Who is helping domestic violence victims in Russia
April 15, 2023
  • Anna Zueva
  • Vladimir Popov
Anna Zueva looked into private shelters in Tomsk, Nizhny Novgorod and outside Moscow to find out what kind of help women get there and what challenges the organizations face. The biggest problem, she claims, is that the Russian state does not recognize domestic violence as a problem.
Marina Pisklakova-Parker has created “Anna”, the first shelter for women.
Over the past decade, two thirds of all murdered women in Russia have died at the hands of their partners or relatives. During the two-year pandemic, the situation worsened, with the figure rising to 71%. However, the country has yet to pass a law to prevent domestic violence or set up shelters for victims of domestic violence. Moreover, the Russian state is making headwinds for people who help the victims.

Public assistance centers: The problem of accessibility

State assistance centers exist, though far from in every region. For a domestic violence victim to be accepted, she is required to submit a list of documents (for example, a salary certificate from her place of work) that she is usually unable to collect. Often, the injured woman does not even have her passport, as her partner took it or tore it up.

“The state began to respond to the problem of [domestic violence] in 1996, when the first [state] hostels opened,” explains Marina Pisklakova-Parker, who created Anna, the first women’s center in Russia. “Then, centers ‘for women in difficult circumstances’ emerged – without the word ‘violence,’ as in Russia there is no such problem as domestic violence officially and there is no definition of this problem in law.”

State centers are often inaccessible for those who need them, explains Pisklakova-Parker: “For example, at some [centers], accommodation is free only for women with low incomes. So, a woman must go to her husband and say: I need a certificate of your salary so that I can leave you for a shelter. That is absurd!”
Alena Sadikova, head of the Kitezh center.
State assistance centers are funded by regions and municipalities. This means that you can get into them only if you are registered there – only residents of a particular city, district or microdistrict can go to a certain center. However, to truly hide, victims often need to run away from their homes.

The advantage of private shelters is the absence of formal restrictions. Alena Sadikova, head of the Kitezh Center in Moscow Region, says:

We work with everyone because everyone needs help. We had women from African countries, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and, of course, Central Asia. The difference between public and private is also that public [shelters] openly publish their address, as they have security, they have a cook, a cleaning lady. But we have to do everything ourselves. I am both a consultant and talk with journalists. Someone called me once: “hi, could I have someone from your PR department?” I put the phone in the other hand and say: “good day!”
The Kitezh Center in Moscow Region.
Kitezh, which has been around since 2013, operates two shelters. At the one with a playground in front, a small, two-story house in Moscow Region, Sadikova often settles women with children. The administrator distributes medicines and food to the women each day, and they cook and clean themselves. They can live there for up to two months. Usually this is enough for them to get advice from lawyers and psychologists, gather strength and get their life back together themselves.
The Nizhny Novgorod Crisis Center for Women.
Anastasia Yermolayeva is a psychotherapist and chair of the Nizhny Novgorod Women’s Crisis Center, which has been around for 20 years. Two years ago, the organization opened a shelter. Since then, it has become a haven for dozens of women and children from all over Nizhny Novgorod Region.

I always wanted us to have a shelter, but we did not have the financial possibilities. We tried to get an apartment from the regional government. In 2014, such an apartment was opened by the Ministry of Social Protection, but there was a system under which a woman must be recognized as “in need” under Federal Law 442, write a statement and say what happened to her, and officials would decide to take her into the apartment or not. This choked the flow of victims. During the pandemic, we received funding, including foreign funding, and we rented one three-room apartment.

“When legal actions begin, the aggressors get nervous,” explains Yelena Blagova, a lawyer at the Nizhny Novgorod Women’s Crisis Center. “Often, if we do not place a woman in a shelter, then she and her children are in real danger. So, for me [having a shelter] is a huge support: I can safely start the process, knowing that the woman is safe.”
Tatyana Dmitrieva, head of Women’s Voice.
Persecution of shelters under the ‘foreign agents’ law

The Tomsk nonprofit Women’s Voice, which until the end of last year was headed by Tatyana Dmitrieva, also had a shelter. The mayor’s office had provided rent-free accommodation of 88 square meters on the first floor of a residential building in 2020. At the end of May 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Justice, citing allegedly uncovered foreign funding, put Women’s Voice on the register of NGOs “acting as a foreign agent.” And in the summer, city administration officials terminated the contract and seized the premises. Dmitrieva describes the situation:

We had three rooms, 8-9 people could live there. There was a workout machine, a shower, and a washing machine. Everything you need to live had been set up. Some women who came from areas of Tomsk Region were pleasantly surprised. But my colleagues and I shut down the organization Women’s Voice ourselves – maybe it was a result of our weakness... Since Women’s Voice was closed, it was removed from the register of NGOs recognized as foreign agents. Unfortunately, I am no longer part of a professional organization that helps women.

Now in Tomsk Region, home to a million people, there is no shelter for women fleeing domestic violence, nor an NGO that provides free legal and psychological services to victims.

‘Everyone shies away from us’

Women’s Voice is far from the only women’s rights organization that is included in the Justice Ministry’s discriminatory list. Earlier, the centers Anna and Violence.No were put on it. By law, they are required to regularly submit reports on their spending, while all their publications must be tagged with a notice about being a “foreign agent.” Otherwise, the leaders of the organizations face administrative and then criminal liability. Diana Barseghyan, who was formerly an assistant to the director of Violence.No, says:

The status of a “foreign agent” makes it very hard to work. It keeps you from speaking loudly about the problem, it keeps you from interacting with schools and police stations through lectures, for example. Everyone shies away from us just because we are marked with that status. For example, we had a project to help older people who faced violence. Obviously, not every elderly person has delved into the intricacies of the legislation on nonprofit organizations. We need to explain [to them] that we have free help, but on every brochure [as demanded by the Ministry of Justice] we must have a huge inscription informing them that we are a “foreign agent” (see the photo). Imagine what an elderly person thinks receiving such a leaflet? It is an attempt to brand us and tarnish our reputation.
“Foreign funding, which is grounds for being branded a 'foreign agent,' is often the only way for the assistance organizations to carry out their activities.”
Such NGOs do not have state support – the patriarchal ideas promoted by the Kremlin go against supporting a woman’s decision to leave her aggressor and get a divorce. At the end of 2019, human rights activists had managed to get a federal law on preventing domestic violence written and had found support among MPs. But at the beginning of 2020, Vladimir Putin stopped the initiative, probably due to lobbying by the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, who insist on “not allowing strangers to invade the family space.”

Therefore, funding for nonprofit organizations is often project-based and short-term, usually for a year. Center directors are constantly looking for donors and sponsors around the world. There is no sense in counting on private donations within the country. Because of the war, Russians’ donations to NGOs plunged, with 40% of NGOs noting a decrease in total funding over the year. Sadikova from the Kitezh Center laments:

I am constantly thinking not even about the budget for tomorrow, but about what it will be in a year. You must know now what you and your employees will have in a year. We do not have 100% certainty that we will get any grant. So, we write up projects and we do not know which one will “land.” After all, we need something to feed our clients, pay utility bills and base salaries for employees. Any other business can be wound down or moved online. But you can’t move our activities there…

Digital surveillance of women who have fled their families

Besides branding as “foreign agents” organizations that help women, the state is also increasingly using digital technology to find runaways and return them to their families. There have been high-profile stories – usually, women from Muslim regions (see here and here). Sadikova explains:

The Moscow government introduced a digital surveillance system, all Moscow intercoms were connected to video cameras and a common database. Over the past year, we had several cases when our client was detained in the subway based on facial recognition. We had to redo all our security protocols. The police have the ability to track geolocation, do call histories and use metadata. There were cases when our clients were being found every week. We… have invented some new methods, we feel like partisans, sitting in the basement, trying to deal with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. But who are they? And who are we? A couple women and frightened girls who stop breathing when you mention the name of the aggressor in front of them.

The Council of Europe, of which Russia was a member until last spring, recommends setting up one shelter for domestic violence victims per 10,000 people. Violence.No made an interactive map of shelters and assistance organizations. There are about 200, mainly in Moscow, St Petersburg and the central part of Russia. Beyond the Urals it is almost empty. There are regions, like Buryatia, Kalmykia and Tyva, where there is not a single shelter.

“We called each of the centers,” says Barseghyan, who helped put together the map, “to understand what kind of assistance they offer and how their specialists handle victims… There are very few crisis centers… There are places which we wanted to learn from and share practices with, but there are also organizations where they can be nasty.”

As research data from other countries shows that domestic violence is more common with veterans, and military personnel, it can be suggested that the need for crisis centers will inevitably grow as soldiers return from the war in Ukraine, often with post-traumatic stress disorders.
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