While women’s marches across the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration captured global headlines, another important news story flew under the radar. On 7 February, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure that decriminalises certain forms of domestic abuse. The move was met with widespread condemnation from the international community, but the reaction within Russia has been markedly different. Unlike the streets of cities across the world, the streets of Russia have not filled with protestors. The reason why lies within the complex understanding of gender roles and family values in Russia.
The new amendment downgrades any kind of domestic violence that does not cause serious medical harm, which is defined as not requiring hospital treatment, from a criminal to an administrative offence. Consequently, beatings of spouses and children that previously carried up to a two-year prison sentence are now punishable by a fine of 30,000 roubles, community service or a 15-day detention. Furthermore, the new law amends the existing law to the effect that any victim wishing to file a complaint must gather the appropriate evidence herself, without the help of law enforcement.
In reality, the new law is not so much an amendment as it is a legal confirmation of the situation surrounding domestic abuse that already existed in Russia. According to a 2015 report produced by the National Centre for the Prevention of Violence (ANNA), a Russian NGO, there lacks a ‘systemic approach’ at the government level to combat violence against women in Russia. The ‘private prosecutions’ element of the new law that requires victims to gather their own evidence essentially formalises the pre-existing reality that victims could not rely on the police for help. Anna Zhavnerovich, a lifestyle journalist in Moscow, is one of the many victims who has experienced first-hand the divide between the de jure and de facto situations. After her boyfriend beat her unconscious, she went to the police, only to have her case dropped for no apparent reason. Experiences like Zhavnerovich’s help to explain why an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of victims never bring their cases to the police. That number will most likely rise with the added onus of private prosecutions.
As a signatory of the 1981 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Russian government and public authorities are supposed to take all necessary measures to combat violence against women, including holding perpetrators accountable. As part of its 2010 report to the CEDAW Committee, which is responsible for examining the implementation of CEDAW in states party to it, Russia’s Ministry of Health and Social Development claimed that the state planned to allocate over 1.6 billion roubles to fund victim assistance programmes. Not only has no such funding materialised but through recent legislative actions, the Russian government has shown its commitment to distancing itself from the fight against domestic abuse. This serves as yet another example of the Putin regime’s flagrant disregard for international law, whose effectiveness and enforceability is increasingly under doubt, and understandably so.
CEDAW and the ANNA have both raised concerns about Russia’s failure to collect accurate statistics on domestic abuse. Nevertheless, the data that has been collected is enough to illustrate the immense scale of the problem. As cited in a 2010 ANNA report, domestic violence occurs in a quarter of Russian families, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 14,000 women every year. Russians may not be able to recite those figures by heart, but the Russian proverb, ‘if he hits you it means he loves you’ suggests that they cannot be oblivious to the prevalence of domestic abuse in their society. Their opinions on it, however, are much harder to gauge, as evidenced by the varied public reaction to the new law.
A tale of two women
Public sentiment surrounding domestic violence in Russia is embodied in the divergent voices of two Russian women. On one side of the aisle is the drafter of the law, Yelena Mizulina, a conservative member of the Duma. She has stated that it was ridiculous that previous domestic abuse law allowed family members to be branded as criminals ‘for a slap.’ This argument has won the amendment support among Russians who favour the tradition of holding family sacred. Such Russians, like priest Dmitry Smirnov, the head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy’s commission on family matters, view laws against domestic abuse as attempts by the government to meddle in family affairs. For some Russians, this phobia of government overreach into private matters stems from Soviet times, when the state promoted and institutionalised a so-called ‘gender order.’ This order sought to integrate women into the workforce, whereas previously, breadwinning had been the exclusive domain of men. When the USSR collapsed, so did the institutional underpinning of the gender order, leaving Russians with conflicting notions of gender roles and family values. President Vladmir Putin, Yelena Mizulina and Dmitry Smirnov represent the faction of Russians who support reverting to the pre-Soviet conception of traditional gender roles. Their family model features a dominant male figure who is entitled to dole out ‘slaps’ as he sees fit.
Others, like women’s rights activist Alena Popova, condemn the turn to traditionalism that has occurred during Putin’s time in power. The startling statistic that 14,000 women each year fall victim to domestic abuse fulfils the fear that a ‘slap’ can easily escalate to murder. Unfortunately, the passage of the amendment has not been met with as overt opposition as the inauguration of Donald Trump. Alena Popova took to the streets of Moscow alone, holding a sign that ironically spells out the problematic Russian proverb. But judging from the nearly 300,000 signatures that have been added to her change.org petition against the amendment, Popova is not alone. She is right to refute the Kremlin’s claims that legal safeguards against domestic violence represent violations of privacy and the imposition of Western values on Russian society. By signing this law, Putin has proven his willingness to make misogyny state policy – his counterpart in the Oval Office may very well follow suit.