Millions of lives were put at risk in January when Russia’s lower house of parliament voted 368-1 to decriminalize some domestic violence charges. Today, President Vladimir Putin signed it into law.
The legislation, known informally as the “slapping law,” decriminalizes first-offense charges of domestic violence that do not result in the hospitalization of a victim. The punishment for domestic violence is now a fine of up to 30,000 rubles ($507 USD), an arrest of up to 15 days or up to 120 hours of community service. Repeat offenses will result in a fine of up to 40,000 rubles ($676 USD), compulsory community service for up to six months or being held for up to three months.
Campaigns for the bill, which saw overwhelming support in the Duma, began in August 2016—not long after the country enacted its first domestic violence statutes on July 4. Advocates for the law have framed the issue as one of parents’ rights and as a protection against government interference in the familial sphere. (Many Russians still view corporeal punishment as integral to the traditional family structure and a basic child rearing practice.)
Russian MP Yelena Mizulina, who successfully advocated for Russia’s “gay propaganda” law, has been one of the legislation’s most prominent and public advocates—chillingly framing the issue as a return to Russia’s “traditional values.” Mizulina unsuccessfully attempted to block Russia’s 2016 domestic violence legislation, which had stalled in Russia’s parliament since 2014. The Russian Orthodox Church was also among the staunchest supporters of the new legislation, saying in a statement last year that physical punishment is a Russian tradition and should be protected as “an essential right given to parents by God,” the New York Times reports.
Along with legislation reform, it’s also clear that there remains work to be done on the ground to establish domestic violence as a practice dangerous to any members of a family. In the instances when a partner has sought the help of the police, law enforcement is often unwilling to offer aid or assistance, much less pursue criminal charges, in both urban and rural areas.
Activists in Russia and human rights groups around the world have reacted with horror to scaling back the domestic violence laws, with Yulia Gorbunova of Human Rights Watch calling Mizulina’s and others arguments in support of the legislation “shameful.”
“A huge number of women tolerate domestic violence, but do not bring it out to the public,” Olga Yurkova, executive director of “Sisters”—the country’s sole sexual assault center—told Russia’s Novaya Gazeta. “The decriminalization [of domestic violence] will worsen the situation.”
According to 2008 data from ANNA, Russia’s National Center for the Prevention of Violence, at least one form of domestic violence occurs in one in four families in Russia—and two-thirds of homicides are motivated by domestic or household tensions. Data from the Russian Interior Ministry shows that around 40 percent of grave violent crimes in Russia are committed in families. In 2014, more than 25 percent of all murders in Russia took place in families.
More than 9,000 women died in criminal assaults in Russia in 2013—while more than 11,000 were seriously injured. Other sources say the number is closer to 14,000, amounting to nearly 40 deaths per day in the country from domestic violence alone. In the United States, 11,7666 women were killed by a husband or partner between 2001 and 2012.
“If he beats you, he loves you.” That’s a common Russian refrain—and a concept Russians have spent centuries struggling to divorce themselves from. For decades prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, there was no concept in the Russian social, cultural, or legal vocabulary to define the phenomenon of domestic abuse. At the end of the nineteenth century, the increasing “Europeanization” of the Russian intellectual elite at the end of the nineteenth century saw aristocratic men and women use the stories of peasant men’s violent, at times public, degradation of their wives as to bolster attitudes of the peasantry’s inherent barbarism; decades later, when the Soviets assumed power, notions of domestic violence no longer fit into a social narrative dedicated to instilling (if not actually promoting) universal equality. The Soviet and the tsarist regimes may be gone, but domestic violence and its scars remain rampant in Russian society.