“Traditional Values” Rhetoric and Efforts for Greater Domestic Violence Protections in Russia: Why Legislative Action May Not Be Enough


Kristen Lew earned her Juris Doctor degree from the University at Buffalo School of Law, SUNY, where she also served as Articles Editor for the Buffalo Human Rights Law Review.

Pervasive domestic violence remains an ongoing human rights concern in Russia, with cases underreported and a pronounced lack of recourse and governmental support services. Efforts to address this issue have been consistently stymied by the rhetoric of conservative factions supporting “traditional Russian values.” Unless the concept of “traditional values” is separated from the legal sphere, formal measures meant to prevent domestic violence and assist survivors will be hollow in practice.

Rhetoric as a Method of Control

The contemporary concept of “traditional Russian values” originated following the collapse of the USSR as a way to create a new Russian identity. Some scholars posit that the state increasingly uses this rhetoric as a method of social control, with fundamental tenets being gender complementarity and a heterosexual family unit. The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has exerted substantial influence to oppose activities deemed to conflict with traditional values. State officials have also voiced similar reasoning for opposing greater accountability for domestic violence offenses. 

Diminution of Protections

Data on instances of domestic violence are limited. A 2019 study found that ten per cent of Russian families experience domestic violence and approximately 75 per cent of those experiencing domestic violence are women. When controlled for married couples, approximately 90 per cent of those experiencing domestic violence are women. Reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia point to even higher rates of domestic violence. Domestic violence has surged across the country following coronavirus lockdown measures. 

There are no laws in Russia specifically targeting domestic violence. Instead, there are only provisions for the general infliction of harm. Under this framework, in 2016 non-aggravated battery was decriminalized and reclassified as an administrative offense, punishable only by a fine. Under the original bill, non-aggravated battery continued to be a crime in the context of close relatives, including spouses and children. This left some recourse for domestic violence survivors. However, a subsequent amendment in 2017 eliminated this distinction. 

Future Outlook

NGOs such as the Consortium of Women’s Nongovernmental Associations and the ANNA Center for Prevention of Violence have consistently worked to raise awareness of domestic violence and have worked to fill the void of the government’s lack of coordinated response. Following the 2016 and 2017 rollback of criminal penalties for non-aggravated battery, civil activists drafted a bill that would categorize domestic violence as a specific offense. The bill faced backlash from conservative groups and the ROC, all of whom invoked the well-worn idea that the bill would encroach on the “traditional family.” Upon publication by the Russian Federation Council, the bill’s co-authors noted that the substance of the original bill was significantly altered such that the new version no longer contained many of the protections the drafters had envisioned. Further action on this bill has been delayed during the pandemic.

This bill is a major step towards contending with domestic violence in Russia. However, formal recognition is only one component of this issue. A lack of awareness among segments of the public remains widespread. A survey conducted in 2019 found that 74 per cent of women in Russia believed domestic violence is a major problem, while only 45 per cent of men thought the same. Also notable were results that 47 per cent of men believed the issue of domestic violence is exaggerated, where only 18 per cent of women agreed. Without addressing the discrepancy in perceptions of domestic violence, any legislation, if passed, would likely have only a minimal impact. For example, in the United States, advocacy and education were crucial for gaining public and legislative support for the Violence against Women Act (VAWA) in a time when domestic violence was viewed mainly as a private matter.

The activities of NGOs remain a key component in this developing discourse. There are indications that the populace’s attitude concerning domestic violence has begun to shift as awareness grows. Additionally, there have been other heartening developments, such as the advent of St Petersburg University’s new interdisciplinary center for the study of domestic violence. Such efforts educate the public and are essential to garnering support for formal protections that are respected and enforced. Education thus works to untie traditional values rhetoric from the reality of domestic violence. 

Conclusion

Increased reports of domestic violence in Russia highlight the longstanding and pressing need for acknowledgment of this issue that breaks with the narrative of traditional values. While formal recognition by the government is crucial, there must be a holistic approach to contending with root issues. Efforts to separate discourse from so-called “traditional values” are important to changing public perception of these acts as private matters to understanding this violence as a public health and human rights concern. Until this type of progress occurs, it will be difficult achieve meaningful change on a formal, legislative level.

This piece was written in the author’s personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of any other natural person or entity.