Is Russia Really About to Legalize Domestic Violence? Here's the Real Scoop

Legislation to reduce penalties for violence among family members has the backing of the Russian Orthodox Church -- but not necessarily of President Putin

Fri, Jan 27, 2017
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A new campaign against the Russian devil has started in the US and UK media where the Hillary Clinton-for-President forces are strongest. The problem for them this time is that President Vladimir Putin is on the side of the angels. But he is unwilling to stop a power play by the Russian Orthodox Church.  Four out of five Russians, and an even higher number of Russian women, would back Putin if he did.

A month ago, Putin came out against parental slapping or beating of children, discreetly referring to the Church’s biblical interpretations as obsolete. “We should not slap children and justify it based on some old traditions,” Putin said at his national press conference on December 23.  “Neither parents, nor neighbours should do this, although this sometimes happens. There is a short distance from slaps to beating. Children fully depend on adults; they are the most dependent members of society. There are many other ways to bring children up without slapping.”

The president was responding to a Church-sponsored revision of Article 116 of the Russian Criminal Code. In its present form, inherited from the Soviet code, conviction for violence in the family is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison.  The readiness of victims to file charges; of the police and prosecutors to investigate; and of the courts to convict has been lax.   “On the other hand,” Putin qualified himself, he isn’t exactly against the legislative change proposed in the State Duma by the Church. “We should be reasonable too, because actions such as you describe destroy families. Like you, I am against such distorted forms of juvenile justice. Frankly speaking, I believed that my instruction had been fulfilled. The State Duma Speaker [Vyacheslav Volodin] has updated me on this only recently, and he said that the related amendments had been approved. Let us discuss this issue once again. I promise to look at this matter and to analyse the situation. Unceremonious interference in family matters is unacceptable.

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Patriarch Kirill and Putin meeting at the Kremlin on May 24, 2016.  They  also met together on February 1, 2016, when Putin told  Kirill “a big thank you to you for developing the Russian Orthodox Church and for strengthening the unity of our people and society.”  In 2013 Putin had told Kirill: :"The Russian Orthodox Church and other traditional religions should get every opportunity to fully serve in such important fields as the support of family and motherhood, the upbringing and education of children, youth, social development, and to strengthen the patriotic spirit of the armed forces." Source: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-putin-church-idUSBRE91016F20130201

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Last month Putin not only went beyond Church doctrine on family discipline, battery and violence.  He also extended state protection against violence to animals. “We should proceed from the principle of humanism with regard to animals, including stray ones.” He went on: “About animal rights – it sounds nice indeed, but [for] dog owners, any pet owners – they [animals] do have rights. As for humanitarian issues such as the humane treatment of animals, these fall into a different regulatory domain, although it should certainly be improved.  You know, there have been suggestions about toughening some of the legislation and the general regulatory framework. I would support them, given that everything is within reasonable limits, but regulation is certainly necessary.

Putin’s “instruction” to parliament on regulating family violence remains unpublished and unclear. He is hinting at more effective regulation to improve protections, including protection from violence, as well as from state, court or administrative intervention in child custody, adoption, and same-sex arrangements.

The Church has proposed changing the criminal sanction for violence within the family to an administrative offence, punishable by a fine. This “decriminalization”, according to Putin, is justifiable if it increases the reporting of complaints and the ease of prosecution and conviction. Second offences would remain criminal, without a code change.  Injury to health requiring hospitalization also would remain a criminal offence. A comparison of the Art.116 changes with the existing provisions can be followed here

An amendment adopted last year by the Duma decriminalized a first battery offence between strangers but left battery between kin or spouses as it was. The practical effect was anomalous -- strangers beating children could be treated with more leniency than parents. Under the proposed revision of the law a first battery conviction would result in a fine of up to Rb30,000 (about $500), with 15-day detention or 120 hours of community service as alternatives for those without the money.

From January 2015 to September 2016, police statistics reported by the federal Interior Ministry indicate 97,000 crime reports involving domestic or family violence. Of that total, 30,200 were beatings inflicted by a close relative of the victim. HelpLine data suggest that reports to the police may amount to less than a third of offences committed. For background, read this

Opponents of the decriminalization amendment, which will be given its final Duma hearing and vote today, claim the practical effect would be to equalize the administrative consequences for family and non-family members, but they argue it will have the reverse effect on intention and deterrence. These critics claim the measure would encourage more violence, not less.

The anti-Russian media in the UK and US have dramatized this, according to an Amnesty International claimimage that it is “a sickening attempt to trivialise domestic violence, which has long been viewed as a non-issue by the Russian government.  Claims that this will somehow protect families or preserve traditions are ludicrous – domestic violence destroys lives.” A Guardian reporter named Shaun Walker (right) claimed last week there is “fury at Russian move to soften domestic violence law.” He omitted to report how much popular support there is for the measure. For more of Walker’s inventions from Moscow, read the backfile

A national opinion poll by the Levada Center in July 2016 revealed that both Russian men and women have reported significantly less violence from their kin, spouses or lovers than they had acknowledged in comparable polls in 2002, 2003, 2011, and 2012.   Women reported suffering violence from related men in 12% of the sample; 7% of men reported the same thing from women; 10% of women and the same proportion of men refused to say.  Internal family conflict is commonly acknowledged in all the polls. Arguments over money are the most commonly cited reason. Verbal abuse was cited as “often” in 13% of cases; “rarely” in 39%.  Violence was cited as “often” by 2%; “rarely” by 9%.

In a publication by the Russian Church in Moscow last July,  the Patriarchal Commission on family issues endorsed the biblical doctrine -- he that spares his rod hates his son: but he that loves him chastens him early (Book of Proverbs 13:24).   “There is no doubt,” the document from the commission declared, “that children should be protected from really criminal acts, whatever they were, especially when we are talking about criminal violence. However, there is no real reason to equate such criminal attacks with a reasonable and moderate use of physical punishment by loving parents in the upbringing of the child… the issue of choice of those or other methods of education of children, not causing them any real harm, should be the subject of…free solutions to parents, not forced legal regulation. Orthodox Christians, of course, may have different views and beliefs in practice on the education of their children, the desirability and permissibility of the use in the education of certain approaches and methods, including means of family discipline. However, there is no doubt that as Scripture (Prov[erbs]. 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15; Heb[rews]. 12:6-11, etc.) and the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church examines the possibility of intelligent love and use of physical punishment as an integral part installed by God in the rights of parents. Thus, attempts at legislative restriction of this right of parents is contrary to the teachings of the Orthodox Church.

The latest Russian poll suggests the Church’s position is a minority one.  Last week the All-Russia Centre for the study of public opinion (VTsIOM) reported the incidence of beatings in Russian families is far from rare. One-third of those polled said they were aware of cases among the families and friends they know; 10% said they had personally experienced battery in their own families.

The VTsIOM poll shows that a very large majority (79%) of Russians condemns all forms of violence  inside the family. That leaves a 19% minority saying it  favours  the use of force within the family.  Roughly the same sized minority supports prison sentences for battery. A majority supports decriminalization with a combination of lesser penalties – fines, community service, and brief detention — although not for the Church’s reason, as this group believes the administrative measures would increase reporting by victims, and add to deterrence.

A close reading of the VTsIOM survey results reveals how unpersuaded Russians are of the Church’s view in favour of righteous battery.

VTsIOM TABLE-1: AWARENESS OF BEATINGS IN FAMILIES

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After months of active campaigning the VTsIOM poll indicates the Church has failed to convince Russians under the age of 25, who are the most vulnerable to family assault. As this table indicates, the younger generation is even less likely to support any form of battery within the family than their elders.

VTsIOM TABLE-2: PUBLIC ATTITUDE TOWARDS BATTERY IN THE FAMILY

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Russian women support more severe sanctions for battery than men.

VTsIOM TABLE-3:  PUBLIC VIEWS ON THE APPROPRIATE PUNISHMENT FOR BATTERY

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Neither gender nor age makes a significant difference to the assessment circulating in the foreign media that the Russian Church’s proposed change in the law will increase the frequency of assaults. The largest proportion of Russians -- 41% -- believes that if the amendment becomes law, there will be an improvement, and family violence will diminish. More women believe this than men; more younger people than older ones. A comparable proportion of the population believes nothing will change if the amendment becomes law.

VTsIOM TABLE-4: PUBLIC VIEWS ON THE LIKELY EFFECT OF DECRIMINALIZATION

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The outcome in practical terms, as reported by this month’s VTsIOM survey, is that there is a 59% majority in support of the enactment this week; just 33% oppose.

VTsIOM TABLE-5:  MAJORITY RUSSIAN SUPPORT FOR DECRIMINALIZATION

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Source for all tables: https://wciom.ru/index.php?id=236&uid=116035

These poll results have been cited by the Duma Speaker, Vyacheslav Volodin (below, left), as the reason for the deputies’ adoption of the first and second readings of the law so far.  The Church’s position has been advocated by Yelena Mizulina (right), and she is the prime mover of the legislative change.

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An academic lawyer, Mizulina has been an elected member of parliament since 1993, changing her party affiliations several times. She has been chairman of the Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children Affairs; she is currently deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on Constitutional Law. The US government sanctioned her in 2014 at the demand of US gay rights organizations; for the details, read this

So far, the Art. 116 revision has been adopted almost unanimously, with only one deputy, Igor Lebedev, voting against, and one abstaining.  However, popular support for Mizulina’s rationale for the proposed decriminalization of domestic battery remains as weak as it is for the Church doctrine. Mizulina, Volodin, Lebedev, the press secretary of the Duma Family Committee, and the office of Patriarch Kirill were asked this question by telephone and email: “Since everyone agrees that domestic violence should be deterred, how does the proposed decriminalization law achieve that result?” The politicians and the patriarchate refused to answer. The Church spokesman also refused to give his name.

A Moscow social policy analyst commented: “The reason there is so much public support for a fine for this offence has nothing to do with the Church; nothing to do with Mizulina. Foreign critics have missed the point.  Russians understand their police very well. They know that if there’s no money incentive, there is no enforcement. That’s why first-offence beatings aren’t followed up, but traffic violations are.  If the local militia can see their chance to collect money from complaints, they will do it with alacrity. Every Russian understands this. Foreigners don’t.

 

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