St Petersburg – The Things Women Don’t Talk About exhibition at Fotografika Gallery showcases the collages of Russian women who suffered from violence. Prospekt Magazine talked to Elena, one of the artists, to hear her story
The First Blow
“When he first hit me I was pregnant and expecting a baby from him. He said that it was punishment when he attacked and humiliated me because I was not giving him money for drugs. He was also yelling at me in public and began to attack my older son from my first husband,” Elena tells me. When they first met, he seemed to be kind and honest. Back then he immediately told her that he had been in prison because of an accident at work. Later he acknowledged that he took drugs, but he promised that he wanted a family and children and was willing to give up drugs. Elena trusted him, but he continued to take drugs and began to act aggressively.
After the first violent assault, nothing happened for a long time. According to Elena, they had six good months, but she had always been very afraid of his morbid jealousy. Whenever she met with friends, especially other men, he would become very angry. So Elena decided to talk to his mother about her fear. The mother replied: “Don’t you know who you married?” Then she told Elena that he had a fight in which he killed a man, stabbing him 48 times to death.
“He received a relatively low sentence because he was not punished for ‘murder’ under Article 105 of the Russian Criminal Code,” Elena explains. According to her, this a good example of how the Russian judicial system works in practice.
As if this was not enough, things got worse. Her husband often could not control his rage. “When there was no money for drugs, he would hit and throw things,” Elena remembers. “I was ready to do everything in order to get money, so he would not cause any harm to my children, even prostitution. I was ready to sell myself to strangers. Sometimes my husband would say this sentence that really scared me: ’I just feel the taste of blood.’ I knew that he would not hesitate to either break my nose or even deform my whole face.”
At some point, Elena had realised that she could not stand the situation any longer alone and thus asked her mother to come and help her to change it. “I remember when I first started to talk about divorce, he threatened my mother, my children, and I with violence in response,” she says. He also started threatening her because he said that she had murdered her ex-husband. “At the time, it was five years since my ex-husband disappeared from our lives,” Elena tells me. At this point, they went to the police with her mother. They were told to solve their family problems themselves.
At the end of February last year, Elena finally told him that she would divorce him and move out. Shortly after 8 March, her husband went to the police and told them that Elena had killed her former husband. According to Elena, he said: “She asked me to kill her ex-husband, but I refused to do it, so she did it.” The investigation lasted until late summer. By that point, enough evidence was collected by the committee in charge to prove that her husband had killed her ex-husband. However, according to Elena, “the final judgement of the court against him was not murder but ‘only’ heavy abuse of self-defense.” During this whole period of time, the legal experts and psychologists at the Crisis Centre for Women in St Petersburg supported her very much. “I don’t know what I would have done without the help of the crisis centre and my mother,” she says. Elena feels much better today, but she is scared that her husband won’t stay in prison for too long and will then find her. She’s afraid that she won’t be able to protect her children.
Collages help victims to find recovery and hope
According to psychologists across the globe, art therapy helps trauma victims find recovery and hope again. Irina Chey, the curator of the exhibition in Fotografika Gallery, explained that “collages and other art work help support the women that create them and, at the same time, can encourage other victims to talk about their personal experience of violence.”
The main purpose of this exhibition, which will run from 8 March, the day women traditionally march for their rights in Russia, until 18 March, is to tell the unheard stories of women that suffer from violence and to draw attention to them.
It is difficult for Elena to share her story with others, but she finds a reason to do so. “Telling my personal story could encourage other women to talk about it,” she says. Besides Elena, seven other women tell their tragic stories of domestic and sexual violence. Next to each collage, there is a photo of its author and a written text describing their individual story. Some of the women did not want their faces to be shown in public. They feel ashamed, afraid, or judged, whereas other women revealed their face. “This is a very important big step”, says Irina.
Katja, among the visitors of the exhibition opening, said: “first I was not sure if I should come because such stories of violence evoke painful emotions inside me and I start to feel very bad and sad.” Nonetheless, the young woman decided to come in order to better understand how women in such situations feel. Elena did not attend the opening, nor did she see the collages by other women yet, but she wants to visit the exhibition to learn about the other stories and collages.
When: 8 March to 18 March
Where: Fotografika Gallery, 25 Ligovsky Prospekt, St Petersburg, 191036