For 26 years, the wife of a senior communist party boss had silently suffered her husband’s abuse “for the sake of his career.” In the early 1990s, this long-suffering wife came to see Marina Pisklakova. She told Marina that the daughters she felt she was protecting by her silent submission had actually been the ones who told her to come to see Marina.
For the past eight years, Marina Pisklakova, 40, has run the ANNA Center (Association No to Violence), Russia’s first, and most active, hotline and center for battling against domestic violence, daily dealing with situations similar to that of the communist boss’ wife. Trained as an aeronautical engineer at the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, Pisklakova was a Research Fellow at the Institute for Socio-Economic Problems of the Population within the RAS when she first “met” the problem of domestic violence.
As a result of some polling research, she received two letters from respondents, portraying such horrific cases of abuse, Pisklakova said, “that I could not but react.” A fellow researcher identified this phenomenon for her as “domestic violence.” More research showed that, while domestic abuse was widely recognized in the West, it was all but unstudied in Russia. Pisklakova sought a place to send these battered women for help, only to realize that “there was nothing in our country—it was like a vacuum.”
Well, not quite. In the USSR there was some “leverage” against an abusive husband: summoning him to the partkom (sessions of the local communist party bureau), which would reprimand him for “misbehaving and thus tarnishing the image of the true communist.” But such methods “only drove the problem deeper,” Pisklakova said. “For it is all about personal aggression that someone doesn’t want to deal with constructively. Just shame people did not work. It could only worsen the violence ... The partkom mechanism was inefficient, and by the early 1990s even this was gone.”
So it was that Pisklakova took up the defense of women against domestic violence as her “life’s mission.” A meeting with Ritva Holmstrom, the director of a Crisis Center in Sweden, led to two years training in Stockholm, preparing her to open her own center in Russia.
Pisklakova’s hotline was first announced on Moscow’s Mayak Radio in 1993. “I did not realize the volume of work that awaited me,” she said. She soon discovered that domestic violence and spousal abuse had reached epidemic proportions in her homeland. In 1994, as many as 14,500 women died from domestic violence in Russia. Today, according to Pisklakova’s estimates, the number has fallen slightly, to around 10,000 women annually. But she cites an authoritative source at the Russian Interior Ministry as saying that, in Russia, four million men regularly indulge in hooliganism and debauchery within their families. She reads such “hooliganism” to mean “light bodily injuries which go unregistered because the victims do not file complaints.”
What is more, Pisklakova has found that Russia has no law to deal with such abuse, and officers of the law and prosecutors are unwilling to investigate such cases. On the legal front, Pisklakova said, Russia trails “by some 20 years” those countries that began dealing with the problem much earlier. “In America,” she said, “3,000 women die annually from domestic violence-- this with their very strong system of interference during the early stages of violence.” Part of it, she explains, is cultural—as in the age-old Russian saying, “he beats, then he loves.” ANNA Center dealt with this saying straight on, with a poster: “He beats, then he loves ... and this is love?”
ANNA was the first organization of its kind in Russia, providing crisis hotlines and counseling services for battered women. Today–eight years later –there are over 40 such centers throughout Russia, staffed by hundreds of counselors and united in their mission largely by Pisklakova’s efforts. The scope and scale of their work is incredible: ANNA Center alone helps some 4,000 women a year, and each of the other centers averages 3-4,000 calls per year. A total of over 100,000 Russian women are getting help where not long ago there was none.
Pisklakova’s efforts have certainly not gone unnoticed. In 1997, she was honored as one of the eight of the most significant human rights advocates in the world by Human Rights Watch. The organization honored her again the following year as one of the most important activists of the decade. During the Presidential Summit in Moscow in September, 1998, Pisklakova was one of five women from throughout Russia selected to appear on the dais with then First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Naina Yeltsin. In September, 2000, she was honored at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, by President Clinton and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation, as one of the world’s 50 preeminent human rights advocates. In a book written for that occasion by Cuomo, Pisklakova said, “I am not an extraordinary person. Any woman in my position would do the same. I feel, however, that I am really lucky because I was at the beginning of something new, a great development in Russia, a new attitude. Now everybody is talking about domestic violence. And many are doing something about it.”
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