Yelena Mizulina, head of the Russian State Duma's Committee for Family, Women and Children is chairing a regular meeting of the committee. She is deceptively benign and genial, speaking alternately in the calming tones of a kind grandmother and the harsh rattle of a machine gun. She looks severe: dressed all in black, a discreet pearl pin holding her piled up hair and a look of concentration on her face – only her gold spectacle frames provide a contrasting touch.
In recent years, though, this pleasant looking 60 year-old’s name has become a byword for rabid, narrow-minded patriotic conservatism, bordering on a mindset reminiscent of the Stone Age. Indeed, last week Mizulina introduced a bill to remove abortions from the list of free medical care, restricting state medical coverage to abortions only in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, as well as introducing fines for abortions in private clinics. The bill may not have passed. But don’t be fooled: this is just the first attempt.
Once upon a time, though, Mizulina’s profile was quite different. As a leading member of the progressive opposition during the 1990s, she opposed the war in Chechnya and was at the heart of a move to impeach Yeltsin. But how did a convinced democrat become a spokesperson for ultra-conservatism and patriotism, and the butt of many tasteless jokes?
Around the table sit dowdy municipal bureaucrats and cowed nursery school heads: they all look at Yelena Borisovna with great respect, and get nervous when it is their turn to speak. If someone fails to interest her, she intervenes: ‘Your time is up.’ But those she likes may speak for much longer. The topic under discussion is pre-school education.
After two hours of complaints and discussion, Mizulina suddenly switches her attention from patriotic matters and begins to talk warmly and knowledgeably about nursery schools in Belgium [where her son lives and works]. They have swimming pools! Amazing security systems keep unwanted visitors out! A single room for all the children to take their naps! Parents choose and pay for meals! The immigrant community clubs together to provide their children’s lunches!
Yelena Mizulina at a plenary session of the State Duma, February 2015. (c) Ramil Sitdikov / VisualRIA.
‘It’s all so socialist!’ Yelena Borisovna says, laughing, before remembering her position and concluding the meeting with a remark about the need for state involvement in pre-school education.
This pleasant looking 60 year-old’s name has become a synonym for rabid, narrow-minded patriotic conservatism
This is the same woman who has condemned the iPhone for being a tool for the sexual abuse of children. She has proposed an amendment to the Russian Constitution, making the Russian Orthodox Church central to national and cultural identity. She voted for the Dima Yakovlev Law that bans US nationals from adopting Russian orphans.
She campaigns against swearing, and wants adult content on the internet only accessible behind an ID firewall. Her most notorious achievement is the law banning ‘homosexual propaganda’ – that is, giving any information on LGBT matters to under-18s.
She also authored a bill purporting to protect children from information that might ‘harm their development’, but which instead allowed the government to carry out purges of the internet. Major online players including Google, Yandex, Live Journal and the VKontakte social media site protested against the law; Russian Wikipedia closed down its site for 24 hours, but Mizulina’s only response was to blame everything on a scurrilous campaign by the ‘paedophile lobby’. In December 2014, Freedom House moved Russia in its internet freedom ratings into the same category as Nigeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Ruanda and Zimbabwe.
Indeed, Mizulina’s image is such that she was forced to publicly deny a hoax news story that she was planning to ban oral sex and to expel all Jews from Russia – no one doubted that this might be true.
Yelena Mizulina was born on 9 December 1954 in the tiny town of Bui in North West Russia. During the Second World War, the town became an important military transport hub, and half of the 15,000 residents that went off to war never returned.
Mizulina’s father did return, but with multiple health problems following wounds, as well as the Order of the Red Banner for fortitude and heroism: in 1942 at Stalingrad, he and a dozen others had held back a German advance, killing 172 German soldiers. After the war, he headed the military department of the local Party committee.
Yelena worked hard at school, had excellent grades and dreamed of studying at the Institute of International Affairs in Moscow. She wanted to become a diplomat, but an acquaintance in the regional Party apparatus, where she came for a letter of recommendation in order to take the entrance exam, put her off – you needed connections to get anywhere in Moscow. Instead, she decided on a Law degree at Yaroslavl University, where she met her future husband at the entrance exam, marrying him in her fourth year of university.
Yelena Mizulina sits on the Duma impeachment commission, January 1999. (c) Vladimir Fedorenko / VisualRIA.
Her completed thesis took two years to be accepted: her ideas were too advanced for the dying USSR
After university, Mizulina spent eight years as a legal consultant at the regional court and gained a higher degree. Her husband, meanwhile, became head of the local Communist Party ideological department and in 1985 ‘fixed’ a job for Yelena as head of the Yaroslavl College of Education’s Russian and Soviet History Faculty.
There she wrote her doctoral thesis on ‘The criminal law process: a framework for the state’s self-limitation’. It took two years for her completed thesis to be accepted – her ideas, it seemed, were too advanced for the dying Soviet state.
The new senator
In October 1993, the last remnants of the Soviet Union were dismantled. After a violent stand-off between President Yeltsin and the old Supreme Soviet, that body was abolished and replaced by the State Duma and Federation Council. Mizulina’s husband insisted she stand for election. Suddenly, Yelena was a senator for the Yaroslavl Region.
Mizulina started out as a radical, progressive voice in politics. She became part of government with the help of the Russia’s Choice voting bloc led by Yegor Gaidar, part of the Yeltsin team. But six months later, she was opposing both a Yeltsin move to restrict civil rights in the name of combating thuggery and a war in Chechnya, which she still calls a ‘pointless civil war, easy to begin and impossible to stop.’
Mizulina started out as a radical, progressive voice in politics.
In 1995, she was elected to the Duma as part of Yabloko (Apple), billed as a new, up and coming democratic party, which opposed both Yeltsin and Gaidar. Today, Yabloko is a shadow of its former self. But, as a member, Mizulina was an active figure in the opposition, forever calling press conferences and airing her views on everything from political crisis and the slave trade to the duty on tobacco products.
She was named one of the 100 most influential politicians in Russia and earned the reputation of an official who, on the one hand, always chose her words with great care and took a balanced approach to issues, while on the other constantly attempting to explain to journalists what was happening in Russia and its government. The Yabloko archive even holds newspaper cuttings where she is described as ‘the protector of the people’.
Yelena Mizulina speaking to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, May 1997. (c) Vladimir Fedorenko / VisualRIA.
In 1999, Yelena became deputy head of a committee to impeach Yeltsin and the face of the whole campaign. But while this was already the third attempt at impeachment, none of the five accusations levelled against him by Yabloko and the Communist Party stuck – the Belovezh accords, the events of October 1993, the war in Chechnya, the fall in Russia’s military capability, and the socio-economic policies of the 1990s, which led to the ‘genocide of the Russian people’.
Mizulina remained convinced that the party could turn itself round and ‘in two years Russians would see another country.’ But in two years, Russian citizens saw her in another party.
A new party
Back in her home city of Yaroslavl, Mizulina attempted to disband the local branch of Yabloko and create a new party by merging the remnants with the Union of Right Forces (SPS) party, founded in 1999 as the electoral bloc of several liberal parties and movements.
Unsurprisingly, this caused an enormous row, with the Yabloko leadership issuing endless press releases denying the whole thing. Why did Mizulina do it? Yabloko party veteran Aleksei Melnikov is convinced that she was paid by Anatoly Chubais, the liberal economist, businessman and politician who funded SPS: ‘They were two very different parties: the SPS was an oligarchic party that mostly supported the existing system, whereas Yabloko was and will always be a democratic party.’
In February 2001, Mizulina wrote to Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, claiming that rumours she was leaving the party, were spread by the NTV television channel. And yet, a month later, she was defending NTV from possible closure (its reporting was often critical of the government), and soon after she left Yabloko and joined SPS.
Yelena Mizulina, head of the Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children, October 2014. (c) Kirill Kallinikov / VisualRIA.
Boris Nadezhdin, who now heads the Law Faculty of Moscow’s Institute of Physics and Technology, was an SPS Duma Deputy at the time and worked closely with Mizulina. He describes her as ‘an absolutely typical democrat and human rights campaigner. You’d never hear anything from her then about God or the Church: you could have a rational discussion with her about anything. She was young, attractive, smiling, with a good sense of humour. Now she has a face like a saint on an icon, with a look that could kill.’
‘Now she has a face like a saint on an icon, with a look that could kill.’
Melnikov says that nobody particularly condemned Mizulina for leaving Yabloko until two years later, when she started heaping criticism on the party. The idea of merging with SPS was forgotten – in the run-up to the 2003 election SPS saw Yabloko as its main rival.
Many years later, Mizulina expressed regret that the parties were not able to present a united front against the emergent United Russia, which has been Russia’s ruling party since 2003. But it all ended in mutual recriminations, smear campaigns and dirty tricks. ‘She was just incredibly two-faced’, remembers Melnikov.
‘It was indecent – she only won a seat by being on our party list; she had stood in a single-member constituency in Yaroslavl and come fourth, a total disaster. My previous impression of her as of a reasonably good person flew out the window.’
The 2003 parliamentary election was a disaster for both Yabloko and SPS: neither achieved the 5% of votes required for representation in the Duma and never recovered.
Mizulina didn’t win a seat, but remained in the Duma as a representative on her beloved Constitutional Court. In 2004, she supported Vladimir Putin when he replaced the direct election of regional governors with a presidential nomination system, despite Nadezhdin and others’ attempts to dissuade her: ‘it was a shock; she was suddenly on the other side of the barricades. I asked her, “How could you, Lena?” and her reply was, “I believe Putin was right”. We haven’t spoken since, other than on TV discussion shows’.
The Kremlin wanted to pass [the anti-gay law], so she sat down and rewrote it.
In 2007, Yelena Mizulina was returned to the Duma again on the crest of a wave created by a new party called A Just Russia, which from the start was panned as a pseudo-opposition party set up to provide the illusion of a two-party system.
Torn by ideological contradictions, A Just Russia likes to present these as a positive factor. Mizulina was quickly appointed to head the Committee for Family, Women, and Children, as a compromise candidate after the usual murky infighting. She had previously shown no interest in this area, but it is this post that has earned her the controversial reputation.
Her former Just Russia colleague Ilya Ponomaryov believes she has been misunderstood: ‘my view is very different from that of the liberal clique. She is a conscientious person who finishes everything she starts, and an excellent lawyer. Her campaign against paedophilia led to legislation closing all the existing legal loopholes, but no one noticed.
‘Then she introduced a law protecting children from inappropriate information, but the internet guys saw it as an attack on their rights, although the TV channels gave it complete support. She had all kinds of shit thrown at her, and the worst was to do with the anti-LGBT propaganda law. It was initiated in Novosibirsk, my home constituency, and I organised protests against it there. Mizulina was also against it; she called it unconstitutional.’
‘But it was clear the Kremlin wanted to pass it, so as a lawyer she sat down and rewrote the bill to allow people to do what they liked, but not to promote their lifestyle. She honestly believed she was protecting the LGBT movement, but she was completely hung out to dry and labelled an extremist.’
People who know Yelena Mizulina disagree about the U-turn moment. Boris Nadezhdin thinks it happened gradually: ‘over the years she went with the flow, from Gaidar to Putin. She wasn’t the only one, and she feels good about it. She has connections among the ‘strongmen’ surrounding Putin, and all this heady brew of Imperial Orthodoxy probably came from them.’
Ilya Ponomaryov believes that Mizulina’s opponents created the monster themselves: ‘She is very ambitious and thin-skinned, and when she was hounded over the information law she became radicalised – from a sane and moderate professor she turned into an unbridled wheeler dealer who sees conspiracies everywhere. She was well-motivated, but now she does terrible things.’
Aleksei Melnikov feels that, from the beginning of her career, people mocked Mizulina for her earnestness – even the exaggerated way she pronounced the word ‘morality’, as though she was doing a voiceover for a porn film.
‘It’s common for people in politics to go for success as soon as they see it. Her son is a lawyer in Belgium; his company supports the LGBT community, but his mother simply despises and destroys them without any understanding of the issues. There are lots of people like that, who just follow the trend of the moment, and you have to see Mizulina’s evolution in that context.’
In 2013, Mizulina herself stated that her liberal views began to change after she began to study family relationships and traditional values. Back in 1999, she remarked in an interview that ‘Politics is a cruel activity that destroys a person morally, mostly through a misjudgement of a politician’s work. And anyone who goes into the profession has to be prepared for this.’
‘Politics is a cruel activity that destroys a person morally’ – Yelena Mizulina
Blessed are the meek
Nine days after the committee session above, Yelena Mizulina arrives at the Kremlin for a full meeting of the presidential Coordination Council that will discuss national strategy on child-related issues.
She is, as usual, dressed in black – people listen to her more in black. The meeting takes place in the imposing white-and-gold pillared Catherine Hall with its gold two-headed eagles on the architrave. Among the many people gathered: Council President Valentina Matvienko, the Children’s Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov (the chief author of the Dima Yakovlev Law), Deputy Prime Minister for Social Affairs Olga Golodets (who plans to ban the sale of foreign medicines in Russia), and popular singer Nadezhda Babkina, who believes that ‘the bacteria carriers of fascism’ are being armed in Ukraine.
Yelena Mizulina, quietly leafing through a sheaf of meeting papers, pales beside them. She nods gently at a mention of the importance of Crimea’s return to Russia; the unacceptability of knocking ‘propaganda nails’ into children’s heads; the fact that drug dealers, murderers and criminals are the new heroes.
The Council agrees on a new strategy – to create a new type of Russian with a competitive, patriotic and humanitarian-orientated personality. This paragon will have to be taught empathy and joy, and denied alcohol, drugs and psychoactive substances.
The meeting is concluded. The press releases sent. The Council will reconvene in three months time. Politics in action.
Mizulina is a survivor. Yabloko is a dead duck. Boris Nadezhdin whizzes between TV studios. Ilya Ponomaryov lives somewhere in the States. But Yelena Mizulina is still here. I watch as she comes out of the Kremlin, sits in her official black Audi and is driven off, a beatific smile on her face.