There is a saying in Russia: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.” The trouble is that, if he beats you, you may well end up dead because the police refuse to save you.
That is what happened to Vera Pekhteleva, 23, an economics student, after she broke up with her boyfriend.
On the eve of International Women’s Day, her story is a reminder of the continuing struggle by Russian women to get legal protection against male violence.
It was after midnight when Pekhteleva’s screams echoed through the corridors of a rundown residential building in Kemerovo, a mining city in southwestern Siberia.
She had come to visit her ex-boyfriend, Vladislav Kanyus, that evening to pick up some personal items. She had exams the next morning and wasn’t planning to stay long. Kanyus refused to let her go and locked the metal door to his room. And then he began to beat her.
As Pekhteleva’s cries grew more frantic, desperate neighbours pounded on the door and called the police at least seven times. Despite reassurances that officers were on their way, help never arrived.
“She’s getting f***ing killed in there right now!” one neighbour told a police operator, who warned him to watch his language and asked: “What do you want me to do?”
Neighbours eventually managed to break down the door, but it was too late: Pekhteleva was dead. Kanyus had tortured her for over three hours, breaking her nose and cutting her dozens of times with sharp objects, before strangling her with the cord from an iron.
The murder took place in January 2020, but the horrific details of the case, including the police’s refusal to act, did not emerge until last month when they were made public by a rights activist, Alena Popova. There was such an outcry that the murder was covered by state media as well as independent news websites.
But a court rejected an argument by Pekhteleva’s family that Kanyus should be charged with murder with particular cruelty, which carries a life sentence. Instead he will be tried for a lesser charge that punishable by six to 15 years in prison. The police were charged with negligence, punishable by a small fine.
Russia is one of a handful of countries not to have specific laws on domestic violence. In 2017 President Vladimir Putin decriminalised first-time assaults on family members that do not cause injuries requiring hospital treatment. Offenders face fines as low as 5,000 roubles (£49) – roughly the same as for parking illegally or crossing the road on a red light. Critics have said that Putin’s move reinforced the perception that the police are uninterested in domestic violence and led to a sharp rise in abuse.
“The state continues to view domestic violence not as a crime, but as a centuries-old tradition of the Russia family that it must not interfere in. As a result, the authorities stand aside and wait to collect another corpse,” said Popova.
In 2016 in the central city of Oryol, police refused to respond when Ayana Savchuk, 36, called to complain that her ex-boyfriend, who had convictions for violence, had threatened to throw her from a window. “Don’t worry, if he kills you, we’ll definitely come and record your corpse,” an officer said. Savchuk was beaten to death the same day.
In 2017 Margarita Gracheva reported her husband, Dmitri, to police after he took her to a forest near Moscow and vowed to kill her. Police told her that his actions were “a manifestation of love” and refused to get involved. Days later, he chopped off both of Gracheva’s hands with an axe. He was sent to prison for 14 years, although lawyers said he would probably have received a lighter sentence had the attack not been covered extensively by the media.
Russian police do not compile figures on women killed by domestic violence, but according to independent estimates the number is between 1,000 and 5,000 a year. (The figure for Britain, with a population roughly half Russia’s, is about 120). A fifth of Russian women say they have been physically abused by a partner, while 40 per cent of all grave and violent crimes occur within the family.
Women in Russia who fight back against abusive partners face the full force of the law. Opposition journalists have calculated that about 80 per cent of women convicted of murder in Russia killed abusive partners. The figure for men is 3 per cent.
Organisations that defend vulnerable women are in the line of fire. In December the justice ministry listed Nasiliu.net (No To Violence) as a foreign agent, a term that has associations with espionage in Russia but can apply to any organisation that receives overseas funding and is engaged in “political activities”.
Such groups are subject to inspections and can be closed if they fail to identify themselves as foreign agents on all their materials, including online.
“By recognising Nasiliu.net as a foreign agent, the state has once again said aloud: Russia has supported and will continue to support violence, and any resistance to violence will be severely punished,” Mari Davtyan, a human rights lawyer, wrote in an online post.
In 2019 the justice ministry said that the level of domestic violence was “exaggerated” and there was “no evidence” that women suffered more than men. However, media reports of violence against women have boosted support for a law on domestic abuse and 80 per cent of Russians favour legislation against violence in families, according to a recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre.
Amid strong opposition from ultra-conservative groups and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, a draft law on domestic violence failed to make it through parliament in 2019. Its supporters said they had received death threats. “The authorities are well aware of the scale of the problem of domestic violence in Russia,” said Popova. “But we don’t know what it will take to awaken their conscience.”