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Moscow: The sanctuary for women is nestled next to a monastery deep in the Moscow suburbs, down a narrow snow-covered road with a white archway. Its name, Kitezh (pictured above), is a reference to a Russian myth about a city hidden under a lake to protect its residents from attack. It fits for this small peach and white house, a shelter for victims of domestic violence who fear they aren’t safe anywhere else.

Inside are lime-green walls and rooms with bunk beds. Drawings of butterflies are displayed on a bookshelf. One woman with two kids came here after she was raped by her husband. Another was choked by her father before he kicked her and her young son out of their shared home. A third woman’s story is so traumatic she can’t bear to share it.

The rise of the #MeToo movement has pushed women’s issues to the forefront in the United States and other parts of the world. But deeply patriarchal attitudes still reign in Russia, as President Vladimir Putin’s government implements policies emphasising the country’s alleged traditional values — including scaling back protection for abused women. It’s been a year since Russia decriminalised all but the most egregious or repeated domestic violence, and the penalty for a first offence that results in bruising or bleeding, but not broken bones, is a minimal fine or a maximum 15-day prison sentence.

Afraid to report

The Russian Interior Ministry has estimated that 40 women a day and 14,000 women a year die at the hands of their husbands, while 600,000 face violent domestic abuse each year. Those numbers are incomplete because research indicates that as many as 60 to 70 per cent of Russian women do not report domestic abuse.

“People have started to feel like there won’t be any punishment,” said Alyona Sadikova, director of the Kitezh shelter, run by a non-governmental organisation whose main sponsor is Rostelecom, a long-distance telephone provider. A few feet away, a five-year-old daughter of one of the women staying in the shelter folded pink and silver wrapping paper before pushing around a pink baby carriage.

Kitezh is often a last resort for these women and their families. Some stay for three months. Some leave after a few days. Some return to their abuser. The stories of how they got here are often similar. They called the police first, but with the penalty for domestic violence lessened to keep government from intervening in family matters, authorities are hesitant to act and often encourage reconciliation.

After one woman at the shelter filed a report, she saw those same officers she spoke to smoking outside with the husband who beat her. These women didn’t know a doctor had to note the extent of their bruising in great specificity to prove injury. If a woman’s husband is deemed guilty, the fine is typically taken out of the family account, so the woman is essentially helping to pay for her husband to avoid prison.

Pushed to be ‘traditional’

Conservatives aligned with the influential Russian Orthodox Church helped the legislation to decriminalise domestic violence breeze through parliament last February by citing the importance of maintaining “traditional families”. Yelena Mizulina, a member of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, told reporters in 2016 that women “don’t take offence when they see a man beat his wife” and that “a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” She reasoned that the problem isn’t domestic violence, but not enough respect and affection in relationships, particularly from women.

“The state just stopped calling these actions criminal actions,” said Nadezhda Zamotaeva, director of the Sisters Sexual Assault Recovery Center in Moscow. “The abuser now does not think that he’s committing a crime. He does what’s permitted, and he does what the state approves.”

Women outnumber men in Russia. According to 2015 United Nations data, Russia has among the fewest men per 100 women (86.8) of any country in the world. The divide begins around age 30, as suicide, alcohol and alcohol-related accidents begin to take a toll.

“If you even have a husband, you’re happy,” journalist Anna Zhavnerovich said. “He’s drinking and beating you, but at least you have one. If you’re born a boy, then it’s like you’re already a czar. If you’re born a girl, you didn’t get lucky. Just by birthright, men are on top of the world and the head of the family. So, women think if they complain, then maybe he will leave, and it’ll be worse. Even in today’s world where women are taught to strive for something more, it’s better to be wed. Maybe you won’t marry well, but you’re considered lucky because you’re the one who married out of your 10 girlfriends.”

Zhavnerovich’s story isn’t so different from the women at Kitezh. She filed a report with the police a week after she said her then-boyfriend beat her unconscious in 2015. She was miffed by the line of questioning by authorities; she said they asked her why she didn’t have any children or if she was married. She didn’t hear anything for several weeks and the case was eventually dropped with her ex-boyfriend never questioned.

Zhavnerovich felt the police were suggesting the attack was her fault. An episode of victim-blaming caused Ukrainian activist Anastasiya Melnychenko to start the #ImNotScaredToSpeak social media campaign. She was angered by an online discussion in 2016 that questioned what a rape victim was wearing or if she had been drunk. Melnychenko then shared her story of sexual violence and harassment that had started at age 6. The hashtag went viral, and other Ukrainian and Russian women followed suit. But there was online backlash, too, even from other women.

In an interview about the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Russian actress Agniya Kuznetsova told the website Meduza that the victims had “themselves to blame, they don’t have to act like prostitutes. Poor man, I feel sorry for him.”

With heightened political tensions between Russia and the United States, some of the pushback on stricter domestic violence legislation is often associated with fighting influence from the West. It’s what activist Alena Popova sees as the main hurdle as she now lobbies members of the Federation Council to support a law that would create restraining orders. An online petition in favour of such legislation has collected more than 250,000 signatures, and Popova is hopeful the law will be reviewed by the Russian parliament’s Committee on Family, Women and Children within the next six months.

“I’m literally running after these [parliament] deputies,” Popova said. “Just last week, for 22 minutes a deputy was in the men’s room so as to not see me. I asked him, ‘Do you think I will just leave? I will wait for you’.”

A restraining order could offer some protection for the women staying at the Kitezh shelter. The centre temporarily closed on February 7 to repair the upstairs flooring. Just as shelter director Sadikova started to list the tragic stories that lead women to the peach and white house, she got a phone call. The person on the other end of the line wanted to know if she had room for another woman.

“We’ll definitely take her,” Sadikova replied.