Three Sisters – The Khachaturyan Case, a Litmus Test for Misogyny of Russian Media

12 September 2019

Country: Russia

by: Mikhail Yakovlev

Screen_Shot_2019-09-12_at_1.02.03_PMIn Anton Chekhov’s fin-de-siècle play, three sisters “dream of a future in which ‘women will wear trousers’.” Suffocated in their provincial town, they spend countless days mourning their father’s death and dreaming of escape – “To Moscow! To Moscow! To Moscow!” Notoriously, the play ends with nothing realised…

Now, a much more sinister real-life version of the Three Sisters is playing out in Russia: three sisters are on trial for murdering their father, after he repeatedly raped and abused them.

The Khachaturyan sisters claim that their murder was in self-defence. But will the notoriously misogynist Russian media support their version of the story?

When their story first broke, mainstream Russian media blamed the sisters, exploiting their tragic circumstances for gratuitous entertainment. A Jeremy Kyle-style talk show called “Let Them Talk” has produced countless sensationalist episode about the Khachaturyan case without any concerns for the psychological and physical wellbeing of the survivors. In one episode, the show invited the extended Khachaturyan family to confront the sisters’ brother, Sergei Khachaturyan. When Sergei (who had also suffered abuse at the hands of his father and was eventually thrown out by him) sided with his sisters, his relatives physically attacked him on air. The mafia links of the Khachaturyan family—particularly the abuser and his close relatives—are well known. Why did the “Let Them Talk” producers invite his them to this show in order to undermine their victim’s story? And why did they not provide Sergei with adequate protection when they did?


Russia has a long-standing problem with gender-based violence and misogyny–the biggest of which is that it is not recognized as a problem. In 2017, Russia partially decriminalized domestic violence, making violence against a spouse or child that causes “bruising or bleeding but not broken bones” punishable by a fine of 30,000 Roubles (350GBP) or, in worst cases, 15 days in jail so long as the offense does not reoccur within a year. According to government statistics, the number of reported cases was cut in half—but according to those operating helplines, calls asking for support increased by the thousands.

Many of Russia’s major religious leaders welcomed the change. The Russian Orthodox Church argued that domestic violence legislation undermines traditional family values and “serves the interests of paedophiles.” Conveniently, it has its own 24-hour TV channel to spread such pernicious messaging. Russians are stuck in a surreal media situation – the Government constantly threatens to take EuroNews, the only TV channel with full editorial independence, off air for ‘pro-Western anti-Russian propaganda’. But, the Orthodox TV channel is allowed to promote wife beating with no problems at all.

The only consolation is that the Church’s channel is not that popular. While the Moscow Patriarchate claims that this channel receives between 15 and 20 million Roubles (185,000-250,000GBP) in viewer donations each month, it stubbornly refuses to publish viewership figures. For context, Russia’s second Orthodox channel, which is not directly affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate, captures a mere 0.4% of the federal TV market.

It isn’t the only case of misogyny in the Russian media. After the #metoo hashtag went viral, its Russian version, #мне_нужна_гласность [I need glasnost] struggled to take off. Mainstream Russian media consistently takes the side of men targeted by #metoo in the West—they adamantly defended Harvey Weinstein, and when French-born actor Gérard Depardieu was accused of rape, Russia’s state-owned news channel Россия-24 [Russia-24] aired a segment asking, “PR or crime?” accusing the victim of spreading lies for her own publicity.

“The young lady was perhaps trying to engage in blackmail and, having failed to get what she wanted, decided that at least this is how she’ll get publicity.”

Another recent example is the case of Diana S, a seventeen-year-old from Ulianovsk who, after pressing against a 21-year old man who raped her at a party, was almost immediately smeared in the media. After deciding to go public with her assault, Diana accepted an invitation to share her story on “Let Them Talk” — only to find out that the host had also invited both the rapist and his sister to be on the show. Both denied any wrongdoing, blaming Diana herself and (notice the trend here) suggesting that she simply wanted fame and publicity.

The show’s panellists tried to undermine Diana’s credibility by highlighting that she drank alcohol at the party. She replied that she drunk from an already opened bottle that only had a “little bit left on the bottom.” She accompanied this explanation with a relatively-common hand gesture, meaning a little bit. This gesture became a highly toxic meme.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the pro-Kremlin publication LifeNews released an online game mocking Diana’s explanation and body language. Burger King Russia followed suit, mocking Diana in an ad for its Big King burger. Matthew Kupfer explains in The Moscow Times,

“Soon the company had deleted the post, but the message was clear: Diana, who spoke out about her rape at the hands of a 21-year-old man on the Russian evening talk show Pust Govoryat (Let Them Talk), had become an Internet meme and — to many — the villain in the rape case that electrified Russia. Diana’s transformation from ordinary victim into media celebrity and public enemy has raised serious questions about how Russia relates to sexual assault and its victims. Advocates for assault victims suggest the saga says a lot about public attitudes. Russian society supports the myth that the victim is responsible for sexual assault, says Nadezhda Zamotaeva, executive director of the Sisters Sexual Assault Recovery Centre. ‘Sadly, this tells us that violence is habitual, unconscious, and permissible for members of our society.’”

Burger Kind, for one, thinks that sexual violence is permissible. A year later, it released another genderist promo “offering a lifetime of free Whoppers to women who are impregnated by World Cup stars.” This certainly puts int perspective the UK’s recent ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising, which Media Diversity Institute recently covered here.

Unfortunately, there is little chance of this bleak state of affairs changing for the better. According to “I Could Kill You and No One Would Stop Me” Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Russia, a report into domestic violence in Russia commissioned by Human Rights Watch, Putinist authorities are ideologically opposed to tackling domestic violence.

But the social media fallout from the Khachaturyan case has prompted many Russian women and men to reconsider their position. A new hashtag, #я_не_хотела_умирать [I did not want to die] went viral earlier this year. Likewise, offline protests in support the three sisters persist, both in Russia and internationally—despite pressure from the authorities.  Loretta Marie Perera explains in The Moscow Times,

“In Moscow, where five weekend protests for free city council elections were violently put down by law enforcement and thousands were detained or arrested, city officials were wary of authorizing any other events, even those supporting a different cause. The authorities have turned down petitions for a march in support of the sisters four times.”

Perera adds, “Grigoryan [the activist behind demonstrations in support of the sisters] believes that the authorities fear the sisters’ case will gain too much attention. ‘It scares City Hall,’ she said. ‘It is easier for them not to allow any rally – in contradiction of the Constitution – and instead to pretend that everyone is happy with the way things are.’”

My only hope is that conversations about the Khachaturyan case currently taking place in Russian media and the society more broadly will lead do positive changes in the law and social attitudes. To achieve this, media should avoid making unnecessary links to Khachaturyan’s Armenian nationality—using his ethnicity to justify his violence. As seen in the previous examples, Russians are just as capable of perpetuating patriarchal attitudes themselves. Instead, media needs to call patriarchal violence what it is, report the facts as they are, and most of all, listen to survivors. Only then will things have a hope of changing.