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Can Russia confront the horrors of its domestic violence epidemic?

With the murder of a pregnant woman and her six children, Russia’s domestic violence epidemic again briefly surfaces into headlines.  Perhaps one day these victims too can have their public monument. 

The neighbour did nothing.

This is the part that I keep coming back to, as Russia continues to investigate the brutal murder and dismemberment of a pregnant woman and her six children. The massacre took place in Nizhny Novgorod. The perpetrator, Oleg Belov, was the woman’s husband, the children’s own father.

Oleg went on to kill his own mother. When caught, he was allegedly staking out his mother-in-law. When apprehended, he put up quite the fight, and pulled a knife on the police before he was shot and subdued.

Oleg has a horrible face. If life were a movie, it would be almost too obvious to cast him as the monster. Sources in the media say he used an axe to kill his family.

The whole process may have taken an hour, and one can only imagine the terror Oleg’s wife and small children experienced before they died.

A neighbour told journalists, including Russian Vesti, that Belov’s wife, Yulia, came asking for help around 7 a.m., July 25. Yulia was saying, “We’re being killed!” A child was with her. “Daddy’s hitting us hard,” the child is alleged to have said.

Apparently, Yulia went back to the apartment to try and save the other children.

The screams stopped at around 8 a.m.

Did anyone call the police?

No, they did not.

Let me run that by you again. A woman was begging for help, saying that she was about to be murdered. A child she had with her was corroborating her story. People listened to the screams, waited until the screams stopped, and went on with their lives.

The dismembered bodies were discovered days later. Not a single neighbour, including the one whom Yulia begged for help, bothered to check up on the family.

Later, it was discovered that Yulia had repeatedly filed police reports that documented Oleg’s increasingly violent behaviour.

Three Russian policemen have been charged with criminal negligence for ignoring Yulia’s please for help. One policeman being charged is even of comparatively high rank.

This is a common situation in Russia. Heads will roll if a crime is scandalous enough. Yet firings and arrests are not enough. Russia desperately needs domestic violence legislation.

Amnesty International 'Woman' poster against domestic violence. Picture via Air Brussels.There is reason to be hopeful on that front. Awareness of the problem – which affects up to one in three Russian women, according to a national centre for violence prevention – is rising. A law on domestic violence is in the works.

It’s just taking too long.

I remember how two and a half years ago Moscow reacted with shock when a well-known restaurateur butchered his wife, Irina Cherska. At the time, members of the Public Chamber were giving interviews left right and centre about the need for better legislation. I attended a press conference on domestic violence where participants openly spoke about “intrigue” in the Russian State Duma to put the legislation on hold.

Of course there is going to be intrigue around a law like this. Laws banning “gay propaganda” and adoptions of orphans by Americans will be rushed through as though the fate of the known world depends on them. Not so for any law that attempts to address a problem as deep-seated and complex as domestic violence.

There are many reasons for why Russia has a hard time facing up to its domestic violence problem.

One of those reasons is the fact that modern Russian society simply expects people to side with strength, not with weakness. Weakness is unseemly and disgusting. Weakness deserves what it gets.

This is why victims of domestic violence are regularly vilified. After Cherska’s death, there was plenty of gleeful speculation about the woman and how she “drove” her husband to do what he did. A prominent conservative journalist even wrote a “re-imagining” of the murder that was so vile that it made me wonder if the author didn’t have a sick crush on the perpetrator (generically speaking, he’s a good-looking guy).

Since I posted about the Nizhny Novgorod massacre on Facebook, a friend has inevitably shown up to ask me, “Why should I feel sorry for her? She had six of his children. She stayed. She knew he had psychiatric problems.”

I tried explaining how domestic violence is a swamp, sucking people in inch by inch, day by day. I tried explaining the ways in which the abuser inevitably makes the victim feel as though she is to blame – “Look what you made me do!” etc. – which results in feelings of worthlessness and despair and, in the end, the inability to leave.

I tried explaining how mainstream thought in Russia still dictates that a woman cannot be happy or complete or “normal” unless she can get and keep a man– and how plenty of women stay with their husbands because they’re afraid of being judged for ending up single and alone.

I tried explaining about how most victims of domestic violence in Russia simply have no place to go.

I talked and I talked, but I don’t know if I got anywhere.

I keep coming back to that neighbour. The neighbour who heard the screams, heard the phrase, “We’re being killed!” and calmly went on with her day.

Friends tell me not to blame the neighbour too much. After all, Russian society is atomised, a sense of community is lacking; people hole up in their flats and prefer to shut out the world, this is the problem of an entire culture, not a single individual. Plus, people say, domestic violence is always such a tricky issue, you never know how the police might respond, you never know how the victims might respond, what if you’re accused of meddling, everyone has heard stories of people accused of meddling, some therefore assume it’s best to leave it be. 

Is it easy to assume that “We’re being killed” is just evidence of a lovers’ quarrel? Do children who are being murdered scream in such a way as for it to not be particularly disturbing?

I don’t have any answers. All I have is an image of a desperate woman and her child dashing for help – before going back inside the flat, to never come out again.

Perhaps when the glacial apathy mainstream Russian society exhibits towards victims of domestic violence gives way – there can be a monument. In Russia, there are plenty of monuments to war heroes, to saints, to poets, to revolutionaries.

 Why not a monument to all those who were slain while neighbours turned up their television and police looked the other way? It would characterise the modern age – with its lack of epic battles and emphasis on local tragedies – very, very well.   


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