Dasha’s Story

(names have been changed to protect the humans)

St Petersburg

“Every forty minutes a woman dies in Russia from domestic violence.”

Dasha paused. “Some of these milongas are five hours long. Think how many women have died in that time.”

So why aren’t the women terrified of the men? Why do they look so snuggly walking down the street with their men? The question was kicking me.

“Stockholm Syndrome,” she said.

Had she ever been with anyone who beat her?

“My girlfriend did not beat me but after we broke up she was psychologically abusive. She was medically mental. She needed medicine. — Anyway, she started doing all these things. One night very late she came to my house with these three huge guys and they all started yelling at me….”

And men?

“….No, none of my boyfriends has ever beaten me but that’s not because of how they are, that’s because of how I am. As soon as that looks like it’s going to happen I — “ [here she turned into an enormous sass, leaping back, making an in-your-face oh-no-you-don’t hand-sign, and yelling “No.”].

I remembered passing a woman with a bruise on her chin in the street that morning and wondered why the women don’t defend themselves.

“It’s not that. It’s that when a man gets charged with domestic violence, he has to pay a fine. And the money for that fine comes out of the household budget. And then he beats her again. Or if he goes to jail, when he comes out he beats her again.”

How does one square all the domestic felicity I had seen in public with all this darkness?

She shrugged.

“I quit my job yesterday, because when the only thing you’re getting out of something is money, it’s just not worth it. So now…I don’t know what I’m going to do. I want to do something overseas with women’s rights and human rights, but there’s not exactly money in that. I’ve gotten a couple grants, but, $4000, what does that really get you, not much.”

I asked her if she had reached out to companies outside of Russia. Surely there were rich benefactors who wanted to help.

“Here you cannot have foreign investors. The minute you accept money from someone outside the country, you’re classified as a ‘foreign agent’, prosecuted, and thrown in jail.”

Another shrug.

We met the next day. She wore a scarf with roses, a crushed velvet dress, a motorcycle jacket, leg warmers, and Converses. She walked like a New Yorker. She had quit her job (reading vast documents about engines) the day before yesterday and had an interview lined up to teach English online with a Russian company. The world needs English teachers, but I thought this was a waste of a hero. Dasha already had a mission to save the world, and I wanted the world to financially support her for her efforts. She was saving lives.

“Last week I saved a woman from forced marriage. She was living in Dagestan, one of the Russian provinces, and there Russian law comes third, after the laws of heavily fundamentalist Islam and the laws of the community. So even though she was 21 and could not legally be forced to do anything, her parents were beating her for weeks and the community was trying to force her into the marriage. So I got in touch with a human rights activist there and together we saved her. The activist took her to another Russian province and now she is living in a shelter.”

“I’ve been doing feminist human rights for about three years now. In the beginning it was just me. But by now I have three people working for me, all for free. We also work with a legal advisor and a psychologist, for people who need legal help (which you can’t do on your own here) or therapy.”

I had to fight my urge to leave my life behind and come live here in Russia and join her in her human rights crusade. There was such great need, and I could help. All I would have to do is give up everything else in my life. I seriously considered the option….

“I’m co-authoring a book with another woman. It’s a compendium of these human rights stories. It’s long and has a complicated structure and the stories are really depressing. But they have to be told. Eventually I would like to get the book translated.”

“Last year I was invited to talk at four conferences in Europe. Most recently I gave a talk in Wien.”

“We got a grant from the Norwegian government, that gives small grants to human rights organizations. But it was only about $4000. We will need many more to survive.”

We had falafel in an Israeli joint.

“I went to a small university in Bremen for a Master’s degree in Transliterary Studies. In Russia studying literature is looked down upon, but then, in Russia, the only literature they study in schools is boring Soviet stuff and there’s no new work. — I had studied English in school and majored in English in college, but after 11 years, that was enough. I had also been studying German, and I wanted a change. So I went to Germany. — I was going to do my thesis on black women’s literature from countries other than the US and the UK. But then I left Germany for personal reasons.”

Dasha pointed out that even getting women to recognize misogyny can be just as difficult as dealing with the misogyny itself.

“My mother has been in academia most of her life. She’s a high-ranking physicist. She insists she’s never been discriminated against because of her gender, but someone stole her thesis idea and passed it off as his own. She always says that my happy relationship with a woman is her great Tragedy. It’s hard when it’s your parents saying things like that.”

Given what marriages in Russia so often entailed for women, I was surprised her mother didn’t see this as Dasha’s greatest gift to her: freedom from worry. But cultural programming dies hard.

“Most of my colleagues my age [26] are already married. I could have gotten married twice. But I’m glad I didn’t.”

I was surprised by her bisexuality, since I had met her with her girlfriend, but seized the chance to ask her about her relationships with men.

“I was with a man for eight years. It was a complicated story. Then he got sent to jail for eight years for selling marijuana.

Recently a man in St Petersburg was sent to jail for eight years for publicly raping a seventeen-year-old girl. It’s wrong that the sentences are the same.

The girl is getting reviled now because everyone is saying she’s making it up and he’s innocent.”

….Dasha had also become the unofficial sex ed teacher for her community, because nobody else was doing it and the women knew nothing.

“They don’t teach sex ed here in schools. They’re afraid if they do children will get the wrong idea and start thinking about sex. Consequently many girls are terrified when they get their period for the first time because they have no idea what’s happening.

A lot of women here have never heard of a menstrual cup. I have had to tell them.

A lot of women here have never had an orgasm.

Russian men in general do not go down on women. Because vaginas are ‘dirty.’ But dicks are perfectly clean, of course. It is expected that women go down on men.”

We went thrift shopping. Somehow I ended up with a ton of clothes for $15.

I could not imagine Dasha anywhere other than Russia, with her epic grit, her passionate embrace of shadows, and her love for her people. But at the same time, how could she handle living somewhere so corrupt, so repressive, and where she was not free to love whom she pleased?

“I would love to move to another country. Iceland would be nice.

Once when I was with my girlfriend we had a dream of moving to Barcelona and opening a combination Russian pub and dance studio.”

“If I had known you knew martial arts I wish my organization could have used you. We threw a self defense workshop for women. I would love to throw another.”

Later that evening we had dinner with her girlfriend, a tango teacher named Natasha. Natasha was an artist, a polyglot, and an inspiration. As we headed out to a dance together, I still wondered why, since heterosexual relationships so often ended in death for the women of Russia, lesbianism was still officially verboten.

But I would just have to keep wondering. Because nobody could answer that one.

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