( Russia, 1980s-1990s )
( Photo by Ronon )
Life in a big city always reminded me a flooded river with lots of rocks, hidden under its stormy surface with a little island of peace called home. Once outside, you were picked up by the crowd of people, always in a rush, that carried you somewhere almost against your will. All the sins of the society, that would be too obvious in a small place, could easily be hidden in this crowd.
( Photo by Sunrider )
Of course, parents did all they could to protect us kids. It was very rare when we were allowed to play outside without an adult. There was a big yard in the middle of our 2-thousand flat skyscraper. Me and my brother were always told to stay close to each other and never go with strangers, even if they offered us a sweet.
“What do you do if a strange man offers you a treat and asks you to go with him behind the corner?” – my mum would ask every time before letting me go outside.
“I should scream as loud as I can for my brother, mother, father and all the other relatives.”
“Good girl. You can go and play now,” – my mum would say, disappearing in the kitchen.
Mum never explained to me why she was so scared of strangers, especially men. They did not seem to be so scary after all. Once three big boys took my toboggans and did not want to give it back. I was ready to burst into tears, when I suddenly spotted a man in a military uniform. He looked exactly like a man from the famous monument in Berlin I saw in a book. I did not think twice and went straight to him.
“Can you please ask these big boys to give me my toboggans back,” – I asked. He smiled, approached the boys and brought me my toboggans back. He was surely not that scary, even though he was a stranger.
The statue of the Soviet soldier holding a child
by Yevgeny Vuchetich.
Soviet War Memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin, 1949.
But one day when I was playing alone in the sandpit a man came to me and offered me to go with him to get a sweet. My reaction was automatic. I started screaming at the top of my lungs: “Mum, dad, nanna…” When I ran out of relatives from the Russian side of the family, I’ve started shouting out the names of all my Ukranian relatives, including numerous uncles, aunties, neighbours and even a few cats and dogs I got to know during my holidays in Ukraine.
“Why are you screaming?” – I’ve heard my brother’s voice and opened my eyes. The man was nowhere to be seen.
“A strange man offered me a sweet.”
“So why are you screaming then?”
“But…that’s what mum told me to do.”
“Where is the sweet then?”
“Hm. I don’t know. He did not give me any.”
“Oh, you silly. You needed to take the sweet first and then scream,” he said with indignation.
( Photo by Masha Knyazeva )
I think my brother always thought that I was a little bit mentally retarded, or at least dropped on my head. He could never forgive himself for choosing to have a sister instead of a bike, when asked by my parents before my birth. He even tried to swap me a few times – at first for a bike, then for a pocket knife and at last for a slingshot. Sometimes I felt he was happy even to give me away for free, just to get rid of me. No luck.
“What are we to do with your sister?” his playmates would ask. “If it was a brother, at least we could play rough and tumble with him or have a fight. But a sister – no…”
( Photo by 2b2e )
No other strangers ever offered me anything again. I did not mind however. Soon I turned 7 and started school. At the same time I got enrolled in a musical school to learn to play piano. I needed to take two buses to get to the musical school. My parents were both working and could not take me there, so they taught me how to get there by myself. I was a very responsible little kid and always followed their instructions. However a strange thing started happening to me on some of the overcrowded buses. It was usually during the rush hour, when the buses were jammed with people like sardines in a tin. Often buses were so full that the doors could not close and people were standing on the bottom step, holding onto the rails with their bags hanging outside. I was usually jammed somewhere in the middle of the bus amongst all the bodies, trying to lift my chin up to get some air. But every now and then someone’s leg would somehow get jammed between my legs. It felt very uncomfortable and I always tried to move away. Or someone’s hand would somehow start touching my bottom. It made me feel scared and puzzled. No one ever talked to us about private parts or unwanted touches at that time. I just felt very uncomfortable and could not understand what was going on. I was too scared to make a sound and often would just try to get off the bus and wait for another one. It did not happen all the time after all – just a few times, so changing the bus usually worked.
“Why are you so late from musical school?” my nanna asked me one day.
“I needed to change the bus.”
I explained the reason.
“Oh, bastards”, she said in a quiet angry voice so as not to be heard by me.
“Try to take a seat and avoid standing in the crowd on the steps,” was her advice, but it was easier to say than to do in these overcrowded buses.
She however had a word with my dad and mum and tried to arrange her shifts in the maternity hospital in such a way so that she would be free to take me to the musical school and back. I felt relieved.
( Photo by Pavel Fedorov )
Soon I reached my teens. We moved to a different apartment block, which was quite far away from the public school I used to go to. So now I needed to commute every day all by myself. One day the bus was so full that there were hardly any room for me there. I did not want to wait for another one, so I stood on the top step. A few men climbed behind me and stood on the bottom steps. We were coming close to the next stop, when suddenly I felt someone’s hand getting quickly under my skirt. Everything happened so quickly. I was jammed between people and could not move at all. I screamed in shock. The doors opened. One of the men jumped off the bus and ran away as fast as he could. People on the bus looked at me puzzled. I burst into tears.
“Are you Ok?” asked one middle-aged man.
“Yes,” I stammered out, burying my face in my hands. I obviously could not say anything – not to the man and not in front of all the people in the bus. I would not say that even to my dad – he was a male after all. We never talked about that sort of things in our family.
But why was this man running away so fast? He must have been scared of my scream? No, it would not scare him away. I looked through my fingers. I was always told to approach any woman on the street if I get into trouble, which implied somehow that men were not helpful. Most of the passengers on this bus however were men. What was he scared off then? I looked at the tired faces of the passengers and it suddenly struck me: he was scared of these men. Some of them, probably, had daughters. They would surely stand up for a girl in a school uniform. They would not let him get away with that, would they? They could not be all such bastards.
If only I knew then that I could ask these men for help. They would surely beat the shit out of this guy so that he would never ever do that again to any other girl. It took me years to realise, that in spite of all the dirty jokes guys used to share over a pint of bear, when it came to their daughters, sisters or a kid on the street – that was not a laughing matter. They would get it sorted on the spot.
( Photo by Adam K. )
I rushed home and locked myself in the toilet. Dad was at home with flu. He waited and waited and waited – then he asked me what was wrong. I could not tell him. I did not want to talk at all. I just wanted to disappear. He got very worried and phoned mum at work. She rushed home and took me to bed.
“I will never ever go to the school again.” I cried.
“Why? What’s happened? You never had any troubles at school. What’s wrong?”
Mum tried to calm me down. I told her what happened. She was very upset.
“Don’t worry, love,” she said. “Go to sleep. You need a good rest. We will sort that out. You can stay at home tomorrow.”
I could not go to sleep. “There must be something wrong with me,” I thought. “Why did that happen to me? What did I do wrong?” I could not find anything wrong with myself, but felt somehow that I was at fault. At fault of what? I could not tell. May be, it was my fault, that I was standing on that step. My mum told me to avoid standing on the steps and always try to take a seat. I could not see anything else I could possibly blame myself for. Just standing on that step.
Mum had a chat with dad and they decided that the best option for me would be to change the school to avoid commuting by bus every day.
I changed the school. I did not need to take a bus to school now – it was only 20-minute walk from my house. I felt relieved, even though I did not have any friends at my new school and had no one to talk to there. I started taking my favourite books to school instead, filling all the spare time between lessons with reading.
Life was rapidly changing. Everything started falling apart after perestroika. Friends turned into beasts, people on the streets began dipping their eyes so as not to notice anything happening around them. If ten years ago I could approach a stranger to get my toboggans back from big boys, now no one would ever stop, no matter what was happening on the street. People were too scared to get into trouble themselves – streets were getting more and more dangerous. People started installing double doors in their apartments with 4-5 locks. Those living on the ground floors were installing metal bars on all their windows.
( Photo by Funtos )
It was at that time that I was approached by a man in his forties.
“What are you reading?” he asked, pointing at the book I had in my hands.
” ‘War and Peace’ by Tolstoy,” I answered.
“Oh, it is too boring. You should read Kama Sutra instead,” he said and started telling me lots of yucky stuff I’d never heard before. I felt totally disgusted and started running away. He was following me, shouting across the street how my legs were turning him on and lots of other disgusting stuff. I looked around – there were quite a few people on the street. Some of them were giving us puzzled looks, while others deliberately looked away, as if trying not to notice what was going on. I started panicking. There was obviously no one to help me. I was scared to run home, as this man could spot the house I lived in. I ran to a big supermarket instead and hid in the female toilet. I was shivering from fear, hiding in the distant corner at the toilet, when a young woman approached me.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
I told her that I was scared to go home because of the nasty man that was following me.
“Don’t worry,” she said, giving me a hug. “Come with me.”
She took me out of the toilet. Her husband was waiting for her there with a little girl in a pram. She whispered something to him. He looked at her and nodded his head.
“We can take you to your house,” she said. “Can you show us the way.”
We walked together towards my house. Every now and then I was looking behind my shoulder to make sure that no one was following us. The nasty man was nowhere to be seen. I started feeling a little bit better. We knocked at the door. My nanna was at home.
“Oh, bastards,” she whispered, shaking from anger, while taking me to the kitchen. But surely the man who took me home was not that bad.
( Photo by mirror monster )
I started thinking what else I could do to make sure that won’t happen to me again. He was talking about my legs, was not he? Could that be the trouble? Girls were not allowed to wear trousers to school, so I tried to find the longest skirt I could find. It still did not cover my legs completely. But I found a long cloak in my mum’s wardrobe. She was not wearing it anymore, so I asked her permission to take it. I put it on – it was just right to cover all my body. It even had a hood, so that I could hide my head. My mum thought that it looked pretty ugly and was very puzzled that I wanted to wear it. I insisted – its grey colour perfectly matched the colour of asphalt, so I hoped that it would make me less noticeable on the street. Now that I could hide I felt a little bit better. It got me through that year. Now there was only one year to go.
One day when I was walking home from school I was approached by a man in his forties. He said that he was a captain of a big ship and invited me to his house to have a look at all the amazing things he brought home from overseas adventures. I was very curious, but said “No” as my mother taught me. My mum always told me that I should never talk to strangers and never ever go to someone else’s house. I tried to walk away, but he followed me.
“I have lots of fancy dresses,” – he said. “You can choose any of them as a present.”
“I’m not interested,” I interrupted him, trying to stop the conversation.
He continued to walk next to me, telling me about his overseas treasures. I started slowly getting at what he was actually talking about.
“Enough,” I said. “Look, I just can’t stand it anymore. What do you want of me? There are plenty of girls on the street. Why don’t you ask them to come to your place to admire all your treasures? Some of them like fancy dresses, mini skirts and wear lots of make up. Why are you approaching me not them?”
“Because you are not like them,” he said and gave me a wink.
Right, it was obvious that these guys were just looking for shy quiet girls with blushing cheeks – young lonely teenagers who could not stand up for themselves. I was obviously doing all the wrong things – so, may be, if I try to look like other girls, they will leave me in peace.
( Photo by Italiano )
I needed to go to the library that day so I got the brightest dress I could find and covered my face with mum’s make up. I looked in the mirror – a strange face was looking back at me. I took the ribbon off my hair and put lots of max volume mousse all over my hair. Now I was surely looking like other girls on the street. My girlfriend was waiting for me on the street. She was stunned when she saw me. On the way to the library we bumped into my dad. I was just about to say “Hi” and introduce him to my new friend, when he quickly passed me and disappeared into the crowd.
“Who was that man?” asked my friend.
“My dad,” I felt very puzzled. “It looks like he did not notice me however. I just can’t understand why he did not say hello. That was very unusual for my dad. He could not possible not see me – I was right in front of him.”
My friend burst into laughter. “Have you seen yourself in the mirror? He probably did not recognise you. Even I did not recognise you at first until I heard your voice. What is all these stuff about?” she pointed at my dress and my make up.
“You know, it is just I feel that there is something wrong with me. I somehow stand out among the other girls and always get some nasty guys coming to me and telling me disgusting stuff. So I was just trying to disguise myself. Did it ever happen to you? Did anyone ever come to you and told you something like that? Or did someone ever touch you in the overcrowded bus?”
“Oh, you silly! Of course, it did. That happens to all the girls,” she started chuckling.
Her words made me feel a little bit better. So I was not the only one who had that sort of troubles. Then there must be nothing wrong with me. I felt relieved.
“But what do you do, when someone approaches you or someone touches you in the bus?”
“Well, I will tell you a funny story. Once I was on a bus with my auntie, when I felt someone touching me. So I just quietly swapped the place with my auntie to see what she will do. It is a pity you could not see how loudly she shouted at all the males on the bus. And the words she was using – I never thought she knew words like these. She was so furious. When the bus stopped, all the males jumped off the bus just in case, even those who had no idea of what was the trouble.”
“Well, I don’t think that I am able to shout as loudly as your aunty though.” I said. Her story cheered me up however. The only thought kept worrying me: “Is everyone treating such incidents so casually, like ‘it’s just life, get over it. There is nothing we can do about that, so there is nothing to worry about’.” So these guys can do such nasty things over and over again and no one would ever stop them?
( Photo by NushN )
Years later I told my friend Ivan about that. He was the only male I ever talked to about that. He never avoided issues – he always dealt with them. Next day he brought me some tear-gas and taught me how to use it.
“Unfortunately there are too many bastards out there these days,” he said. “Always keep this tear-gas in your pocket, wherever you go. And if you ever get ‘caught’ and there is no escape – do not panic. Don’t abuse these guys or insult them back – don’t make these boys angry. It will only make things worse. Stay calm, do whatever they want, but try to split them if they are in a group. In a group they might start winding each other up, experimenting with bottles, batons and all sorts of things. These drugged and drunk bastards can tear you to pieces, if they won’t get what they want. Close your eyes and try to switch off – that might make it easier. Hopefully soon they will fall asleep from all the booze and drugs – try to get out then. I want you to live. Do you hear me? I want you to live…
And … you can always come straight to me – I won’t be asking silly questions. But don’t go to the police. Unfortunately, the times of Uncle Stepa
the Policeman are over. The one who has the money or influential friends orders the tune with the police these days.”
Uncle Stepa the Policemen –
a popular character of the children’s books by Sergei Mikhalkov
* * *
- WMACA: Women + Men Against Child Abuse
- Men Speak Against Child Abuse
- http://kidpower.org : replacing stranget danger with stranger safety