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Domestic violence in Russia: Interview with Yulia Gorbunova

Smith Freeman and Olivia Capozzalo of the She’s In Russia podcast interviewed Yulia Gorbunova about the latest Human Rights Watch report.

February 13, 2019 - Olivia Capozzalo Smith Freeman - Interviews

Illustration made by Rebecca Hendin

In November 2018, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled I Could Kill You and No One Would Stop Me: Weak State Response to Domestic Violence in Russia. The report, authored by lawyer and researcher Yulia Gorbunova, details the state of domestic violence legislation and reality in Russia.


Smith Freeman: In 2017, the Russian government decriminalised domestic violence. What does this legislative timeline look like and what does it mean to decriminalize domestic violence?

Yulia Gorbunova : When we say that domestic violence was decriminalised in Russia, that refers to a very worrying step that the government took in February of 2017, which effectively resulted in protections for victims of domestic violence becoming even narrower and even weaker than they were before. From a legislative viewpoint, decriminalisation meant that the first defense of what’s called “Family battery,” a first offense of family violence, that does not cause significant harm to health — requiring hospital treatment — became decriminalised. The violence that leads to serious injuries, like broken bones or concussions, remains criminalised. But anything less than that became a non-criminal offense.

The thing is, domestic violence survivors were never really effectively protected in Russia. The law enforcement, judicial, and social systems simply did not protect or support domestic violence victims. But decriminalisation made things a lot worse. Basically it was perceived as the government giving a green light to violence within family, like the government was saying “it’s okay to to beat your wife.” There’s no law on domestic violence in Russia, there’s no definition of domestic violence in the law.

Smith: Why is that significant that domestic violence is not defined separately from other crimes?

Yulia: Well, that is actually a crucial point, because what that means in practice is that domestic violence isn’t seen as any different than an assault on the street by a stranger. Domestic violence is very different from violence perpetrated by a stranger. It has very specific features. It’s described in international treaties for that reason because it has very specific characteristics that make it different from any other type of violence that could be codified in national legislation and those features include things like it being cyclical. So it usually repeats in time. It has a very dangerous tendency to very quickly escalate. It may start with a slap, but then it can quickly become a lot worse.

Another thing that makes it different from violence perpetrated by a stranger, is that survivors often live together with the perpetrator. They are often economically dependent on them. They sometimes have children together and they very often have nowhere to go. Moreover, domestic violence is a very latent crime everywhere, which means it’s universally underreported. Women, who statistically suffer from domestic violence more than men and children, usually don’t report, due to stigma, due to fear.

Olivia Capozzalo: What do the legal punishments for domestic violence look like?

Yulia: Firstly, only 3 per cent of all domestic violence cases ever make it to court in Russia, according to estimates by lawyers and activists who work on domestic violence cases. When we’re talking about administrative cases, which is what a lot of cases of domestic violence became classified as after decriminalisation, the penalties are significantly reduced from what they used to be. When it was a criminal offense, there was first of all a criminal record, which was a very strong deterrent. In addition to the criminal record, there was also an option for penalty and also some time in jail could be part of the sentence for certain types of violence that resulted in certain type of injuries.

To simplify, after decriminalisation, there’s a very high chance that a woman who’s been battered by her partner or husband, who tries to get assistance from the police, will either be told that her injuries are not sufficient and serious enough to initiate a criminal case and will be sent into administrative proceedings. As a result of those administrative proceedings, the standard penalty is a 5,000 ruble fine. That’s roughly, I think, 79 US dollars. The penalty is equal to that used for offenses such as smoking where it’s prohibited or parking in the wrong place. So the penalties just create this perception that abusive men in Russia know nothing will be done to them if they beat their partner. And the worst that can happen is the same as what you get for parking your car in the wrong place.

Smith: What is the role of “traditional values” in domestic violence legislature?

Yulia: Russian politics and society have been dominated by a conservative trend for a number of years now, since Vladimir Putin returned to power in 2012. It’s been almost a strategic choice by Russian authorities in taking the traditional course, their goal being to send a very clear message to the world, to The West, that Russia is following its unique path. Russia’s present and future is all about traditional values, strong families, and faith and religion. Unfortunately, Russia is not unique in this. There are many ways in which ideas of traditional values can be used. And unfortunately, in Russia’s case, as in many other countries, the message of traditional values frequently translates into completely non-human rights. Homophobia, persecution of religious minorities. And in Russia’s case, the traditional values rhetoric in relation to domestic violence was very harmful because it revitalised and normalised stereotypes about domestic violence.

Specifically, deeply ingrained attitudes of male dominance, women having to bear difficulties in the family, women keeping quiet about whatever problems they might have —including violence— for the sake of their children. These perceptions are common and widely spread in Russia. But unfortunately, with the focus on “traditional values” rhetoric, when it’s used by influential people, especially by government officials, you reify those deeply ingrained and deeply harmful attitudes. It’s really shameful, it’s incredibly wrong, because that rhetoric flips the issue completely upside down. The state should protect the survivors and not the abusers. Violence within families is not a manifestation of a traditional value.

I’ll give you an example of this type of rhetoric, so you know that I’m not exaggerating. There was this a member of Parliament, Elena Mizulina, who was essentially the force behind decriminalisation of domestic violence. And when she argued for decriminalisation, she said — and this is basically a direct quote —  that when a man beats his wife, it’s not as bad as when a woman humiliates a her husband.

Olivia: In Russia, women who have experienced violence at the hands of their husbands or partners at some point during their lives is 1 in 5, which is quite large. Do you have numbers for comparison from other from Western Europe or from somewhere else in the world?

Yulia: That 1-in-5 statistic is according to the last detailed study conducted by the Russian authorities and that was done in 2011. So according to that study, the rate is not very different from other countries including countries in Western Europe. But Russia is different in that it has very little reliable statistics. Statistical data that we do have is very fragmented and so it’s very difficult to draw any reliable conclusions. We know it’s a latent crime, it’s a latent crime everywhere. Women do not report it. In the cases where domestic violence is reported, in most European countries, you can look at the court records and see number of sentences for criminal acts of domestic violence in certain regions, certain municipalities, for a given month. But in Russia, there is no such thing.

Olivia: Because there’s no law that defines domestic violence?

Yulia: Exactly. There’s no definition. We also have statistics by the Ministry of Interior and those statistics basically tell us how many violent crimes were committed against a family member in 2014, 2015, 2016, etc. Great. But those statistics do not include all the instances where women come to the police, but the police refused to start a criminal investigation. That happens all the time. And after decriminalisation, that became even more frequent, because now police are incentivised to not start a criminal investigation and they have actually no lawful right to initiate a criminal case, even if harm to health is obviously severe.

I had cases where women had severe concussions, one woman I spoke to spent two months in the hospital with a broken nose and a severe concussion. And the police told her that her injuries were not serious enough for a criminal investigation. So it should be an administrative case, they said. This inaccessibility of statistics makes it literally impossible to understand the real number of domestic violence crimes and to make any kind of trend assessment.

Smith: You mentioned Russia’s deteriorating relationship The West. What is the role of anti-Western sentiment amongst Russian legislators and specifically its role in negatively impacting domestic violence law?

Yulia: Anti-Western hysteria goes hand-in-hand with traditional values rhetoric. Anti-Western hysteria also had a very negative impact on work of NGOs in Russia. Not only women’s rights, but human rights in general. The situation now is that groups that work on LGBT rights, groups that work with environmental protection, on women’s rights, children’s rights, are often portrayed as agents of the West, as “foreign agents.” That’s a term that was introduced in 2012 by a very unfortunate piece of legislation which basically said that if a Russian group receives foreign funding, even a small portion of foreign funding, and is involved in Political activity — which is defined so broadly that pretty much any activity can fall under that category — they are deemed “foreign agents.” It’s a very negative term. Basically it means a spy or a traitor.

It’s incredibly depressing because these groups are actually working to fill those gaps that the government is not capable of filling or willing to fill. The result is that public trust in these groups is denigrated. So yes, anti-Western hysteria manifests itself in laws and in policies that are incredibly detrimental to civil society in Russia, including groups that work on domestic violence.

Smith: The report includes a very thorough list of recommendations for the different branches of the Russian government, for what should be done in regards to domestic violence and supporting survivors. Did the government respond publicly to the report?

Yulia: Actually they did. We had response more or less directly from the Kremlin, which is pretty much unheard of when you’re a human rights activists or a human rights group working in Russia, because the Kremlin is always this impenetrable fortress. It doesn’t lower itself to the level of debate on human rights, at least in my memory. And I’ve been working in Russia for nine years now. So we had a response from Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson. And Mr. Peskov’s response was obviously critical. He said that the report was not representative of Russia. First of all, that was not a claim that we ever made because all Human Rights Watch reports aim to be qualitative not quantitative research. And secondly, by criticising us in this way, Mr. Peskov basically opened himself and the Russian government up to return criticism, because there’s basically no available, clear, consistent statistical data on domestic violence in Russia, because there is no adequate legislation. So it’s simply not possible for the report to be “representative of Russia.”

Still the fact alone that the Kremlin responded made it clear that it’s an issue that they pay attention to and that they realize that there is a certain amount of pressure —including international pressure— to change things. And hopefully, hopefully it will lead to something that will lead to some changes. There are a whole lot of great activists In Russia who have been working on domestic violence and women’s rights for many many years and they’ve been accused of being agents of the West and evil feminists and all kinds of things. But they continue to to work so hopefully, together, we will be able to to change things at least a little bit. I mean there have to be at least some steps taken to change this situation, because it cannot go on like this.


This was an abridged version of their conversation. You can find the full interview below

Follow Yulia Gorbunova on Twitter, read-up at Human Rights Watch

More episodes of the podcast She’s in Russia

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