The Duma and Russian Orthodox Church vs feminism

While the prosecution of Pussy Riot and recent laws censoring discussion of homosexuality have received media attention and popular condemnation, the assault on reproductive rights being led by the Russian Orthodox Church is taking place under the radar

Natasha Bitten Tatiana Kerim-Zade
14 October 2013

While the world media has covered Russian stories like the Pussy Riot trial, the discriminatory law against "gay propaganda," and protests in the streets of Moscow, they have not yet noticed the war being waged on women's reproductive rights by the increasingly powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which since 2004 has been blaming abortion, contraception and premarital sex for alleged "depopulation" in Russia. 

Patriarch Kirill, the new head of the Church, has stated baldly that "feminism could destroy Russia."  During the Pussy Riot affair, both prosecutors and the Church did their best to equate feminism with terrorism. By organizing disinformation campaigns in the media and putting direct pressure on the government, the Church has encouraged the Duma to actively resist the adoption of laws that could help prevent domestic violence by methods like restraining orders, counseling for offenders, and emergency housing for victims.  They have now launched a fullscale attack on abortion rights.

Abortion was unrestricted in Russia after the 1950 and, in the early years of the Russian federation, when contraception was difficult to come by, it was the main method used for family limitation. In 2011, during Medvedev presidency, a new law was passed restricting access to abortion to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. This was accompanied by heavy Church campaigning for even more restrictions, combined with agitation about a low birthrate and fears of immigration changing the racial composition of Russia.  

Now conservatives are trying to push through a package they were unable to pass then. Elena Misulina, a Member of Parliament, co-author of the anti-gay bill, and the head of the Committee on Women and Child Support, has introduced a strategy document meant to shape family policy for the Russian Federation until 2025.  This document turns the views of the Russian Orthodox Church into public policy by proposing that:

  • The family be fully and unconditionally identified with heterosexual marriage;
  • Procreation be seen as the sole purpose of marriage, with a goal of three or more children per family;
  • Respect for parental authority be recognized as the foundation of the family;
  • Non-traditional families (single-parent families, families with illegitimate children, families with divorced parents, single generation families, etc.) should be denied any social legitimacy;
  • State policy should encourage negative public attitudes towards divorce and abortion;
  • The availability of divorce and abortion should be decreased;
  • Participation in the Russian Orthodox Church should be seen as essential to family life.

The document also calls for measures to impede women's access to abortion and says the state should put psychological pressure on women not to terminate unwanted pregnancies; it proposes that the state promote a negative attitude toward abortion by labeling it “an act of hatred against children,” and that it say abortion is not a medical procedure but an immoral action, “killing babies.”  Misulina has recently suggested that medical staff who refuse to put pressure on women not to terminate a pregnancy should be prosecuted under civil law.


Sexist of the Year Awards. Image: www.wunrn.com

Russian feminists such as the online campaigning group Pro-Feminism are attempting to fight these attacks on women’s rights, but they face formidable opposition from the Church and the police. In March, 2013, Russian feminists, anarchists and LGBT activists tried to get the necessary permit to organize a rally celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  When the permit was denied, they attended a rally organized by the Yabloko party.  About a half hour into the rally, they were attacked by shouting Orthodox counter-demonstrators hurling garbage and rotten eggs. Though police were standing by, they did nothing to stop the attack; instead they detained two feminists who were distributing a self-published newspaper with articles on the history of feminism, LGBT rights, and domestic violence. 

When other protesters headed to the police van to demand the release of the detainees, the police detained a dozen more, concentrating on those carrying feminist flags and signs rather than Yabloko party placards. In the police van, an officer told the detainees that they wouldn’t have gotten into this kind of trouble if they had stayed home like normal women and celebrated by drinking vodka with their husbands. One of the detained demonstrators, Anastasia Bryazgina, was accused of assaulting a police officer; this is a criminal offense requiring the help of a lawyer, but, unlike Pussy Riot, who were defended by well known lawyers and supported by thousands, including pop stars, she has gained the support of only her friends and colleagues.

Why such a difference?  Pussy Riot campaigned directly against Putin. The International Women’s Day protestors were campaigning in support of women’s basic human rights, equal access to political representation, protection from dismissal at work because of pregnancy, as well as protection against gender based violence, hate speech, and sexism. These issues have never been taken up by Russian human rights advocates; in fact, as Nadezdha Azhgikhina, Secretary of the Union of Russian Journalists, observed in 2000, “women's rights are generally not even perceived as part of the concept of human rights.”

Concerned about the assault on reproductive rights, Pro-Feminism and the Association of Russian Women Journalists organized a public forum on Sept. 25, World Contraception Day, with speakers from a number of organizations. Participants have decided to develop a campaign of education on women’s issues to try to get more sympathetic attention from the Russian media and human rights movement.



Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData