Domestic violence is a taboo subject, one which, as of late, has been at the forefront of the Russian parliament’s political agenda. Though amendments that criminalized the beating of one’s family member were put in place as recently as July of 2016, this progress has been undone by a bill introduced in January 2017. Coinciding with a state-sponsored initiative aiming to renew “traditionalist” values during President Putin’s third term in office, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, voted to eliminate criminal prosecution in cases of domestic violence against family members, barring situations that are deemed repeat offenses in the span of one year, or ones that result in “serious medical harm.” Just a mere two days after the bill’s second reading, the Duma voted in its favor, with a concerning final count of 380-3. The decriminalization of domestic violence, even if just in some forms, is not only dangerous, but also aids in the perpetuation of Russia’s cultural history of such abuse.
In the days following the reductions of domestic violence consequences, police in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, reported a near doubling in the rates of domestic violence incidents. Mayor Yevgeny Roizman pointed to the bill as a root cause of the soaring rates, explaining, “Before, people were afraid of criminal charges–this acted as some kind of safety barrier. People got the impression that before it wasn’t allowed, but now it is.” As Anna Kirey, the Deputy Director for Campaigns for Russia and Eurasia at Amnesty International, asserted, “While the Russian government claims this reform will ‘protect family values’, in reality it rides roughshod over women’s rights.” Kirey furthers her argument by pointing to what little progress, if any given the new legislation, has been made since Amnesty International’s previous report on the epidemic proportions of domestic violence in Russia, which is dated over a decade ago. Under the new law, there are be much lighter penalties for offenders, and cases of battery within the family are labelled as administrative rather than criminal; they therefore warrant retributions such as fines, imprisonment periods as few as 15 days maximum in a detention center, or community service as little as 120 hours maximum. Not only does this belittle the horrific reality of the nearly 10,000 women who died as a result of domestic assault in 2015, according to statistics from the Russian Ministry of Interior, but it also trivializes the 40% of those who suffered from violent crimes committed by their own family members.
A Russian poster from Anna urging people to open their eyes to violence against women
Yet another pitfall of the bill lies in the fact that only repeat offenders are charged with criminal activity. The irony in this, according to Alyona Sadikova, the director of one of the few women’s shelters in the Moscow metropolitan area, is that “women tend only to report violence after multiple beatings anyway.” She is one of many women’s activists who believes that “what Russia really needs is a network of crisis centers and legal mechanisms that would enable courts to issue restraining orders”, something that is currently not in place in the Russian judicial system, and that seriously hinders any sort of progress in lowering domestic violence rates. Furthermore, those who opposed the bill in Moscow were required to do so quietly, as the mayor denied requests for public protest permits.
Proponents of the bill, like ruling party lawmaker Andrei Isayev, have attempted to frame the bill as positive for families, arguing that, under current legislation, children “inform on their parents” when disciplined with violence, which ultimately results in loss of parental custody and, in Isayev’s view, causes the breakdown of the family as a whole. Other supporters of the bill claim that it serves as a mechanism to remove state involvement in home life, allowing parents to raise their children in a manner they see fit. In addition to conservative members of Russian parliament, one of the bill’s strongest advocates is the Russian Orthodox Church, whose sphere of influence in social and political life has seen a steady expansion in the past few years. The Church issued a statement last year defending physical punishment by way of equating it to cultural Russian tradition, going as far as to say that it should be viewed as “an essential right given to parents by God.” Irina Matvienko, the woman in charge of the hotline for Russia’s Anna crisis center, which received about 5,000 calls from women seeking aid in the past year, refutes the Church’s statement. Matvienko admonishes the normalization and legalization of these forms of abuse, saying “Domestic violence is not about a normal family fight. We are talking about systematic behavior. So allowing impunity is especially dangerous, because the woman is one-on-one with her abuser.”
Though domestic violence is not a new phenomenon by any means, in Russia or anywhere else in the world, it is safe to say that the recent actions of government officials have caused a significant setback in advocacy for and the protection of victims, both past and future. Existing systems of justice for victims, as inefficient as they were, have only further deteriorated since the new bill’s introduction. The measures taken by the Duma to ensure this law will be put into effect will allow physical violence to be viewed, even more than it already may be, as a societal norm in Russian family life. It legitimizes the actions of those who previously committed physically abusive acts against family members, and disparages the plights of those who suffered at their hands. Many alternative laws have been proposed that would support domestic violence prevention, but none have made it past the State Duma thus far. In the meantime, several human rights organizations have started campaigns urging legislation against acts of domestic violence and holding the Russian government accountable for their actions. Though the website for the Moscow-based non-governmental organization the National Center for Prevention of Violence, or “Anna,” is currently under construction, donating to Amnesty International is a great way to address the injustices of the domestic violence bill and to ensure the continued placement of pressure on international lawmakers to aid in the fight against domestic abuse.