Russia

How Russia Decided to Allow a Little Domestic Violence

President Vladimir Putin's belief in traditional values triggered the decriminalization of beating family members.

All in the Putin family.

Photographer: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Russian parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill decriminalizing domestic violence. It's part of President Vladimir Putin's push for a return to traditional family values.

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

In the summer of 2016, Russia got its first law specifically directed at domestic violence. The parliament introduced the notion of "close ones" to Article 116 of the criminal code, which deals with battery. That group includes the suspect's children, spouse, parents, siblings and other relatives. Beating them without any consequences to their health became punishable with a jail term of up to two years. Many in Russia saw this as a necessary measure: according to women's rights activists, 10,000 Russian women a year die as a result of domestic violence. Official statistics say 40 percent of all serious violent crime takes place in the home. 

But the purveyors of a traditionalist, conservative ideology that has become fashionable during Putin's third presidential term immediately started working to undermine the law. To them, it was an example of impermissible interference in family affairs. 

On the surface, Russian traditionalists are practically libertarians. Their rallying cry is resisting juvenile justice, a concept introduced to Russia by the European Social Charter and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of a Child: They argue it destroys the concept of family by legitimizing government interference in the home. But their tolerance for domestic violence -- only in the mildest forms, they claim, the rare but necessary spank or slap -- is descended from a medieval literary work called Domostroi (Homebuilding), known in a 16th-century version edited by Ivan the Terrible's confessor. The book has a chapter on "how to teach children and save them with fear" that tells parents: "Do not weaken when hitting a babe: If you punish him with a staff, he shall not die but will be healthier since, by beating his body, you will save his soul from death." Another chapter instructing husbands on how properly to beat their wives: Never in anger, not on the face or chest, not with a stick -- and no kicking!

No one, of course, accepts those instructions as valid today. An official Russian Orthodox Church site carries an article saying Domostroi is not a canonical text and beating family members is not Christian behavior. But traditionalists say it's no biggie in moderation.

Arguing against the domestic violence law, Yelena Mizulina, the legislator responsible for Russia's laws against discussing homosexuality in the media, recalled a specific case. A 17-year-old girl frittered away some family cash put aside to pay off the mortgage. When her mother discovered it, she slapped the young woman, who then went to the police. Even after the mother and daughter patched it up, it was too late to roll back the prosecution, and now the mother risks losing custody of a younger child. Mizulina also argued the law unfairly punished a parent more harshly than a stranger for spanking a child.

Mizulina introduced legislation, but it did not become a priority until an intervention by the ultimate arbiter of family values in Russia: Vladimir Putin.

At his annual press conference in December, Putin perhaps all-too-conveniently received a question from a journalist representing a little-known site that specializes in bashing juvenile justice. Would the Russian leader to get rid of the law that "allows a father to be sent away for two years for spanking a child who deserves it, purely as a traditional Russian educational measure"?

Initially, Putin appeared to bristle. "Look, it's better not to spank children and not to cite any traditions as justification," he said. "There's too little distance between a spanking and a beating." But then he agreed with the reporter in the broadest of strokes that "unceremonious interference with the family is impermissible." He promised to check with the parliament why the law was still on the books and what was being done about it. Inside the room, there was applause. Less than three weeks later, the parliament passed an initial version of the decriminalization bill. Its passage is all but guaranteed, and a Change.org petition demanding a tougher law against domestic violence is likely to be ignored, though more than 174,000 Russians have already signed it. 

In 2015, the German public-service broadcaster ZDF aired a documentary about Putin that cited a "Western intelligence dossier" that said Putin drank and beat his wife, Ludmila, during his service as a KGB officer in East Germany. The couple is now divorced, but Putin claims allegiance to traditional family values, with all the baggage that notion carries in Russia.

International experience proves that aggressive legislation against domestic violence tends to reduce its incidence. As a result of the legislative change, Russian rules will be among the most lax in Europe: The first reported instance of battery against a spouse or a child that doesn't result in injuries will only be punishable by a fine as an administrative transgression, although subsequent instances or heavy beatings will remain crimes.

The problem with that approach is that violence becomes permissible in small doses. Nothing will stop some "traditionalists" from getting carried away.

Putin's new conservative ideology is pushing Russia further and further away from the West and its values. To Putin, the decriminalization of domestic violence is just another step in the direction of ideological sovereignty. But it is actually backsliding into an earlier time, one that left women and children exposed to the whims of men with little or no repercussions.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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