Photos by Natalia Smolentceva

Every mother needs patience. A mother of a frail child needs even more patience. But a woman regularly beaten by her husband within sight of her child should forget about patience and run away. This is a story of Christina, 27, who was brave enough to save little Mariana and herself from the cruelty of domestic violence.

Christina was the only woman in the shelter who agreed to talk to me freely
Christina was the only woman in the shelter who agreed to talk freely

Here, we have a night stool, napkins. Here is our favorite toy. A window, balloons, prayer book – Mariasha and I have started going to church. There are two beds; sometimes I don’t notice as I fall asleep in the crib with my daughter when I sing songs and recite poetry to her at bedtime,” Christina willingly shows me the room where she established herself a month ago. She pays nothing for it: it’s a room in the state centre for helping women who have found themselves in a difficult life situation. “I try to think of it as a recreation house. But, in fact, we ended up in a shelter.”

Christina is very attractive, she often smiles unexpectedly and talks with her daughter all the time. Mariana, who will be 3 years old soon, runs rampant around the sitting-room like a tiny meteor. They have just returned from the hospital this morning: Mariana has a syndrome of bendy joints, but she enjoys her life rather noisily and doesn’t care about stupid syndromes. 

Little Marianna enjoys every moment of wanderer's life
Marianna takes every moment of her wanderer’s life as an adventure

The girl’s fragile health prevented Christina from going to work this September. The same thing had happened earlier, when she moved in with ex-husband for the second time. “When I got pregnant, I took maternity leave, and money was often tight. The quarrels began, they happened quite often; he drank and wandered. It came to blows. When Mariana turned 2 months old, I just left. We roamed between different friends and relatives; when there was no retreat at all, we went back to the Mariana’s father. At first, I imagined everything to be so happily arranged,” the woman smiles again. “Job, kindergarten… but my daughter immediately got very sick. The quarrels and beatings returned.”

That was the edge, as Christina recalls. Somehow she heard of the helpline and decided on a quiet escape: there is no other term for it. Even dishes and bedclothes were left at home. The centre on Vasilievsky Island turned out to be the only saving grace in the whole city: at Christina’s family home, where her disabled mother, her brother-junkie and a couple more people live together in a single room, nobody waited for them.

Tamara Mikhailovna Pyatetskaya
Tamara Mikhailovna Pyatetskaya

This women’s shelter is led by Tamara Mikhailovna Pyatetskaya. The centre, which looks more like a spacious apartment with a kitchen, bathroom and a number of rooms and offices, can accommodate three families at a time. Visitors infected with HIV can also get help here. Initially, the contract is for two months, but if women are actively trying to help themselves like Christina is (submitting documents for alimony, consulting with psychologists and lawyers, searching for a job), they can stay longer, up to one year. There are no limitations: to behave humanely is the most important thing.

Sometimes there are conflicting, troubled, unbalanced, aggressive visitors… In five years, all kinds of women have come to us,” says Tamara Mikhailovna. “But in most cases women are able to find a balance with themselves and with others, even more so psychologists work with them. They are taught not to feel victimized. We often hear words of gratitude, because some women find themselves on the street without any hope. One of them told me once: if not for our centre, she would have committed suicide and killed the child.”

There are only seven or eight centres in the city to suggest such help to women
There are only seven or eight centres in the city to suggest such help to women

There is an old Russian proverb: don’t take out dirt from the house. Following it, women often perceive husband’s beatings as their fate and bear it, especially when the police refuse to help, and it’s shameful to confide in relatives. Christina can’t explain why she felt embarrassed to tell someone that her husband knocked her front tooth out.

Mostly, it’s the desire to protect the child that leads women here. Christina says that she ran away because she wanted a normal family for her daughter, “for her to find a good man when she grows up, not some psycho who would beat her too.” After some hesitation, I ask her about men. “I do not look at men, I just can’t. I live, I raise my child, trying not to say “never” – but I definitely don’t want to be married anymore. The divorce was so painful. No marriage.”

Mariana bursts into the room with a hoot: she has something urgent to tell her mother. Christina opens her arms.

Infographic by Elena Campos
Infographic by Elena Campos
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