Russian faux family values: Domestic violence decriminalized in Russia

Russia is known as a country with a high level of domestic violence. There is no official statics available, while the Crisis Centers for Women and other organizations concerned with this issue face serious challenges, when they try to collect data on crimes and violence.

The data on gender-based violence provided by the Ministry of Interior Affairs can be used just as a circumstantial evidence, since only a minuscule fraction of victims does come forward to report to police.  However, even the MIA has openly admitted that 25% of murders registered in Russia in 2014, were committed within families.  Almost 420 hundred crimes toward family members were registered for the same year.

For almost 20 years women’s NGOs, feminists, and female activists have been lobbying for a domestic violence legislation, which would provide for special measures in order to help and protect victims, e.g. protection orders, which were introduced in many developed nations. Namely, they imply that an abused wife is not supposed to go back home, which she shares with an abusive husband.  Instead it would be he who should consider moving out.  Alas, though the victory seemed to be so close, and the legislation draft was already presented to the President, and was verbally endorsed, somehow this document was tabled.  Meanwhile, the situation was changing for the worse.

On Wednesday, January 25, the State Duma has approved in the second reading the bill decriminalizing domestic violence and downgrading it to administrative offence.  Yelena Mizulina, an indefatigable fighter for traditional family values (she is a Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Constitutional Legislation and State Building) has elaborated, that in this specific case the language was referring to the cases of beating, which occurred for the first time, as well as to cases of beating which did not require a medical report, since they had no consequences to health, i.e. petty family quarrels with minimal consequences.”

In Russia domestic violence is stonewalled, and Russian society remains ambiguous on this problem.  The older generation still shares the 19th century peasant wisdom “if he hits you it means he loves you”, and strongly believes, that whatever crime happens within a family is not a crime after all, but a natural all-in-the-family issue.

The generation of those who are now in their 40-s and 30-s can still recall the late Soviet time with abusive and drunken fathers, who used to discipline their children with a belt, and the prevalent concept of “the husband is the master of the family.”  Later they lived through the Perestroika, the time of “survival of the fittest,” when scuffling was a routine.

The lucky “unflogged” generation was born in the late 1990-s – early 2000-s, when a new philosophy of education emerged, impliying love instead of beating. The share of children who were raised with hitting and punching is significantly lower among this generation.  However, it would be too soon to claim that the level of wife abuse has been decreased drastically among this generation.

Last summer flash mob #янебоюсьсказать  (I am not afraid to tell), which has acquired wide publicity, has highlighted an unprecedented scale of sexual violence as well as Russian tolerance toward violence, proclivity to justify male abuser (he came home from work tired), and to blame wife-victim (she was the one who provoked him with her attitude/appearance).

Speaker of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin in his attempt to justify the bill decriminalizing domestic violence has quoted the polls data, according to which majority of Russians had supported this language and believed that by decriminalizing domestic violence the Government was trying to help building strong families.

Indeed, VTsIOM, the leading Russian polling center (though it has been often blamed for pro-Government bias and faulty methodologies in order to deliver “required” results) has published the following polling conclusions: majority of Russians have condemned domestic violence, however they supported the legislative initiative to lessen punishment for the first cases of beating.  Actually, the majority of respondents believed, that this language would help to decrease incidents of domestic violence.

It remains a complete mystery how decriminalization of domestic violence would decrease domestic violence and strengthen families.

Majority of domestic violence experts and lawyers believe that this language would bring a completely opposite result: increasingly smaller number of women would report acts of violence to the police (which even today is quite reluctant to register such reports), while the potential abusers would act with impunity (though before they were afraid of being punished by the appropriate article of the Criminal Code, which therefore was a significant deterrence).

With no domestic violence prevention system in place and extremely small number of shelters, where women with children could find a temporary sanctuary, Russian legal system has de facto removed an essential protective barrier between assailant and his prey.

All what women are left with in this situation is hope to get some help from a small number of NGOs (which are, in their turn, persecuted for receiving foreign funding), their relatives, and themselves.

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Dr. Irina Kosterina

Dr. Irina Kosterina

Gender studies researcher, Program Coordinator at the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Moscow