One winter evening in 1999, Yulia was sitting on a windowsill of the little apartment she shared with her husband. She was worried because she knew it was his pay day and he still hadn’t come home. At 6 a.m. the following morning, he walked through the door, drunk. When Yulia asked him where he had been, he started shouting and beating her. He kicked her hard in the stomach and breasts, stopping only when she had no breath left to yell for help. Then he slumped in a chair in the kitchen and fell asleep. Yulia ran to her parents’ house.
At first she wanted to report the incident, but her husband, a policeman, pressured her not to. They had been married for a year, and that was the first time he had been aggressive towards her. Besides, he told her, the bruises would heal quickly – she wouldn’t be able to prove anything.
He was right about the bruises, they faded fast. But a few months after the incident, Yulia started to feel pains in her chest and belly. Her doctor told her the blood in her bruises had clotted, turning into hematomas, which had then become benign tumors. Several rounds of surgery to remove the tumors left behind jagged, bulging scars. The surgery also made her unable to conceive naturally.
All of which is why Yulia, 28, felt betrayed by her government when, earlier this year, the Russian parliament voted in favor of a new bill downgrading first-time domestic abuse from a criminal offense to an administrative offense.
“Men will think beating their wives is the same as breaking road traffic rules,” she says, speaking over the phone from her apartment in Ufa, a small industrial town in southwest Russia. “Men should be afraid they might get seriously punished for doing this. There might be long-lasting consequences from one beating. Someone might be beaten to death.”
On Feb. 7, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law. Instead of the previous penalty of a maximum two years in prison, beating a family member for the first time without causing serious injury will earn the perpetrator a fine ranging from 5,000 rubles ($80) to 30,000 rubles ($500), a period of compulsory work, or 15 days in prison. If the offender assaults a family member again, the administrative penalty graduates to a criminal offence, punishable with jail time.
Almost unanimous support for the bill inside parliament has outraged many in Russia, who say the country is taking a step back in the progress of women’s rights. Feminist activists have been trying for weeks to get permission from the authorities to hold a protest against the bill, but say their requests have so far been denied. An online petition in favor of tougher laws on domestic violence was signed by 253,000 people within weeks of the January vote in parliament.
In an attempt to stem criticism of the bill, some of the female parliamentarians who voted for it have explained their decision to government-backed news outlets. “We think it’s not right to meddle in family matters,” said MP Olga Okuneva. “Of course, there shouldn’t be violence inside a family. If someone does this, they should be held responsible. But according to our constitution, the level of responsibility should be equal for everyone.”
Statistics on domestic violence in Russia are hard to find because officials don’t classify the act separately from other forms of violence. But last year, during a debate on a different bill that would have made it easier to prosecute domestic violence offenders (the bill didn’t pass), Senator Anton Belyakov said 4 million people in Russia committed acts of domestic violence in 2015, according to figures obtained from the Russian Interior Ministry. He also said ministry figures showed that, in the same year, 14,000 women died at the hands of their husbands: “That’s the same number of [civilians] that died during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.”
In a city near the Ural Mountains in Russia, Olga runs a small refuge for women and children who have been affected by domestic violence. She declines to give her full name, because 10 years ago, when she gave an interview to a foreign media outlet, officials shut down her support center. The shelter – it’s kept secret to protect the women and children staying there – is the only refuge for domestic violence cases in the town. It can only accommodate five or six women with their children at any one time.
Olga, 48, says domestic violence is endemic in Russia. “Maybe it’s because from childhood, our boys are told they should never cry because they are men. All this aggression stores up in them and takes on violent forms,” she says.
“On the other hand, girls in Russia are told not to worry about anything but their looks and making borscht [traditional Russian soup]. When they marry someone rich, they are told all their problems will be solved.” But when the relationship turns violent, many women have nowhere to go for help.
“The authorities need to wake up to this problem and build more family counseling centers and shelters like this one,” she says.
In the country of 146 million people, there are around 100 women’s crisis centers and shelters, most of them situated in the big cities – Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Only one-third of women’s shelters are state-run, with charities and private funding covering the rest, and there are also a few private-run helplines, offering women legal advice and psychological support.
Back in Ufa, Yulia has found a way to help herself heal. She left her husband eight years ago, but the scars on her body are a daily reminder of the beating she endured as his wife. So she decided to pay a visit to Zhenya Zakhar, a tattoo artist who offers her services for free to women who want something beautiful to cover up their ugly abuse scars.
Inspired by Brazilian artist Flavia Carvelho, who does similar work for women in Latin America, Zakhar posted a message online offering free tattoos to abuse survivors six months ago. Since then, she has been inundated with requests.
“The women come and say, ‘Well done, you are doing the right thing,’” she says. So far, Zakhar has tattooed 200 women with roses and other designs to cover their scars, and says she has a waiting list until June.
“Everyone says men need to be put in jail for this crime. [Even] men say that,” she says. “It doesn’t just ruin these women’s bodies – it ruins their lives.”