Three sisters: How a bloody patricide and claims of modern day slavery have split Russia

Are the three Khachaturyan sisters cold-blooded murderers or victims of an abusive father? 

Oliver Carroll
Moscow
Tuesday 14 August 2018 17:56
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Kristina and Angelina, the two eldest Khachaturyan daughters
Kristina and Angelina, the two eldest Khachaturyan daughters

On the evening of 27 July, the gold-toothed, pot-bellied, moustachioed Mikhail Khachaturyan dozed off in his favourite cream armchair at his home in Altufyevo, a suburb of Moscow’s anaemic northern suburbs.

When Khachaturyan awoke, his three daughters were standing over him. The eldest, Kristina, 19, directed pepper spray in his face. The youngest, Maria, 17, stabbed him with a hunting knife. The middle daughter, Angelina, 18 hit him on the head with a hammer. The father cried for help and attempted to flee but was unable to get far. He died in the corridor outside the family apartment, a dozen hammer blows and 36 stabbings to the neck, chest and heart later.

What happened that day, and the years before, has polarised Russian society. Were the three Khachaturyan sisters cold-blooded murderers or victims of an abusive father? Did the Russian system fail them? Is it about to fail them again with huge prison sentences?

The story goes to the heart of the issue of domestic violence in Russia – one and a half years after battery at home was controversially decriminalised.

Over the last two weeks, the Russian public has been entertained with a prime-time trial by live state television, with key personalities in the story wired up to lie detectors. High justice it probably isn’t. But witness by witness, the shows have built up a persuasive picture of the daughters’ predicament, and of the kind of man their father was.

Outwardly, the head of the family put on a good face. He was conspicuously religious, went to church and pilgrimaged to Jerusalem. His family home was covered in icons and pictures of him kissing various sacred symbols. He was a leading member of the Armenian diaspora, which viewed him as an authority. He was known for showering family and friends with lavish gifts.

But away from high society, a different story played out. Neighbours recall a man who enjoyed conflict and whom they tried to avoid if they possibly could. He was a man who loved firearms, and loved threatening neighbours and family members with them. There is evidence that he shot at his eldest son Sergei with an air rifle. He never did get on with him, considering him a “girl”, and threw him out on the street aged 16.

He also threatened to shoot his submissive wife, Aurelia, did stab her once and would regularly beat her with a baseball bat. Two and a half years ago, after 20 years of living together, Khachaturyan threw his wife out too. For some reason, the three daughters remained under his roof – to devastating consequences.

“It’s important to understand that the girls had a victim psychology,” says Ivan Melnikov, the secretary-general of the Public Oversight Commission, a non-governmental body that inspects prisons and defends prisoners’ rights. “They thought it was safer for everyone if they stayed.”

I’ve met with thousands of prisoners. It’s clear to me that these girls aren’t criminals 

Ivan Melnikov, prisons monitor

Melnikov was one of the first people to talk with the three sisters after their bloody deed. He met with them hours after they were delivered to a temporary detention centre in their district, and then once they were transferred to a prison in southeast Moscow four days later.

Speaking with The Independent, he describes the three sisters as “kids”, “nervous” and “hardly conscious of what they had done.”

He says they told him “terrible things” about a “slave-like” existence inside the second floor, two-bedroomed flat at 54 Altufyevskoye Highway. The father had installed a video surveillance system and would rarely let his daughters out of his sight.

He kept a bell by his armchair, which he would use to instruct the sisters to do menial tasks. He beat them on the flimsiest of pretexts and had a propensity to verbally abuse them too. In audio recordings released following his murder, he calls his daughters “whores” among many other expletives.

There is also a strong suspicion of sexual abuse, even rape. Melnikov says he did not raise this issue with the three sisters given their “fragile” and “nervous” state.

In Melnikov’s view, police and social services let the three sisters down. There were enough warning signs to act, he says: “The neighbours complained to the police about being threatened with firearms. They attended school only seven times last year. That should have been enough to get social services to act. It’s unclear how he managed to get away with it all.”

Some have suggested Mikhail’s connections with the underworld and police helped him evade the law. He was reportedly friends with the local police chief, and his social media profile shows him meeting with mid-level bureaucrats. Close friends have also accepted that he was connected with criminality. Local media go further, describing him as a “smotryashy”, or district “watcher”, reporting to the mafia. There are also reports he was a drug dealer, and he probably suffered from addiction himself –​ police found a bag of heroin in his car.

Not everyone accepts the picture of a tyrant who brought about his own death, however. Mikhail’s two nephews have been steadfast in defending his honour, portraying him as a no nonsense, if admittedly hot-headed parent. On various talk shows, they have claimed that the father had provided the girls with everything they wanted, but had been upset by the girls’ “immorality”. (The unsolicited pornographic material contained in messages sent to the sisters’ friends does, however, cast some doubt as to the deceased man’s supposed moral virtues.)

Other supporters draw attention to what they describe as a premeditated aspect to the murder. There were, apparently, text messages made by one of the girls to a former boyfriend that showed her deliberating killing their father. There was the organised, three-pronged nature of the operation itself. The girls also apparently used Mikhail’s own hunting knife, which, it is alleged, was only kept in his car.

These arguments have played out on social media, which has amplified the traditional split in Russian society between conservatives and progressives. For every message suggesting that the girls saved themselves there is another demanding the evil sisters be dealt with using the strictest hand of the law.

Within days following news of the murder, several thousand had signed up to one social media discussion forum set up in support of the sisters. That forum was then controversially blocked by hosts Vkontakte following anonymous complaints.

The founder of the forum, psychologist Daria Miletskaya, tells The Independent that “men who consider domestic violence to be the norm” were determined to block women’s voices. She says the service has been slow to respond to her request to reinstate the forum.

I’ve had many women write to me. They tell me how society doesn’t believe them when they complain about their situation. I try to help as best I can 

Daria Miletskaya, psychologist 

“I’ve had an inbox full of men criticising, telling me to keep my nose out,” she says. “But I’ve also had many women write to me. They tell me how society doesn’t believe them when they complain about their situation. I try to help as best I can.”

Domestic violence is a major problem in Russia. According to official government figures, which most likely underestimate the situation, there are 16 million victims of domestic violence every year. As a comparison, the British Office for National Statistics registered 1.1 million cases in 2017, from a population base about half the size. Russia is also one of the only major countries not to have dedicated laws for domestic violence and in 2017, decriminalised domestic battery for first-time offences.

The situation has created an uneven fight: women’s activists up against the establishment, which has generally sided with abusers. Ultraconservative MP Yelena Mizulina, who led the decriminalisation campaign, suggested husbands should not be labelled criminals “for a slap”. The Russian Orthodox Church condoned the use of corporal punishment at home as “God’s will”.

According to Alyona Popova, the prominent women’s rights campaigner, official indifference means that most cases are eventually dropped by law enforcement. Those domestic abusers who receive an administrative sentence are fined an average of 5,000 rubles (£58).

“This is the equivalent of two parking offences. Men get a very clear message from this,” she tells The Independent.

Popova says that the Khachaturyan case contains classic – if extreme – signs of domestic abuse: “It’s very clear in my mind that they were acting under the effect of a tyrant father. There was clearly sexual violence involved, at a minimum. In audio recordings, the father talks about the girls as his property, and frequently refers to their physiology, in ways that a father should not do.”

According to Popova the case bore some similarity with that of Galina Kotorova, who killed her husband in March 2017. Kotorova was later sensationally acquitted on appeal. Justice would be served by a similar outcome this time, the activist says.

So far, however, law enforcement agencies have given ominous signals to supporters of the Khachaturyan girls. In anonymous briefings with state news agencies, prosecutors said there were clear signs of premeditation. Their crime was also recently requalified as “premeditated murder committed by a group of people”. This carries a maximum 20-year sentence, or 10 years in the case of under-age Maria.

Prisons monitor Ivan Melnikov says he hopes that the offence will eventually be reclassified to take into account self-defence, with correspondingly lower tariffs.

“It’s a very dangerous moment, but the sisters told me things that have to be taken into account,” he tells The Independent. “I’ve met with thousands of prisoners. It’s clear to me that these girls aren’t criminals.”

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