A protest performance staged by women’s rights activists in Saint Petersburg after Russia’s adoption of domestic violence legislation, January 2017. 

© 2017 David Frenkel
A jealous husband from a small town near Moscow took his 25-year-old wife and mother of their two small boys, Margarita Gracheva, to the woods, put a knife to her throat, and threatened to kill her. The woman called the police, but when a police officer eventually called her back 18 days later, they offered only to “talk” to the husband. It was in October 2017, and as with many cases of unaddressed family violence, the situation escalated over time. Two months later, the husband chopped off Margarita’s hands with an ax.

This February marks one year since controversial amendments decriminalizing first offenses of battery within the family were rammed through the Russian parliament, cheered on by conservatives citing “traditional” values and claiming they seek to strengthen Russian families. Women’s rights groups, lawyers and activists warned against the amendments, voicing fears that abusers would view it as a green light.

Russia does not have a separate law on domestic violence, and there is no legal definition of it, so reliable statistics are hard to come by. But the gravity of the problem can’t be underestimated. Forty percent of all violent crimes in Russia are reportedly committed within the family, yet authorities are doing far too little to both effectively prevent domestic violence and to ensure justice for victims. Gracheva’s case is just an example of the way police routinely do not investigate or even respond to domestic violence complaints. Furthermore, the system is stacked against victims, who often must gather evidence and prepare cases for court themselves. Russian law does not provide for protection orders that offer survivors immediate and longer-term protection from abusers. Shelter spaces for those who need it are severely limited.

Legal experts say that Russia’s domestic violence victims, who are predominantly women and children, are worse off than a year ago: fewer factors now deter abusers, and there is still no protection for victims. Several senior officials, including Russia’s Minister of Interior andthe head of Russia’s chief investigative agency, have criticized last year’s law.

Meanwhile Margarita Gracheva’s husband, now in jail, writes his wife letters threatening to kill her when he’s released. Doctors managed to reattach Gracheva’s left hand, but the right was smashed beyond repair. A protection order, enforced by police in a timely manner, could have helped protect her.