AN old Russian proverb claims that if a man beats his wife, it means he loves her.
As the United States, due to publicity surrounding the O.J. Simpson case, tries to come to grips with domestic violence, Russia has yet to face up to the scale of domestic abuse in its midst.
A government report prepared for the 1995 World Conference on Women says that 14,500 women in this nation of approximately 148 million were killed by their husbands or boyfriends in 1993, and that domestic violence left another 57,000 Russian women severely injured or permanently handicapped.
``Many people here say it's the woman's fault because she failed to educate her husband correctly. Some say it's her punishment for not bringing him up right,'' says Marina Pisklakova, founder of Russia's only domestic-abuse hot line, opened last July.
The hot line, which relies on private funding and exists on a shoestring budget, received 450 calls from February until May of this year, Ms. Pisklakova says. In about one-third of the cases, the woman was severely beaten. In more than half, police tried to discourage the woman from making an official complaint. ``This problem has always existed, but nobody wanted to talk about it,'' she says. ``People feel that it's a personal, family problem and that outsiders should not get involved.''
The words for sexual harassment and domestic violence do not have a direct translation in Russian. Rape and sexual assault were taboo topics in the former Soviet Union, where most crimes were considered a disease of decadent Western societies. Domestic violence has traditionally been considered a family affair - and usually one in which the man is given free reign to solve things.
Soviet rhetoric touted sexual equality. But while women were provided with maternity leave, day care, and easy access to abortions and divorce, they were also taught that they should act feminine, fulfill the stereotype of the weaker sex, and take on low-paying and often physically demanding jobs. With the collapse of Soviet state structures - the Communist Party, KGB, and police -
women are now even more vulnerable to the aggression of men.
The changing socioeconomic situation in the country has contributed to the rise of domestic violence, Pisklakova says. And Russia's new breed of biznesmyeni, or businessmen, have become a new breed of perpetrators of violence against women, she says. ``These type of men think they can buy anything. If they beat their wives, they give the kids and the police big gifts to keep them quiet,'' she says. ``They can buy out the militia, the doctors, anybody.''
The deeply entrenched stereotype of the burly, hard-drinking Russian muzhik, or macho man, contributes to the prevalence of male domination here. And as unemployment and alcoholism increase and the gap between rich and poor widens, the number of incidents of domestic abuse is rising.
Yelena went to the police after she was severely beaten by her drunk husband. She climbed out of her apartment window to escape, arriving at the police station with a black eye and bruises. ``They told me I was guilty because I knew who I was marrying in the first place,'' Yelena says.
The police also refused to act until she received a medical certificate listing her injuries. ``When I got the certificate, they waited two months before contacting me. Then they told me there wasn't enough evidence ... because I wasn't halfway dead.''
Police here regularly refuse to file reports from women complaining about their boyfriends or husbands, says Martina Vandenberg, an American who earlier this year co-founded the Moscow Sexual Assault Recovery Center, which runs a rape hot line. ``There are cases when the police will come and find the man is drunk, has broken all the windows, beaten up his wife, and created a disturbance,'' she says. ``They take him away, and after 45 minutes ... they bring him back home, and his wife is still in danger.''
The problem is compounded by a lack of affordable housing. Shelters for domestic abuse victims are nonexistent, and often couples are forced to continue to live together after they are divorced.
A volunteer who works with the homeless through a Western aid organization said she encounters young women who left homes where they were battered and moved to train stations, only to be further abused - and sometimes raped - by policemen on duty there.
``It's a situation of continuing victimization,'' Ms. Vandenberg says. ``If a woman actually has the courage to leave a battering husband and moves away and ends up homeless, there is a good chance she will be further abused by the authorities.''
The domestic-abuse hot line, which hopes to start up a shelter soon, has only enough funding now to pay one full-time salary. But until public opinion changes, it still will be facing an uphill battle. ``We've had judges asking a woman how she could actually take her own husband to court,'' Pisklakova says. ``We had one case when they did nothing when a man beat his wife, but decided to imprison him only after he beat up her mother.''