Maria Studenikina fidgets with a laptop for a few minutes before beginning her presentation. Standing in front of the audience in a white blouse and blazer, she conveys an almost cherubic quality. As she outlines the goals of Save Life (Spasi zhizn), the charity program she helps coordinate, she speaks softly into a microphone, enunciating her words in the fashion of a zealous schoolteacher. “The main goal of our program is a reduction in the number of abortions by getting women who intend to terminate their pregnancy to refuse the procedure, and to provide social and psychological help to motivate them to backtrack and save the life of the child.”
It’s a grey and sticky summer day, and the staunchest representatives of the Russian anti-abortion movement have convened in Moscow for the For Life (Za zhizn) festival, an annual gathering of Russian activists and international guests involved in the global fight against abortion. By its end, these participants will formally agree to turn For Life into an umbrella organization, consolidating the power of the almost 400 anti-abortion entities that took part.
More than two decades have passed since the first generation of anti-abortion groups emerged in Russia in the 1990s. Before that time, most Russians didn’t consider abortion a sin or crime. The Soviet Union—atheist in orientation—first welcomed the practice in the name of revolutionary values and subsequently accepted it as an unavoidable reality. After the USSR’s collapse, newly established anti-abortion organizations could count on financial and technical support from Western Christian groups seeking to expand their crusade beyond their own national borders. But in recent years the Russian anti-abortion movement, while still willing to collaborate with outsiders on a global scale, has grown louder and more independent.
Having joined forces with the Russian Orthodox Church, anti-abortion activists have become a pervasive force with a clear agenda: saving Russia from demographic decline, one baby at a time. And even though their ultimate goal—a ban on abortions—remains unlikely, these groups have found new pathways toward expanding their influence, particularly by exploiting the weaknesses of Russia’s medical establishment and forging partnerships with federal and local authorities.
What Studenikina’s program, For Life, primarily does is provide support to pregnant women in need at “crisis centers” across the country. Like anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers in the United States, Russia’s facilities attempt to help pregnant women in a way that seems to forward a political agenda. The facilities provide counseling and other support—including temporary accommodation and job training—to pregnant women in need of help. Across Russia, some are managed by subdivisions of the church, while others are run by private charities. Activists often explain that the services are much needed given the difficulties endured by many Russians amid the country’s enduring economic crisis.
Studenikina serves as the director of Moscow’s Mom’s House (Dom dlya mamy), one of such crisis centers. The facility is located right across the street from a 17th-century Russian Church, and I am meeting her there a few weeks after For Life. As I enter the center and sit down in a room with Studenikina, my eyes immediately lock in on the icon adorning the room’s otherwise empty wall. Old Cyrillic letters in gold identify “Mlekopitatel’nitsa,” the nursing Madonna. A teapot, boxes of chocolate candy, dry biscuits, and freshly picked chanterelles sit on the living room table alongside a carefully placed little plastic doll. The doll looks to be a reproduction of an unborn fetus, and as Studenikina speaks, her hands wander toward it.