Last weekend, my daughter and I attended a three-day Christian Slavic women’s retreat. Predictably, discussion turned to Lyuba Savenok, who was brutally murdered by her husband Yeveginy in May 2016 after years of verbal and physical torment. Both Lyuba and her husband were active members of their Minnesota church, to whom Lyuba had reported the abuse before filing a restraining order. What makes the Savenoks’ story so tragic is not just the shocking nature of the crime, but rather how familiar her situation was to many women married to Slavic men.
“Honestly, with all my awareness of domestic abuse in Christian homes, I’m still taken aback at the number of Slavic women dealing with this,” said “Irina.” “So many of our sisters don’t know where to turn. They’ve been burned by negative experiences of seeking help in their churches.”
It is estimated that one in four Christian couples will experience at least one incident of physical abuse in their marriage, although spousal abuse of all forms tends to be under-reported among the Slavic community. The women discussing this problem cited embarrassment, hopelessness that their husbands will change, and victim-blaming as reasons. While violence (sometimes related to alcohol abuse) remains high among the general population in Slavic countries (particularly in Russia, Poland, and the Ukraine), one would assume the problem to be much lower among professing Christians. Sadly, this is not the case.
The Church’s Denial of the Problem
“Our Eastern European culture here in America and overseas has given men the authority to verbally, physically, emotionally, and sexually abuse their spouses and daughters,” writes Ukranian-American pastor Paul Muzichuk. “The position women have been cornered into is one of domination, scorn, and weakness; they are simply expected to be ‘good moms’ in the home. Even men in key Christian leadership positions have not seen the wrong in treating women as second class people. When I asked one older Ukrainian man his thoughts on emotional abuse in Slavic families, he smirked and said ‘that doesn’t happen because we are holy people’….[but] his father verbally and emotionally abused his mother by calling her worthless names, telling her to do as he commanded—all in the name of ministry and God.”1
“The Church sometimes enables abuse among our men,” Irina acknowledges. “Pastors simply don’t know how to deal with abuse; victims are [often] told they just need to ‘submit according to the Bible.’ They may even hear things like ‘This is your cross to bear’. Russian ladies don’t want to speak up; their own families might blame them. They tell her she is not trying “hard enough” to be a good Christian wife. Their pastors do not understand how [Slavic husbands] look down on their women, so how can they help?” Another woman added, “My friend was being bullied and yelled at daily. Her husband would blame her for things that weren’t her fault; then he hit her. When she [told] her pastor, he didn’t even speak to her husband. But when she called social services, they opened an investigation immediately. Ironically, the state protected her. Her church didn’t. Now she is ashamed to go to church.”
Understanding Cultural Influence
Several of the women who spoke about this “open secret” lamented American pastors’ failure to grasp the nature of misogyny in the Slavic-American subculture. Effective biblical counsel is not possible when a counselor lacks insight into the true nature of a problem. “I think one reason American pastors just don’t get it is, by and large, gender-equality exists in the US,” said “Elena.” “American men don’t generally yell at their wives or control them like children … if they did, they’d be in big trouble! The concept of women being equal simply does not exist in our countries. So when a [Slavic] woman talks to her pastor about her mistreatment, he does not understand how ugly it is. In a way [Slavic] culture justifies it, and considers it normal. They have no idea what some of our sisters are going through.”
This domineering attitude has been “imported” into immigrant communities from Eastern Europe, and counselors need to understand it. Recently, I was contacted by a YMCA domestic violence specialist seeking a counselor for a battered Albanian woman – a common occurrence. (Albania, while not a Slavic country, shares many cultural characteristics with its Eastern neighbors. Women are more oppressed in Albania than in any other European country).
While in Tirana this summer, I spoke with ACBC counselor Blair Alvidrez, who mentioned the hostile, aggressive tone Albanian men often use with their wives. “When you confront them, they try to excuse it: ‘that’s just how we are; that’s how I talk!’ It’s very hard to change that cultural attitude; to make them realize that this speech is abusive, and ungodly.” An Albanian pastor admitted that while God can change anyone’s heart, it’s rare to see a turnaround in men who have learned such communication patterns from birth.
Abuse for its own sake is not the abuser’s goal; control is. Abusive men seek to gain the control they feel entitled to. Even in immigrant congregations themselves, domestic abuse is often ignored.
As biblical counseling instructor Donn Arms says, “Scripture informs what we do; not culture.” In that spirit, it is time for all forms of torment – physical and verbal; isolation and intimidation; stonewalling and screaming; control and humiliation – to be called what they are: sin. What are some things these Slavic Christian women desperately want their pastors to know?
- They are not exaggerating. Believe them. If the abuse has escalated to physical violence, involve the authorities. They need protection; as Lyuba did. Do not distort Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 to heap more guilt upon the abused woman.
- When a woman tells you that her husband will not change, do not chide her “lack of faith.” Rather, respect that she has much more insight into her husband’s state of mind and cultural mores than you do. Until they see the sin in their attitude and renew their minds, abuse will continue. Philippians 2:5 and 4:5 need to be internalized and lived out, and a few months of biblical counseling will not undo a lifetime of cultural conditioning.
- Angry outbursts and demeaning lectures/accusations are not considered abusive by many Slavic Christian men, although verbal abuse can be incredibly destructive. Understanding the craving for control can help unmask what drives the behavior.
Recommended Reading: “The Shameful Secret of ‘Christian’ Domestic Abuse”
1. Paul Muzichuk, “Abuse of Slavic-American Women,” http://paulmuzichuk.blogspot.com/2013/05/abuse-of-slavic-american-women.html (May 8, 2013).