Domestic Violence Is Russia’s Shame

Domestic Violence Is Russia’s Shame

The fight in Russia over the law on domestic violence mirrors the country’s fight over democracy.


In late November, on the eve of the world action “Sixteen Days Without Gender Violence,” thousands of men and women demonstrated on the streets of Paris against femicide. They called it France’s shame that family violence was not getting more attention; more than 100 women are killed a year there.

On that same day, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, radical-right and Orthodox activists protested the first draft of a law against domestic violence, calling it a mockery of traditional values, interference in the family, hostile foreign influence, and even LGBT propaganda. Unlike last summer’s protests against the recent election process, no demonstrators were arrested. The federal media gave the right-wing radicals more attention than it did the pickets and demonstrations in support of the law in dozens of Russian cities. More attention than it gave testimony from victims or the horrifying statistics: Between 5,000 and 7,000 women in Russia are subjected to domestic violence every year, and the police have almost 2,000 cases of children killed by family members.

The public got yet another completely clear signal: The regime prefers defenders of “traditional values” to human rights activists and considers them its trusted support, even if their words and deeds are contrary to the Constitution and common sense.

In the 1990s, the independent women’s movement in Russia created the slogan “Democracy without women is not democracy.” It was then that the first draft of the domestic violence law was prepared with the help of activists and gender experts. People were stunned by the first data released by the police: Victims of family cruelty in one year equaled the losses of the Soviet army for all the years of the Afghan war.

I remember how hard it was to get even the most progressive publications like Ogonyok and Nezavisimaya Gazeta to print articles on this, trying to persuade editors that these were not private affairs but a societal calamity. I remember how Russian women along with American feminists created programs and training for the first crisis centers and shelters in Russia.

The law was not passed then. In 2000 all gender-related projects in state structures began shutting down. Many other women’s organizations were branded “foreign agents,” and official propaganda discredited the experience of the freedom-loving 1990s, blaming democracy for the economic crisis and ensuing economic inequality. But the feminists did not give up. Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the ANNA Association of crisis centers; Svetlana Aivazova, member of the Council on Human Rights; activists from the Consortium of Women’s Independent Organizations gender centers; and many others continued to fight for a law that would save thousands of lives and fundamentally change the state’s attitude toward human beings.

Most importantly, domestic violence had begun to be considered a crime even without legislation. This is the main achievement of women’s organizations and female journalists, who never dropped the topic. A new generation of feminists appeared, who worked actively in social networks. “No to Violence” and the Russian analogue of #MeToo (#ianeboyusskazat’—“I’m not afraid to tell”) drew wide audiences. The human rights movement, which for many years had distanced itself from feminists, recognized its error and included domestic violence in its agenda.

Police, government officials, and progressive religious figures all spoke of the need to fight violence. President Vladimir Putin told the Council on Human Rights in 2016 that the law must be passed and even ordered the deputies to do so. Instead, the State Duma in 2017 passed the notorious law on decriminalizing the first episodes of violence in a family (The Nation wrote about this), replacing criminal punishment for the first episode with fines. The odious deputy Elena Mizulina, the author of the bill, had previously suggesting banning women who had not given birth from entering college and generally seemed to base her agenda on the 16th century Domostroi, the guide for households in the time of Ivan the Terrible. She stated that the main goal of the initiative was to strengthen the family, delineating a new vector in domestic policy: maintaining peace and harmony at home rather than protecting the rights of individuals

The public reacted indignantly to the law; crisis centers attested to the rise of violence and the latent nature of the problem. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev called the law a mistake.

The ambitious document devoted to gender equality, “National Program of Action in the Interest of Women Until 2022,” signed by the president and presented by the government in late 2017, offers a complex of measures against domestic violence and calls for the law to be passed. Its publication before the final discussion in Parliament in November 2019 outraged right-wing radicals, who had the silent approval of regional and federal authorities, unlike activists from the crisis centers and defenders of human rights. Some analysts likened the present situation with the final days of the czarist empire, when the authorities endorsed the ultranationalist Black Hundreds.

The Committee on Women’s Affairs of the State Duma and the Federation Council tried to do everything they could to reduce the human rights component of the law, declaring its goal to be the protection of the family and reconciliation. Deputy Oksana Pushkina, the engine behind the law, was the host of a popular television program, Women’s Stories With Oksana Pushkina, modeled on American talk shows. She believes the most important goal of the law should be to protect the victim and stop violence.

“We must realize that 90 percent of violent acts take place in the family, that 70 percent of the victims do not ask for help, and that half of those who do are unhappy with the help they get from state agencies,” she has said. “We must change the whole system and create a safe environment for women, which includes freeing them from psychological and economic violence, which is ubiquitous.”

Pushkina was one of the very few deputies who condemned Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Leonid Slutsky for sexual harassment. She is certain of victory and believes in the support of the young generation of feminists. These young women—the lawyer Mari Davtyan, who has led many prominent cases on gender violence; the blogger Alena Popova, whose solitary pickets against gender violence are a sign of the times; Anna Rivina, who runs No to Violence; and many others—are the real opinion leaders on the Internet. They are supported by young men—well-known actors and writers, television hosts, and DJs who took part in the #meetoo movement in 2016. The drive for the law against violence will not be stopped. It is notable that observers and analysts who had never expressed interest in gender issues are now treating the problem as a reflection of profound inequality and political contradictions.

Today’s struggle to pass this law against domestic violence is a sign of the real need for democratization of our society and its indispensable modernization. Considering violence to be outside the law is a key problem in modern Russia. It is obvious that banning domestic violence opens the way to banning state violence, which the neo-Stalinists and right-wing radicals long to resume.

This is the path to a real policy of protecting citizens rather than state interests. A majority of Russians want a path to renewing society in the direction of democracy according to the latest surveys by the independent Levada Center and the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center. And recent polls showed that 70 percent of Russians support the law against domestic violence.

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