On Tuesday afternoon, President Vladimir Putin officially signed into law a bill that partially decriminalizes domestic abuse in Russia. This controversial new measure will see domestic abusers face fewer, less severe penalties for their actions.
According to Russian statistics, an estimated 36,000 women and 26,000 children in the country are beaten in their homes every day. According to some reports, one woman dies from domestic abuse every 40 minutes, yet the amendment sailed through both houses of the Russian parliament. Under the proposed new regulations, as long as the assault does not cause serious bodily harm, it will be considered an “administrative offense.” A first-time incident would be punished by a fine of about US $500 or 15 days of community service. If the victim suffers more than just bruising or bleeding- as long as there is no offense more than once a year- there is no further threat of prison; previously, these incidents carried a maximum jail time of two years. It also returns domestic violence to the realm of “private prosecution,” where the victim is responsible for collecting evidence and bringing a case. Repeat offenses would be criminal infractions, but only within a year of the first case-essentially giving abusers a pass to beat relatives once a year.
The legislation reduces assault of a relative to a civil offense instead of a criminal one, and is deeply troubling. Even more disturbing is the fact that this was heavily supported by the female lawmakers in the lower house. The bill was authored and pushed by, among others, two women: Elena Batalina and Olga Mizulina. Mizulina once said in a TV appearance that she thinks women “don’t take offense when they see a man beat his wife,” and that “a man beating his wife is less offensive than when a woman humiliates a man.” Supporters of this law change argue that this will help protect Russian families, arguing that if violence that doesn’t result in a serious injury like broken bones or concussions among strangers is not a criminal offense, why should it among families?
Russia is one of three countries in Europe and Central Asia that do not have laws specifically targeting domestic violence. Instead, it is treated like other forms of assault, ignoring the fact that spouses and children are more vulnerable to violent crimes than other victims. Although difficult to fully measure, according to Russia’s interior ministry, 40% of violent crimes happen within the family. More than 70% of women who call the Anna Centre, Russia’s only violence-prevention charity and hotline, never report their cases to the police. Domestic violence has deep cultural roots in the region though, with an old Russian proverb even stating: “If he beats you it means he loves you.”
“Violence isn’t just a norm, it’s our style of life,” says Alena Popova, an advocate for laws against domestic violence. With this change to private prosecution, which forces victims to navigate legal and bureaucratic obstacles, critics believe this change will dissuade many more from even attempting to prosecute any violence against them. And given the country’s perspective on the issue, these numbers may even drop lower. In a nationwide phone poll of 1,800 people held Jan. 13-15, Russian pollster VTsIOM showed that 19% of Russians believed “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances.”
Russian police are notoriously reluctant to react to domestic violence calls as many see this as ‘meddling in family affairs.'
“Police don’t take complaints of domestic violence seriously,” says Yulia Gorbunoca, a Moscow-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “They say, ‘Call us when he breaks your legs.’”
Political analyst Maria Lipman said the situation around gender roles is Russia was paradoxical. “The Soviet period saw gender equality from above, so some of the rights that women in the west fought for were granted or even imposed on Russian women,” said Lipman. “This meant that the way gender relations developed was different, and Russian women never had to fight for their rights. Now on the one hand we have huge problems with unequal pay, with no women in politics, with domestic abuse, but on the other hand there are more top [female] editors of leading media outlets than in the United States, and there are many top women bankers...But there is a big constituency in Russia for whom interference in family affairs can be portrayed as another issue in which the west is trying to impose its views on Russia.”
Supporters of the measure insist that this is about protecting Russian traditions, according to which the family is sacred. They believe that this will allow parents greater freedom to discipline their children and reduce the power of the state to interfere in family matters. The Russian Orthodox Church claimed that, while children should be protected from criminal activity, that the actions of parents disciplining their kids “cannot equate [to] such criminal assaults with rational and moderate use of physical punishment by loving parents.” Priest Dmitry Smirnov, head of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchy’s commission on family matters, said on a television program that the idea the state should be able to poke its nose into family affairs was a Western imposition on Russia. “Some of the things happening in northern Europe now,” he said, “are such that even Hitler couldn’t have dreamed them up.”
After the final draft of the decriminalization bill was passed (and then sent to Putin), a pro-Kremlin tabloid “Life” shared a video that quickly became popular, titled He Beats You Because He Loves You, review the “top five ways to commit domestic violence without leaving any traces on your loved ones.” Life explains in a comment that the video is designed to show what isn’t criminally punishable anymore, but that no one should perform the clip-art actions in the video- but that hasn’t stopped the over 28,000 views on Facebook and 83,000 views on Vkontakte without proper context. It’s been shared countless times encouraging the exact opposite message Life was attempting to get across. And in the science section of the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda, the magazine cheerfully told readers about an advantage of wife-beating: “Recent scientific studies show the wives of angry men have a reason to be proud of their bruises. Biologists say that beaten-up women have a valuable advantage: they more often give birth to boys!”
It’s clear that Russia’s parliament and Putin’s actions are encouraging an acceptance of domestic violence. Classifying it as a misdemeanor and allowing that ‘first-offence’ clause is a terrible move. This law is a huge step backward. Although the main focus on domestic violence statistics is on women, it must be acknowledged that this is a huge issue across the board regardless of gender. I never thought I’d say this, but if anything, the Western world should be working to classify domestic violence the way Russia used to. This law change realistically will end in more lost lives.
It seems that not only does our new administration need some education on social issues, so does Putin and his traditionalist Russians. While many Russians are moving forward and learning, others in the country are still holding onto the notion that the old ways are the right ways. They’re not. Yes, parents should be allowed to discipline their kids, but the fact of the matter is, this law change will really only help abusers hurt their victims. As a survivor of an abusive relationship myself, it took me a long time to learn that it wasn’t my fault. Putin and his traditionalists need to learn the same. Domestic violence is wrong, and it should never be acceptable. End of story.