charges of pre-meditated murder. If convicted, the two older sisters, Krestina and Angelina, could face up to 20 years in prison.
There has been massive public outcry over the case, which was reported internationally. Protests were held in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and other cities in support of the sisters, and women’s rights campaigners point to the Khachaturyan sisters as an example of the necessity of changing legislation governing domestic violence and its prevention.
Their court date is still pending.
In December 2017, Margarita Gracheva’s husband, Dmitri, drove her to a forest, dragged her from the car, and chopped off her hands with an axe. He then dropped her off at the emergency ward of a hospital in Serpukhov. Dmitri’s abuse had been escalating ever since Margarita began working in the advertising department for a local newspaper. He became resentful of her career and envious of her male colleagues.
As their relationship took a turn for the worse, Margarita decided they should split up and presented divorce papers to Dmitri. Following this, he began threatening to kill her, and Margarita reported him to the police.
“I wrote a statement and the desk officer said they would get back to me in 20 days," Margarita says. “I pointed out that by then he might well have tried to kill me 20 times over.”
Three days after the authorities dropped her case citing a lack of evidence, Dmitri abducted Margarita and cut off her hands.
Gracheva has since published a book about her recovery, called Happy Without Hands, and has become a reluctant activist: she was told by her lawyers that if she did not speak publicly about her case, Dmitri would be released from prison within three to five years. Pressure from public opinion was essential in securing his final prison sentence of 14 years.
Women’s Rights Activists
Svetlana Anokhina is a journalist, activist, and outspoken advocate for women’s rights who fled the Russian republic after being threatened with death. She is the founder of Daptar, the only online media outlet in the North Caucasus that focuses on women and women’s rights.
Mari Davtyan is an attorney and an expert on legal issues for the Consortium of Women's Non-Governmental Organizations. She represented Margarita Gracheva and is defending the Khachaturyan sisters. Since 2012, she has also been a member of the Working Group on the draft law “On the prevention of domestic violence” for the Coordinating Council on Gender Issues at the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Russian Federation. Since 2017, she has been a member of the Coordinating Council for the implementation of the National Strategy for Women.
Alena (Alyona) Popova is an advocate for women’s rights and social media influencer, best known for her “I didn’t want to die” (#ЯНеХотелаУмирать) digital campaign against domestic violence. In 2018, Popova was arrested for staging a protest in response to sexual harassment allegations made against MP Leonid Slutsky. In September 2021, Popova ran for the State Duma elections on strengthening tougher domestic violence laws. She was not elected but has continued to encourage women to run for public office. According to Popova and to other official records, domestic violence (male violence against women) kills an estimated 12,000 women in Russia each year.
Femicid.net is a website dedicated to tracking the killings of women. Their research has been published by the UN.