Former victim battles against abuse in Russia

She has been in Columbia studying prevention strategies.
Friday, November 7, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:46 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 1, 2008

If he hits you, it means he loves you.

Most American women have rejected this idea for years. Russian women, on the other hand, have embraced it for centuries, says Natasha Lokhmatkina, a neurologist from Vladivostok. A victim of spousal abuse herself, Lokhmatkina has been studying domestic violence prevention programs in Columbia for the past several months, hoping to bring them back to her native country.

“I had this experience,” Lokhmatkina said, “and I am open to helping women because I know what these women are going through. I know what they need.”

An abusive concept

Lokhmatkina started a domestic abuse prevention program in Vladivostok three years ago, but the country’s perception of the problem has been slow to change. Stereotypes that are more than 500 years old are difficult to break, she said, and many women in Russia continue to blame themselves for the abuse they endure.

A 16th-century concept known as “domostroi” lays out the rules for Russian women. Literally translated, it means “household,” and it outlines how a woman should raise her children, cook, clean and meet the needs of her husband. Beatings are seen as legitimate forms of punishment under domostroi — deserved by the woman and nobody else’s business.

“Soviet women had to be good mothers, good wives, hard workers and good housekeepers,” Lokhmatkina said.

Until the late 1980s, Lokhmatkina said, the problems faced by Russian women were of little concern to society, and efforts to shed light on them through research were prohibited by the government.

The Anti-violence movement in Russia

But since the collapse of communism, social problems such as domestic abuse have been more openly discussed, encouraging women like Lokhmatkina — who is 39, divorced and has a 16-year-old son — to create nongovernment agencies to help battered women.

“Women initiated the anti-violence movement,” Lokhmatkina said. “They collected in kitchens, discussed and tried to help their sisters.”

Lokhmatkina’s unique position as both a doctor and a victim has given her insight into solutions to the domestic abuse problem. She says the situation in Russia will improve only through greater communication among community social-service centers and increased involvement of medical professionals. Her brief experience in the United States has been encouraging, she said. Medical students are trained to screen for domestic violence, and hundreds of government programs in medical schools and hospitals allow for great learning opportunities.

“I can talk to people about their unique experience, who’ve made their own mistakes,” Lokhmatkina said. “You try not to repeat them in your practice.”

Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said that although domestic violence knows no cultural or ethnic boundaries, it is a communitywide problem that requires communitywide solutions.

“Most people think it’s just the work of shelters and law enforcement,” Coble said. “But it’s something you have to hear in your faith community, the education system, the health system.”

Although American government and social agencies have been working for years to educate and break stereotypes, the work is only beginning in Russia. There is still no official law against domestic violence in Russia, Lokhmatkina said, and most of the resources dedicated to prevention and education have come from international and humanitarian funds. Many Russian officials refuse to get involved, she said, because they don’t think the work is necessary.

Sometimes doctors and nurses in Russia are the only people meeting with the battered women, Lokhmatkina said. “Nobody ever explained the complex effects on their health or the importance of screening.”

Lokhmatkina's research

Lokhmatkina has spent three months in Columbia studying programs and learning from the experience of others. She has attended seminars in Jefferson City and St. Louis and in Kentucky, and she has spoken with teachers, doctors and community volunteers. She leaves Columbia later this month to do the same in San Francisco.

“She’s getting around quite a bit,” said Kay Libbus, professor at the Sinclair School of Nursing and host adviser to Lokhmatkina. “MU is a place from which to work. We provided her with an office, a telephone, a computer, and a first-class library, but she networked really well, getting to know everyone else who works with this issue.”

Lokhmatkina’s research here is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the International Research and Exchanges Board, a nonprofit agency that promotes international education programs. When she returns home later this year, she hopes the ideas and strategies she’s absorbed will catch on, especially with Russia’s old guard. And she plans to continue using her own experiences as a victim to press for change.

“They think these women are poor, these women are homeless, these women are uneducated, these women are alcoholics,” she said. “But I say, ‘I am this woman.’”

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