Behind the closed door: Domestic Violence in Slavic Religious Communities

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Maiya Ossipova was a divorced woman in her early forties with three kids when she met her future American husband on a dating website. He was a pastor in one of Slavic Evangelical Churches in Portland, Oregon, which made him ideal in Maiya’s eyes. She was living in Kazakhstan, had just come to God, and believed that faith was the key to a new, happy marriage. Besides, she and the pastor could easily talk about anything. He was an immigrant from the former USSR and they both spoke Russian. As Maiya recalls, he was quite insistent, called frequently, and soon they decided to “rely on the will of God”.

Русская версия

The pastor arrived in Kazakhstan unexpectedly after 4 months of calls and e-mailing. Maiya says he proposed to her with the words: “I cannot give you wealth, a lot of money, but I will help you raise your children and I will be your faithful husband.” She migrated to Portland, Oregon, in May 2007 expecting a happy life.

In America Maiya became a “hearth keeper”, taking care of her new husband’s house. He took her to church, but they didn’t go out anywhere else. She didn’t know English, didn’t drive and didn’t understand how things worked in America. She actually knew no one she could talk to or ask for help. All her relatives and friends were in Kazakhstan. Today Maiya realizes that she was totally isolated. Her husband was becoming abusive.

Maiya says once he told her that “God had turned away from her. He did not need her because Maiya had committed some kind of sin. Allegedly, God revealed to him that He trusts Maya to this husband and if she obeys him, then she will have a chance to be saved.”

If she dared to object, she says her husband-pastor shouted and blamed her and her kids for being ungrateful after moving to America. And then he insisted on her reading the Bible out loud: “Wives, obey your husbands as you obey the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

Maiya says that her husband used all kinds of violence against her, including sexual one. He forbade Maiya to buy fruit for her children and threatened to put them with their knees on peas for 2 hours, as he was punished in his childhood”.

The everyday spiritual pressure and gaslighting became worse over 4 months until one day Maiya’s husband-pastor literally threatened her life. She was truly scared for her own life and for her kids. When she finally realized that she faced domestic violence, Maiya decided to call the police – and her long and difficult recovery began. She divorced. As Maiya claims, her strong personality helped her to overcome it.

Maiya says she tried to seek help in the church, but instead of support and understanding she received aggression, shaming and blaming. Her husband’s words had more power in the congregation than hers as he was a pastor. When realizing that she was leaving him, he was spreading rumors. Even after their divorce for several years, Maiya’s ex-husband continued to harass her. We reached out to the pastor for this story, but did not receive a reply.

Maiya Ossipova’s experience is not unique, either in Oregon where she first lived with her ex-husband, or in Sacramento where she has lived for seven years. We interviewed a dozen Russian-speaking women, all faithful members from Slavic congregations in the Sacramento area, who say they were or still are experiencing domestic violence. We aren’t using their real names or identifying the congregations to which they belong because they are afraid of reprisals and harassment.

Their stories are similar to Maiya’s in many ways.

Sacramento has become a destination for thousands of religious refugees from such countries of the former Soviet Union as Armenia, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Uzbekistan. These refugees found their salvation in America from persecution in the USSR. According to our data there is over 80 Slavic Christian churches (mainly Baptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and Adventist congregations) grew up in the region between late 1980s till present time and became the centers of close-knit, conservative religious communities.

After arrival in the US, many religious immigrants, especially women, found themselves isolated within these communities. They didn’t know English, couldn’t work. They had trouble understanding their new reality with new social rules; they couldn’t easily adjust to their new American life. Slavic religious immigrants rely on churches for many aspects of their lives. Congregations and their spiritual leaders are often the only bridge between the community and the outer world. These churches often help newly arrived religious immigrants with accommodations and furnishings, documents, food and more.

Yet the lack of information, open conversations and communication with the outside world make it difficult for the Slavic religious immigrant communities to realize that domestic violence – which is defined by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence as the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another – is a common problem not only in American society, but also within their own communities. Neither wealth or status, nor nationality or spiritual views, nothing can guarantee protection from this problem.

Domestic violence carries a stigma of shame and disgrace. In many communities it is considered a very sensitive topic which shouldn’t be talked about in public. In Russian-speaking, conservative Christian communities, pastors are considered as honorable people talking “God’s will” even as they counsel domestic violence’s victims seeking help “to humble themselves and endure.” The women who spoke to us say they felt “ashamed and shut-down”, because they were told “you are the one who is responsible for saving your husband”. This conservative spiritual view is often complicated by a distrust of law enforcement or government authorities. Partially this is explained by a long history of persecution of the Christians in the USSR and their total distrust of the Soviet government, represented by the only ruling Communist party.

Many of the women told us that when they sought advice from their pastors, they were faced with the question “What did you do wrong to your husband, that he hit you?” This blame was often followed by a recommendation “Pray more, pray genuinely”. They say pastors told them “Divorce is a grave sin”. Women said they rarely received a referral to counseling or supportive services. While clergy are required to report child abuse and neglect, there is no law, which requires them to report domestic violence happening in the family.

Women who sought support, whether from their pastor, friends or families said they were “given a lesson” from their husbands for this “misbehavior.” Those women, whose stories we heard are fully dependent upon their husbands. They don’t work outside the home, have no personal savings for legal assistance, housing or child support. Their roles are to raise children, because “women will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:15). Despite all the difficulties these women are facing, they remain faithful and don’t want to leave their congregations. We called the several Sacramento region congregations and discussed cases of domestic violence among churchgoers. A common response we heard from these pastors was “You might be mistaken.” “You got wrong information, we don’t have cases of domestic violence among our parishioners” or “It’s an internal case, the family will figure it out”.

Of the 80 congregations in the Sacramento area, we reached dozens of them and found that these churches do offer family classes or family education. But none of them provide education or resources about domestic violence.

Tatiana Shevchenko, a social worker with over 20 years of hands-on experience in the Sacramento region, says that the older pastors usually tend to be more conservative, quite often underestimating domestic violence and referring to it as a simple misunderstanding or just a man’s bad mood. This position often receives support among their conservative parishioners, including women.

Usually, Tatiana mentions, younger pastors tend to be better integrated into American society. They are open to new knowledge, information, and criticize U.S. rules and laws less than their older colleagues. They encourage their congregation to respect existing order and support the country. Such pastors are more likely to advise the families to seek professional assistance regarding domestic violence, including police if needed.

Safe house Haven for Slavic women

Olga Peresvetova and her husband, pastor Eugeniy Peresvetov, operate a shelter for victims of domestic violence Safe-house Haven in Washington state and it serves women from as far away as Sacramento. Olga said, in an interview with Slavic Sacramento, that her husband advises a couple to live separately for a while when he is sure that the case he was told about is a domestic violence case.

“Very often domestic violence is mixed up with a very emotional quarrel or so, wrong conclusions might be made,” Olga explained.

Olga also believes that domestic violence victims have psychological problems and require therapy to recover. The Safe-house Haven provides this along with legal services, job search assistance and more. Olga said she is shocked to know how many women from Slavic religious families deal with domestic violence.

“In Russia I also ran a shelter for domestic violence victims and most of the women we helped were not religious. So, I considered this problem as a common one for unbelievers,” Olga recalls. “When my husband and I moved to the U.S. several years ago, I was shocked to meet so many domestic violence victims and survivors among christian believers!”

According to 2021 World Population by Country, in the US about 1 in 4 women experience severe intimate partner physical violence, sexual violence, and/or partner stalking with injury, post traumatic stress disorder, contraction of sexually transmitted disease, etc. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. As for the Russian-speaking community in the Sacramento region, there are no statistics on domestic violence cases.

Lack of Statistics

Sergeant Rod Grassmann, a spokesman for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s  Department, replied to our data request by email, “ I asked my crime analyst to look at crime statistics for domestic violence in the Russian speaking community. Our database does not reliably track people/calls by the language they speak.”

The Portland police department, where Maiya first lived in the U.S., also doesn’t maintain statistics based on nationality, but Officer Natasha Hounsperger, Office of Community Engagement for Chef’s Office, replied “they work closely with Slavic community organizations serving domestic violence victims”, such as Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. The City of Portland also works with the Slavic Advisory Council.

Every Sacramento area domestic violence shelter and organization we contacted for this story confirmed the lack of data by ethnicity. Some of them are implementing a question about language spoken in their application forms. This would allow them to deliver outreach programs for the Slavic community, to receive grants and provide Russian-speaking specialists. Such organizations as My Sister’s House, Victims of Crime Resource Center, WEAVE, The California Partnership to End Domestic Violence аdmit that although the majority of Russian-speaking domestic violence victims ask for legal help, victims are very unlikely to stay at shelters.

Tatiana Shevchenko knows the Slavic religious community in Sacramento very well as she is a Russian-speaking immigrant and religious refugee, who also faced domestic violence. Tatiana currently works as an invited trainer for domestic violence advocates, other non-profit organizations and state agencies, teaching all kinds of specialists  best practices in regards to the Russian-speaking community and domestic violence victims. Tatiana believes that the only way for the local Russian-speaking community to successfully deal with domestic violence is to get educated through volunteer training sessions which are regularly organized by shelters and advocacy organizations. From her personal and professional experience, she believes that there are already many existing resources in America that can help immigrants not to be isolated and not to deal with the problem alone. She says that governmental programs or all kinds of grants won’t help much until the Russian-speaking victims and community members start educating and advocating for themselves. Ideally, Tatiana says, pastors and spiritual leaders should be open to collaborate with American organizations and society to deal with this problem as well.

Happy End

Today, after all the hardship, Maiya is a happy woman. She has a loving and caring husband. For Maiya, surviving domestic violence and divorce didn’t mean the end of her positive life. She believes that her mission is to spread God’s word as she supports and encourages other domestic abuse survivors in the Russian-speaking community. She founded «Healing Salt» in 2019, a center helping women get stronger, by healing the soul, spirit and body.

“A woman is God’s creature. She was given power and influence, she was not created to be abused and beaten,” Maiya says.

If you believe you are a victim of domestic violence, don’t wait, contact: