Joy Neumeyer is a PhD candidate in History at the University of California, Berkeley and current Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center who writes about Russian society and culture.
In Liudmila Petrushevskaya’s novella Chocolates with Liqueur, Nikita meets nurse Lelia and courts her with her favorite candies. Soon after, he rapes her. She is terrified of him; they marry. For years, he beats her in their central Moscow apartment. She knows that if she tries to leave, he will kill her and her children. One day, he gives them sweets filled with poison. This time, however, the dynamic is reversed: he is slayed by his own weapon.
The case of the Khachaturyan sisters reads like one of Petrushevskaya’s darkest tales. On August 2, 2018, Maria (age 17), Angelina (18), and Krestina (19) were arrested on charges of having murdered their father Mikhail. He had subjected them to years of severe physical and sexual abuse, including beating them with the butt of a pistol, cutting them with knives, and attacking them with pepper spray. His body was found in the stairwell of their Moscow apartment building with 36 stab wounds around the chest and neck and pepper spray in his eyes. The sisters confessed but said their lives had been at risk. They are currently awaiting trial.
Over the past year, the case has sparked international protests demanding the sisters’ release. Foreign media coverage has often cited the Russian proverb “if he beats you it means he loves you” to depict the country’s supposedly timeless acceptance of violence against women. A century ago, however, Russia was the laboratory for the world’s most radical dreams for emancipating women from patriarchal dominance in the home. Decades later, Petrushevskaya’s “scary fairy tales” about domestic abuse showed their visions’ apparent dead end. Those who have spoken out about the sisters’ arrest are drawing on Petrushevskaya’s legacy of revealing horror at home and activists’ attempts to stop it. In doing so, they seek state involvement in private life on their own terms.
In 2017, the State Duma passed an amendment that decriminalized some forms of violence in the family, making it an “administrative offense” punishable by a fine rather than jail time. Statistics have shown that since the passage of the new law, the number of domestic violence cases reported to police fell by half. The sisters’ mother Aurelia told the media that Khachaturyan beat her regularly before kicking her out of the house two years before his death.
This summer, in a social media campaign inspired by the case, #IDidn’tWantToDie, women posted photos of themselves with bruises painted on their faces. To skirt Russia’s laws against assembling without a permit, protestors staged “single pickets” in which one person at a time held up a sign. At one event, counter-protestors from the misogynist organization Male State arrived, declaring that the sisters are murderers and that male authority in the home must be preserved.
Domestic violence is rooted in dominance. In Petrushevskaya’s story, Nikolai quickly establishes economic and legal control: he takes Lelia’s identification documents, gains ownership of their apartment, and withholds finances. Lelia, who assumes the burden of performing all household labor, reflects that Nikolai “wants a slave that he doesn’t have to pay and can kick when he’s down.”
Mikhail Khachaturyan’s nephew told Russian media that his uncle needed to take stern measures against his daughters because they didn’t want to cook and clean. According to materials released about the case, Khachaturyan installed cameras to monitor his daughters’ movements and rang a bell to demand their services. In an interview, Angelina said that prison would be preferable to living with him.
The oppressive control that Khachaturyan took to an extreme was clearly diagnosed by Engels, who saw the family as a site of patriarchal exploitation and thought that it should be destroyed together with private property. After the October Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks made men and women equal in law and divorce and abortion legal and easy to obtain. Revolutionary feminists founded the Communist party’s woman’s section (Zhenotdel) to restructure domestic life.
Most prominent among them was Alexandra Kollontai. In a 1918 essay, Kollontai depicted the “former family” as a miniature state in which men reigned over women and children. Her articles and fiction called for the public raising of children, full equality of the sexes, and unions within the collective based on elevating eros rather than base lust. The prospect of women’s sexual liberation aroused increasing anxiety; in 1930 the Zhenotdel was disbanded, and the “woman question” declared solved. Under Stalin, new laws reasserted the strength of the nuclear family and its patriarchal head.
While the neither the state nor the family withered away as predicted, the Stalinist embrace of the family as a cell of society empowered state and party organs to pursue perpetrators of violence for violating “socialist morality.” In his analysis of the emergence of ‘domestic hooliganism’ as a punishable crime, Brian LaPierre showed how the increasing presence of official institutions in the home was the result of demands from both the top and the bottom—especially abused wives who sought to enlist public agencies in their own protection. After the Soviet collapse, domestic violence was fully privatized. As described in Gendered Violence: The Politics of Feminist Intervention (ed. Janet Elise Johnson, 2009), police in the ‘90s were more reluctant than ever to intervene in domestic life, now seen as a separate sphere.
Russians who have spoken out in the wake of the sisters’ arrest have brought repressed stories into public discourse. In July, at an event organized by the theater teatr.doc, actresses alternated between reading materials from the sisters’ case and disclosing their own stories. The audience went still as a well-known performer described how her husband put a cigarette out on her hand, punched her, and beat her face against the side of a bathtub.
The #IDidn’tWantToDie campaign linked to a petition demanding a national domestic violence law that was signed by over 580,000 people. Like Soviet women who sought protection in the home through hooliganism laws, some Russians are advocating for more state involvement in private life rather than less—sometimes to the extent of viewing it as a panacea. Activist Alyona Popova wrote on social media that the Khachaturyan case would not have happened at all “if the state intervened on time and issued a protective order.” In fact, research such as Rachel Snyder’s No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence May Be Killing Us (2019) suggests that such orders can be a deterrent but prevent violence in far from all cases.
Few writers have grasped the enduring nature of abuse better than Petrushevskaya. Born in 1938 into a family of old Bolsheviks, she spent her early childhood in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel before being kicked out during Stalin’s Terror and growing up partially on the street. Petrushevskaya’s memoir recounts how a communal apartment neighbor struck her grandmother with an ax when she tried to use the bathroom. In her stories, when a character attempts to resolve the cycle of violence, it is only through a brutal act of cunning.
Expressions of support for the Khachaturyan sisters challenge assumptions that the #MeToo movement has no equivalent in Russia. Whether or not they recognize it as part of a feminist consciousness, Russians who tell their stories are resuming the work of dismantling male dominance and female submission. Meanwhile some survivors, like the Khachaturyan sisters and Petrushevskaya’s heroines, continue taking violence into their own hands.