“The case of the Khachaturyan sisters is special in the sense that the young women summoned up the strength to resist and respond to long years of abuse. In most cases in Russia, the victims of domestic violence are wives and partners. In this case, however, the violence was meted out by three daughters to a tyrannical father confident of his impunity,” write Alexey Parshin, one of the young women’s defence lawyers, and Mari Davtyan, a leading women’s rights expert, in an online book about a domestic violence case that could mark a turning point in Russian domestic violence law.
When Mikhail Khachaturyan sat down to take a nap at his home in Moscow on 27 July 2018, he probably was not expecting that he would not wake up again. For his three daughters, Krestina (then 19), Angelina (then 18), and Maria (then 17), the afternoon would mark the end to their father’s long-running violent behaviour toward them. According to the subsequent investigation, that day he had abused them as he had countless times before. He called them one by one to his room and punished them. He pepper-sprayed Maria, who lost consciousness as a result. When she came to, she found her other two sisters struggling violently with her father, and by pepper-spraying him she thought she was helping them ward off another assault. Investigators told a different story: Maria and Krestina allegedly tried to attack Mikhail with a hammer and a hunting knife, and Angelina stabbed him to death.
Angelina called the police to report the incident. Weeping, she told the police dispatcher that they had acted in self-defence, that her father had assaulted them once again. All three sisters were arrested, charged with murder, and remanded in custody to a women’s pretrial detention facility in Moscow. Immediately after Russian media reported the incident, Russian society was divided into those who supported the girls’ attempt to escape domestic violence and those who accused them of murder. The criminal case became known as the case of the Khachaturyan sisters. Guests on TV talk shows analysed the incident, while relatives of the Khachaturyan family commented on it publicly, claiming that Mikhail had merely tried to educate the girls in a “patriarchal” manner. The case prompted widespread discussions on domestic violence in Russia.
Mikhail Khachaturyan had a long history of domestic violence: he had abused his wife Aurelia. After he kicked her out of the house in 2015, his daughters were forced to take over many of his wife’s duties, including her sexual duties. The young women’s lawyers claimed that his “patriarchal” way of raising them was humiliating and cruel. For example, Khachaturyan summoned his daughters day and night to carry out his wishes by pressing a button. Along with thus “encouraging” them to bring him food and perform other tasks, for example, he “educated” the girls by hitting them in the head with a weapon or shooting at them with an air gun. When the media brought such details to light, questions arose as to how Mikhail could have abused his daughters seemingly unnoticed over such a long period. How come teachers and friends at the girls’ school had not attempted to help them? Why had the police not reacted?
The young women’s lead defence attorney, Alexey Parshin, and his colleagues on the case have published an online book, in which they provide answers to questions widely discussed by the Russian public. Traumatised by the domestic violence meted out to them by Mikhail Khachaturyan, the mother and the daughters did not believe the police could help them, Parshin writes. Both the mother, her mother (the young women’s grandmother), and the sisters themselves had asked the authorities to intervene, but Mikhail himself had connections to high-ranking officials in the police and the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and liked posting photos of him posing with these officials on social networks. Also, certain relatives of the family reportedly had known about the sexual and physical violence the young women suffered because they had approached them and asked for help. In all cases, they had failed to react. When neighbours, school administrators, and friends tried to help, the sisters asked them not to intervene as they were afraid it would cause them more problems. Mikhail Khachaturyan had usually threatened those who accused him of wrongdoing.
Russian law provides no mechanisms for protecting victims of domestic violence, such as protective orders. Physical assault that does not result in hospitalization and emotional abuse are not punishable by law. Sexual abuse usually only has a chance of leading to prosecution when it causes physical injuries.
A year after the incident, the prosecutor decided to upgrade the charges against the young women, indicting them under Russian Criminal Code Article 105.2 (g) (“murder committed by a group of persons or as a result of a conspiracy”), which is punishable by a sentence of 8 to 20 years in prison. As I have already mentioned, the young women have been represented by Alexey Parshin, along with co-counsel Alexey Lipster, Yaroslav Pacouline, and Mari Davtyan, who is also a leading women’s rights advocate in Moscow. They have clearly argued that what the Khachaturyan sisters did was an act of self-defence provoked by their father’s prolonged abuse.
The argument raises several questions, questions that must be scrutinised before we can arrive at a comprehensive picture of the potential shift in Russian domestic violence law away from victimisation and toward accountability and self-defence. For example, can the young women’s actions be deemed self-defence if their father was sleeping and they were not in immediate danger? In an interview with me on 29 November 2019, Parshin recalled а ruling by the Russian Supreme Court in 2012, in which the definition of self-defence in Russian criminal law was more thoroughly interpreted. Self-defence is deemed to be a circumstance that excludes actions that would otherwise be illegal under the Russian criminal code. According to the ruling, self-defence is not something that happens only when a person is under direct attack by an aggressor. Thus, if the victim had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that was caused by physical violence and other threats to their life and safety by the aggressor, their actions over a longer period of time (from several months to as long as a year) could be judged self-defence. Self-defence can also take place when the threatening circumstances have not come to an end for the victim, and self-defence is thus their only means of creating a safer environment.
According to investigators, Khachaturyan was still a continuing threat to the lives and safety of his daughters even while asleep. The defence argued that the circumstances of the murder did not qualify actions of the young women as murder committed by a “group,” as they were only freeing themselves from a stronger aggressor. When investigators confirmed that the three victims had in fact endured emotional, physical, and sexual violence, the young women were released from the detention facility to live with relatives until the court made its final ruling. They are not allowed to communicate with each other and have been forbidden from talking to press. However, they are currently permitted to continue their studies and finish school.
A year after the murder, the Russian Investigative Committee ruled that Mikhail Khachaturyan had committed crimes against his daughters: torture (punishable under Article 117 of the Russian Criminal Code), sexual abuse of minors (Article 132), and sexual assault (Article 133). When, on 3 December 2019, the Investigative Committee announced that it had concluded its investigation, all eyes were on the press release: according to the committee’s decision, the young women were still indicted under Article 105.2 (g), punishable by 8 to 20 years in prison. The ruling stated that Mikhail Khachaturyan’s crimes against his daughters had been mitigating circumstances only, not exonerating circumstances.
As I have already mentioned, the case has generated widespread and wildly divergent reactions in Russian civil society and numerous public demonstrations calling for the young women’s release from custody. The case has shed light not only on the longstanding issue of domestic violence in Russia, but has also called into question the efficacy of existing laws. Russian law still blames victims and focuses on protecting them rather than punishing perpetrators. A working group that includes Parshin, Davtyan, civil rights activist Alyona Popova, and Russian MP Oxana Pushkina, has been working on a draft of a law bill aimed at preventing domestic violence. In April, Valentina Matviyenko, the chair of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) claimed that work on the draft bill would resume “after the pandemic.”
Human rights activists have criticised the draft bill for several reasons. First, it provides no measures for protecting affected women, children, or elderly persons. “There should be safety measures for those affected by violence, including psychological and legal assistance, a shelter system, and rehabilitation centres for victims and perpetrators,” Davtyan told me in an interview in Moscow on 29 November 2019. Also, a clear definition of what domestic violence is and what forms it can take, is urgently needed, since there are many misconceptions about domestic violence in Russian society. Furthermore, victims must have the right to live and work in safety from perpetrators. Crisis centres are desperately needed, places where women can start over again and learn how to live on their own and gain financial independence. Davtyan also recommends that police officers, social workers, and medical personnel receive special training, so they know how to react properly when they are confronted with domestic violence while performing their duties. Davtyan, however, has rather pessimistic view of the efforts to draft a law bill, seeing them, rather, as a reaction to the upcoming investigation and report on the situation with women’s rights in Russia by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Russian society has diverging opinions on how the court should rule in the case. The prosecutor’s office issued an unexpected decision in mid-December 2019: investigators should reassess the case, it said, and consider reclassifying the sisters’ actions as self-defence.
During the same interview with me on 29 November 2019 in his office in Moscow, Parshin claimed that the case was unique in the history of domestic violence cases in Russia, since women who had been affected by violence were usually only victims of perpetrators. In this case, the victims have defended themselves against the perpetrator’s violence. Several international organisations and committees, such as the Council of Europe and CEDAW, have recommended that Russia adopt more effective measures in combatting domestic violence. Furthermore, they have accused Russia of failing to defend the rights of victims. Parshin and his colleagues are hoping that this domestic violence case will set a precedent in Russian legal practice. But when we look at the current legal rights of victims of domestic violence in Russia, such a turn of events seems rather unlikely.
Editorial note: On 13 May 2020, an additional investigation of the Khachaturyan sisters’ case was completed; the Investigative Committee refused to reclassify the charges.