Where it All Starts: Domestic Violence in Russia as a Symptom of a Political Crisis

With all the media noise surrounding Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, the international community has not paid enough attention to Russia’s domestic events. This February the president signed an amendment to the Russian criminal code that decriminalized certain forms of domestic violence. The new law qualified the first act of violence towards spouses or children as an administrative offense of 30,000 rubles (500 dollars) fine or 15 days in jail as long as the offense was not categorized as extreme. The criteria is very simple: only broken bones will qualify the incidence as a crime. This is a drastic reversal of the previous law, which put offenders in prison for up to two years.

Russian society was quick with its negative reaction as typically about 40% of all violent crimes are committed within families. In 93% of cases, women are victims of domestic violence. Every day 36,000 women suffer from domestic violence from their intimate partners. Annually more than 14,000 women and 2,000 children die at the hands of husbands or other relatives.

Considering such shocking statistics, what justification might possibly exist for such legislation?

One of the initiators of the amendment Yelena Mizurina, also famous for her anti-gay propaganda law, has explained that the new law aims to protect the traditions of Russian families. According to Mizurina, juvenile justice (the area of criminal law applicable to persons who are not old enough to be held responsible for criminal acts), for example, severely interferes with private lives of the families and imposes Western methods of raising children. Moreover, if one of the family members is punished according to criminal law, she claims, the normalization of relations between family members seems hardly possible. When suggesting the amendment, she even mentioned that the criminalization of home violence threatened Russian national security, a peculiar claim she failed to explain further. Another justification comes from Russian Orthodox Church, whose public relations representative has claimed that state interference in family matters is a dangerous Western tendency.

Russian society has become freer, comparing to the Soviet past, with the multiparty system, election system and the right to travel abroad, but the situation with women’s rights seems to be deteriorating.  The Soviet government relied on a completely different communist ideological base that saw both man and women as equal partners. Moreover, the topic of domestic violence was not taboo (as it is now) and was openly discussed in public. Violence towards intimate partners was strongly criticized by all general newspapers – Pravda, Ogonek, Kommunist –  and was called “the medieval practices” in the agitation campaigns. Since the 1920s, the Soviet government repeatedly carried out campaigns prohibiting physical violence against children.

Unfortunately, what can be seen now is the radicalization of patriarchal views, something that would have been impossible to imagine just 20 years ago. One of the most commonly used Russian proverbs is “beating means love,” which is heard everywhere recently, starting with violence in schools. The usage of this disturbing proverb can be tracked back to the 16th century when husbands were recommended to beat their wives so they listen more carefully to God and to them.

This shift of attitude can be seen as a desperate search for a new ideology to replace communism-Leninism, demoting the Russian society to be increasingly conservative, parting ways with individual human rights and bringing up again the “Russian special destiny and obligations” that was very popular among the Russian Empire’s political elite and philosophers. Russia used to call itself the third Rome, trying to prove the critical difference with both Rome and Constantinople. Ancient Rome was the first center of Christian civilization that was destroyed by barbarians. After that, Constantinople served this role until conquered by Muslims. Thus, Russia was the only “true Christian place” left and the ideology of the third Rome was born.

The outdated political rhetoric implies that it is the Russian duty to save real human values while the rest of the world fails to do so. It is rather absurd that such values are most often attributed to the submission of women by men, patriarchal marriage and religious matters.

Such an ideological vacuum creates a solid platform for numerous human rights violations in Russia. The most dramatic of those happened November 2016 when the voices of political prisoners being tortured in the most shocking ways came out and brought to light the number of torture incidents ordered by prison officials.

Despite everything mentioned above, it is important to understand that Russian society is very reluctant to protest. Vladimir Putin is incredibly popular in Russia, mostly because he has been able to centralize the country, unite the divided population, improve the critical situation Russia has faced since the 1990s and adequately represent the country in comparison with its previous leaders. His public statements about any form of violence are very negative and strong. Around 82%  of Russians support the current political line of the government due to a yearning for stability.

Although this opinion must be considered, the internal situation shows that, considering the ideological vacuum, Russian leaders do not quite understand where they lead the country and what they are fighting for. It might be time for the international community to show the other way, maybe by their own examples of human rights improvement, rather than aggressively attack Russian government on other issues that usually leads to strengthening of the “unique Russian way” rhetoric among Russian politicians.

Domestic violence is an extremely sensitive topic, sometimes even considered from the perspective of cultural relativism. However, in this case, it seems that Russia has just made a huge leap back without any steps forward.

By Ksenia Andryushchenko