How the killing of an abusive father fuelled Russia's war over family values

By Matthew Luxmoore

At about 3pm on 27 July 2018, the day of his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan scolded his three teenage daughters, Krestina, Angelina and Maria. The apartment they shared – in a Soviet-era housing block near the huge ring road that encircles Moscow – was a mess, he told them, and they would pay for having left it that way. A large, irascible man in his late 50s with a firm Orthodox faith, Khachaturyan had run his household despotically since he allegedly forced his wife to leave in 2015.

That afternoon, his daughters would later tell investigators, he punished them in his customary sadistic way. Calling them one by one into his bedroom, he cursed and yelled at them, then pepper sprayed each one in the face. The oldest sister, Krestina, 19, began to choke from the effects of the spray. Retreating to the bedroom she shared with her sisters, Krestina collapsed on the bed and lost consciousness. Her sister Maria, then 17, the youngest of the three, would later describe this moment as “the final straw”.

Krestina woke shortly after 7pm to cries from the other side of the bedroom door. Running into the living room, she saw Angelina and Maria standing over their father, who was in his chair, struggling violently. Apparently believing her sisters were in danger, Krestina snatched the bottle of pepper spray from a nearby table and sprayed it frantically at her father.

But what Krestina had witnessed was not another assault by Khachaturyan on his daughters. While she was recovering in the bedroom, investigators say Maria and Angelina attacked Khachaturyan with a hunting knife and hammer they had retrieved from his car. Disoriented from the pepper spray and rapidly losing blood, Khachaturyan hobbled on to the landing outside the apartment. It was there that Angelina, the 18-year-old middle daughter, caught up with him and, investigators allege, drove the knife into his heart.

Several minutes later, one of the sisters called the police. Identifying herself as Angelina, she explained through tears that her father had attacked her under the influence of a heavy dose of sedatives, and that she had killed him in self-defence. Police found his body on the landing, with multiple stab wounds to the neck, arms and torso. The sisters were arrested for murder and held in a women’s remand prison in south-east Moscow.

News of the killing quickly spread across Russia, and in the months that followed, the country was divided over what drove the three teenage sisters to kill their own father. The case was covered obsessively by newspapers, evening news programmes, and TV talkshows. “It was all anyone could talk about for months,” said Alexey Parshin, Angelina’s lawyer.

Some, including Khachaturyan’s two sisters, claimed the young women were scheming ingrates who killed their father to steal his money. They cited evidence that the daughters had slashed each other in the minutes following the killing with the same knife they allegedly used to murder him, in what investigators would later call a deliberate attempt to mislead them.

Others – including their mother, Khachaturyan’s estranged wife – came to the sisters’ defence, refusing to accept that such an egregious motive could be behind their actions. As lawyers and investigators began piecing together the Khachaturyan family story, it became clear this was not a cold-blooded murder. Over hundreds of pages of court documents and transcripts of witness testimony, a picture emerges, which Mikhail Khachaturyan’s sisters contest, of a household terrorised by his paranoiac despotism – of routine sexual abuse, beatings, humiliation and death threats.

Despite this history of abuse, in June 2019 prosecutors indicted all three daughters on charges of pre-meditated murder. Two months after the killing, they were released from custody following an appeal from their lawyers, and as an investigation into the crime continues, they are staying with relatives, awaiting trial. A psychological assessment shortly after the killing found that Maria was mentally unsound at the time of the crime due to an acute stress disorder caused by her father’s abuse, and recommended her for treatment. But given the severity of the charges, Maria and her sisters face betwen eight and 20 years in prison for what they maintain was a desperate act of self-defence.

Meanwhile, Russia finds itself deep in a national debate over domestic violence. The sisters’ case has galvanised opposition to the country’s punitive legal system and conservative political culture. At present, Russia has no specific legislation to define, prevent or prosecute domestic violence. Women’s rights advocates are campaigning to overturn a controversial 2017 law on battery that has softened punishments and, they say, encouraged perpetrators to act with impunity.

Hundreds have taken to the streets since the indictment was issued to call for the sisters’ release and picket government buildings in protest against their prosecution. Fundraising concerts and theatre performances have been held to offset their legal fees and call for the passing of a law that would help prevent future attacks. An online petition for their release has gathered more than 370,000 signatures. “It’s become clear this is a problem of catastrophic proportions which can’t be ignored,” said Alyona Popova, a women’s rights activist who started the petition and helped draft a domestic violence bill now being debated in the Russian parliament. “Something has to be done.”

But as activists step up their efforts to reform the legal system, they are being countered by a campaign backed by the powerful Orthodox church to promote “traditional values” and portray the Russian family unit as under threat.

Orthodox priests are appearing on state TV channels excoriating the malign forces of globalisation, while mass vigils are being held across Russia to protest against western progressivism. Hundreds of social media accounts representing conservative movements are promoting an apocalyptic narrative that claims any moves towards regulating family affairs will lead to the disintegration of Russian families – and perhaps of Russia itself.

In the years before his death, Mikhail Khachaturyan liked to take regular pilgrimages to Israel, returning with candles from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity’s holiest site, and various icons that he added to a home shrine at which he prayed daily. An account purportedly belonging to him on a Russian social media platform where he lists his name as Michael of Jerusalem contains pictures of him bathing at holy sites, drinking shirtless with friends and posing with prominent Orthodox clerics and public figures.

During a police interrogation the day after his murder, a partial transcript of which was provided to me by one of Angelina’s attorneys, Angelina said that her father first sexually assaulted her while the two were on holiday in Israel in November 2014, and that he had subjected her to various forms of sexual harassment ever since. It always took place in his bedroom, she said, with the door closed. “He’d regularly tell us that sex outside marriage is a sin,” she said of her pious father. “But because we’re his blood and his daughters, he can do with us as he wishes, and we should submit ourselves to it.”

In WhatsApp messages that were leaked to the press, Khatchaturyan had often threatened Angelina with sexual violence. In January 2018, while he was on a pilgrimage in Israel, he threatened to rape both his daughter and his estranged wife upon learning that Angelina wasn’t home as he had instructed. Three months later, he sent her a series of lewd voice messages. “You’ll be sucking endlessly, Angelina,” he said in one. “And if you leave I’ll find you.” Three minutes later, he warned: “I’ll beat you for everything, I’ll kill you. Leave, leave, don’t drive me to sin.”

Khachaturyan sexually assaulted his other daughters as well, according to the official investigation into the crime, and had effectively enslaved them. “We served him in the home, ironing, cleaning, cooking for him and giving him food when he asked,” Maria said in a police interview, according to court documents. If the sisters fell short of his expectations, or he simply lost his temper, he attacked them.

Violence, or the threat of it, was a constant presence in their home. Khachaturyan was highly superstitious, and is said to have banned his family from uttering certain everyday words in his presence, believing them to bring bad luck. He installed a camera on the landing outside their apartment to record his children’s comings and goings. In a search of the property after the killing, police confiscated a hammer, a knife, two airguns, a crossbow, a rubber-bullet handgun, a revolver, a hunting rifle, 16 cartridges and 16 spears. In Khachaturyan’s car they also found business cards displaying the logo of Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, and listing the 57-year-old as its employee.

Angelina Khachaturyan arrives at a court hearing in Moscow in June 2019.
Angelina Khachaturyan arrives at a court hearing in Moscow in June 2019. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP via Getty

Investigators declared the cards fake, but few in the area doubted that Khachaturyan was well connected. A series of events recounted by neighbours indicate that he had friends in the Moscow police and the prosecutor’s office. “He constantly bragged about his connections,” said Parshin, Angelina’s lawyer, who has written to the authorities requesting that Khachaturyan’s contacts with law enforcement officials be investigated. The choice for the three sisters, he said, “was to do nothing, and hope it’ll pass, or go to the police and inevitably suffer another beating” at the hands of their father, who would have been “the first person the police would report to”.

In records of her police interrogation, Angelina described the predicament the sisters faced in the run-up to the murder. “My sisters and I were tired of such a life, but afraid to turn to anyone for help because he had connections everywhere,” she said of her father. After their mother was forced to flee, the sisters were afraid that anyone who tried to help them would get into trouble. “Telling our relatives was also not a solution to the problem, because they might have not believed us.”

In their statements, Maria and Angelina both recounted an episode from early 2016, when the three sisters were on holiday with their father in Adler, a resort on Russia’s Black Sea coast. After Krestina ran out of a room where she’d been alone with her father, she swallowed a handful of drotaverine pills, an antispasmodic drug, in an apparent suicide attempt, and had to be rushed to hospital.

Krestina’s lawyer, Alexey Liptser, told me that it was fear that Krestina would again attempt suicide that had driven her sisters to take matters into their own hands. (Krestina did not take part in the killing, he added.) In a WhatsApp exchange with one of her friends a month before her father’s murder, Krestina said that he had again threatened to rape her and that she might not endure the situation much longer.

“I lost consciousness during the night,” she wrote. “He began to chase me out at one in the morning, because he didn’t like the fact that one of his shirts isn’t ironed.” She continued: “I became anxious and started crying and then began suffocating and fell on the ground. The little ones began to sob and resuscitate me, it was fucking crazy. And to top it off he whacked them over the head with his gun … He gets worse every day.” “And it’s like this every day?” the friend responded. “Almost,” Krestina replied.

“Consider the fact they could not be expected to make logical decisions, their inability to find help, the constant violence, the threats to their lives,” said Parshin. “Put all that together and you’ll understand what state they were in, and why they took that knife and that hammer.”

“Mikhail Khachaturyan drove them to that state,” Parshin went on. “The moment he began to commit crimes against them, he stopped being a father.”

In December, I travelled to Moscow’s northern outskirts to see Aurelia Dunduk, the mother of the three sisters and a key witness in their case. Dunduk met Mikhail Khachaturyan in Moscow in 1996, two years after she had emigrated with her parents from Moldova. She was 17. Khachaturyan, who was 35, was from an ethnic Armenian family that had left the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in 1988 to escape the sectarian conflict that was engulfing parts of the moribund Soviet empire. The family came to Moscow hoping to eventually emigrate to the US, but their plans never worked out.

The city the two families encountered then, in Russia’s first post-Soviet decade, was a place descending into lawlessness. Aspiring entrepreneurs, law enforcement officials and petty criminals eager to exploit the collapsing system used any means at their disposal to profit from the chaos. After a stint in the Russian army, Khachaturyan became a local racketeer: merchants opening up stores and small businesses in his part of north Moscow would pay cash for his protection.

Dunduk dated Khachaturyan for several months after they first met, then broke it off. He had become violent, and started threatening her family, she claims, so she moved outside the city to stay with relatives and keep her distance. He ultimately forced her to return through a campaign of threats and coercion, she said, which culminated in him locking Dunduk in his apartment after she attended a new year’s eve party he hosted.

Maria, left, and Angelina, at Moscow’s Basmanny district court.
Maria, left, and Angelina, at Moscow’s Basmanny district court. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/TASS

“I stayed against my will,” Dunduk, now 40, told me at a cafe not far from the apartment where Khachaturyan was murdered. “He left none of us any choice, neither me nor my relatives.” She is tired of the constant attention – from prosecutors, journalists and Khachaturyan’s defenders – that she has faced since the murder, and her shaky cadence was barely audible over the pop music playing from speakers overhead. Her voice is familiar to audiences of the many talkshows she has appeared on since her daughters’ arrest, in a bid to argue their case. In February, she sat in a TV studio as a screen above her showed two amateur actors re-enacting her alleged rape by Khatchaturyan 20 years earlier. The cameras zoomed in on Dunduk’s face so viewers could scrutinise her reaction. She lowered her head and looked away.

In June 1997, Dunduk gave birth to a son, Sergey, and two years later to Krestina. By that point, she said, Khachaturyan regularly beat her; the smallest thing could set him off. “You just didn’t know,” she told me. “One minute you’re talking to him normally, and then suddenly he might begin shouting and cursing.” One afternoon in the early 00s she managed to escape the apartment and run to the local police station. Khachaturyan followed her and listened with a grin as she asked to file a complaint against him. She said he then hit her in front of the duty officers, many of whom were his friends, and dragged her home. “After that,” she said, “it was pointless trying to do anything.”

Sergey said he was also subjected to regular violence. When he was 16, in 2013, Khachaturyan chased him out of the home. He was forced to sleep rough for weeks before he was taken in by a friend, with whom he has lived ever since. Then, in 2015, Khachaturyan also forced Dunduk out. “He lost his temper, put a gun to my temple and told me: ‘I’m going to leave now, and if you’re still here when I’m back, I’ll kill you all,’” she alleges.

Dunduk never returned to live with the family. A friend in Moscow put her up for six weeks, and then she joined her mother in Moldova. After a year, she came back to Moscow to be closer to her children, again staying at friends’ homes. But she had minimal access to her daughters, who she said feared retribution from Khachaturyan. It was because of this lack of communication, and the fear that drove it, that Dunduk only learnt of Khachaturyan’s sexual abuse from investigators. When she found out, she said: “I wanted to kill him all over again.”

After Khachaturyan’s death, his family began a very public feud. Arsen, Khachaturyan’s 21-year-old nephew, started touring Moscow’s TV studios defending the reputation of a man he calls “papa”. On air, he has branded Dunduk a prostitute and accused her of abetting her daughters in the killing. In September 2018, friends of Arsen assaulted Sergey on the set of a prime-time talkshow. In January, Khachaturyan’s mother, Lidiya, and sister Naira launched a libel suit against Dunduk for claiming in an interview that Khachaturyan had raped her. A husband cannot rape his wife by definition, they told Russian media.

In many ways, the split in the Khatchaturyan family reflects the bitter divide within Russian society. On the one hand, there are those who wish to preserve a sense of national identity rooted in conservative Orthodox Christian values and a rejection of progressive ideas. On the other, there are those who believe Russia’s development as a modern society is dependent on its ability to embrace liberal social policies and champion the rights of women and minorities.

Even before the killing, domestic violence had been a topic of public contention in Russia. In 2012, the Russian government conducted a nationwide survey that found one in five women had been physically assaulted by a husband or partner. Four years later, in July 2016, the Russian parliament, with Putin’s consent, excluded battery against “close persons” – spouses, parents, children and other live-in relatives – from a law decriminalising other forms of battery. This meant that for the first time in Russia’s history, there was effectively a law that applied specifically to domestic violence.

But there was soon a backlash from conservatives. In November 2016, a group of lawmakers led by the head of parliament’s committee on the family, Elena Mizulina, introduced a bill to decriminalise instances of domestic violence that happen no more than once per year and cause no lasting physical damage. Mizulina framed her bill as a way of safeguarding Russian families from outside intrusion, citing foreign funding received by NGOs opposed to her initiative.

This time, Putin backed the conservatives, warning in December 2016 that “interference in family matters is unacceptable”. As lawmakers moved to pass the decriminalisation bill at the end of 2016, Russian state TV launched a propaganda campaign to smooth its passage through parliament. Reports on federal channels suggested men should not be criminally liable if they beat their wives accidentally, “out of strong love”, or “in the interests of upbringing”, and peddled the notion that European children are routinely withdrawn from families after bogus domestic violence complaints from strangers. “We are balancing out people’s rights, and removing anti-family laws,” said Olga Batalina, one of the lawmakers pushing the initiative.

Under the new law, which Putin signed in February 2017, domestic violence that doesn’t cause severe injury is punishable by a 30,000-ruble fine (£360) – comparable to a smoking or parking violation – or 15 days in jail. A second offence can lead to three months in prison, but if a year has passed since the first, a modest fine is again imposed. Critics summed up the law as “one free beating a year”.

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The reasons for Putin’s about-face on domestic violence are complicated. The conservative movement in Russia is partly fuelled by many of the same anti-globalist fears driving the current populist wave across Europe. But in addition, since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, Russia has suffered a protracted population decline. Putin has unveiled various financial incentives for first-time mothers and made raising the birth rate a signature policy during his 20 years at Russia’s helm. But he has largely failed to reverse the trend: the country has one of the world’s highest abortion rates, nearly half of all marriages collapse, and immigration no longer offsets population decline.

To shore up support, Putin has appealed to the nationalist majority that comprises his base through a rhetoric of “traditional values” and a slew of conservative initiatives. A 2013 law banning “promotion of homosexuality” in the presence of Russian children led to a violent backlash against LGBT people across the country. Putin has also empowered the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution that rails against globalisation and encroaching western influence and defends traditionalism as a means of protecting Russian identity.

“The Russian Orthodox Church is completely merged with the state,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Human Rights Watch researcher and author of a major report last October on the issue of domestic violence in Russia. “They echo each other on all the main social issues.”

Following the passage of Mizulina’s decriminalisation bill in 2017, women’s rights activists reported a spike in domestic violence. Many incidents involved repeated abuse and blatant police inaction despite victims’ appeals. A crisis hotline operated by the Anna Centre, a women’s rights organisation that Putin’s government has labelled a “foreign agent”, recorded a rise in complaints from 20,000 in 2016 to more than 31,000 in 2018.

“After the decriminalisation, all of us saw a barrage of cases, an absolute barrage,” said Mari Davtyan, a lawyer involved in the Khachaturyan case and a campaigner for domestic violence legislation. “Society read the message. Those who used violence concluded that it’s now allowed. And what did those who suffer from it conclude? That there’s no line of defence left.”

Ten months after the law went into effect, in December 2017, Margarita Gracheva, a woman from a town 60 miles south of Moscow, was driven to a nearby forest by her husband where he chopped off her hands with an axe. It was a horrific coda to months of abuse that continued despite Gracheva’s appeal that November to the police, who refused to press charges. In January 2018, in another Moscow region town, a beauty salon worker named Elena Verba was stabbed 57 times by her husband, who went to work and left the mutilated body for his seven-year-old son to discover. Verba had reported an incident of domestic violence to police six months earlier, but duty officers persuaded her to retract her accusation because her husband worked in law enforcement and risked losing his job. Last September, in Cheboksary, 400 miles east of Moscow, 38-year-old Anna Ovchinnikova’s husband strangled her with a rope, placed her body in a suitcase and buried it in a nearby forest. She had filed at least three complaints about domestic violence. All three men were ultimately sentenced to prison terms of between nine and 15 years.

Government figures suggest that only one in 10 Russian women who suffer domestic violence report it to the police – roughly in line with the global average, according to the UN – and a mere 2% seek legal advice. According to a recent analysis by independent outlet Media Zona of several thousand court verdicts against Russian women jailed on murder charges between 2016 and 2018, 79% had been defending themselves against a partner.

A protester holds a placard with a message reading ‘Domestic violence victims need therapy not prison’ on Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow.
A protester holds a placard with a message reading ‘Domestic violence victims need therapy not prison’ on Patriarshy Bridge in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch said the problem is compounded by the fact that Russian police often refuse to launch investigations. “They’re not taught to treat the situation as potentially lethal,” she said. “So they either laugh it off, or tell the wife to behave herself and be nice to her husband.”

Last July, a court in Oryol, 200 miles south of Moscow, sentenced duty officer Natalya Bashkatova to two years in prison for negligence. In November 2016, Bashkatova received a call from a woman whose boyfriend had threatened to kill her. “Do not call again. We will not come to you,” she told the woman. “What if something happens?” the woman asked. “If he kills you, we’ll come to examine the body,” came Bashkatova’s answer. “Don’t worry.” Within 40 minutes of that exchange, which the woman recorded, she had been beaten to death by her boyfriend in the courtyard of her home.

The last resort for some victims is an appeal to the European court of human rights. In July, the ECHR issued its first decision on a domestic violence case in Russia, ruling that police had failed to protect Valeriya Volodina from repeated acts of violence by a former partner who stalked and assaulted her after she left him in 2015. It gave a scathing assessment of the government’s tolerance for “a climate which was conducive to domestic violence”.

In November, Russia’s justice ministry responded to a series of questions sent by the ECHR in connection with domestic violence cases brought by Russian women. In excerpts cited by Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, the ministry said the scale of domestic violence in Russia is “exaggerated” and dismissed the need for separate legislation. A victim has the option to reconcile with their attacker for the sake of “preserving personal relations in the family”, it said, and Russian women who appeal to the ECHR “are trying to sabotage the efforts the government is making to improve the situation”.

To get to the office of Oksana Pushkina, a lawmaker in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, you pass through metal detectors and through an exhibition space to a set of lifts that takes you to the ninth floor. On the November afternoon I visited, assault rifles and other Russian-made weapons were on display in glass cases as the legislative body, as well as schools and other state institutions across the country, celebrated 100 years since the birth of Russian arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Pushkina is one of 73 female lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber, where she stands out among a mass of jingoistic officials who rubber-stamp laws approved by the Kremlin. When we met, she had recently returned from a conference at the Council of Europe’s Strasbourg headquarters on how police should respond to domestic violence. “I sat there like some creature from another planet,” said Pushkina, a glamorous woman in her 50s. “They were discussing what’s already in place in their countries. And we don’t even have a law.”

With help from Davtyan and Parshin, the two lawyers involved in the Khachaturan case, and Alyona Popova, the activist, Pushkina is trying to introduce a new domestic violence bill. It includes banning an abusive partner from access to the victim for at least one month, their possible eviction from a shared family home, and a requirement that they compensate their victim’s legal fees or alternative accommodation during periods of violence. It proposes a support infrastructure for victims, with counselling services and shelters across Russia. And it defines domestic violence and the kinds of ways – physical, psychological, economic – it can manifest itself.

“For us it’s important that the violence does not happen again,” Davtyan said. “The goal is simple: that he stops approaching her.”

The opposition to any domestic violence bill is well organised, well funded, and backed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In early December, a month after visiting Pushkina, I attended a roundtable at the Duma that brought representatives of Russia’s various religious groups together with lawmakers.

Billed as “Legislative aspects of the defence of spiritual-moral values as a key factor in the development of civil society”, the three-hour session was dominated by high-ranking Orthodox clergy. Pushkina’s domestic violence bill featured prominently. The family is a “holy creation”, declared one priest, and thus cannot be regulated by a secular state.

One threat in particular kept coming up: zapad, “the west”.

Aurelia Dunduk, estranged wife of Mikhail and the mother of the three Khachaturyan sisters.
Aurelia Dunduk, estranged wife of Mikhail and the mother of the three Khachaturyan sisters. Photograph: Matthew Luxmoore

“Fifty-four units of the CIA are working against us, trying to impose their values,” Pavel Pozhigaylo, a member of the Russian culture ministry’s board, told the room. “We are at war.” The audience applauded. The Orthodox activist Andrei Kormukhin told the roundtable that Pushkina’s bill is “aimed not at preserving the family, but at destroying it”. He then gave the floor to his wife, a mother of nine children, who branded the bill “anti-Russian” and said that if it had passed in the 90s, “the happy families we have today would not exist”.

A few days later, I sat down with Kormukhin at a cafe in central Moscow. He leads Forty Forties, an ultra-conservative movement that claims to have 40 regional branches and more than 10,000 supporters, including senior Orthodox clergy. The church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, has met with its members and is a personal friend of Kormukhin’s, whose WhatsApp avatar shows the men deep in conversation. In its six years of existence, Forty Forties has roped in football hooligans and neo-Nazis and stood accused of various extremist acts in defence of religion. In May 2015, Kormukhin was briefly detained by police for joining in a violent attack on LGBT activists attempting to hold a parade in Moscow.

In recent months, Forty Forties has directed its resources against Pushkina’s domestic violence bill, staging protests and mass vigils under the slogan “for the family”. In October, Kormukhin co-authored an open letter to Putin denouncing the draft law. The 1,700-word text, which included 50 references to “family”, was co-signed by more than 180 organisations from across Russia including amateur fight clubs, paramilitary groups and civic movements with names like Big Family, Family, Love, Fatherland and Lots of Kids Is Good.

Kormukhin argues that the law is part of a western plot aimed at weakening Russian families and insists that statistics on domestic violence cited by rights activists are wrong. Because the majority of crimes happen when the man is in a state of intoxication, he said, a man needs to be given the benefit of the doubt and be left to sober up.

“A good duty officer will know that if the woman returns home then the husband will fall before her knees the next morning, beg for forgiveness and promise it won’t happen again. And then the children will stay with their parents and the family unit will be preserved,” he said. “Why do you want to deprive a family of its breadwinner?”

“What if he beats her again after three days?” I asked.

“And what if you’re a paedophile?” Kormukhin asked, frustrated. “It says nothing if a man has beaten his wife once.”

For Pushkina, the dirty campaign waged by groups like Forty Forties undermines their stated commitment to religious values. “We’re talking about prevention [of violence], and they call us extreme feminists and destroyers of a social order that is a de facto patriarchate,” Pushkina said. “It really has been that way since ancient times. But times are changing.”

Maria, Angelina and Krestina Khachaturyan are largely oblivious to the vicious culture war their case has fuelled. But, banned from using the internet and from communicating with each other, with witnesses or the press, they are dimly aware at best of their status as torchbearers for Russia’s feminist movement and targets of its conservative backlash.

For now, Angelina and Krestina are living with relatives, and Maria with her mother. Just before New Year’s Eve, their night-time curfew was lifted, but the other rules remain in force. They now only see each other in court, under a bailiff’s watchful eye, when they gather to hear the judge extend their pre-trial restrictions. “They were always together, and when they split them up it was as if one organism was torn into three parts,” Parshin told me.

On 3 December, investigators announced they were sending the final version of their indictment to the prosecutor’s office for trial. Maria, Angelina and Krestina had acted with premeditation, they concluded, driven by “a strong personal enmity towards their father” caused by his protracted physical and sexual abuse. But two weeks later, the prosecutor’s office issued a stunning decision: investigators should reassess the case, it said, and consider reclassifying the sisters’ actions as self-defence – exactly what their lawyers had been arguing all along. Killing in self-defence is not a crime, so if the murder charge is dropped, the women will be set free.

But Mikhail Khachaturyan’s sisters, Naira and Marina – who have emerged as his most committed apologists since his death – have appealed, alleging that his daughters led a debauched, drug-addled existence and murdered their father for his money. They’ve also pressed additional charges against Dunduk, claiming she lied repeatedly in interviews about extramarital affairs. Yulia Nitchenko, an attorney who represents them, said any rumour that charges will be dropped is “fake news”; she expects the case to go to trial in the coming weeks and for the three sisters to be convicted within a year. “The court will set the whole record straight,” she told me. “No one will evade justice.”

Pushkina’s campaign for domestic violence legislation appears to have stalled. In November, parliament’s upper house published a version of her bill listing “preservation of the family” as a primary goal of preventing domestic violence – a clear overture to the conservatives. Even in this watered-down version, the bill is unlikely to race through parliament. In the past decade, at least 30 different domestic violence bills have been prepared in Russia, and several introduced in the Duma. None has passed even the first reading. But public opinion appears to be on Pushkina’s side, driven in part by the case of the Khachaturyan sisters.

In the past, said Parshin, Angelina’s lawyer, the problem was denied outright; it was as if, in society’s perception at least, it did not exist. “That’s the most noticeable change,” he said. “People have begun talking about the issue of domestic violence.”

In a December 2019 survey by state-backed pollster VTsIOM, 40% of respondents said they know violent families, and 70% said they supported a hypothetical law on domestic violence. In an August 2019 poll by the independent Levada Centre, only 14% of respondents said domestic violence is a family affair that should be kept private.

“It used to be treated as a marginal issue. Journalists covered this rarely and reluctantly, and called such cases household squabbles,” said Davtyan. “But there’s now an understanding that this is not just a domestic affair, but a violation of human rights.”

Popova was hopeful this shift will pave the way for the law’s passage, even if the conservatives succeed in stalling it for now. But she warned that each month brings news of victims who could have been saved.

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