In 2013, a law was introduced to the Russian Criminal Code which made“offending the feelings of religious believers” a criminal offense. This law came on the back of a series of political developments born of the tightening of relations between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church over the past few years, and it has seen several convictions since its inception. Some of the most infamous of these cases include the conviction of a young man for playing PokemonGo in an Orthdox church, and that of a woman who is facing charges for lighting her cigarette using a church candle.
It can be difficult to see how Russia arrived at this point, when one considers the religious intolerance that abounded during the Soviet regime. During the 1960s, for example, Russia was awash with propaganda depicting Yuri Gagarin’s voyage to space, and his apparent observation that even up there, among the stars, there was no God to be found. Throughout the Soviet era, priests were seen as persona non grata and their freedoms were hugely curtailed. They were obliged to report to the KGB and to relay any important information that they had gleaned from confession.
How times have changed. The partnership between Putin and the Orthodox Church has been consolidated in recent years, and is part of a growing trend toward ‘retraditionalisation,’ which has positioned Putin and his religious allies as defenders of the so-called traditional values of Russia in the face of the ‘decadent’ and ‘immoral’ culture of the West. Although himself a KGB officer during the Soviet regime, since coming to power, Putin has provided the church with a huge amount of financial support and has cleverly used the church as foundation for a new, traditional, national ideology.
In fact, according to data from the Levada Center, an ever-increasing number of Russians now profess to be Orthodox Christians, a figure which puts paid to the belief of some critics that Russian society has done a wholesale transfer of commitment from one belief system (communism) to another (Orthodoxy). However, widespread self-identification as Orthodox is indicative more so of piousness than of piety, with few Russians claiming to actually believe in God and fewer still claiming that they attend church regularly. Furthermore, as per the statistics of the Levada Center, it appears that a low number of Russian citizens are attuned to the level of influence exerted by the church on Russian politics, where 66% of those surveyed responded with ‘definitely’ or ‘probably no’ to the question ‘Do you think that the church should influence government decisions?’ Furthermore, in response to the question ‘How much influence do you believe the church and other religious organisations exert on government policies in Russia?’ the majority responded with ‘exactly as much as should be.’
Such contradictions are inherent to the process of ‘retraditionalisation’ and the complicated role that is played by the church in pushing Putin’s political agenda. They are indicative of a desire for tradition, where this tradition is represented by the Orthodox church but is not necessarily motivated by faith. However, faithless or not, this ‘retraditionalisation’ process brings with it serious consequences for the human rights and freedoms of Russian citizens, and nowhere is this more sharply felt than in the field of women’s rights.
Russia has a staggeringly high rate of domestic violence, where every month, 600 women are killed in their own homes. According to estimates from the Russian interior ministry, 14000 women were killed by their partners in 2013 – that’s almost 40 women every day.
These figures are mere numerical indicators of the grim and deadly situation faced by Russian women every day, and yet, neither the figures nor the numerous appeals for help have been met with adequate response by the government. In fact, quite the opposite has occurred. Last February (2017) domestic abuse was decriminalised in Russia, becoming an administrative rather than a criminal offense. The new law means that perpetrators of domestic abuse will be punished with a monetary fine rather than a prison sentence should they commit violence against their partners (or any family member), as long as this violence does not leave the affected family member in need of medical attention. If the victim’s injuries are such that she ends up in hospital, the maximum sentence with which the abuser can be charged is 15 days in prison, where previously, it was two years.
Advocates for the new law have claimed that it was passed in the name of family values, in other words, to prevent family members from going to jail for violence against their relatives, or to prevent their imprisonment ‘for what is merely a slap’ to quote Yelena Mizulina, one politician who helped draft the law. Mizulina, who was one of the people behind the 2013 gay propaganda law, has also claimed that ‘in Russian traditional families, the relationship between parents and children is built upon authority and power.’ A kind of justification that Russian women’s rights activist, Alena Popova, said was akin to campaigning for the right to beat vulnerable relatives.
Popova, who stood alone in her protest outside the parliament on the day the bill decriminalizing domestic violence was passed, was accused of being paid to protest by Western governments,’ a serious accusation at a time when legislation such as the Undesirables Law or the Foreign Agents Law attributes bad intention to almost any foreign involvement in Russia.
In this case, bystanders suspicion that Popova was a foreign plant is tied up with widespread suspicion in Russia of anything that smacks of feminism or so-called gender ideology, the latter being the umbrella term used by conservatives to denote progressive movements for women’s or LGBQTI+ rights. This is because Putin has succeeded in framing progressive values and human rights as Western abominations and threats to the ‘traditional’ values of Russia, where one key aspect of these ‘illiberal’ Western values is women’s rights, to which he and his allies in the church are diametrically opposed.
Indeed, Russian ‘family values’ are increasingly becoming a cipher for Russian Orthodox values. Although the church has claimed that it doesn’t support violence within families, it has also stated that it does not support state intervention in family affairs. Vakhtang Kipshidze, the Vice Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for Church’s Society and Media Relations has stated that ‘family training’ is the best way to prevent domestic abuse, however he was careful to clarify that such training did not constitute sexuality education. Furthermore, his wish for the state to find other methods to counteract domestic violence is undermined by the fact that a bill aiming to do just that has been stalled in the Russian parliament for months, and is not expected to pass.
In other words, the Russian government’s actions (or inactions) carried out under the banner of ‘family values,’ are fraught with contradictions and paradox, to put it mildly. The courtship between Church and State has led to the reification of ‘traditional’ ‘family’ values, which are built upon patriarchal structures and strict gender norms that leave women exposed, unprotected and unable to access their basic human rights.
Putin’s assumed role as guardian of ‘traditional values’ therefore allows him and his government to act with impunity in their violation of human rights, as long as it is done in the name of those two sacred entities: the church, and the family. It also allows the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to at once claim that ‘liberalism will lead to legal collapse and then the Apocalypse,’ while achieving a 71% approval rating among the Russian people, according to a poll taken by the Levada Center in 2016. Finally, it allows damaging and archaic attitudes and practices to be absorbed into the new, retraditionalised Russian identity, so that traditional proverbs which tell women that ‘if he beats you, it means he loves you,’ may endure.
The Russian government has placed limitations on freedoms such as the freedom of expression or assembly. Furthermore, the political environment is such that it can be difficult to lobby decision-makers directly.
With this in mind, it can be more effective to try other kinds of advocacy such as those which focus on awareness raising and education. These kinds of advocacy aim to convince the public of the importance of that which you are advocating for / against.
Here are a few ideas:
- Organise a workshop or conference on the issue of domestic violence in your country / community. This might help create alliances in the community and lead to novel approaches in tackling the issue of domestic violence. Conferences also act as safe spaces for those working on or affected by the issue of domestic violence.
- Start a campaign presenting facts and / or personal stories of those affected by domestic violence that can be spread by means of leaflets and posters. This tactic might educate people on the issue or push them to think about it if they have never before considered it as is often the case.
- Try to ensure that there is a media person / source that will broach the issue of domestic violence in their publications or programmes. You can help this person by contacting them and providing them with press releases, provided that you have done good research and that the facts that you provide stand up. Visibility of the issue of domestic violence in all media, not just online, is important to rally support for its condemnation.
In these kinds of advocacy, as in any kind, it is important first to analyse the issue you are working on and then to map the opponents to, and allies of, your issue. This kind of mapping will help you to sharpen the focus of your initiative.
Once this is done, you should outline your objectives and goals for the initiative so that you will be better able to monitor your success. Do you wish to improve police response to cases of domestic violence in your community? Do you wish to raise awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence? Do you wish to help people who have been subject to domestic violence?
If you are focusing on awareness raising among the public, another thing to bear in mind is that the use of technical human rights terms in your communication may not be so effective – especially if human rights have been presented as negative concepts by the government. Highlighting personal stories and making use of everyday language can sometimes work better to move people in support of your cause.
Find out more:
To find out more on advocacy against domestic violence in Russia, check out the interview that SpeakActChange held with Marina Marina Pisklakova-Parker, founder of ANNA; the National Center for the Prevention of Violence, Russia
To find out more on general advocacy techniques, check this resource created on ILGA which focuses on LGBTQI rights advocacy in the EECA region but contains lots of general tips: