From Russia without love

Tanya Zadarozni confronts abuse, religion and gender politics in Sacramento’s Russian-speaking community

Tanya and Paul on their wedding day in 1986.

Tanya and Paul on their wedding day in 1986.

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

Tanya Zadarozni is used to being the center of attention whenever the conversation turns to domestic violence. In Sacramento’s Russian-speaking community, the single mother of four is one of the few victims willing to speak up. But in the immigration office of a converted Victorian, surrounded by lavender walls and the slight scent of cat urine, a perky young Latina named Carmen Orellana admits that even she, a successful caseworker for VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act), was once addicted to the controlling and violent behavior of a man.

Tanya, occasionally called in to translate for Russian-speaking women from violent relationships, was married for 12 years to a domineering man. In Orellana, smiling and confident in her stylish blue business suit, Tanya recognizes a survivor like herself.

“After a while,” says Orellana, “you become a dependent. You begin to think, I shouldn’t say that because if I didn’t say that, probably he wouldn’t hit me. So, I’m not going to do it next time. But next time,” Orellana says, as if there’s some satisfaction in this, “it’s another thing. That starts a circle, and it will never end.”

“Absolutely,” says Tanya, “it is what happened in my life. Absolutely.”

Tanya looks over at Alina Johnson, the recent Russian immigrant sitting next to her in front of Orellana’s desk. While helping Johnson translate the story of her doomed marriage to an American man decades her senior, Tanya confided stories about her own ex-husband’s sexual demands, the name-calling, the insults, some of which were almost ridiculous. You have small feet, Paul would tell her. That’s not pretty. You have big eyes. It’s not pretty. You’re no good in bed …

Johnson, whose true identity is under protection, is dressed all in black, not even 30 years old. Maybe she’ll work for Nordstrom’s, Tanya thinks. Maybe Macy’s. She’s that pretty. Tanya looks into her face carefully and decides she’s a good woman.

“It’s amazing,” Tanya says out loud in her warm Ukrainian accent. She points to her own chest. “Mine is Ukrainian,” she says of her own husband. She opens her hand to Orellana. “This is Mexican,” she says, and then to Johnson, “and this is American.” She looks carefully at both women. “They’re all the same. Their behavior’s absolutely the same.”

For Russian-speaking women like Johnson, who find themselves adrift in America with limited English and no idea who to trust, Tanya is more than a translator. She’s a counselor and a confidante, one who can bridge the distance between themselves and the social services organizations set up to help them. Without assistance, immigrant women can find themselves trapped, sometimes fatally, as evidenced by the extreme case of Nikolay Soltys’ murder of seven family members only a few short weeks ago.

Tanya was 12 years old when she embraced Christianity. A wise-looking girl with a bemused grin and dark silky braids, Tanya converted partly as an act of rebellion, but when she was denied admission into college because she was a Christian, she chose to forego a career as a pianist rather than deny her religious affiliation.

Baptized at 15, Tanya found herself in the cultural minority at a time when marriage was a primary concern. She met Paul through church in Kiev, a beautiful Christian boy with striking blue eyes and long lashes who said he would write to her as he left for the Army. Tanya, a born writer, sent him letter after letter for three years. He responded.

As she speaks about it now, it is almost with abandon, with a flip of the hand. “When he came back,” she says, “we just got married.”

The bullying, Tanya remembers, began immediately. Paul grew angry whenever he was questioned. He demanded complete submission. “Go to hell!” she remembers Paul yelling at her shortly after their wedding. She can’t remember why, but she does remember that he refused to comfort her while she cried. Only when she approached him and apologized for possibly doing something wrong, did they enter into the “honeymoon” stage that traditionally follows abuse. From that day forward, she ceased to be known as Tanya and was called only by the familiar “you.”

Tanya at 12.

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

In many religious communities in America, gender roles have blurred, but as Michael Lockteff, president of the Slavic Community Center on Fulton Avenue, explains, evangelical Christians, and especially those from the former Soviet Union, live as if each word of the Bible were handed down by God as a guide. The traditional gender roles are no exception. Paul and Tanya both belonged to one of an estimated 40 local Russian-speaking churches in the region. Theirs was one of the many that expected a man to be master over his wife. She should obey him, and she should fear him.

Taken too far, this idea leads to permissive attitudes toward domestic violence. Examples are documented in the research done by Tatiana Morfas, a friend of Tanya and Paul’s and a recent graduate from Sacramento State. Her thesis, titled “Domestic Violence in the Russian and Ukrainian Community of Sacramento,” states that: “Of eight women interviewed, six were the members of local Russian-speaking Christian churches. Three out of those six turned to their pastors for help. All pastors were from different churches but their responses were similar: they used prayers and conversation with the couple to intervene, and if it did not work, they encouraged women to stay married to the abusers and be patient.”

Morfas’ thesis goes on to quote one of her subjects on the kind of advice she received from her pastor: “Be quiet during the fight,” the pastor reportedly told the woman. “If he beats you, be flexible, try to read his mood. If he calls you names, ask him if he wants some tea, be soft. Husbands do not like tears, do not cry. The church will pray for you. Do not divorce him, there are already too many divorces. If you leave him, he can marry another woman and you will regret your actions. Remember, some men act out because of underlying grief—they start drinking, cheating. If he beats you severely, threaten him that you will call the police.”

Lockteff speaks slowly over the phone, chewing over serious questions about the cultural identity of his community. Historically, Lockteff explains, evangelical Christians were persecuted in Russia. In a secular society under autocratic rulers who demanded reverence, evangelical Christians had to develop signs by which to recognize one another, including, among other things, no drinking, no smoking, no make-up and no colorful clothes at church. A strict moral code bound them together.

Many, especially of the older generation, still feel that their religious tradition is threatened—by modernity. To keep the church together, evangelical Christians sometimes insulate themselves from contemporary culture, particularly in America, which is considered decadent and sinful.

Tanya rejected this isolationist view, even though she was otherwise a strict evangelical Christian. Bold and curious, she engaged with the world around her, even when the world around her spoke a different language and followed different customs.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, religious refugees in America were drawn by radio broadcasts made in Sacramento. They followed familiar voices to the Central Valley and created homogenous communities in apartment complexes and neighborhoods in West Sacramento, South Sacramento, Citrus Heights and North Highlands, where Tanya and Paul arrived in 1992. Tanya learned English quickly, enrolled in American River College and translated Christian books into Russian. Though a dedicated member of the First Slavic Evangelical Baptist Church in South Sacramento, Tanya was uniquely Western. She was also unusually bold, for a woman.

Once a week, she went to radio station WMNB in West Sacramento where Lockteff used to prepare his “Word to Russia” radio program. With a file of notes and favorite poems, Tanya would approach the microphone and open up, reading poetry and speaking boldly about religion, marriage, motherhood and God. Since women were barred from speaking in church, Tanya had one of the few audible female voices in her community. “It was a very good opportunity for me to speak,” she says, “loud!”

Once, she took the community to task for vanity at church. We dress up nice, we show off our beautiful wives, our beautiful cars, she chided them. Aren’t we there to worship?

Another time, she asked the community why everyone prayed for Russia and Ukraine, but nobody ever prayed for America. We are Americans now, she told them, and then she offered up a prayer of thanks.

Through her weekly broadcasts and through a poetry page she wrote for David Ponomar’s community newspaper Diaspora, Tanya became something of a celebrity. Though her reputation was the great pride of her family, her visibility was also part of her downfall.

Andrew Svidersky is also a poet, one of only a handful in the Russian-speaking community. A tall man with a long ponytail and scruffy beard, he sits next to Tanya at a Greek restaurant, wearing a brilliant red shirt with white Japanese symbols and explains how the community shunned them both for a supposed affair, which brought them closer together.

Bound to find common ground on subjects related to art and poetry, Tanya and Svidersky began an intense friendship almost as soon as they met. It was perhaps their innate similarity that sparked the first rumors.

Paul as a young man.

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

As Svidersky relates it, it began when church leaders heard rumors that he was having an affair. A pastor showed up at his house, opened his notebook, picked up his pen and began questioning him. Svidersky assured the pastor that he and Tanya were only friends, but the pastor denied the possibility. He concluded that they must be having an affair.

According to Tanya, the pastor called Paul Zadarozni and warned him that his wife was unfaithful. The rumors spread unchecked.

The community blamed Tanya for the supposed affair, taking the opportunity to suggest that she must be having affairs with others, too, in order to be so popular and well known.

“In Russian community,” says Tanya, “you know, they’re ready to believe everything bad about woman. Just ready. Just give them story, they will believe that.”

Even without the infidelity, Tanya’s marriage to Paul would have eventually disintegrated. Tanya was the primary breadwinner in the family, a fact she hotly resented. She was also learning quickly about Western culture while Paul stayed home, chose not to learn English, not to seek work and not to step outside the confines of the religious community. His own boredom, according to Tanya, made him even more aggressive than usual. In a file of court papers handed over to the Sacramento News & Review by Tanya’s attorney, Veronica Roberts, Tanya describes death threats, includes a detailed description of sexual abuse, and reveals her own growing fear in the face of Paul’s increasingly erratic temper.

“He always wanted to humiliate me,” she says, “to make him feel like a good person. I’m the bad person, or weak, or dirty, or whatever he needed me to be.”

Friends would have been surprised to hear that the marriage was troubled. Both Morfas and family friend Daniil Poddyachiy thought the couple seemed happy enough.

“There were no fights,” Poddyachiy says. “Usually, when there is trouble in a marriage, everybody knows.” Later, he claims, “she was just bored.”

Often, a history of abuse comes as a complete surprise to friends and family, especially in Russian-speaking households where women are ashamed to admit that they need help managing their marriages.

In the same file of documents provided by Roberts, Paul’s statements deny any violence or threats. “I was aware of Tanya’s relationship with Andrei [Andrew],” one statement reads, “but thought this would pass and our marriage would continue.” He states in his response to Tanya’s request for a restraining order, “I never bit her, ever, nor have I ever choked, abused, sexually or otherwise, struck or hurt her. I did not threaten her.”

Though the News & Review contacted Paul many times with the help of a translator, attempts to interview him were unsuccessful.

Lockteff has seen similar situations. “Sometimes,” he says, “the woman becomes fluent in English. She becomes educated. She relates to Americans better, men and women. If men are not as graceful socially, they feel left out. … Women, given the opportunity, are much more able to go over social, economic barriers. They are made to be more adaptable. It helps them in survival of the family. Man is a protector. He builds barriers; he doesn’t break them.”

In describing why the situation sometimes explodes into violence, Lockteff says, “The community responds by tightening rules. It’s not the best reaction. Instead of looking at themselves and asking, ‘why are we losing our women?’ you resort back to rules that support your standing.”

One of the estimated 40 Russian-speaking churches in the Sacramento region.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Though Paul stopped insulting Tanya’s looks and her clothes once she became a local name, Tanya says, he did continue to break into rages, throwing pots on the floor if he thought they weren’t clean enough and cursing if he didn’t like her cooking. He claimed that he wasn’t cursing at her, says Tanya, but she felt continually attacked.

“As I understand now,” Tanya says, “he was insulting me because he grew up in a family where they thought insulting was appropriate … I just believe that all children pick it up as a family pattern. So, at first, because of that, I didn’t blame him.”

In religious Russian and Ukrainian families, certain rules are considered absolutely unbreakable. The worst sin, most would agree, is the abandonment of the family. In Tanya and Paul’s community, even infidelity can be forgiven if one repents.

Svidersky left his wife and his four children in the late summer of 1998. Around the same time, Tanya began asking Paul for a separation. Though she said she didn’t love him anymore, Paul refused to let her go.

Because Tanya feared that rumors of her supposed affair would hurt her own reputation as well as the radio station’s reputations, Tanya went to Lockteff and asked to stop broadcasting. It was an effort to preserve the validity of all that she’d said to her community about Christianity, motherhood and marriage. Tanya remembers Lockteff telling her, it doesn’t matter. People talk about well-known people all the time. And it’s not all true.

Tanya looked at him wearily, and said, “Let’s just stop.”

Tanya then went to David Ponomar and similarly suggested that she stop publishing her poetry page for a while.

“I’ll publish everything you write,” Ponomar remembers telling her.

A big, swaggering light-haired man, Ponomar sits in his small newspaper office and thinks over the five years that Tanya has volunteered for him. Jovially, he calls her “the biggest troublemaker in the community—for me!” He rolls his eyes. “Oh, they fought me,” he says. “Tanya says this. She said that,” he whines, mimicking her detractors, “And I’m glad!” he says. Ponomar leans forward. “It’s not our goal to change people’s lives; but it is our goal to make their lives better.”

On October 15, 1998, after cutting her media ties and suffering waves of shame and depression, Tanya pulled her Mercedes up to the house and watched uneasily as Paul approached the car and set in motion a confrontation that would end in violence and a restraining order. This was the event that broke the cycle of bullying and domination.

“Where are the documents,” Paul reportedly demanded.

Too shocked to answer, Tanya merely stood by while Paul grabbed her purse and began rifling through it. In class, Tanya had listened carefully to lectures about how leaving an abuser began with the securing of all documents so that a man maintained no control over her finances, her immigration status or her children. Tanya had obeyed. She collected her children’s school records, the insurance policy, everything. She packed them into a box and rented a storage locker.

Paul pulled out the key to the storage locker.

Tanya’s poems were first published in Seven Days, one of Sacramento’s original Russian newspapers.

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

“What is this?” he demanded, reading off the name of the storage company.

“It’s a key,” Tanya told him.

Tanya watched as Paul’s anger spread over his face. She felt a dark aggression in his touch as he pulled her roughly toward the house. “If you want to kill a chicken,” Tanya says, “the chicken would probably feel like this.”

Tanya remembered the threats, all his many threats about taking the car up to Auburn, rolling it over a cliff, smashing it into the rocks, killing himself, killing her, and sometimes, even implying that he’d hurt the children. In her request for a restraining order, filed on October 19, 1998, Tanya says, “ … He became very angry and told me that he never leave me, and if I will try to separate he would better to kill me. Then he told me that he never let me leave with children, and he would run with our sons, then I never will see them again. If I will ask police to help, he would do something very bad I cannot think about …”

In the same document, Tanya details not only the verbal argument, but also the physical struggle. “When I refused [to show him the storage locker], he violently attacked me biting me above the bridge of my nose and putting me in a choke hold until I could hardly breathe.”

Tanya saw the nervous faces of her four boys as her husband whisked her toward the bedroom.

“Go outside,” Paul yelled at them, and all four, without a word, obeyed.

“On October 17, 1998,” claims Tanya’s statement, “after being physically attacked and thrown into a bedroom wall by the Respondent, I left the house with only the clothes on my back. … ”

As Paul held Tanya against the wall, demanding her obedience, he suddenly stopped, looked into his wife’s incredulous face, and began to crumble. Paul released her and brought his hands to his own head, whispering, what did I do?

Tanya reached up and gently touched the tender bridge of her nose.

The absurdity of it made Paul laugh. Tanya just looked at him and asked, “Why did you bite my nose?”

Alone in her room the next day, Tanya sat on her bed, exhausted by extreme emotion, the bombardment, the very intensity of her life. She hardly understood her own motivations. The house felt so confining that she had to leave, if only for a minute. Tanya picked up her purse, and looked back at her organizer full of phone numbers, plans and obligations. She told herself she would be back. Why did she need it?

“I went to the door,” Tanya remembers, “and the children were playing.” Tanya’s eyes turn red and shiny. “I told them, ‘you know what? I am going to go to the store. Not for long.’ That was usual,” she says, “because the store was just a 10-minute walk. So they told me, ‘oh, we are going to go with you,’ and I told them ‘no, no. You stay home. I want to be alone.’ ”

Michael with an ice-cream smile; Paul left the boy in Kiev against Tanya’s wishes.

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

Tanya wipes her eyes. “That was my last step out of the house. I’ve never been back again,” she says, her voice shaking. “The only thing I’m sorry about, is that I didn’t take my children with me.” One hand falls uselessly to her lap. “But actually … I mean, I didn’t mean to, you know, not come back.”

Tanya sat on the grass beside a gas station. She had no money, no car, no place to stay. She didn’t even have the phone numbers of friends. She stood up and decided to call the only friend who came to mind. She called Andrew Svidersky. With his help, Tanya secured a hotel room and began to make the emotional transition from an abused wife to an independent single mother.

In the wake of events such as the Soltys murders, Tanya’s situation seems almost mild, but had she not had other influences besides the church, or if she had not known English well enough to speak to law enforcement, or if she hadn’t understood how to retain a lawyer, Tanya’s case might not have ended with a separation and joint custody. Many Russian-speaking women in violent relationships do not have those kinds of resources.

Bella Mouhasseb has been the Russian Outreach Specialist for Women Escaping a Violent Environment (WEAVE) for the last two years. She says that even young women from American schools will endure multiple instances of abuse before they place the first call to WEAVE. But Mouhasseb, who is part of the religious community, sees some hope for the future. From her perspective, the strict rules and biases are beginning to lose their validity, and in some cases, the change is coming from one of the most powerful sectors of society—the church.

Pastors have historically denied that abuse occurs within their congregations, but the one positive thing to come from the Soltys case was the wake-up call that went out to the Russian-speaking community.

On a warm September day, Mouhasseb, wearing a short skirt and tight top, sat in her office at WEAVE and explained that she’d just had a meeting with one of the pastors. He wanted to know what options there were besides divorce. Mouhasseb was delighted to tell him about anger management for the perpetrator, separation, and restraining orders that could all be used to help women escape the cycle of violence without giving up on their marriages.

Even the openness to this kind of conversation is a good sign, according to Mouhasseb, especially when compared with traditional thinking. As Tanya relates, a common Russian saying claims, “if he beats you, it means he loves you.” Another claims that all good and all evil within a family come from the woman.

Three years after Tanya’s friends shunned her for leaving her family, she’s better off. She’s built a strong relationship with Svidersky, with whom she has much in common, and her children are well adjusted. Tanya feels that she gave them a gift when she taught them early on that a man cannot abuse his wife and keep her. Now, she says, her sons know that they are equally responsible for the health of their relationships.

Of all the lies and controversies that surrounded her name in those days, the most dangerous were the lies she says Paul told her children. “Your mother betrayed me and you too … You mother left me for another man … You do not need to ever see your mother again … Your mother does not love you,” are all quoted in court documents. Though her children are now convinced that these statements are false, the old thinking still takes a toll on her family.

Tanya had to fight to regain shared custody of her children after walking out of the house without them. She had to have a place to live, a job, some stability before she could welcome them home, so she and Svidersky found an apartment together. He teases her about it now. You were so awful when we first lived together, he says, according to Tanya. You were like a zombie.

Recently separated, both Tanya and Svidersky soon realized that they weren’t even fit to be roommates, much less full-time partners. Tanya found a new job, worked out an agreement to share custody with Paul through mediation services in March 1999, and moved out on her own in May. Though the mediation agreement claims that, “father shall have primary custody of the children Eugene and Michael … Mother shall have primary custody of the children, Artem and Daniel,” the four boys usually prefer to visit each parent together, which is necessary now that Paul drives a truck full-time and spends much of his life on the road.

Tanya soon began publishing with Ponomar again, this time with the goal of educating others about domestic violence. She even filled in for Mouhasseb as an outreach specialist for WEAVE when Mouhasseb took maternity leave.

Eventually the estranged couple forged a fragile peace—which lasted until the winter of 2001.

Tanya now has full custody of all four boys: Eugene, Daniel, Artem and Michael (who remains in Kiev).

Courtesy Of Tanya Zadarozni

In January, Tanya allowed her youngest son Michael, who’s only 8 years old, to visit Kiev with his father for a month. Without warning, Paul made arrangements for Michael to stay with relatives and attend a Christian school in Kiev. He returned from Ukraine alone.

Against her better judgment, Tanya was talked into letting Michael stay through the semester. She insisted that he be home by June. Only when Paul made the situation unbearable by reportedly telling Tanya to call less often and to stop telling her son she loved him because it made him cry, did Tanya lose her temper and demand the boy be returned at once. This was in the spring. Paul has yet to comply.

The mediation agreement clearly states, “Neither parent shall remove the children from the County of Sacramento, or the state of California, for the purpose of changing the children’s residence, without the written consent of both parties … ”

Tanya found another lawyer and went through the process of getting primary custody of all four of her children, but until Paul is served, he can continue to claim that he knows nothing about the four scheduled hearings he has missed, or the court’s decision to give custody to Tanya.

A truck driver, Paul is on the road and out of reach, and Tanya has very few options for forcing him to return Michael. Go to Kiev, she has been advised, but she hasn’t the money or the time to leave her children.

For now, the family is at a standstill, waiting for Paul to return to Sacramento and then to return to Kiev for Michael. By staying on the road, Paul can maintain control over Michael’s future indefinitely, and will perhaps raise one child in the tradition of his own father.

Artem, Tanya’s 14-year-old son, claims that Michael likes it OK in Kiev. He plays sports instead of watching TV, he says. He gets better grades. But as the youngest of the four, Tanya believes that Michael is simply resigned.

According to a letter by Paul, delivered to the SN&R through Poddyachiy, Michael chose to stay in Ukraine to go to school. When Paul visited Kiev in June, says the letter, it was Michael who asked to go to a local summer camp. But Tanya wonders, if Michael is so happy in Kiev, why does he cry every time he talks to his mother, as Paul claimed?

Between unscheduled and abrupt phone conversations in which Paul and Tanya battle over the future of their youngest boy, Tanya still spends her weekends with Svidersky, walking around downtown, seeing movies and going out for Chinese food. Tanya agrees. Though Svidersky waits for her to accept his marriage proposal, she follows the advice of her oldest son.

Much of the religious community that used to adore Tanya still shuns her, but recently, something interesting has begun to happen. Tanya receives phone calls from Russian-speaking women who want to know secretly how to manage a divorce. What should they expect from lawyers? Where can they go for help? Some of these women have suffered for years like Tanya, but some are lost and naive like Johnson.

Tanya hopes that Johnson will be as lucky as she and Orellana. To help other women make similar transitions, she has just accepted the position of Russian/Ukrainian Outreach Specialist with WEAVE, allowing Mouhasseb to take another position within the organization. Though she still faces challenges in her own family life, for women like Johnson, and for others, Tanya is now officially available to form a bridge between the old world with its antiquated rules, and the new world, with its promise of frightening and exhilarating independence. Her work will help teach her community to either respect and support its women, or to lose them, either to crazy men like Soltys, or to life outside their reach.

Sitting safely together in the immigration office with the lavendar walls, Johnson, Tanya and Orellana try to understand the roots of their own inexplicable attractions to violent and controlling men.

“You know what?” says Orellana. “When I was in high school in Mexico, they said to us, that was the conflict of the Beauty and the Beast. Because only Beauty could change that awful monster.”

“Huh,” says Tanya, surprised again at the similarities in their cultural mythologies. “That’s right. In Russia, it has the same name.”

She turns to Johnson and translates. Johnson listens carefully, then lowers her eyes. She reaches underneath her chair, fishes into her bag and pulls out a video. On the cover is a beautiful young woman standing beside a large and menacing monster. Half man, half beast, he’s her best chance for happiness, as well as her worst nightmare.

All three women break out into a sustained and gratifying laughter.