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Coming in from the Cold

By Juan Carlos Areán

The statistics are staggering: 12,000 domestic violence murders in Russia in 1999 alone. This translates into 32 killings every single day. If you spent 45 minutes reading [Voice Male] magazine, one more victim would be dead by the time you finished. Russia is a country of 150 million people. By contrast, the United States, with 281 million inhabitants, experienced fewer than 2,000 domestic violence murders in that same year. Not surprisingly, in both countries the great majority of perpetrators, about 93 percent, were men.

Are Russian men "by nature" more violent than American men? Probably not. In fact, 25 years ago U.S. numbers were much higher than today. So what has changed? For one, the critically important efforts of activist women and battered women has raised awareness about domestic violence to unprecedented levels in this country. In addition, little by little, private and public resources have been allocated to target the problem. Although services are chronically underfunded, many communities in the United States now have domestic violence programs of some sort, for both victims and perpetrators. Moreover, it has become clear that nobody can do this work in isolation and expect to solve a problem of such magnitude. Collaboration is essential to succeed.

In Russia it's a different story, and the work is just beginning. I know because last October, I had the opportunity to visit Moscow and the Siberian cities of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude as part of a team of American specialists invited to conduct 16 days of workshops and trainings on domestic violence. The trip was organized by the Vermont-based organization Project Harmony, which has been doing citizen exchanges with the former Soviet Union since 1985. Their Domestic Violence Community Partnership Training Program is based on the premise that one of the great assets the U.S. possesses is an ability to approach family violence in a comprehensive, multidisciplinary fashion. Project Harmony follows that model, bringing in a team of Americans specializing in different aspects of the problem and presenting a collaborative approach. The specialists are brought twice within a year to the same community to offer intensive training to local professionals. Once completed, Project Harmony helps to create of a coalition of existing and potential DV service providers.

I was fortunate enough to be included in a team of men and women who are not only highly accomplished professionals, but also wonderful, fun travel companions--an important factor when you are flying together to the opposite side of the planet. The team included Donastacia Bergeron, who has worked with battered women for 15 years and directs an exceptional, holistic program called Lapis in Fitchburg, Massachusetts; Doreen Gallagher, a DV victims' advocate in the Brookline, Massachusetts police department who also runs a very successful program for adolescent perpetrators based in the local high school; Tanya Karpiak, an assistant district attorney in the Boston area, of Ukrainian ancestry and with an incredible knowledge of the Russian legal system; Shawn McDermott, a gentle soulful police sergeant in Westbrook, Maine; and Ed Cronin, former chief of police in Gardner, Massachusetts, and the caring director of the program that ran the training.

We all lived, worked, and played side by side in environments both new and exciting. We spent most of our time in Irkutsk, a beautiful city of 800,000 and the capital of Eastern Siberia. We visited sacred Baikal, the deepest lake in the world and, like the Galapagos Islands, a closed ecosystem with more than 200 endemic animal and plant species. This exquisite lake covers the same surface as Lake Superior, but carries as much water as all five Great Lakes together-one fifth of the world's fresh water!

An aspect of the program I appreciated most was that the trainings were collaborations with our hosts. In other words, we did not go with the attitude that we Americans have all the answers and if the Russians would just do what we do, they'd be fine. Ed Cronin encouraged us to come with humility, respect, understanding, and a willingness to be educated. In some regard, I feel that I ended up receiving much more than I was able to give.

The schedule was heavy. We did two to three presentations every day to diverse audiences, including school psychologists, social workers, educators, university students, police, lawyers, judges, and staff from different Russian women's crisis centers. Most working days lasted 10 hours, ending with a bountiful Russian meal where the topics of the day were further discussed with our hosts. All presentations were done in English with wonderful, reliable Russian translators.

In general, I found a sophisticated understanding of domestic violence among Russians. I started many presentations by asking the audience what their definition of domestic violence was, and in most cases they responded that it involved one family member trying to impose his or her will over the others. Everyone seemed to clearly understand that abuse is not only physical, but can be emotional, psychological, and sexual as well.

Most audiences required some kind of introduction to the way perpetrators of domestic violence are viewed in the United States. Specifically, they were interested in the fact that such crimes aren't seen as cases of individual psychological pathology, but rather as a cultural and societal problem. And, as a consequence, that the U.S. approach with perpetrators is to offer not therapy per se, but education.

My biggest professional challenge was to answer questions about how to implement services in Russia. The country's financial resources are far fewer and its legal system less responsive than in the United States. Fortunately, I was able to use my experience working in Mexico, a country with similar economic and legal conditions. As an example, I brought up the case of the first batterers' intervention program in Mexico City, CORIAC, which, with minimal resources and without referrals from the judicial system, has managed to serve 800 clients over the last seven years (see "Coming Home in a New Way: Men's Work in Mexico," Voice Male Winter 2001). I also mentioned that most domestic violence services in the United States started with minimal funding and with no governmental support whatsoever. In fact, batterers' intervention programs in Massachusetts have been largely financed by fees paid by participants and did not receive any state funding until just a few years ago. The development of services is a process, I said, and a coordinated community response did not spring up overnight in the United States.

Another professional challenge was being approached by individual women in abusive relationships looking for support. My contract made it clear that I could not offer direct services, but I tried at least to refer them to appropriate resources. The problem was that services in Russia are very limited. There are very few shelters; none in Siberia. Restraining orders do not exist, and the legal system tends to be insensitive to victims' needs, often re-victimizing them. I know of only one program for perpetrators in the whole country. It was frustrating to feel that there was not much to be offered besides a call to the crisis center or a referral to a psychologist who might or might not be trained to handle domestic violence cases.

Obviously, the need for future programs in Irkutsk and Russia is great. Outreach and educational programs will be necessary to bring the problem of domestic violence and sexual assault to the forefront of public discourse. Laws have to be modified and adequately enforced. Victims' services have to be expanded to include 24-hour hotlines and women's shelters. And programs for teen and adult perpetrators have to be established. It's hard to say what the most pressing priorities are, since all of these elements work as a system in the U.S. On the positive side, there are individuals and programs that, given the appropriate resources, would be ready to be trained to start a batterers' intervention program in Irkutsk, both for adults and adolescents. Such a program would be one of the first of its kind in Russia and could serve as a model for the rest of the country.

At a personal level, working in Siberia helped me to further understand that, despite cultural differences, in essence all human beings are alike. Most of us want to be able to live a reasonably peaceful and loving existence and are willing to give as much as we receive to fulfill these desires. I found Russian people to be generous, warm, and extremely welcoming. We all stayed with Russian families instead of in hotels, and my hosts made every effort to make me feel at home. They also fed me as if I had not eaten for the previous year!

I am proud to have helped to make a difference in the way the people of Irkutsk will now approach the problem of domestic violence. I have made new, wonderful friends, both in Russia and the United States. By the end of the training we were all feeling like one large, happy family. Most importantly, I had the satisfaction of seeing the concerned and committed citizens of Irkutsk come together, put their differences aside, to form a viable coalition to continue working on this problem. I wish them udacha (the best of luck).

Juan Carlos Areán directed the Men's Resource Center's Immigrants and Refugees program from 2000 to 2003. He previously served as director of the MOVE program and director of support programs. Juan Carlos is currently on the staff of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, in Boston.

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