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Trud-7, No. 8, January 16-22, 1998, p. 7
[newspaper published in Moscow]

SOS against a background of love

by Nadezhda Nadezhdina

According to the Interior Ministry, in Russia there are up to 4 million domestic "disturbances" (to put it mildly). Each year there are up to 3500 domestic homicides. In the first half of last year [1997] around 18,000 battered women were "registered" in casualty wards. Moreover, only one-fifth to one-seventh of all battered women receive any medical assistance. These figures are truly frightening.
Domestic violence is a worldwide evil. Over there, however, in the civilized West, they fight it. In almost every city there are crisis centers for women, refuges where they can at least temporarily hide from tyrannical husbands; the police take stern measures. But we have only just begun to discuss this painful problem and to set up crisis centers.
Today we talk with Marina Pisklakova, director of the Moscow Women's Crisis Center.

Marina Petrovna, how did you come to be involved with this issue?
I was working in the Institute of Socio-Economic Problems of the Population, researching the position of women. We were doing a survey to find out what problems concerned women the most. The results were startling: a good third of respondents talked about violence within the family. The husband won't allow her to work, demands that she stops seeing her friends, never lets her out alone; he may abuse her verbally, or shove her around, or strike her... Later, in order to learn more, we started interviewing women wherever we could - in offices, at their children's schools, in stores and medical clinics.

And they would discuss it willingly?
Yes. They could feel we were really listening to them, and they had a strong need to get it off their chests. Their families appeared to be happy - a home, a husband, children. But twenty to fifty percent of these women spoke of violence. For example, she's getting ready to visit a female friend, and he won't let her go - he pushes her away from the door, tears her blouse... Threatens to beat up the kids if she continues to do as she pleases... Throws her parents' photos in the garbage can...
Even then, when we were conducting those interviews, we knew that we had to do something. Later I was a visiting scholar at the Gothenburg University in Sweden, where I met a psychologist named Ritve Holmstrom at that city's crisis center. She's been running the center for over 20 years, and she taught me a lot. Then our Institute helped us to get office space, and in July 1993 we broadcast our crisis-line phone number [telefon doveriia] on Radio Maiak. I'll repeat it here: 124-61-85.
When we started work, we scarcely understood how complicated it would be. We just knew it was time to move from academic research to providing practical help for women.

Do you remember the first call?
Of course. It's the kind of thing one doesn't forget.
She was crying. She spoke in broken sentences:
"Yesterday he came home to change before a business meeting. He was angry, frowning... I gave him a clean shirt, he started putting it on, found a button missing. He tore off the shirt and threw it at me. I was getting another when he hit me across the face... My daughter was playing with her doll nearby, she started screaming and ran at him. He pushed her away too. Then he dressed quickly and slammed the door."
Cautiously, I asked her whether this was the first time he had hit her, or had it happened before.
"Yes, it's happened before. But each time he's cooled off and apologized, blamed his problems at work, brought me flowers."
I started explaining how violence doesn't just happen once, but has its own pattern. When stress levels peak, the man raises his hand to his wife. Then his anger passes, he repents, gives her gifts, apologises, even gets down on his knees. But sooner or later he gets stressed again and it seems to him that his wife has "taken advantage of his weakness" and is slipping from his control. Then he starts harrassing her again, trying to bolster up his power. Anything can serve as a pretext: their son gets a bad mark at school, or the soup's too cold...
The woman was silent. I could sense she wasn't ready to make any decisions. Women always feel responsible for family harmony, for creating and maintaining domestic comfort and a good emotional climate. It's hard for a woman to admit to herself that something's wrong - she feels as if she has failed, that it's her fault...

The phone rings. You lift the receiver - you hear a voice for the first time, you can only remotely imagine what's going on in the home of the woman caller. How do you find the right thing to say?
We have an iron-clad rule: no prescriptions, no pushing people to make decisions. We provide information, we tell them how widespread these problems are - it's very important for a woman to realize that she's not an isolated case. For her it's a frightening time, she's at a loss, she's crushed, she's lost the capacity for rational action. Above all, she is afraid. So we help her work out a safety plan:
"Are you afraid he'll come back in the same state in which he left? Maybe it would be better to go to your parents' place?"
"God, no, he might attack them too."
"Then you might try asking some friends to come over, he'll be more restrained in their presence."
The woman's too afraid to concentrate. We try to help get her willpower working.
"He'll be lost without me if I leave; and besides, we have two children. Yesterday I was in tears, but my mother-in-law said, do you want to make orphans out of the kids?"
She's thinking aloud. And our professional counsellor is thinking aloud with her. The woman can sense the counsellor's taking her seriously and paying attention. And already, in the course of this conversation, she's finding support - she's no longer alone; and if the problem recurs, at least there's someone she can call.
Over the past four and a half years, 8000 women have called us. We don't know what happened in the end to many of them. Maybe everything turned out well - maybe she left her husband. The main thing is that we were there for her when things were at their worst, and helped her get through the crisis.

But why does violence arise in families which were created in love?
This results from stereotypes in social morality and attitudes.
It's often considered that a man should be the provider and the master, and his wife should obey him. He wants to control her every move. If she goes to visit a female friend, it means she doesn't love him, since she's leaving him alone. If her parents come over, that's bad - he says they can't agree on anything in front of her parents. If she visits her sister, he's ready with an argument, says her sister doesn't like him and always bad-mouths him.
So the woman gradually loses all social contacts. Her husband becomes her only mirror, and a distorted mirror at that.
"You're stupid!" he yells at her. "You ought to keep your mouth shut. And you're ugly too, nobody else would have married you, put clothes on your back. Stop tramping around with your friends. I work, and all you do is have a good time - you just watch out, or you'll be left with nothing..."
In order to dominate her and control her every move, the man has to undermine the woman's self-esteem.
So he continues: "You're nothing as a woman. Who'd look at you? And you don't really work - I know all you do is drink tea or coffee with the other women. Why do they keep you on at that place? It's not like we need your miserable salary at home..."
If you hear such language day in, day out, you can really become convinced that you're stupid and ugly. Especially if you don't see any other people and never hear a good word about yourself.
What family is completely conflict-free? But if both sides are equal, any dispute can be settled peacefully by argument and persuasion. However, once a dominance/submission relationship has become entrenched, other means of "winning" become permissible - shouting, cursing, hitting. He thinks: she's "mine", she'll stand anything. This attitude of the property-owner, who feels he has the right to subordinate another person's life to his own, is revolting. But we ourselves have created it...

What sort of people are these fighters, abusers, who strike out with their fists at the people they love?
They're by no means all mad, sick or alcoholics. Like I said: we ourselves have mostly made them what they are. As a rule, these are people who have been abused as children themselves, or have been constant witnesses to abuse. If a child is beaten and humiliated, what experience will he carry with him into adult life? If there were always fights at home, and his mother was always expecting to be beaten, it's hard not to grow up convinced that physical violence is normal.
Look at the way we raise boys. For example, a pet kitten dies and a boy can't hold back his tears. His father gets annoyed: "What are you, a girl?" Or say a boy likes to cook, and wants to fry some eggs for himself. Another baffled look from his father: "Men don't do that." The boy gets beaten up in the yard: "What's the matter, couldn't you stand up for yourself?"
And so the boy grows up: tearless, without compassion, without a tender smile at the sight of a sleeping child. As an adult, he might be experiencing problems at work - he's dissatisfied, anxious, he needs support. But he's convinced that it's unmanly to complain, even to his wife. His anxiety is converted to anger. And now there's no chance of sympathy - everyone in his family keeps out of his way. We have not been taught from childhood how to socialize, to understand our feelings, rather than taking out our injuries and dissatisfaction on those closest to us. I repeat: these are not bad people; it's possible, and necessary, to help them too.

So you have something to teach the fighters as well?
We've had a women's support group going for a long time. We ask our callers: would you like to get together and talk with some other women who have experienced violence? We organize meetings once or twice a month. They discuss their problems, their hopes, they look for a way out. Just the feeling that you're not alone really helps. Quite often, friendships arise in this improvised collective, women start calling each other, keeping in touch, supporting each other.
Now we're thinking of creating similar support groups and a crisis line for men. We need to find a way of reaching them, of convincing them to trust us and approach us. For instance, we could do a radio ad aimed at men, something like this: if you want to keep your family together, you have to value it highly - and it takes two to do this; after a burst of anger, you feel bad, you feel remorse - this is normal, come and see us, we'll help you understand yourself and change your behavior. Call us, and you can anonymously express those feelings which you've never been able to share with anyone... Yes, he may be an abuser, but he's also suffering and in need of support. We're not in the business of judging anyone, we just try to help people live a little more happily. By the way, similar support groups exist in many countries, and the work in them helps improve family situations.

So people can only call you with all their problems, anxieties, injuries? Can't they come to the Center and talk face-to-face?
Of course they can. We have consultant psychologists, lawyers, solicitors. People can come in and work out a detailed plan of action for their situation. Say a woman decides to divorce her husband, she can't stand any more - but she's afraid for her children, doesn't know how to protect them. Or she wants to make up with her husband, since they've been together for years, after all; but she doesn't know how to approach him or find the right words to say.
If a woman has seriously decided on divorce, our lawyer will help her get the paperwork together; our psychologist will support her until the hearing, since this is a particularly stressful time for her, and will accompany her to court. Divorce isn't easy, especially if there are children involved. Maybe the woman couldn't get through it without our help. However, although we help her through it all, we don't push her to get a divorce. We give support, but not advice. It's her decision and hers alone!
We also run educational programs, give talks for young people, police staff, legal workers, teachers, doctors. We explain that, despite what many people think, violence is not always synonymous with a physical blow. It can also mean psychological humiliation, economic or sexual abuse.

Who works in the Center, and where do you get your funding?
The Crisis Center is a public organization and runs on international humanitarian grants. All of our telephone counsellors, psychologists, solicitors and lawyers are volunteers. We get about 200-250 calls a month, a vast outpouring of other people's grief - and our people faithfully turn up when they're rostered, to take calls, attend training sessions, conduct lengthy individual discussions with women. In order to work so hard and selflessly, you need to have a kind heart and to feel that you're really needed.
At present we don't have enough money or space to create a women's refuge of the kind that exist in other crisis centers worldwide. Refuges are rooms (their locations are a closely-guarded secret) where a woman can hide out for a certain time, alone or with her child, in order to escape a tragic outcome to her situation, or to get a break from constant beatings, regain her composure and the ability to think calmly.
Anyway, what's the point of talking about funding, when the Government Duma still hasn't passed a law against domestic violence? A law which would define the responsibilities of teachers, doctors and legal institutions. It's no secret that situations like the following can and do occur: a battered woman calls the police and hears, "I've got three murders on my hands, and you want me to deal with some little tiff between you and your husband?" The policeman doesn't seem to realize that his own inaction might result in a fourth murder.
Tragedies which take place behind the closed door of an apartment, unlike street brawls, don't make it into the newspapers - but they are no less frightening for all that. There's the humiliated, mutilated woman; the neglected, terrified children; and the husband whose constant guilt doesn't make him any less dangerous to those around him. Let's not forget that every third or fourth violent crime takes place in the home. We try to do all we can to teach spouses to fight for their own happiness...

Translated from Russian by Elena Leonoff, March 1998.

Russian Feminism Resources