Inside Russian Women’s Fight For Their Lives

Domestic violence was already an epidemic in Russia—then came last year’s legislation further decriminalizing abuse.

Content warning: descriptions of emotional and physical abuse

When her husband held her over the balcony of their 16th-floor apartment, Natalia Tunikova knew fighting him off was a matter of life or death. Driven by desperation, she grabbed the first thing her hands could find on the kitchen table—a knife. In the process of fending him off, ultimately freeing herself, she stabbed him.

Reflecting on the history of her abuse, Tunikova, a 42-year-old lawyer and mother, said:

“At first he used to just slap me to ‘teach me a lesson.’ Each time it lasted longer. I would shake from the top of my head to my fingertips. I never tried to defend myself, I just froze. I couldn’t even shout. Before each attack, I would see his crazy eyes. Then he’d charge at me and grab my throat. That night I practically said goodbye to life.”

However, even though Tunikova managed to escape from her terrifying ordeal on the balcony, it turned out that she was far from free.

Dmitry, her attacker, called an ambulance, and the paramedics called the police—who proceeded to arrest the bruised and traumatized Tunikova. She was then detained for 48 hours before spending the following week in the hospital recovering from a head injury. Not only was her husband never arrested, the lawsuit Tunikova brought against him for abusing her was dismissed.

Meanwhile, Tunikova faced up to eight years in prison for fighting him off.

Not only was her husband never arrested, the lawsuit Tunikova brought against him for abusing her was dismissed.

After a three-year-long legal battle, Tunikova was found guilty of causing serious bodily injury, using force in excess of the limits needed to defend oneself. She was sentenced to six months of correctional labor and forced to pay over $4000 as compensation to her abuser.

Unfortunately, Tunikova’s tale is far from unique.

Domestic violence is endemic in Russia, with an estimated absolute minimum of 40,000 women affected each year, and at least 12,000–14,000 women dying at the hands of their abusers annually—about 33 women per day, according to Russian government statistics. That’s 20 times the U.S. fatality rate. Worse, these official numbers are thought to be a very conservative estimate, since much of the abuse goes unreported.

According to the Moscow-based ANNA National Center for the Prevention of Violence, some 72% of women who sought assistance from a national helpline never reported their abuse to police. Worse still, many of the women who do report the abuse to authorities are simply sent back to their abusers, a function of authorities failing to take allegations seriously and the common cultural belief that domestic violence is a “private family matter.” Many women, in fact, shrug off domestic violence with the old Russian proverb, “If he beats you, it means he loves you.”

The situation was already so bleak that in 2015 the United Nations took the step of stating its “concern” about the prevalence of domestic violence in Russia: “The state party has not taken sustained measures to modify or eliminate discriminatory stereotypes and negative traditional attitudes” that are “the root causes of violence against women.”

Given such a grim backdrop, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the Russian administration would make it easier for domestic violence to go unpunished. Yet, in February of last year, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law decriminalizing any violence that does not cause serious injury, defined as one that requires hospital treatment. Since then, beatings that leave bruises, scratches, or bleeding, but that do not cause broken bones or a concussion, are no longer a criminal offense. Now, perpetrators who are found guilty of such violence face only a minimal fine, up to 15 days’ administrative arrest, or compulsory community service. Criminal charges can only be pressed if there is a second beating within the same year.

The law was proposed by ultra-conservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina in order to limit state meddling in the family and to “preserve the tradition of parental authority.” She told the Russian parliament that it’s ridiculous that a person could be branded a criminal for a “slap.” On another occasion, she stated publicly 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.”

The vote by Russia’s lower house of parliament on the legislation passed 380 to 3 before moving to the upper chamber of parliament, who also accepted the proposed legislation, before Putin signed it into law.

Beatings that leave bruises, scratches, or bleeding, but that do not cause broken bones or a concussion, are no longer a criminal offense.

The softened approach to domestic abuse is part of the wave of conservatism that has swept through Russia since the fall of the officially atheist Soviet Union 25 years ago. The ideological vacuum created by the collapse of communism has been replaced by traditional conservative values; according to a 2017 Pew study, more than 70% of Russians identify as Orthodox, up from about 30% in 1991.

The increasingly close partnership between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church holds Putin up as a protector of the traditional values of Russia, in the face of the “decadent” and “wild” values of the West.

Last year’s domestic violence legislation did, however, spark criticism—both abroad and in Russia. The British government, for instance, released an official statement calling the law “deeply disappointing” and held that it “sends the wrong message.” And while the Trump administration officially remained mum, the law was widely covered by American media.

As for Tunikova, she was shocked. “It was already very difficult for women to prosecute their abusers, now it’ll be practically impossible.”

The new law effectively put an end to the criminal case that Irina, a mother of two children, had spent more than a year putting together against her husband Alexei. The violence started in 2007 when Irina was pregnant with her first child, and it only continued to escalate—in severity and frequency—over the years. By the time her son was three, Alexei had started to punch him; when Irina intervened, the violence turned on her.

In 2014, while laying in the hospital recovering from being punched over 40 times, strangled, and dragged across her apartment floor by her hair — all in front of her children — she decided she had to get a divorce, or she could end up dead.

“I did everything right: I collected evidence and wrote my testimony, but with the new law, I could no longer make a criminal case. The only punishment he got was 120 hours of community service for two episodes of beating during the marriage,” Irina told me over the phone.

“The law sends a signal that Russia doesn’t take domestic violence seriously,” Alena Sadikova told me. She runs Kitezh, a shelter in Moscow for women and children that tends to be a last resort for those who can’t find protection elsewhere.

Maria Dovytan, a Russian lawyer specializing in cases involving domestic violence, added that women don’t see any point in going to the police now: “Before, there were measures to prevent the violence and protect victims, which are now gone. These are the two things they most need. As a lawyer, I see that it’s much harder to protect victims of domestic violence today.”

But, there is one positive consequence of the law: It has sparked greater conversation about women’s rights in Russia. “More and more women are discussing domestic violence and telling their stories on social media. This is huge. Before, women were too afraid to speak,” confirmed Sadikova. Many women are using the hashtag #небоюсьсказать (#NotAfraidToSay) to share their experiences—and while it is not nearly as widely used as #MeToo is in the West, many activists see reason for hope.

Indeed, polls confirm that social awareness of the problem is rising. In a survey from September conducted by the state-funded VCIOM agency, 77% of respondents said that they are sure that many cases of domestic violence go unrecorded, and almost half doubted that victims receive adequate official assistance or support.

As for Tunikova, she currently lives in Moscow with her daughter, who recently qualified as a lawyer and is now working to defend women who’ve suffered from Russia’s scourge of domestic violence — despite the path to justice being steeper than ever.