On July 8, 2016, a Ukrainian social worker named Anastasia Melnychenko wrote a list of every incident of sexual harassment and violence she had experienced since the age of six. She posted the list on Facebook, adding the hashtag #яНеБоюсьСказати (#IAmNotAfraidtoSpeak.) A week later Facebook suspended her account, owing to a flood of complaints, she suspects. But by that time, it was too late to stop the spread of her message. Melnychenko’s post had been shared hundreds of times, and women all over Ukraine and Russia were inspired to share their own stories of sexual abuse using the same hashtag.
Not everyone was inspired by the hashtag. Plenty of commenters greeted the “flashmob” of first-person narratives with skepticism and scorn. “Women tend to fantasize. Especially when a woman reaches a certain age,“ was one of the comments on Melnychenko’s post, referring to the gymnast Olga Korbut, who publically accused her coach in 1992 of raping her on the night before she competed in the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Her coach was never prosecuted). A young man named Gera called Melnychenko’s post “disgusting” and sarcastically wrote, “In my childhood, my grandmother would kiss me, saying, ‘Son, father, holy spirit’ … Maybe she molested me, do you think?”
Melnychenko didn’t respond to Gera directly, but in an essay that she penned for the independent news website Meduza, she emphasized that the campaign was intended for men as well as women. The violent response to the hashtag ironically demonstrated why it was needed. “There were a lot of negative, horrible comments from men to many of the women who took part in the flashmob,” says Marina Pisklakova, the director of the ANNA National Centre for the Prevention of Violence, a Russian advocacy group. “It unfortunately reflects a lot about what men think about sexual abuse, including the men in law enforcement.”
Pisklakova’s organization has spent years documenting cases where police in Russia have been as enthusiastic about taking on a rape case as they would be about tackling a rabid Rottweiler. In St. Petersburg, for example, police allegedly once told a woman that she’d “better take some pills and forget about this” after making her wait three and a half hours in the hopes that she would just go away. This wasn’t a one-off. How could it be, in a country where a Ministry of the Interior official once publicly declared, “Women often provoke rapists. They walk alone at night, barely dressed and drunk”?
ANNA’s reports make it clear that if there is one thing that the Russian police have been worse at than dealing with sexual assault, it’s domestic violence. Last year, a 51 year old man named Oleg Belov got out of bed one morning and used an axe to slaughter his pregnant wife, their six kids, and his elderly mother in their small apartment in Niznhy Novgorod. After the bloodbath, the media discovered that Oleg’s wife Yulia had filed as many as six reports to the police about Oleg’s increasing violence against her and her children, to no avail. Police officers ignored Yulia’s complaints not just because they were feeling apathetic and lazy—they didn’t respond to Yulia’s pleas for help because the law wouldn’t let them.
Given that there was no specific law in Russia prohibiting domestic violence, victims who wanted to press charges had to be their own prosecutors. The system for this was so complicated that 90 percent of cases were dismissed for technical reasons. In 2012, NGO and government representatives started drafting the first domestic violence law for Russia. Things were looking good for women in the country of Anna Karenina—until Putin was elected to a third term of presidency, ultra-conservatism gripped the nation, and a complicated grassroots movement called the All-Russia Parents’ Resistance reared its head. Once praised by Putin as the “true patriots of Russia”, these civil activists “protect” Russian kids from adoption to foreign families and promote family beatings as a cultural tradition. “I think they see the traditional family as a traditionally patriarchal family. What they are mostly implying is that this law takes away the man’s right to control his family members,” Pisklakova says.
One of All-Russia Parents’ Resistance most prominent spokespeople is Yelena Mizulina, who wrote Russia’s “gay propaganda” law and who believes that smartphones are the real cause of child abuse. According to Mizulina, a law that makes beating close relatives a criminal act is “overblown” and “anti-family.” But Mizulina and her cronies failed to convince Putin, who, after decriminalizing the few articles that could have theoretically been used to prosecute cases of domestic violence, signed into action a law that moves assault committed by relatives or “close persons” into the public prosecution category, three weeks ago, on July 4.
Pisklakova is confident that “police will start responding better” now. However, “It doesn’t mean women will immediately start filing more complaints.” More than 70 percent of the women who call ANNA’s domestic violence helpline prefer not to seek further help or protection. Pisklakova explains, “We have to work on winning their trust. They don’t trust the state. They don’t trust society. They just don’t trust that they will get help.”
The Russian police still has a long way to go in earning the trust of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. A telling example: In the wake of #яНеБоюсьСказати, the entrepreneur Ekaterina Romanovskaya is promoting a “smart ring” called Nimb as a protective measure for women out and about. In case of an emergency, users can press a button on the ring to send a signal to police and family. But for users in Russia, Romananovskaya plans to offer the option of signing a contract with a private security company instead. Even with a domestic violence bill finally signed into law, many Russian women still don’t expect the police to do right by them if they’re raped, assaulted, or abused.