This is not a conversation you would normally have in Russian. Two women won’t get together to talk about the rape and near-murder of one of them in Russian. Not on most days, anyway.
This is why, I suppose, Yana and I (Yana, obviously, is not her real name) slip so quickly back into English, just ten minutes or so into lunch. We have picked an empty corner of an already uncrowded cafe and are speaking in hushed tones. Like me, Yana has been a wanderer - having lived and worked abroad, she now finds there are things easier to talk about without using her native language.
“Because Russian women don’t talk about it much with each other, do they?” She says, at one point. “I suppose World War II is to blame for that. I know it’s a cliche, but there must be something to it: women were competing for the few men left afterward, and became too distant from one another, like enemies.”
Yana reads my writing and watches the videos I make - she likes my theory that Russian society, on the whole, is still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the 20th century.
“I got over my PTSD,” Yana jokes. “I think Russia can too - in the end.”
Many years ago, Yana stayed behind at the summer dacha she and her first husband lived at over the weekends when her husband had a meeting in town. She thinks he must have forgotten to lock the side gate - but she isn’t sure. She’ll never be sure.
A man let himself into their yard - she’s positive he was one of the men who had been doing repairs at a neighbor’s dacha in the hot summer months. He bludgeoned her from behind. He dragged her inside the house, where he raped her “for what seemed like hours.”
When, disoriented, she threw up on him at one point, he became enraged, punching and kicking her, breaking bones. Then he began to choke her - and did so until she passed out.
“He must have thought I was dead, when he left the house, I’m sure I looked pretty dead,” Yana says.
The crime against her was so brazen and shocking that, she says, even the local cops, the sort of people “who had seen everything there is to see and who mostly blame women for ‘getting themselves raped,’” were vowing to turn over the entire countryside to find her attacker.
Yana is vague about his eventual fate. All that she knows is that “he’s dead, apparently.” She isn’t sure if the police were just saying that to placate her and her husband. But they did zero in on a suspect quickly - allegedly - a suspect who then turned up dead. And a few days before she heard the news of his apparent death, she said she felt “lighter somehow.”
“I woke up, and there was none of that heaviness I had already been used to for weeks, while my body was healing and my mind was completely...” she pauses, searching for the right word. “Shattered, I guess. Anyway, I woke up, and I felt there was a weight that was gone - and then that same week they ask my husband to drive over and they say that this man is dead.”
She admits that it could be a coincidence, but hopes that it isn’t.
Her first marriage fell apart a few months after the attack. “Oh, he was sympathetic,” she says of her husband. “He’s a good man. But we couldn’t talk about it to anyone - it would have humiliated both of us, it wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to people like us - and that experience was like being trapped on a desert island together.”
“Eventually, we swam for safety - in different directions.”
I tell Yana that she ought to be a writer. She just smiles.
There is a lot I can’t reveal about her - lest someone reading this should recognize her.
“Can I tell people that you’re very pretty?” I ask, at one point. She guffaws.
“I wish Russian women could talk about it more,” she says. “I wish it wasn’t some terrible secret. Hello, I didn’t die! I’m still around! Maybe that should be an achievement instead of some kind of shame?”
Most Russian rape victims don’t come forward. Most rapes in Russia are not prosecuted. But this is the same old story you hear almost everywhere. Every time a woman is raped in the United States and the case makes the headlines, people immediately start trying to figure out ways to blame her for what happened. Few celebrities come forward with their stories of rape and assault - Tori Amos notwithstanding.
“Oh, I don’t know if it would help things if Russian celebrities came forward about this stuff,” Yana says. “Publicity has such adverse effects around here. But maybe I’m just jaded.”
At the end of our meeting, I ask what made her want to speak to me about this experience. She knows me from way back when - and has read my writing from afar for years - but it’s not as if we were ever best friends.
“That’s it exactly - we’re not best friends,” she says. “I won’t have to worry about you silently pitying me or judging me or some sh*t like that for years on end now.”
I want to tell her that I’d never do that - but I don’t know if she will believe me, and don’t think it matters much anyway.
At the end of our meeting, we try to shake hands, then end up awkwardly fist-bumping each other. It feels more appropriate, for whatever reason.
Outside the cafe, she goes left and I go right. Two women swimming to safety in opposite directions.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.