Domestic Violence in Russia: The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has made Russia’s domestic violence problem more visible, with shifting public opinion potentially incentivizing the government to change its approach, argues Ekaterina Aleynikova.

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Campaigners during a rally held in 2019 in support of a Russian law on domestic violence. Photo: Getty Images

Campaigners during a rally held in 2019 in support of a Russian law on domestic violence. Photo: Getty Images

Russia is one of the few countries in the region to have no legal definition of domestic violence and, as a result, there are no protective measures specific to domestic violence such as restraining orders or compulsory anger management training for abusers. In fact, the government has taken steps in recent years to remove any legal distinction between assault happening in one’s home, and elsewhere, with battery among family or household members for first-time offences decriminalized in 2017.

The Russian Ministry of Justice explicitly defended this position in its response to an enquiry into Russian domestic violence cases by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in November 2019. The ministry claimed existing legislation adequately protects citizens from domestic violence, ‘even though it has never been considered a separate offence’, reiterating that there is ‘no need’ for adopting specific legislation.

However, the four cases that led to the ECtHR’s enquiry demonstrate that current legislation is not sufficient. The most prominent case is that of Margarita Gracheva whose ex-husband severed her hands in 2017 despite her having made multiple complaints to the police ahead of the act being committed. If Russian legislation had mechanisms in place to isolate victims from their abusers, then Gracheva could have been protected by the law.

Instead, systemic impunity for abusers is supported by statements from people in power excusing domestic violence. The most recent of such statements came from the head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, in June 2020. When meeting with the family of a young woman allegedly murdered by her husband, Chechnya’s leader said, husbands beating their wives ‘happens’ and that the young woman should have tried harder to hold on to her marriage. These statements send clear signals to abusers that their actions are justified, and to the victims, that they won’t be protected if they were to come forward.

Similarly, to other parts of the world, civil society organizations in Russia have reported an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a personal level, the pandemic has often exacerbated many of the factors that can lead to domestic violence such as stress, economic anxiety or social isolation.

On a systemic level, many of the provisions intended to protect victims of violence, which were already ineffective in Russia, have been worsened during the lockdown. Where police may not have rapidly responded to reports of domestic violence previously, under lockdown, they have become focused on other priorities and, where shelters and support networks for the victims may have been scarce in the past, they have been further constrained.

Unsurprisingly, the strategy of the Russian state so far has been to deny that there is a problem of domestic violence, with the Ministry of Interior reporting that, according to their statistics, the number of domestic violence cases have gone down during the lockdown. Indeed, Chairwoman of the Federation Council, Valentina Matvienko, has said she does not believe lockdown has increased domestic violence because, on the contrary, families have been ‘brought together’, reflecting wishful thinking at best and negligence at worst.

The pandemic has also been used as an excuse to postpone discussion of a federal law on domestic violence, drafted by civil society, that was submitted for review by the Duma last year. This bill would have introduced different types of domestic violence such as psychological and economic violence and transferred domestic violence offences from private to public prosecutions to make it easier for victims to seek justice.

The government’s disregard for domestic violence reflects, in part, the patriarchal mindsets of those in power but perhaps, more significantly, the Kremlin’s belief that conservative social groups constitute its main support base. This has been made evident by the politicization of Russia’s ‘traditional’ values in recent years which was vigorously deployed throughout the constitutional amendments campaign. While it is clear that the true purpose of amending the constitution has always been to allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond 2024, amendments relating to this were absent from the government’s campaign. Instead, Russians were encouraged to vote by populist socially-conservative messages, hence why respect for traditional values has been added to the constitution.

Despite this, attitudes in Russian society are changing. A February 2020 survey by the Levada Centre showed that 61 per cent of Russians – and 74 per cent of Russian women – think domestic violence is a serious problem.

Moreover, the survey shows that women are much more aware of domestic violence than men – with every third woman in Russia admits being aware of domestic violence in their social circles while only every fifth man admits the same. This could be a sign that Russian men and women, on average, have a different understanding of what constitutes domestic violence. If so, adopting a law that defines domestic violence and holding a public awareness campaign is of paramount importance to eliminate any misunderstanding.

The difference could also be a sign that victims of domestic violence are more likely to confide in women hence making domestic violence less visible to men. This awareness gap perhaps explains the difference between men’s and women’s assessments of how serious the issue in Russia is.

The pandemic has provoked a new wave of discussions of domestic violence among Russia’s population with stories and statistics widely shared in the media and on the internet. As domestic violence becomes more visible, public perceptions are likely to shift further towards recognizing, and hopefully condemning, it. But, while legislation is crucial, the experience of other countries in the region, such as Armenia or Kazakhstan, shows that adopting laws on domestic violence is not enough. Measures are needed to ensure implementation of the law including training police officers and state officials and instituting disciplinary action for negligence of victims’ complaints.

Nevertheless, admitting there is a problem with domestic violence in Russia, and introducing laws, are an essential first step. The Russian government seems to have placed its bet on the support of conservative social groups but changing public opinion may prove this strategy unsustainable.