Source: Sergey Fadeichev/ TASS
Sign translation: (right) All women need are their fundamental human rights! (middle) To the victims of violence – protection and support!
In a country where one woman dies every 40 minutes as a result of domestic violence, there is an almost ubiquitous acceptance of abuse in Russian culture and increasingly in the law. Two years in review, the 2017 bill to decriminalise some forms of domestic violence is having a drastic impact on the number of reported cases of assault and, in the opinions of some human rights activists, contributing to a sense of increasingly normalized violence in Russia.
Since February 2017, the law has stated that one-off assault, against a partner, family member, or a child, that does not result in serious medical harm requiring hospital treatment is not a criminal offence. Under this amendment, assault that fits this criteria is considered 'administrative rather than criminal', and punishable with a 30,000 ruble fine (£400), detention in custody for up to 15 days, or 120 hours of community service. Prior to these changes, the sentence was a maximum of two years in prison. This amendment was considered to be the closing of a loophole in Russian Law, which meant the penalties for domestic assault were higher than other assault. The driving force behind this change was Yelena Mizulina, an ultra-conservative MP who argued that the previous law was ridiculous and meant perpetrators could be branded criminal 'for a slap'.
Russia sees unprecedented levels of domestic assault, with 36,000 women being assaulted by a partner daily and 14,000 being killed every year. This culture of abuse not only affects assault between partners but also that of children, with 26,000 children being beaten by a parent annually.
Two years in review of the changes to domestic assault law, which took place in February 2017, there are increasingly clear signs that this regression is a reflection of Russian cultural and social values, with 59% of the population entirely in favour, and a mere 17% being entirely against. This cultural acceptance is reflected in the media, with the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda promoting 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!'.
Political analyst Maria Lipman argues that Russia’s apathy to domestic assault stems from the origin of its gender equality transformation during the Soviet period, which rather than being fought for was '...granted or even imposed on Russian women'. This has meant Russian women did not have to fight for their rights in the same way as other countries, and as a result gender dynamics are very different.
The change not only reflects gender relations in Russia, but also Russian 'family values'. Alyona Popova, a political activist and women’s rights campaigner believes 'Traditional, or rather archaic values have become popular again', a statement that reflects the standpoints of numerous religious and conservative groups. The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement saying that 'if reasonable and carried out with love, corporal punishment is an essential right given to parents by God'. Pervasive through all groups that support the bill is a belief that unlike in Western Europe, the government has no right to interfere in family matters, with Putin stating in December that while 'there’s too little distance between a spanking and a beating', he believes, 'unceremonious interference with the family is impermissible'.
Two years to the month after the bill passed, its impacts are clearly shown in both statistics and lived experience for many Russians. The State statistics showed that in 2016 there were 65,543 cases of domestic violence reported, and that in 2017, after the bill, the number of reported cases fell to 36,037- an decrease of almost half. Of course this could be read as a fall in the number of instances of abuse, however the national helpline at the Anna Centre, an NGO that supports victims of domestic abuse, registered an increase of 35% over the same time period. One activist argues that the statistics don’t show a decline in abuse, but that '...women are even less inclined to ask for help than they were before'. According to another campaign, over 16 million Russian women a year experience domestic violence and only a shockingly small 10% ever report it to the police.
These statistics are hardly surprising given the experiences women have had of reporting abuse after the bill. Victims of domestic violence who share a bank account with the perpetrator have reported being forced by officials to pay the fine on their behalf. Pisklakova-Parker of the Anna Centre believes that, 'The amendments have sent a message to women that it is useless to search for help, and to the perpetrators that this is all right to do.' The bill has meant that for many of the women reporting domestic violence not only does the perpetrator face no real punishment but also that they themselves do, which would explain the radical reduction in reports of abuse.
It is clear that Russia does not only have a legal or political problem with identifying and tackling an abuse epidemic, but also a cultural one. While the work of human rights campaigners and NGOs shows a strong resistance to an increasingly violent and apathetic society, to make any significant difference to current domestic abuse statistics Russia would have to see a complete cultural shift, which does not yet seem to be on the horizon.