For Better, Then Worse

Love, marriage, and the maddening plight of a Russian bride


"When I came here, I suddenly had no money. I had no rights. We were trapped like animals. Now, it is just like Soviet Union. It is just the same. I've done nothing wrong and I have been turned into a prisoner."

The agency for battered women that has been housing Tatiana since August requires that no one but authorized personnel see the houses where client families are placed in groups of two or three. The first time we are to meet, I'm told to look for her at a bucolic park in the southern suburbs.

Jonathan Stavole

Tatiana is easy to spot among the softball players and joggers who are sweating out the winter on an unusually warm spring day. Sitting alone at a picnic table, the 40-year-old, who is shielding her eyes from the sun, is wearing a long wool dress and brown silk scarf. When she recalls her first day in America, she wraps her arms around her shoulders and shivers.

She met her 44-year-old, soon-to-be ex-husband Andy online in June 2001, through the personals on Yahoo. After exchanging introductions, they began to correspond twice daily via e-mail, and then, eventually, five times a week on the phone, for an hour at a time. Andy, who was working for a small Internet start-up, always paid the tab, and seemed "sweet," Tatiana recalled. She was smitten. Four months later, Andy announced that he would be coming to Moscow. Before leaving Minneapolis he picked out a diamond engagement ring.

In November 2001, the two exchanged vows at "Wedding Palace Number 4" in Moscow. After the ceremony, which a family friend captured on video, one of Tatiana's cousins commented that the couple seemed lost in a fairy tale, their eyes "shining with love."

Five months later, their paperwork finally in order, Tatiana and her 14-year-old son Yuri traveled to Minnesota with only two suitcases and a sewing machine. When they arrived at Andy's apartment, Tatiana knew immediately that she had made a "horrible mistake."

"I couldn't imagine something could be so dirty--all the floor just one big stain," she remembers. Mother and son cleaned for days, but failed to scrub away the rancid smell.

When Tatiana asked if she could look for a job, Andy said he would only allow her to work where he worked, so he could "keep an eye on her." On the rare occasions when they did leave home, Andy angrily insisted that Tatiana was looking at other men. She was not allowed to use the phone or correspond with her family online. When he left town on business for days at a time, he would disconnect the computer and leave just enough money for staples such as milk and peanut butter. During one of Andy's trips in July 2002, however, Tatiana managed to talk to a friend who had also come from Russia (and who had just escaped an abusive relationship). She told Tatiana that there was a battered women's shelter in the area, where there would be someone who would understand her problem and who could help her leave Andy while remaining in the country. Tatiana wrote down the phone number and hid it away.

When he returned from his trips, Andy would be kind for a day or two, then a rage would "grow inside of him." One night in early August, after failing to get an erection, Andy began shouting threats and demanding Tatiana have sex with him every day. A few nights later, when Tatiana refused, he went to a hall closet and retrieved a small club used to stun fish. He swung it over her head for what seemed like an eternity, screaming over and over for her to "fuck" him. Eventually he threw it across the room, putting a dent in the wall.

"The next morning I called number and said, 'Please help me,'" Tatiana says, wiping tears from her eyes. "I really loved this man. Then something went wrong in his head. He was going to hurt me or my boy."

Taking advantage of legal services Civil Society had made available at the shelter, Tatiana was able to secure a restraining order within a few weeks. She also filed papers for divorce (which Andy still hasn't signed). Thanks to VAWA and Goldenberg's counsel, Tatiana 's self-petition for an immigrant visa has been approved.

Unfortunately, backlog at the BCIS has kept Tatiana without a work visa for nearly nine months. As I write this, she has been unable to work for over a year, even though the process is only supposed to take four to six weeks. So, assuming the shelter stays open (which these days is certainly not a given), she and her son will continue to share a small space--and a fear of the unknown--with two other displaced families.

"[Andy] is like spy. He's brave only with me, no police," she says."But if he finds out where I am, I don't know what feelings will be stronger, his fear or his anger."

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