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In the Male State

The case of the Khachaturyan sisters reveals how the ultra-conservative ideology of the Russian state tacitly supports domestic violence.

It’s been a year since three teenage sisters — 17, 18 and 19 years old at the time –  stabbed their father to death in an ordinary Moscow sleeping district, before handing themselves over to the police. The investigation proved that the deceased, the Armenian businessman Mikhail Khachaturyan, had abused his daughters physically and sexually for years, including the very last day, when he pepper sprayed each of them in the face, one by one. The sisters’ attorneys argue that for the girls this was an act of self-defense to escape the ever-escalating violence committed by their father. In June the sisters were charged with premeditated murder, meaning Angelina and Krestina face up to 20 years in prison, and Maria, the youngest, up to 10. The decision gave rise to a wave of public protests. Activists organised daily lines of one-person pickets (the only form of protest allowed without official approval in Russia) at the Investigative Committee in Moscow. Demonstrations have taken place in other regions and many cities worldwide.

A one-person picket at the Investigative committee in Moscow.

Feminist activists were the first to recognise that the sisters’ story had relevance far beyond just the one horrendous case, but symbolised a larger picture of violence that Russian women face today at the systemic level. According to a World Bank report, Russia got a score of 0 in protecting women from violence, based on seven indicators. There are no official statistics, but an independent research has shown that 80 percent of women convicted of murder have survived domestic violence by their partners. Unlike many countries, Russia doesn’t have a law that specialises in the problem. “There has been many attempts to adopt a law on preventing domestic violence since the beginning of the 1990s — about 40 drafts, all without success. We’re currently refining yet another one. While the necessity of changes is clear for everyone in governmental agencies, departments tend to shift responsibility to one another”, says Mari Davtyan, women’s rights attorney and co-author of a domestic violence prevention law draft.

Russia refuses to sign the Istanbul Convention, so consequently there’s no strategy to deal with violence against women at the administrative level — no shelters for the victims, no restraining orders, no trained professionals, and the police have been notorious for their cynical attitude towards domestic issues. “Don’t call us anymore: when you’re dead, we’ll come and register the body”, a police officer said to a victim in the city of Orel in 2016. In less than an hour the woman was heavily beaten by ex-boyfriend and later died in hospital.

An official demonstration in St. Petersburg. Applications to protest in Moscow have been turned down.

The legal situation has been made even worse in 2017. The de-criminalisation of domestic violence was promoted by the ultra-conservative MP Yelena Mizulina “as a way to protect the traditional family from any interference”. Now wife-beating can result not in a two-year jail sentence, but only in a 5,000 to 30,000-rouble fine (from the family budget) or 10—15-days of jail. As a result, the amount of domestic violence has increased, according to the Human Rights Watch. This leaves women in a situation where there’s no other way to escape the violence – a kitchen knife is the most common weapon – and face jail on murder charges. While the law includes the notion of a “necessary self-defence”, it’s rarely applied, because investigators tend to press murder charges, as their career development rests on solving the more serious crimes.

But back to the Moscow protests. Although the movement looked at first like only ‘women’s business’, a few days later several male politicians and public figures turned up as well. Following the popular vlogger Yury Dud, the opposition leaders Alexey Navalny and Dmitry Gudkov both expressed their sympathy for the girls. Still, you wouldn’t want to come across the comments section of their Facebook posts. There you’ll find a massive outburst of blame towards the sisters, and even an occasional apology for their sadistic father (“he was just raping them and beating now and then, he wasn’t killing them”). In gender-based violence cases, many in the opposition start to demonstrate a faith in fairness of the Russian justice system, otherwise considered dysfunctional and hateful.

Illustration of the Khachaturyan sisters by Sona Abgaryan.

Anastasia Khodyreva, feminist historian, explains: “I think that the widespread victim-blaming, either in social network comments or in the statements of professionals and judges, is owed to the lack of effective ways to solve the systemic problem of violence (in Russia). Victim-blaming is common against socially vulnerable groups, especially when there is a high level of tension in society. However, the post-Soviet space shares a more universal experience of victim-blaming. Stalin’s “managerial skills” continue to be discussed in media, but not the fact that millions of innocent people were killed or prosecuted in the state-initiated purges. As long as a broad public discussion on the real causes of Soviet repressions is being blocked on the state level, it is only logical that the survivors of violence are blamed for breathing air, not to mention their attempts to resist violence”.

A certain type of public intellectual, especially those from older generations, is unwilling to accept even this. “Ever since the 1990s, Russian feminist activists have faced the fact that the reluctance of the new government to adopt the law against domestic violence is shared by most public liberal democrats, including human rights defenders of a ‘universal’ profile. The genealogy for this antifeminist position that equates the opposition with power, in my opinion, lies both in the legacy of dissidence, where state-supported equality was strongly associated with the Soviets, and in the shortening of funding opportunities from western donors after the adoption of the law on ‘foreign agents’ in the mid-2010s. Russian intellectuals who have saved their public positions now came to disdainfully ignore the social and economic conditions outside their social strata”, says Khodyreva.

The ‘Male State’ picket in Moscow.

Meanwhile the Facebook group of organisers is busy planning the large-scale Sisters’ March, alongside with gathering some postcards for the sisters, and worrying about the publicity. It’s clear that nothing but a big media noise can help, that’s why they write and write to foreign journalists, to famous actors, to pop-stars, to the bloody Kardashians. It’s a remarkably unique co-operation — from known feminists to non-political individuals. And there are men to contend with. Five youngsters from the “Male State”, an extreme misogynist movement, attended one of the pickets, holding cardboards reading “Murderers should serve time” and “Nationalism and Patriarchy”. The boys, however, quickly ended up in a police van, as they’d forgotten the only rule of Russian picketing: you do not gather together. They plan to make an even more dramatic entry at the Sisters’ March, to “let the Armenian scum know their place”. Given that the deceased was no less Armenian, misogyny here temporarily wins over racism. Another set of characters are the relatives of the deceased, who demand the maximum penalty for the girls. Arsen, Khachaturyan’s nephew, is busy attending various TV shows. “He was just a strict father”, Arsen explains, denying the sexual abuse. His uncle was also “a saint, who often went to church”. He doesn’t mention his uncle’s shady business, the weapons Mikhail kept at home (“just for protection”), or how he’d put a gun to a neighbour’s head. 

What else this case shows very well is a double standard on women’s status in society — on one hand, it’s considered that women in Russia have already achieved all their rights (even without a mass feminist movement), on the other — the most horrendous gender-based violence is viewed as isolated incidents and not as a part of grim statistics. How did this happen to a territory that once was at the vanguard of the gender equality movement?

Illustration of the Khachaturyan sisters by Daria Chaban.

According to Anastasia Khodyreva, “the key change of Perestroika was the unilateral termination of the contract between the state and women-as-mothers (also with their children, and elderly relatives or relatives with disabilities who were in the care of women), whose reproductive work was previously recognised and compensated by the system of state benefits in order to be combined with compulsory employment. The transition to the capitalist mode pushed women on the periphery as less desirable employees, to the shadow sector of the economy and self-employment. Labour discrimination inevitably affected access to other rights, and it rightfully became the biggest concern for the Russian feminists already in the end of the 1980s.

“It is easier to put pressure of traditional gender roles on impoverished people. The first half of the 2000s still saw draft laws supporting gender equality and combating violence against women, however gender politics at the end of the 3rd decade of the new Russia turned rigid and conservative. By the beginning of the 2010s, the socialist contract was completely replaced by ideological pressure. 35 years after Perestroika it is visible that only a small group of women can enjoy its promised advantages, while most of the population is marginalised in poverty, with limited access to public goods and rights. Of course, this was strongly influenced by the Putin’s arrival in power 20 years ago, which consistently zeroed out both the remnants of socialist privileges and the democratic achievements of the 1990s”.

So here we are in 2019: misogynistic views in society are normalized by the media (including the liberal ones), humiliating sexist adverts, hideous TV stand-ups make fun of domestic and sexual violence — this all is not some symptom of backwardness, but makes a direct appeal to a certain ideology. As Mari Davtyan points out “the traditional, patriarchal values, declared today as fundamental for Russia — the so-called ‘spiritual staples’ that unite the country — these values could fall under threat if a domestic violence law is adopted, or at least for some it feels this way. So the ‘spiritual staples’ back up the violence at the state level, as well as in society and in families”.  And since a conservative society is a closed entity, the state may as well  portray itself as a “strict father”, who “often goes to church”. That’s why the Khachaturyan family make such a perfect symbol of this enclave, grown on rotten hierarchies, whose sickening power dynamics can only blossom on the backs of the dependent, the disempowered and the weak.

If there’s a reassuring aspect to all this, it’s as a space where many women of various backgrounds have crossed paths, feeling deeply about the sisters’ fate, but also trying to make visible all the other stories — of those who have been injured, murdered, or convicted for an act of self-defense. It has tapped into an urge to fight the violence, for the first time on this scale for women in post-Soviet Russia. It’s solidarity, a long-forgotten word.