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What I learned covering domestic violence in Sacramento’s Russian-speaking immigrant community

What I learned covering domestic violence in Sacramento’s Russian-speaking immigrant community

Picture of Elena Kuznetsova
Maiya Ossipova, a survivor of domestic violence, was featured prominently in the author’s series on domestic violence among reli
Maiya Ossipova, a survivor of domestic violence, was featured prominently in the author’s series on domestic violence among religious immigrants from the former USSR now living in the Sacramento region. Ossipova was a divorced woman in her early forties with three kids when she met her future American husband on a dating website.
(Photo via Elena Kuznetsova/SlavicSac.com)

In Russia there is an old saying, “He doesn’t love you unless he beats you.” It’s part of a broader justification of violence in families. And there are still many families, mostly religious with conservative, patriarchal traditions, which live according to this outdated idea. The mindset was in turn brought by religious immigrants from the former USSR to the United States.

Many religious immigrants from Russia arrived in Sacramento, where they found their salvation from persecution in the USSR. According to data collected by my outlet, over 80 Slavic Christian churches grew up in the region from the late 1980s until present, and they have become centers for close-knit, conservative religious communities.

In general, the main aims of religious Slavs living here from the former USSR are to live humbly, to work hard, to do no harm, to pray, to obey the Bible and pastors’ word, and to worship God. Knowing this, the domestic violence cases I heard about in Slavic religious immigrants’ families terrified me: The brutality, the unwillingness to work with specialists, the fear of shame and disgrace from community members. Very often, religious immigrants simply don’t recognize domestic violence as a problem in the first place. 

I was surprised to find that domestic violence among Russian-speaking religious immigrants is not really covered by local ethnic media. It prompted me to work on my fellowship story, “Behind the Closed Door: Domestic Violence in Slavic Religious Communities,” which I hope will serve as a turning point for many religious women struggling with domestic violence under the pressure of religious leaders, husbands and other community members.   

I believe the story could make the difference for many Russian-speaking religious immigrant women, among the most vulnerable when it comes to domestic violence in families. 

To help other journalists pursuing similar projects, I've thought back over the reporting that went into this package and have arrived at the following tips:

  • Despite your topic being widespread in the community, it’s not well researched and very few people are brave enough to publicly talk about it. This is especially relevant in traditional, religious, patriarchal close-knit communities, and you will need patience and time to find ways to gather small pieces of information. You have to be able to put on their shoes, to teach yourself to think like those you are going to write about.

  • Know your community. This is especially relevant in conservative communities. You might be surprised to learn that although community members live in a democratic country with functioning law enforcement and courts, they prefer never to deal with them. Distrust of authorities is one of the basic characteristics of the religious Russian-speaking Slavic community, which stems from the Soviet period when they were persecuted by the Communist party. Religious immigrants are more likely to endure pain rather than call the police. Also, learn the language of your subjects. Communication with mine wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t read the Bible and didn’t understand the religious rules and rites. When talking to any religious community member, it’s important you don’t cast blame on the church or God. This is an essential part of their lifestyle; they are  more likely to leave an abuser but not their God.

  • Find the person who can tell the story. This might be the hardest part of the project, considering the peculiarities of the community. When I was looking for my key person, I constantly encountered fear, panic, anxiety, and a total unwillingness to openly talk about domestic violence. I ultimately talked to 15 domestic violence survivors who shared their stories of pain and suffering, but they didn’t dare to disclose their identities in the story, as they were afraid of the consequences — punishment, condemnation and accusations that they were not being good wives.

  • Keep in mind there are no statistics or detailed data is available on this problem. You can turn to broader national data on intimate partner violence in the U.S., but for the Russian-speaking community in the Sacramento region, there are no statistics on domestic violence cases.

  • Beware of giving advice to domestic violence survivors or victims unless you are trained and have the right to work with them. You will inevitably feel sorry for domestic violence victims and survivors and might feel empowered to offer advice. Don’t do that. Just remember, domestic violence victims need professional help, and they often struggle with psychological issues. I was lucky to get that great advice from a social worker, Tatiana Shevchenko, who I interviewed for the project. 

  • Think carefully about the potential impact of your story. Ask, “What changes is it going to bring for the community?” 

  • Feel free to reach out to your journalism mentor when you encounter issues, obstacles, or just need advice. This worked out for me all the time. Remember, you are not alone.

  • Build in twice as much time as you think you’ll need for the various stages of your project. You will always encounter something unexpected, although you may think you have everything under control. Also, think carefully about how it will fit in with your other work and projects. This is something I didn’t consider very well while planning.

  • Always keep in mind the core focus of your project. When you start working on an interesting topic, you will gather tons of information and it will be tempting to include it all in your story. It’s incredibly hard to resist. I constantly struggled with this and lost time as a result.

I will be happy if those tips prove helpful for others. They helped me in completing what turned out to be a far more complicated project than I initially anticipated.

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