‘They believed they could only depend on themselves’ Hundreds picket in Moscow for three sisters facing up to 20 years in prison for killing their violent, abusive father
On June 19, Muscovites took to the streets to support the Khachaturyan sisters, who were 17, 18, and 19 years old when they were arrested in July 2018. The three young women killed their father, and they do not deny it. Maria, Angelina, and Krestina took that step because Mikhail Khachaturyan abused them verbally, physically, and sexually for years on end. Investigators are framing the case as a conspiracy to commit murder, but the defense has countered that the sisters had to act in self-defense. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova was on the scene of the pickets against the case.
Supporters of the Khachaturyan sisters had already gathered outside the Investigative Committee building on Moscow’s historic Arbat Street, but nobody seemed prepared to take the first shift holding up their sign outside the gate. That changed when a young woman with flaming orange hair appeared in the crowd. Her name is Darya Serenko, and she has been a prominent feminist activist in Russia for about four years. Her #quietpicket project is largely dedicated to the problem of domestic and intimate partner violence.
An “individual picket” of the kind that took place yesterday is the only form of public protest that is legally permissible in Russia without prior government approval. Serenko declined to call herself the organizer of the picket for the three sisters, saying, “There was already demand [for a picket]. I only took it upon myself to post the event and write a set of instructions.” The event appears on Facebook not as a picket but as a “line for a picket,” and its cover photo adapts the popular logo for Meduza journalist Ivan Golunov to read “I AM / WE ARE THE KHACHATURYAN SISTERS.” The form the event took also recalled the protests in support of Golunov that took place earlier this month: although protesters can be arrested for holding up signs as a group, the line to hold up a sign one at a time can serve as its own display of the protesters’ numbers. Serenko said she decided to join that line for the Khachaturyans because “if we look away from the topic of domestic violence, we shouldn’t be surprised that in a country where husbands beat and rape their wives, police plant drugs on journalists.”
On July 27, 2018, the body of a 57-year-old man was found inside a home in Moscow’s Altufyevo neighborhood with “numerous stab and cut wounds on the chest and neck.” The man was named Mikhail Khachaturyan. It was his 18-year-old daughter Angelina who reported the incident to the police. She and her sisters, 19-year-old Krestina and 17-year-old Maria, were later arrested and accused of murder.
The Khachaturyan sisters gave their first round of testimony without an attorney present. They admitted guilt and explained that they had what investigators called “hostile personal relationships” with their father. For several years, Khachaturyan had treated his daughters with constant cruelty, humiliating them, beating them, and raping them. The young women said that on the day they attacked him, their father had once again punished them for “disorder” in their home. He had shut himself in a room with each of them one by one and shot pepper spray into each of their faces.
At first, the sisters were jailed to await trial, but after two months, they were released on conditions of limited contact with journalists and limited time outside their home. Investigators confirmed that the elder Khachaturyan had systematically used physical violence against his daughters and forced them to commit sexual acts. Those conditions left the sisters with severe psychological damage: investigators said they had mental illnesses “resembling ‘battered child syndrome’” and that Krestina and Angelina had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychologists determined that the youngest sister, Maria, could not be held responsible for her actions at the time of the sisters’ attack on their father.
Nonetheless, the Khachaturyan sisters have been charged with “murder committed by a group following a premeditated conspiracy.” They face prison sentences of 8 – 20 years if convicted. Their attorneys have argued that the sisters killed their father “within the bounds of necessary self-defense against violence that had been ongoing for many years.” They asked Alexander Bastrykin, the federal head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, to shut down or at least reclassify the case against the sisters and open a new criminal case against their father.
Darya Serenko came to the June 19 picket carrying a two-sided, handwritten sign. One side read “THE KHACHATURYAN SISTERS NEED REHABILITATION, NOT PRISON.” The other displayed a flowchart of the options victims of domestic violence have in Russia: dying at home at the hands of their abusers or defending themselves and ending up in jail.
Before long, police approached the activist. They examined her sign and walked away silently to stand around the corner of the building across the street. Serenko continued to stand to the left of the entrance to the Investigative Committee building. To its right, a line was forming. By half past six, about 50 people, mostly women, had joined in.
“It’s extremely unfortunate, but the Khachaturyan sisters’ case shows the situation we live in,” said Anna Rivina, who directs the Nasiliu.net (No to Violence) center. “If women or, in this case, children face violence for many years, nobody is willing to help them. […] For years, they lived in terror, in hell. Thinking “Why didn’t they just leave?” is superficial; it shows the degree to which people don’t understand what happens when your self-esteem is destroyed — and when the person [committing the abuse] has weapons, money, and connections.”
A search of the family’s apartment turned up a knife, a “case of pills” (Mikhail Khachaturyan received a contusion during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and took tranquilizers in the years before his death), a hammer, a crossbow, 16 javelins, a pistol, a revolver, a hunting rifle, 16 ammunition cartridges, and two pneumatic pistols. A friend of the three sisters told Meduza that their father had often used a pistol to beat them on the head. She said she had seen weapons and bullet holes inside their home. The sisters’ neighbors confirmed that they had frequently heard screams coming from the Khachaturyans’ apartment but did not interfere in what they considered a family matter.
An engineer named Yekaterina stood in line to picket for the Khachaturyan sisters for at least an hour. She said she had survived domestic violence herself. “Even for an adult, it’s very difficult to fight back [against domestic abuse]. It’s a highly traumatic situation,” she said. “You really feel like you’re trapped; you can’t evaluate the situation objectively. It’s very difficult to realize that there’s a way out. To realize there’s a way out, you have to have support. The girls didn’t feel that kind of support. They believed they could only depend on themselves.”
At School No. 1379, which two of the three sisters attended, nobody knew what was happening to them at home. Principal Sergey Koryshev said that Angelina and Maria had started skipping classes frequently in February 2017 but that the school was always told either one of the girls or their father was ill. He noted that the school’s administration contacted child services and government guardianship agencies multiple times. In April of 2018, Koryshev held a meeting with Mikhail Khachaturyan and an inspector for underage children. “Unfortunately, once again, we met with the father’s total lack of understanding of the necessity that the girls receive an education and attend school,” the principal said.
The sisters also couldn’t count on any help from their mother, Aurelia Dunduk. Dunduk told Novaya Gazeta that she moved in with Khachaturyan when she was 17 years old and he was 35. Over the course of many years, he regularly beat and humiliated her as well as their oldest son, Sergey. When the boy reached the eighth grade, his father kicked him out of the house, and four years ago, he did the same to Dunduk. Khachaturyan forbade his daughters from speaking to their mother, and they only managed to talk on the phone on rare occasions. Dunduk found out what had been happening to her daughters only after her ex-husband was killed.
“The mother is a victim herself. She couldn’t have done anything,” said psychologist Yekaterina Klimova. She joined the picket because she believes the case against the sisters should be shut down. “We should be talking about self-defense. The charges against them should be dropped so they can be rehabilitated. They don’t have much of a chance because they had a hard childhood, but they’ve got a chance, and we should fight for it.”
Klimova argued that prosecutors should start with the child services employees and police officers who didn’t accept Aurelia Dunduk’s complaints that she was being beaten. Dunduk told Novaya Gazeta that she contacted the Altufyevo neighborhood’s police department, but the officers sent her complaint to her husband.
Alexander Platitsyn, another picketer, also believes that the responsibility for what happened to the Khachaturyans lies with local law enforcement. He explained that, on one hand, the problem is that “our lawmakers don’t represent us”; on the other hand, it’s that the law enforcement system “buries its head in the sand and pretends we don’t have any crime” instead of “punishing bandits.” “While they’re catching students at protests and illegally investigating civic activists, this criminal, bandit drug dealer is raping his three daughters,” Palitsyn said.
By 8:00 PM, the line to picket had grown to a hundred people. Five police officers watched them from across the street. There was no reason for them to arrest the picketers, who made sure nobody turned their signs to face outward within 50 meters (the legal limit) of the person picketing at any given time. They also made sure not to interfere with pedestrian or vehicular traffic, another common excuse for arrests.
From time to time, a police van drove by. At first, it sent waves of nervous speculation through the crowd, but the picketers relaxed when they realized the police did not intend to make any arrests.
“How horrible!” a woman suddenly exclaimed. She had been telling the picketers that she lives nearby and wanted to see what was going on. After listening to a detailed recounting of the Khachaturyan sisters’ story, the woman concluded, “Maybe I should stand here too. Thank you!” and moved in the direction of the building.
Passersby talked nonstop about the picket and the case it aimed to address.
“They don’t bring any criminal charges for domestic violence,” one young man said to a woman walking with him.
“Lots of people — great!” another pedestrian noted.
“The dad yelled and yelled at the girls, and they took him and…” a father explained to a pigtailed girl about six years old while her mother walked silently beside them.
“The way people think ‘As long as it doesn’t affect you, you don’t have to get involved,’ it’s wrong. This affects all of us. If we live in a system that doesn’t defend us, we have to come together in solidarity and defend ourselves,” explained Aiten Yakubova, an activist with the advocacy organization Socialist Alternative.
Yakubova’s sign read “Self-defense from a domestic tyrant is not a crime.” “I’m Azerbaijani myself, and I want to say that the Armenian diaspora, the Azerbaijani diaspora, any patriarchal diaspora treats these issues as follows: if you talk about domestic violence, shame on you,” she added, referencing the Khachaturyans’ Armenian heritage. The young activist believes those who create situations in which victims have no way out but murder should be punished and that the government should spend its budget “not on building churches and prisons but on crisis centers so that women can have a place to go.”
Mikhail Khachaturyan’s friends and relatives don’t believe he mistreated his daughters and have argued that the three sisters should be punished. “The relatives of the deceased are running a campaign against them, calling them killers and sluts. Instead of defending the perpetrator’s victims, they’re blaming the victims,” said Alyona Popova, a human rights activist and the co-founder of Project W: Mutual Aid for Women. She started a petition to free the Khachaturyan sisters on Change.org that had accumulated more than 130,000 signatures by the time this piece was published.
Popova explained that the case against the sisters will affect all victims of sexual, domestic, and all other kinds of violence in Russia. If the girls are convicted, “anyone who defends themselves could face the same fate.” “This is absolutely self-defense. There’s no conspiracy, no murder, and no conspiracy to commit murder,” she added. “The Supreme Court must clarify the application of Article 37 [on self-defense]. In 2012, a plenary session of the Supreme Court already clarified the conditions for necessary self-defense. As I understand it, we need another clarification because [Article 37] is poorly enforced. By the way, that plenary session found that if you’re subjected to a crime that continues over a period of time, that can be grounds for self-defense.”
“I think that in our case, it’s important not only to establish legislation and judicial norms but also to recognize the problem and establish the right attitude toward it. Those same judges and police officers believe to this day that domestic violence is a family matter. But the problem belongs to society as a whole, not a single family, and society as a whole shouldn’t be indifferent,” said Anna Rivina of Nasiliu.net.
As 10:00 PM approached, about 200 people had taken their turn at the picket. To make sure everyone in line could make it through without standing outside all night, the activists asked each other to stand with their signs for only 30 seconds each.
“I’m not entirely sure how effective this is. I think this is just all we can do, and that means we don’t have the right not to do it,” said a freelancer named Dmitry. He supports the Khachaturyan sisters because he believes the law enforcement system works against women and their safety: “Instead of pulling people away from the terror they’ve lived through, this system is set up to leave them in that noose. To send them to prison, and then spit people out into life when they’re not prepared. They have only known violence, and they need support, rehabilitation, psychologists. It’s really important right now to advocate for women’s rights to defense against violence.”
“What’s this — are you all standing in line for a picket?” a man with thick black stubble interjected, stopping his motorcycle in the middle of the road and carefully eyeing the crowd. “What’s going on here? What, have they planted drugs on another journalist?” he continued without waiting for a response. After someone managed to say the name “Khachaturyan,” he responded, “Yeah, I know. Their dad was weird, and they killed him.” Picketers shouted back objections and explanations that Khachaturyan was no mere oddity. The man on the motorcycle asked again, looking even more surprised, whether everyone there was really waiting in line for a picket before driving off.
At around 10:00, the last picketer took up their post outside the Investigative Committee building. Thirty seconds later, the crowd parted. Darya Serenko thanked the picketers for their involvement before turning to the police officers across the street and yelling, “Thanks!” The officers, who had watched the picket closely all evening long, remained silent.