Nadezhda Azhgikhina: Russian Citizens Don’t Want to Live in the Middle Ages

posted 16 Feb 2017, 03:48 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 16 Feb 2017, 04:36 ]
30 January 2017

By Nadezhda Azhgikhina, secretary of the Union of Journalists of Russia

Yet again the State Duma did not heed the voices of citizens and experts and lessened the punishment for domestic violence.

The social movement “Vesna” (Spring) held a protest in St. Petersburg. In an improvised boxing ring, the activists presented three storylines: an alcoholic grandson beating a retired relative, a husband beating a wife, and corporal punishment of a child. The St. Petersburg activists were reacting to the State Duma’s final decision on removing insignificant violence against close relatives (i.e. first offence incidents not causing physical injury or loss of ability to work) from the Criminal Code’s jurisdiction to that of administrative (i.e. civil) law. In practice the decision means that if till today one would receive up to two years in prison for beating one’s wife or child, then after the amendment’s adoption, the accused could be fined up to 30,000 rubles (500 USD), imprisoned up to 15 days or perform up to 360 hours of correctional labour. Already last year Article 116 of the Criminal Code (“beatings”) was lightened, and minor assaults on strangers removed from the code’s purview. Yet assaults on relatives remained. Now, after the proposal’s third reading, 380 members of the Russian parliament upheld the decriminalisation of beatings with three votes against.

In anticipation of the final readings, protests took place in cities throughout Russia, initiated by women’s and human rights organizations, and numerous publications appeared in national and regional news media warning against what authors and experts called a dangerous decision. Remarkably, people of different points of view and political convictions spoke out against decriminalisation of domestic violence, including practically all serious experts and even military agencies. Critics of the amendment included the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Scientific Research Institute of the Prosecutor General, the Serbskii Institute of Legal Psychiatry, the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, the President’s Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, “Anna” Association of Crisis Centres, Consortium of Women’s Organizations, as well as various civil society initiatives, lawyers, and policemen. Women’s organizations asked to keep criminal responsibility for beating pregnant women and children in the Criminal Code, but it did not come to pass.

Without providing statistical evidence, initiators of the amendment, in particular Olga Batalina, asserted that society had long awaited the decriminalisation of domestic violence. Senator Yelena Mizulina said not for the first time that the main problem for families is not violence in the home, but aggression from women and lack of respect for men. Police statistics tell the opposite story. The first official data on the number of victims of violence within the family, published nearly 20 years ago, were horrific: more than 10,000 women and up to 2,000 children in Russia are killed annually at the hands of husbands, partners, and other close relatives. The number is comparable to the number of Soviet soldiers killed throughout the entire [10-year] Soviet-Afghan War. In 2015 alone, 50,000 violent offences were committed within families.

Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the “Anna” Association of Crisis Centres, believes that number is significantly lower than reality, given that 70% of women who come to the crisis centres never make statements to the police. In her opinion the new amendment, by lessening the punishment for those who commit violence, will lead to a further decrease in official complaints, hiding the problem in the shadows. In solidarity with her is Svetlana Aivazova, a member of the President’s Council on Human Rights, who finds the Duma’s decision a highly dangerous symptom and a step backwards in protecting victims of violent acts. Sergei Shargunov, one of the few members of parliament who voted against the amendment, thinks it contradicts the Constitution, which forbids violence as such.

Lawyer Mari Davtyan calls attention to the fact that it is not about a simple slap, but rather about violence against a human being, most often against young people. In her opinion, the amendment will only make the situation for victims of domestic violence more difficult — moreover, at present there is no precise definition of “violence in the family.” A legal definition of domestic violence is offered by a bill on the prevention of such actions, currently under review in the State Duma. The necessity of such a law has long been recognized not only by experts and human rights defenders, but also by the police, who are in need of a precise set of actions to protect victims and proactively prevent domestic violence.

The understanding of domestic violence in Russian society has changed significantly over the past 25 years. In 1991 it was typically seen as a private matter. I remember well how I spent several months convincing Vitaly Korotich, editor-in-chief of the leading perestroika magazine Ogonyok, which published the real truth of the Soviet past and future, to include a text on women who had been beaten. It took him a long time to understand that it was an important topic — that’s how strong stereotypes were. Today, mostly thanks to the enormous efforts of women’s organizations and the cooperation of Russian and international initiatives, people recognize it as a crime that must be punished. Even on popular TV shows, good cops defend victims of violence and punish supposedly macho men. And one of the initiators of the law on prevention of domestic violence, alongside human rights defenders, was the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Unfortunately, yet again the Russian parliament heard neither those who suffered from violence, nor civil society representatives, nor professionals.

It’s even sadder that the poorly thought-out decision, in experts’ opinions, not only makes more difficult the acceptance of the long-awaited law on domestic violence, but also, most likely, will give a green light to ultra-nationalist groups (which unfortunately are more and more often receiving officials' support) such as Orthodox Parents or Night Wolves, who accuse external enemies and fifth columns poisoned by the liberal virus of human rights of all Russia’s woes. According to them, liberals and feminists who protect victims of violence are encroaching on that most sacred of things — the inviolability of the family, the basis of the so-called uniquely Russkii mir [Russian world]. It is these groups that welcomed Trump’s election as a sign of the victory of “normal Americans” over LGBT people, feminists, and liberals….It’s important to understand that these marginal groups, however much they shout, are not actually expressing the opinion of Russian people.

One very much wants to believe that the President will not sign such a shameful amendment. And that Russian lawmakers will learn to listen to the voices of professional and citizens who want to live in a modern, civilised society, based on respect for human beings, and not in the Middle Ages of myth as imagined by populists and conscienceless political scientists.

New protests against the State Duma’s decision and in defence of victims of domestic violence are being planned in many Russian cities.

[Editor’s note: On 7 February 2017, President Putin signed into force the law decriminalising domestic violence.]