THERE is an old joke which some Russians still find hilariously funny. Vasily comes home drunk and thinks to himself: "If my wife does not open the door fast enough, I will beat her." He knocks and with the swiftness of lightning, his wife throws open the door and greets him. Vasily is frustrated but thinks to himself: "Never mind, if the soup is not hot enough, I will be able to beat her." She puts a steaming bowl of soup down in front of him. He is frustrated again but thinks to himself: "Never mind, if she does not offer me a glass of vodka, I will be able to beat her." She smiles and offers him the vodka. He flings out his fist and hits her in the mouth. She starts to cry and asks why he has hit her. "For being so fussy, you old fool."
With national humour like that, it is perhaps not surprising that 15,000 Russian women were beaten to death by their husbands last year, according to new statistics from the prosecutor's office. But abusive spouses may soon have to be more careful, for Russian women, who up to now have been suspicious of Western feminism, are starting to stand up for their rights. A group of women in Moscow have set up a helpline to offer support and legal advice to the victims of violence in the home.
The helpline office is rather grim. Situated in a suburban high-rise block which otherwise houses academics studying the Far East, the room is plastered with black and white posters donated by a US women's organisation. "After some domestic disputes, husbands send their wives flowers," reads one. It shows a picture of a wreath.
But clients would be quickly put at their ease by the leader of the project, Marina Pisklakova. Dressed all in white, like an angel, she offers her visitors cups of instant coffee, chocolates and plenty of sympathy.
A statistician and sociologist by training, she became involved in the women's movement when she visited Sweden. She avoids any hint of stridency, which might deter Russian women, who think of Western feminists as aggressive man-haters. One of the first things she says is that she set up the helpline with her late husband, who in the years before his death became as committed as she is to freeing both the sexes from their stereotyped roles.
"The figure of 15,000 deaths is, of course, the tip of the iceberg," she says. "If so many women died, think about how many must have been injured physically or terrorised emotionally." I ask her why wife-beating is so prevalent in Russia, thinking it could perhaps be connected to the country's catastrophic problem of alcoholism or to the stresses brought about by economic reform.
Drink and disagreements over money are sometimes factors, she says. But violent Russian spouses are the same as abusive partners the world over. Often the victims of violence themselves in childhood, they are unable to express themselves normally and have a sick need to wield power in the family. Formerly confident women are reduced to wrecks and blame themselves for the failure of their marriages. There is, nevertheless, a special Russian factor. Here it is easier than in the West for wife- beaters to get away with their crime. Low-level family violence is accepted by the culture. The police, overburdened with work as they struggle to fight the mafia, will not intervene in what they see as time-wasting domestic cases.
Only if a man attacks his wife so savagely that she ends up in hospital, with doctors' signatures on pieces of paper, does he risk any trouble with the law.
Ms Pisklakova said it might be coincidence, but she had dealt with a large number of cases where violent husbands were themselves police officers. "There was a woman called Svetlana. Her husband was in the police. When he was going to beat her, he would pick up the phone and call his colleagues at the station. He would say to them, 'look, my wife is provoking me again, so if there are any problems later on, you're in the picture. I have already reported this'. Then he would lock the door, take the phone off the hook and lay into her. We gave her some legal advice. She got a divorce and he was kicked out of the police and jailed for a while. I haven't heard from her for a while. I hope she is OK."
Often divorce is not the end of the nightmare for abused Russian woman. Because housing is so difficult to obtain, divorced couples are often forced to go on living with each other for years after the breakdown of their marriages. "There was another woman called Galina. She divorced her husband and he went to jail. But when he came out of prison, he had nowhere to go but back to her. He didn't beat her any more. But he was an alcoholic and dragged their son down into drinking with him."
Very occasionally, the victim of domestic violence may be the man. I tell Ms Pisklakova of a friend of mine whose alcoholic wife has been hitting their children. Lawyers have told him he has virtually no chance of gaining custody of the children because Russian courts almost automatically give preference to the mother. When he went to the police after one violent incident, the duty officer told him: "You are not a real man. You should give your wife a lesson. Beat her up like the rest of us do and throw her out of the window for good measure."
"Tell your friend to ring me," says Ms Pisklakova. "We never turn anyone away. Men can be victims too. The roles in Russian society are particularly rigid. Women are expected to be pretty, good wives and mothers and never think of themselves. Men must be tough, money-earning machines. They are not allowed any feelings at all."
At the moment Ms Pisklakova's organisation, one of 12 such helplines across Russia, can only give assistance over the telephone. There are plans to create Moscow's first refuge for battered women. The Austrian branch of the Catholic charity Caritas has offered some money. Ms Pisklakova found a safe, quiet house which she liked, but the landlord was a shark. "Just imagine," she said, "he wanted $1,000 (pounds 625) a month. We can't afford that on top of all the phone bills and other expenses. So we are still looking for the place that will be our haven."
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