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Inside the fight over Russia’s domestic violence law

Who is preventing Russia’s domestic violence legislation from going ahead - and does it have any future?

Alexey Yurtaev
17 February 2020
November 2019: opponents of draft law on domestic violence gather in Moscow
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Image: Natela Sulakvelidze

In autumn 2019, Russia finally began a serious debate on its domestic violence legislation. While some claim this law is essential to reducing the high rate of women who die as a result of household conflicts, others believe that family life should be sacrosanct, and that there should be no interference by the state.

According to recent research commissioned by the Russian State Duma, domestic violence takes place in approximately one out of ten Russian families. Seventy percent of those surveyed report that they have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence: 80% are women, with children and elderly people coming behind. Moreover, in 77% of surveyed cases, physical, psychological and economic violence go together. More than 35% of victims did not go to the police for assistance, citing shame, fear and mistrust.

openDemocracy looks into who started the campaign against Russia’s domestic violence law, what the law will look like when it appears in 2020 - and whether it will really protect victims of domestic violence.

What is the law about?

In September 2019, Galina Karelova, Vice-Speaker of Russia’s Federation Council, proposed discussing a law banning domestic violence, citing the fact that “existing legislation does not provide protection from family violence.”

This is not the first attempt to introduce such a bill in Russia. In 1993, a draft was put together by a fraction of the Women of Russia political party. The bill appeared a year later, but was heavily criticised. It was then sent for re-drafting, and over the next four years it was rewritten over 40 times. The final version was so different from the first that its original editors didn’t recognise it. In the end, the draft bill was dropped.

"The law on domestic violence is a nail in the coffin of the family" | Image: Natela Sulakvelidze

Between 2012 and 2016, there was another official attempt at domestic violence legislation. A coordination group led by civil society figures drafted legislation that proposed the introduction of restraining orders, which would ban abusers from close contact with their victims, build shelters and refuges for victims and guarantee judicial and psychological help. This bill, however, was rejected.

In 2017, the statute on battery was removed from the Russian Criminal Code, and administrative penalties for domestic violence were introduced instead. The next year, Human Rights Watch stated that decriminalisation had weakened guarantees of protection from violence and complicated the prosecution of abusers.

The latest attempt to pass a law against domestic violence came in autumn 2019. It was initiated by a group of activists: lawyer Maria Davtyan, director of the No to Violence Centre Anna Rivina and Alyona Popova, founder of Project W, a women’s mutual aid network. The draft bill was actively promoted by MP Oksana Pushkina.

On 29 November, Russia’s Federation Council published a draft text on the prevention of domestic violence, but its co-authors announced that it differed considerably from their original version. The co-authors from Russian civil society concluded that the draft law was useless in its present form and christened it “the result of pandering to radical conservative groups”.

Violence is incompatible with family life

“The law is being opposed by specific, concrete groups of people who have decided to make political capital out of this issue,” says Alyona Popova. “For example, oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, who dreams of creating a monarchist political party.” The Russian billionaire owns the Tsargrad media holding, and around a dozen charitable foundations are linked to his name. But the main tool in the opposition to the law is his ultra-conservative TV channel.

Konstantin_Malofeev.jpg
Konstantin Malofeyev | CC BY-SA 3.0 Tahdrummond / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

“Naturally, Malofeyev wants to make ground on some specific issue,” Popova tells me, referring to Tsargrad. “The war with Ukraine is petering out, which has removed the trump card on which 99% of his TV income was based. He needed a new focus, and here it is.”

Malofeyev’s Tsargrad website has run more than 30 reports containing mentions, denunciations or criticisms of the domestic violence law, and serious analytical TV programmes have also covered the subject.

Among the speakers invited by the channel to comment are political specialist Nikolay Starikov, Russian Federation Public Chamber member Pavel Pozhigailo, commentator Sergey Mikheyev and actor Ivan Ohklobystin - all of whom figure on the radical conservative end of Russian politics. Malofeyev is also deputy head of the Worldwide Russian People’s Council, an organisation founded in 1993 whose aim is to “unite the entire Russian people”. The organisation is currently led by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

At the Council’s congress in October, Malofeyev announced that “the public has succeeded in blocking the initial version of the law against domestic violence, while in the current version the word ‘family’ shouldn’t be mentioned. The concepts of ‘violence’ and ‘family’ are incompatible by definition.”

Since late October, conservatives have been collecting signatures opposing the domestic violence law, and by the end of 2019 they had 33,500 signatures. More than 180 voluntary organisations have also called on President Vladimir Putin not to sign the law if it is passed. By comparison, a petition in support of the law on Change.org has collected 900,000 signatures.

Love can defeat any conflict

The Russian Orthodox Church made its position public in December 2019, when the Patriarchal Commission on the Family and Protection of Motherhood and Childhood called for a boycott on the draft bill.

“It has an obvious anti-family orientation, reducing the rights and freedoms of people who have chosen a familial way of life and birth and the raising of children,” the statement read. “By unjustly overburdening families and parents, the draft law effectively introduces ‘punishment for family life’.”

The following day, the draft was also criticised by Patriarch Kirill, who, while denouncing domestic violence, remarked that “it’s very dangerous when strangers and other forces invade the closed, intimate family space, and God only knows what this invasion may bring”.

Alyona Popova believes that the Russian Orthodox Church is “acting like a bastion of history with traditional values, which for some reason include violence”. She also believes that the church is afraid of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, an international agreement by the Council of Europe forbidding violence against women and in the home. Russia is also the only member of the Council of Europe which has no domestic violence legislation.

Vsevolod Chaplin | Image: Natela Sulakvelidze

Speaking to openDemocracy in November 2019, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a leading conservative critic, feared that the draft domestic violence legislation would legitimate the removal of someone from their family - not on the basis of a court order, but a decision by the police. Chaplin told me that the legislation’s decreasing popularity is linked to the fact that “people have begun to understand the truth”.

“The general public has started to realise that it is being fed a caricature picture of beasts who wallop their wives and kids from morning till night,” Chaplin said. “There’s obviously some intrigue going on here, because while the law has to be forced through, national TV channels are supporting it. Whether it’s the government apparatus, where there’s a strong women’s lobby, or perhaps it’s the Foreign Ministry, who have decided they can win points in the west if they pass the Istanbul Convention.”

Orthodox activists

The most active opponent of Russia’s future domestic violence law in the media is the Forty Forties (Sorok sorokov) organisation. Their website calls them “a public movement consisting of Orthodox Christians, but open to anyone who wishes to defend their country and its traditional spiritual-moral values”. The organisation was set up in 2013 as a response to the media campaign critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Pussy Riot scandal, and is headed by musician Andrey Kormukhin.

Indeed, it was Andrey Kormukhin who in November announced that he was organising a rally “to defend traditional spiritual-moral values and traditional families and to thwart the passage of a law on familial-everyday violence in Russia”. Fifteen hundred people were expected at the rally in Moscow’s Sokolniki park, but I believe there were no more than 300.

Andrey Kormukhin, leader of the Forty Forties movement | Image: Natela Sulakvelidze

“Let’s fight violence together,” Kormukhin said during an interview, “but you don’t need a separate category of domestic violence: there’s no difference between a criminal in the family and a criminal on the street. If a person permits himself to cut off someone’s arm at home, he’ll do the same to someone in the street. Let’s create conditions where the incidence of crime will drop in the country in general, rather than searching for something in the home.”

Research carried out by St Petersburg University for the State Duma suggested that more than 90% of cases of domestic violence take place solely in the home.

In an interview with Meduza, Oksana Pushkina, the co-author of the draft bill, said that she “understands all too well what kind of people are organising these rallies”. “There are HIV deniers and anti-vaccination types among them,” Pushkina remarked. “There are also people who two years ago protested about the [controversial film] Matilda under the slogan ‘for traditional values’, cynically hiding behind their Orthodoxy.

“Behind this whole movement are very rich people, with government contracts and so on - but they have no status. They are prevented from going abroad by international sanctions, so they come and go not only to where I work now, but higher up. So everything that’s happening now is a demonstration of their strength. ‘Forty Forties’ is one of the ingredients of this indigestible stew. This is, in effect, a power bloc. There are movements, foundations, voluntary organisations – they’re not just rabble-rousers. To me, this is a well organised, seriously well financed structure.”

According to their website, Forty Forties branches are active not just in Moscow, but in dozens of cities around Russia, as well as Austria, Transnistria, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus and Serbia. On 22 December 2019, for example, there were actions against Russia’s law on domestic violence in 45 cities, with a crowd of 3,000 in Moscow. Another regional organisation, For Family Rights, also held a rally, while on 15 December this movement called on the public to reject the law, “as it contravenes the wishes of the Russian people and infringes their rights”.

“All our opponents say that the law is designed to support women: ‘They are being promoted in order to destroy men and put them behind bars’,” says Alyona Popova of the critics of the initiative.

“But it’s not true: the wording of the law doesn’t include any reference to women – there are ‘relatives and friends’ and ‘victims’, there are people who have experienced and suffered from domestic violence; people sharing a house, current or former partners living together, and so on. We have also deliberately included living in a civil, unregistered marriage – in Russia, 12% of people live like this. So we can’t exclude them from the effects of a protective law.”

“They have emasculated an ideal bill. We can’t support it at all, and we sent our amendments back on the first day”

The Kremlin made its first comments on the domestic violence bill in November last year. The President’s press officer said that “this is an issue, but it’s not on the Presidential Administration’s agenda”. In early December, Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev stated that “in our 21st century, nobody can fall back on that old cliché: ‘if he beats, it means he loves her’. We need to do something about this.” Medvedev, however, didn’t come out with any concrete ideas on the subject.

During an end-of-year press conference president Putin stated that he hadn’t yet read the law, but said that the need for new legislation had to be calmly discussed and its possible results predicted, after which a decision could be taken.

An “emasculated” project

In autumn 2019, there were three working groups dealing with the draft law – in the Federation Council, State Duma and the Presidential Human Rights Council. The Duma group included not only Oksana Pushkina, but Tatyana Kasayeva and Valentina Kuliyeva, as well as Constitutional Court judges, members of the Investigative Committee and human and civil rights campaigners. Marie Davtyan and Alyona Popova were also among the expert public figures in the group, and they in particular believe that significant changes might be introduced to the legislation before it is passed.

“We want to fight for our draft law, but we have no way of influencing the decision. And I fear that any real amendment will favour the fundamentalists.”

“They have emasculated an ideal bill,” Popova explains. “We can’t support it at all, and we sent our amendments back on the first day.” These comments have been published on the “You are not alone” website, where activists have posted and listed 17 complaints about the updated draft. Popova is particularly outraged that “the law is designed to preserve families”.

“This is impossible, because if a woman who has experienced domestic violence wants to divorce her abuser, it turns out that the aim of the law is to persuade her to stay with him, which contradicts Russian citizens’ constitutional rights to protection.”

The draft law’s authors fear that, although the law will be passed, its meaning will be considerably distorted - Russia’s Federation Council will simply ignore their amendments.

“We live in a representative democracy which is constructed in such a way that we, the experts, have no right to initiate legislation,” says Popova. “We delegate our right to introduce and frame laws. Duma deputies and senators will be the effective creators of this law. I believe the law will be passed, but it will be a travesty of its authors’ intentions.”

Opponents of draft domestic violence legislation, Moscow | Image: Natela Sulakvelidze

Popova believes that the law’s appendix will be supported by amendments by, for example, Senator Yelena Mizulina - the most active proponent of the partial decriminalisation of assault and battery in 2017.

“Mizulina will either introduce amendments of her own or actively lobby for the law in the Federation Council,” Popova suggests. “We want to fight for our draft law, but we have no way of influencing the decision. And I fear that any real amendment will favour the fundamentalists.”

Popova tells me that she and her team are engaged in discussions with opponents of the draft law, but these don’t always bring results. “It’s not that we avoid any dialogue with them. I’ve been involved in discussions for six years, and Marie [Davtyan] for 12 years, and before that our colleagues spent 30 years trying to have some version of the hoped-for legislation debated. We try to talk to them, but it’s like we’re staring at a blank wall - they think it’s black, and for us it’s white.”

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