Inside the fight over Russia’s domestic violence law

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.

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