Domestic Violence A Silent Crisis In Russia

Domestic violence is one of Russia's darkest secrets. The government estimates that 14,000 women die each year at the hands of their husbands or male partners. But Russian police don't even classify domestic abuse as a crime. It's a social problem few Russians ever mention.

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In Russia, domestic violence is a silent crisis. According to government estimates, one Russian woman dies at the hands of her husband or partner every hour. But Russians don't talk about domestic violence. Even the police don't consider it a crime. NPR's Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer reports.

GREGORY FEIFER: Ilyana Litvin(ph) married a medical student in 1995, expecting to begin a happy family life. She had two children, but says her marriage soon became a nightmare.

Ms. ILYANA LITVIN: (Through translator) My husband began staying out late drinking. He'd come home angry and beat me in front of the children. He hit me in sensitive areas, such as the stomach and chest, avoiding my face and hands so the marks couldn't be seen in public.

FEIFER: Litvin says her husband threatened to kill her. She was desperate, but too afraid to complain. That's hardly unique in a country where victims of domestic abuse often have nowhere to turn. In Moscow, a city of more than 10 million people, there's not a single shelter for battered women.

(Soundbite of door opening)

FEIFER: Even at this shelter outside Moscow, there are only seven beds. It's one of only 20 government-run shelters in the entire country.

Ms. MARINA NAKITINA(ph) (Director, Domestic Abuse Shelter, Russia): (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: Director Marina Nakitina downplays the issue of domestic violence. She says domestic abuse is no worse in Russia than anywhere else. Others disagree. Even the government's own figures estimate 14,000 women die each year from domestic violence. That's about one every hour. It's more than 10 times the number of deaths in the United States, which has twice Russia's population.

Experts say there are signs the government is starting to take action against domestic violence, but they say the real number of victims is impossible to count because domestic violence is hidden away, seen as a private matter not to aired in public.

Russian law doesn't recognize domestic violence as a crime. Marina Pislakova(ph), director of the Anna Center for Domestic Violence, says even authorizes willing to intervene in abuse cases often can't act until it's too late.

Ms. MARINA PISLAKOVA (Director, Anna Center for Domestic Violence, Russia): It's very difficult for them to do their job. They all know that until the injuries are medium, severe or murder occurs, they cannot intervene.

FEIFER: Pislakova said that to be classified as a medium case, an injury has to prevent someone from being able to work for two weeks. Even women able to prove they're victims of domestic violence often face insurmountable obstacles, in a legal system in which restraining orders don't exist.

Many women who file complaints against the their partners end up retracting them. Ilyana Litvin finally gathered the courage to go to the authorities, but she says the police initially refused to investigate her claims. It took them six months to start criminal proceedings against her husband. Litvin finally divorced him 2004. But like many estranged Russian couples, they couldn't afford to move apart and continue to live together, which she says is seriously harming their young children.

Ms. LITVIN: (Through translator) They tell me it's difficult to bear his presence. He gets drunk and follows us around, finding fault with every word we say. His goal is to humiliate us.

FEIFER: Marine Pislakova says domestic abuse is common in patriarchal societies such as Russia's, where violence is often justified as a way of controlling women and where an old saying advises if he beats you, he loves you.

Mr. PISLAKOVA: She must have done something wrong to deserve it. That mentality is still there. The mentality of women being basically created to serve man, that mentality is still there in many ways.

FEIFER: One survey found more than half of women questioned said they'd been beaten by their husbands. Pislakova says many Russians believe domestic violence to be acceptable in a society that sees itself as emotional and passionate, and where the impetuous Russian soul is invoked to explain away what's seen as violent crimes of passions.

Ilyana Litvin says even though her ex-husband was convicted of attempted murder, he was sentenced to only one year of probation.

Ms. LITVIN: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: I have to go back to the same apartment, she says. I have to hear the same threats, and I can't do anything about it. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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