You Are Mine: Stories of Women Survivors of Violence in Relationships
According to the WHO, one in three women in the world (35%) in her lifetime will be subjected to physical or psychological violence by her intimate partner. In Russia, 600,000 women annually encounter despotic treatment in relationships. The authorities do not consider it a serious problem -- on January 27, the State Duma passed a bill which decriminalizes domestic violence. To draw attention to the issue, Mary Gelman created a project called You Are Mine -- about power and control of one person over another.
Documentary photographer and sociologist from St. Petersburg. Studied Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at DocDocDoc school. Was shortlisted for Pryamoy Vzglyad (Direct Look) award in 2016. Participated in the international workshop ‘Next To Me — photo essays on Nordic-Russian realities’ by Mads Nissen and Mads Greve. In her personal projects Mary studies gender identity, sexuality, corporeality, violence, and discrimination. Published her work in Takiye Dela, Wonderzine, FURFUR, Buzzfeed (NY), Sobaka.Ru, Bumaga, Inosmi.ru, The Village.
— You Are Mine is a series of stories of Russian women who endured domestic partner violence. These stories are about power and control of one person over another. They are about the difficulties of recognizing violence and resisting it on a personal and government level. Because violence is not only when somebody smashes your face with a fist, it is also when somebody ignores, controls, or neglects your will. This series shows that one of the important reasons for violence is imbalance of power, and not sexual orientation, age, or education.
Russia has a high level of violence against women. According to statistics from the Interior Ministry of the Russian Federation, in 2013 women comprised 91% of overall number of victims of domestic violence crime. Women suffer from grievous bodily harm eight times more often than men. The problem of violence is a widespread problem. But the government does not recognize the problem. Russia now had no law against domestic violence. And on January 27, the State Duma passed the bill that decriminalizes domestic violence. Every year we have fewer laws protecting women. But women cannot find support not only from the government but also from society, friends, and relatives. Believes that “If he beats you, he loves you” and “That’s your own fault” are common in the society. It leads to the stigmatization of women who are violence survivors. As the result, the majority of women have to conceal this traumatizing experience.
Lisa, 25, Saint Petersburg
— He took care of me nicely, and after 3 weeks offered to live together – with his parents and severely ailing grandmother. I doubted, but he rebuked – “So you do not love me and you do not see us together in the future.” I moved in, and the relationship became unbearable.
He demanded reports on where I go, with whom, the exact arrival and departure times – even if I just went to the store for milk. He read my correspondence with my mother, where I complained about the horrible living conditions. Then he began to isolate me from communicating with my family and friends; conversations with new people were permitted only in his presence. He wanted to control everything.
I felt physically threatened. He was hitting the wall next to my face full force and he destroyed furniture. He was so strong that he opened the door with a communication system simply by pulling the door handle. He did not need any sexual consent: my refusal to have sex was not something to argue about. He said that I was ugly and stupid. Because of this my self-esteem was low and I fell into an emotional coma.
One day I went to St. Petersburg to relax and remained there; I severed all contacts with him. My friends’ support helped me to get out of this relationship. Without them I would not have coped.
Sasha, 20, Saint Petersburg
— I was dating a transgender person – a woman who wanted to become a man. He attempted to show that he is a real man – in the way he understood it. In public, he tried to look like a gentleman by holding doors and so on. But when we stayed alone he became rude.
He tried to be affectionate with me in public although I showed that I did not want it. Several times he paid for the tea and then said, “I express love with money, and you be so kind and pay with sex.” He forced me to have sex and did not pay attention when I said ‘no’ and called for the neighbors’ help. He beat my head against a wall, hit me in the face, I was covered in bruises. He had to prove that he is the chief, he’s a man.
Once I told him that I wanted to apply for a university, he began to dissuade me. He wanted to rent an apartment so I would sit at home and wait for him; of course, I refused. Then he ‘punished’ me — locked me up for six days in a room without food and water, so I would think this over. I thought I would go mad.
He said that he loved me and could not live without me. He told me that apart from him no one will protect me and nobody will ever love me. He blocked me from socializing with friends – I became isolated and did not understand anything. I blamed only myself. I thought that something was wrong with me.
Anna, 18, Moscow
— He hit me in the face, extinguished his cigarettes out on me – I have 12 scars and burns. He raped me sadistically; he left bruises on my neck and wrists so I would not wear revealing clothes.
He controlled me – read text messages on my phone, on social networks, and on my email. He demanded detailed reports on where I am going and with whom; he asked what time I will arrive there and when I will be home. If I was behind my schedule he lost his temper, yelled and beat me. He called it caring about me – “I must know everything about you because I love you.”
I understood that I needed to break up with him, but he made me stay by blackmailing me. He knew that my friend had problems and threatened to turn her into the police if I left. Every Saturday he made me arrive at his house at 8 pm – he beat and raped me. His justification for this nightmare was that he loved me. Once I protested and hit him back — I was taken to the hospital from his home with a traumatic brain injury. Now I am afraid of any serious relationships.
Natasha, 30, Saint Petersburg
— I have just moved in with him; I did not work and was busy with my daughter’s affairs trying to enroll her into a kindergarten on Vasilyevsky Island. Once he came home from work drunk as a skunk; he was drunk and aggressive. He turned on the music so loud that all our neighbors began to knock on the walls. My daughter woke up and started crying. I asked him to turn the volume down but he yelled – “I don’t need your headphones!”, “Who are you?”, and “This is my house and I will do whatever I want!” He came into the nursery and took the child out of her bed. I begged him to leave the child alone and talk to me in the other room. Then he grabbed my neck, pushed me against the wall, lifted me up, and started suffocating me. My daughter jumped out of bed; it was difficult for me to breathe but I tried to smile and kept saying – “don’t be afraid, it is just a game.”
Next I remember is me sitting on the floor and my daughter crying next to me. He yelled that he would throw us down from the balcony.
In the morning, when he fell asleep, we escaped from his house – I took only a passport, a birth certificate and two pairs of children underwear with me. I was alone in a strange city with no belongings, no money, no shelter and with a little baby on my hands. I couldn’t do anything. 1.5 months we lived in various places and only four months later I could express some emotions again. He sold my jewelry, destroyed my documents and belongings. I had to begin my life from scratch.
Lena, 24, Saint-Petersburg
— There was a period in my life when I was in a relationship with a person who hit me. In the beginning everything was beautiful: flowers, courtship, emotional declarations of love. Then he started reading my diary, going through my things, looking through my messages. I felt that he saw me as an object that fully belonged to him rather than a person who has personal space, life, and rights. At some point I stood up to him and said that I’m tired of feeling this pressure. That’s when he slapped me for the first time. A couple of days later he came to me on the verge of tears and for hours begged me to forgive him. Then it happened again. The only difference is that this time he hit me so hard I fell to the floor. In that moment I seriously thought that I’m in danger. After that incident I decided to never communicate with him again.
When he hit me, I felt tremendous pain that left me breathless, and impotent rage, but didn’t end our relationship. Why? Honestly, I didn’t know how I should react. No one ever spoke about violence in my school or in my family. Violence was taboo in my circle.
I think that if we want to change this, it’s important to start discussing these issues in our everyday life. To call out people who blame victims. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of such things. Women who find themselves in these situations are in desperate need of support. And the public opinion can drastically change — in one direction or the other.
Tatyana, 26, Saint Petersburg
— At first, it seemed that he just cares about me, “Do not walk alone because something might happen to you.” But then the guardianship became tougher and everything escalated. He forbade me from communicating with friends and decided everything for me. Once he decided that I needed to go to Ukraine, and just bought me a ticket – my opinion did not interest him.
I remember when he hit me for the first time. I was preparing dinner in the kitchen and left my phone in the room, so I did not hear his call. In the evening he went home, threw a keychain in my face and shouted: “Why didn’t you answer the phone?! I was worried!”
The beatings repeated. If I protested, he found justifications to everything, and in the end I had to apologize. I apologized that I was in a bad mood or looked bad and that it provoked him. He called me a fat bitch and was angry because of the fact that I did not wear a mini skirt and heels in our communal apartment. Then he stopped looking for excuses – he would wake me up by hitting me in the back, because I breathe too loudly in my sleep.
When I decided to leave, he locked me in the apartment for a day and followed my every step – I went to the bathroom under his guard. He beat me in the face and shouted, “You are a beast, and you ruined my life. Don’t go. I love you.” I just did not know that a different life was possible. My uncle beat my aunt and a neighbor ran after his wife with an axe — I have witnessed such things since childhood.
Now I’m married and I realized that love is not passion with “I cannot live without you” or “You will be mine.” Love starts with respect.
Nika, 22, Moscow
— We had a long-distance relationship: we talked on Skype and sometimes visited each other. When I came to see him for the first time, he behaved oddly: he was easily irritated, could suddenly yell at me, go and leave me standing in the street alone. No explanations or apologies. I wanted to break up with him then and there, but he begged me not to leave him: “Everybody left me, I am worthless, who would love me when I am this way, but you are different, please forgive me, I will be better for us.” We made up, but every month it was the same. If I started talking about a breakup, he said I didn’t love him for who he was, that my love was not real, and I felt ashamed.
He said that my favorite music was shit, and my friends were stupid, my hobbies were silly, and my pictures on social networks — ugly: “I want to see a beautiful face of my love, and not you making faces.” In the last half a year I cried a lot and kept asking myself what I did wrong. I was making up some crazy algorithms in my head about what to do in the future so that he would not blow up.
“You left for your America to study, and I am struggling and washing dishes here! Why would I be happy for you?” he used to say. I agreed and took all the blame: “I was so lucky in life, and it means that I deserve such treatment.”
Zhanna, 28, Saint Petersburg
— She oppressed and manipulated me so I would stop seeing my friends. For example, I am going to a meeting, and suddenly she starts a fight over a random thing so my mood worsens and I don’t go anywhere. Or she makes such a facial expression that I feel guilty. Eventually, we spent all our time together and my friends became estranged.
Physical violence was also there – she grabbed my hands and held them if I tried to leave. Also, we played on one roller-derby team – it is a contact sport; people bump into each other, do blocking, although it is often prohibited. And so she did this to me anyways – she beat me despite breaking the rules just to hurt me. She used to say after: “If nobody saw it then nothing happened.”
If I tried to discuss our relationship she responded aggressively, saying things like “It only seems that way to you”, “This is the way I am and you can’t change that” or she explained me that it was my fault. I understood that our relationship is unhealthy but I stayed. I thought: “Maybe it does just seem that way to me” or “What if she will change.”
By now I’ve learned to distinguish manipulation – it is always based on the same models. I am much better at defending my boundaries and am more careful when choosing my partners.
Alyona, 23, Moscow
— It was my first mutual love, the ideal relationship. Three months later, he cheated on me and tried to hide it but I found out. He crawled on his knees; I felt sorry for him and was afraid of being alone, so I forgave him. Then, pity and fear of loneliness made me forgive the beatings. We have been together for a year when he started checking my social networks: found newly added friends, read the comments and interrogated me about every new male friend. This was unbearable. He hated it when I was running late. It did not matter if I was late for 5, 10, 20 minutes – he was mad and he would refuse to talk to me for hours afterwards.
One day, I was 15 minutes late – I was with friends and lost a track of time. He was waiting for me in the subway with a grave face. I only had time to say, “Please do not be offended” when he pulled me to the wall, grabbed me by the throat and began to yell. I gasped and tried to push him away. He cut my lip with a punch. Not realizing what I was doing, I broke away and ran to the end of the hall screaming, “Help!” He was running after me. A young patrol officer grabbed him and would not let go until the train pulled up and I jumped in. I came home and stopped responding to his calls.
If a person requires you to change, does not trust you, watches you, prohibits something – these are disturbing symptoms. If he hits you – just run away. Seriously. This will never end. It has never ended for anyone.
Nina, 41, Saint Petersburg
— He wanted a traditional relationship – he goes to work and I have to cook, clean, wait and smile all the time. The power over me and a child was what he called a family. I was financially dependent on him because of my pregnancy first, and a small child later. I had no money and therefore no rights. He used to say: “I am feeding you and you have a roof over your head – what else do you need?” I was like a slave. He repeated all the time – “Look at you – who needs you?” He drank. I was alone and stopped believing in myself but I decided to leave anyway because I could not take it anymore.
I told him that I was leaving, and then he began to push and insult me. He grabbed a child and yelled “Mommy wants to separate us.”Then he followed me for a long time; he attacked me once on the elevator and started suffocating me. I was hiding from him in stores, clinics, and hotels. I had a concussion when he hit me in front of my child. No one witnessed it. The police refused to initiate a criminal case. I could not protect my child or myself. I received no alimony because his company was not reporting his full salary.
But psychologists, to which I turned because of stress and frustration, traumatized me even more. They tried to convince me that a child needs a father and that I should forgive him otherwise I will lose my son. They said that “he beats you therefore he loves you.” They just killed me with their words.
Nastya, 20, Moscow
— I still do not quite understand whether this was violence. I was not beaten up or insulted directly. All his actions were neutral from an ethical point of view — I suffered from them only because I was in love with him. He was my first. I said that I did not want sex but he continued. I lay beneath him as if I was dead, and he asked me, “Why are you making such a face? All men know that all women feel pain. I do not need a reminder.” He refused to use contraception. Then I said to myself for a long time that it was nothing. What he said in the morning hurt me even more: “All women have terribly stupid faces.”
A after year the incident, we slowly started communicating again, which eventually led to us becoming closer. I was terribly worried, so that week I lost four kilograms. Finally, I broke down and decided to clarify the status of our relationship. It turned out that we cannot date, because I am too difficult. But I was dear to his heart and he felt bored with everybody else.
We had a dispute about feminism: he asked me to explain who oppresses women. I replied, and in response, I have heard all the usual stupid sexist comments. After that he stopped communicating with me – he stopped responding to my messages and greeting me. He removed me from friends with no explanation. It might seem from the outside that that was nothing serious but at the time I was in a terrible condition. For the first time in my life I could not eat or sleep, I self-harmed almost every day.