On the surface, Veronika* looks like an ordinary mum, making a cup of tea while her children play around her ankles. As the steam rises from her cup, though, she’s not relaxing or catching up on social media while the kids chatter. She’s on a knife-edge, in hiding from her husband.
“My husband tried to strangle me. He left me unconscious and thought he’d killed me,” Veronika, 38, says. “He told me that he has the right to do whatever he wants because he’s the master.”
Veronika laces her fingers together as she looks nervously across the room. She says the police want to help her, but, because of the law, they are powerless. This isn’t some dystopian drama, where women have become second-class citizens ‘owned’ by their husbands. This is Russia in 2018.
Now, if you batter your wife - or indeed any family member - but not severely enough to hospitalise them, and it’s your first recorded offence, you no longer go to prison for two years, as was previously the law. Instead, you’ll receive a fine of anything between 5 and 30,000 rubles (around £375), or up to 15 days in prison. In addition, some women are being forced to pay the fines handed down to their abusers, with unpaid fines often taken from shared bank accounts.
A new documentary from Stacey Dooley, Russia’s War On Women, explores the impact this change in the law has had. Stacey meets women like Veronika, who are trying to flee domestic violence, and she also speaks to men who have served time for domestic violence, as well as those who have been through rehab.
Critics fear the introduction of 'the slapping law' has already normalised increased levels of violence against women, with the mayor of Russia's fourth-largest city reporting a dramatic uptick in incidents since the change.
Indeed, it's estimated that more than 600 Russian women are killed a month in their own homes, and that up to 36,000 women a day are being abused. And for some who do want to leave, the story doesn’t end with the brief sanctuary of a refuge, as it has for Veronika. In December last year, 34-year-old Maxim Gribanov battered his common-law wife, Anastasia Ovsiannikova, so hard she fell into a coma and died. He now faces up to 15 years in prison.
Meanwhile, those who fight back may find themselves with prison sentences, like Natalia Markelova, who claims to have killed her husband in self-defence, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Many Russian MPs argue the new law protects the family unit – it stops the police or the law interfering in private matters between a husband and wife. It’s known as the ‘slapping law’, and fuelled by a return to traditionalism spearheaded by the Orthodox Church under Putin in his third term.
It’s hard for those in the UK to see any justification for the change in law that decriminalises violence. In the documentary, Stacey meets different women, all in hiding from their husbands, who have beaten them. These women tell how they fear for their lives; how their babies were also beaten, or that they were attacked while pregnant.
After her visit to Veronika, Stacey goes on to meet Alyona, who lives in a remote village with her husband, German. They live according to traditional values, and she openly admits on camera to Stacey that her husband hits her, although she goes quiet when asked how many times it’s happened.
It's a stark contrast to the women at the Kitezh Women's Crisis Centre, near Moscow, run by Alyona Sadikova, where Stacey travels next. There, Maria*, 22, is nervous to speak, as she's terrified her husband will find her and their 18-month-old son. He beat her during pregnancy, and carried on after their son arrived, “sometimes hitting the baby’s head, when he wasn’t even one month old,” she says. Maria escaped with the child as her husband beat her with a frying pan. Since then, she has been in hiding. Her own father went to prison for murdering her mother.
Some men are repentant. St Petersburg has a rehab programme, run by Father Alexander Gavrilov, an orthodox priest who has adapted the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous programme so that it incorporates his faith. He’s treated hundreds of alcoholics, and when Stacey visits to try to get some perspective on the men who want to avoid alcohol and turn their back on violence, Alexander says he sees domestic violence being passed down “from generation to generation” - much like Maria's experience - and sees his job as teaching men to stop that cycle.
“[This new law] is a strange law, there’s no logic," he says. "Some don’t agree with me [that the new law is wrong], but I believe we have to carry on doing our job anyway.”
One man meets Stacey on the stairs at the rehab meeting, and goes on camera to speak about his former life - beating women - and his rehabilitation. Andre has spent a total of two decades in prison for various crimes that aren’t explored in the documentary. He admits that he ‘betrayed’ his ex, with whom he has a child. “I beat her a couple of times,” he says. “Not that hard. If I hit with full force I’d kill. I tried not to kill her.”
While men like Andre vow to change, thousands still have the new law on their sides. While the legal amendments were under discussion last year, protests were held, and women’s rights groups reacted in fury. Some even went so far as to mock up scenes of violence, pictured below. But it was to no avail.
Protesters stage scenes of domestic abuse
There are a few underground organisations where women learn about women’s rights and self-defence techniques. Stacey visits some, hearing tales of women being threatened with rape because they want to meet and discuss feminism. The organisations are scarce - not illegal, but organisers live in fear of the men who send them threats when they can get hold of their phone numbers. And, meanwhile, for women like Veronika, the reality is a daily fear of ending up destitute or dead.
Stacey Dooley Investigates: Russia’s War On Women is on iPlayer now
These organisations offer information and support about domestic abuse.
*Some names have been changed
Originally published 1 February 2018.