ZOiS Spotlight 8/2020

Domestic violence in Russia: The tough battle for protection

by Regina Elsner 26/02/2020
Young women join a rally against a bill reclassifying domestic violence as an administrative offence in Moscow in February 2017. © Sergei Fadeichev/TASS/imago

In November 2019, Russia’s Federation Council published a draft law On the prevention of violence within the family. There have already been more than 40 attempts to pass legislation against domestic violence, and this latest proposal has once again sparked a wave of protests and public debate. The draft has drawn sharp criticism from women’s and human rights organisations and legal experts, as well as from the Russian Orthodox Church and other advocates of “traditional values” – albeit for very different reasons. The former point to the absence of adequate protection for victims, especially women and children, and the failure to make provision for comprehensive prevention and awareness-raising programmes, while the latter caution against excessive interference by the state in traditional family matters.

A long struggle

There has long been a debate in Russia about the appropriate legal, social and political response to domestic violence. The main point of contention was always the question of when and under what circumstances the state is justified in intervening in family matters.

Until 2016, domestic violence attracted the same penalties as any other form of assault. In an attempt to define domestic violence as a separate offence, however, it was decriminalised – with the result that as of 2017, first and one-off assaults within the family are classed as minor offences, punishable with a small fine or community service. The move attracted sharp criticism from human rights organisations and international observers as it removed one of the few forms of protection available to victims in the early stages of domestic abuse and exposed them to ongoing aggression from the perpetrator, due to the minimal penalties and lack of support measures.

In 2018, the case of the three Khachaturian sisters was the subject of intense public debate. The sisters were charged with the murder of their father, who had subjected them to years of severe psychological and sexual abuse. As a result of this and other well-publicised cases and the growing number of complaints to international bodies, a new working group was established, tasked with drafting a law on the prevention of domestic violence. In November 2019, the Federation Council launched a public consultation on an – albeit much-modified – version of the working group’s text. The draft is beset with problems, for it paradoxically leaves out physical violence because it is supposedly covered by the criminal law, applies solely to spouses and aims primarily to keep the family together rather than protect the victims. Were it to be adopted, the law would be a farce. The advocates of traditional values hailed the 2017 decriminalisation of domestic violence as a success, but the current initiative has attracted considerable criticism.

The “holy” family – and the unholy Russian reality

From the moment discussions began, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church warned about the danger of arbitrarily interfering in family matters. It repeatedly emphasised that while it was of course opposed to any undue violence within the family, extreme cases of this nature were already covered by general criminal law. New legislation was therefore unnecessary. What’s more, it claimed, the initiatives showed the family in a very bad light – as a place of danger, rather than as the warm, safe environment depicted in official family policy. These laws were therefore “hostile to the family”; terms such as “domestic violence” and “family violence” should be avoided on principle.

There were further problems with this line of argument. For example, in the debate about child and youth welfare, it was emphasised – with reference to the Bible – that children have no lawful right to defend themselves against their parents. A certain degree of mild physical chastisement, it was argued, is part of Russian family tradition. Nobody benefits if – simply because of an initial minor transgression – the entire family is torn apart by a draconian prison sentence or onerous financial penalty. The laws, it was claimed, were brought forward by foreign agents espousing feminist ideology, and undermine the traditional Russian interpretation of gender roles and hence Russian demography.

Russian Orthodoxy’s strongly hierarchical and patriarchal view of the family conflicts with any attempt to enforce individual protection of the person. What is astonishing about this line of argument is the complete ignorance of the realities of Russian family life today. Divorces, abortions and abandonment are commonplace and more than 70 per cent of victims of domestic violence are women. Surveys on the prevalence of violence within the family reveal a shocking picture, despite the fact that domestic violence is still largely a taboo subject and the real figure is likely to be much higher. Viewed in that light, it seems absurd to warn about the risks supposedly posed by domestic violence legislation.

Non-governmental organisations – the only hope

For organisations that advocate for the victims of domestic violence, the complete absence of protection for victims is the main problem. They say that in recent years, all the government authorities, including the police, have lost the public’s confidence in their willingness to genuinely protect victims; instead, victims are subjected to further humiliation and violence at the hands of these agencies. Out of every ten complaints of violence received, eight are withdrawn; overall, only around 10 per cent of violent incidents are ever reported. The organisations also say that the new law would reinforce this trend by subordinating the individual need for protection to family cohesion. Genuine help, then, is only available from civil society organisations and – somewhat paradoxically – from Church-based support centres which, despite the conflicting messages from Church leaders, put the protection of women and children at the heart of their work. Without basic legal protection, however, these centres can only provide ad hoc support and are subject to a barrage of criticism for being “foreign agents” working against “Russian tradition”. Without legislation, society’s belief that domestic violence is a normal part of life and that individual welfare must always give way to the interests of the community will never change. In view of the opposition from a variety of quarters, this shift of mindset is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at ZOiS.