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‘We don’t trust feminists with laws about our families’ Conservatives assembled in Moscow over the weekend to protest the re-criminalization of domestic violence. Here’s what they said from the stage and the stands.

Source: Meduza
Kristina Safonova / Meduza

On Saturday, November 23, roughly 200 people in Moscow assembled at Sokolniki Park to demonstrate in support of “traditional spiritual and moral values” and protest against a legislative initiative that would increase penalties on domestic violence. State Duma deputy Oksana Pushkina, who helped write the draft law, says she hopes to submit the bill to parliament before the end of the year. Earlier this month, she warned that several activists who helped develop this legislation have received threats on social media. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova attended Saturday’s rally to find out why anyone would oppose the re-criminalization of assault in the home.

“Here they are! Russia’s true patriots! The salt of the earth!” Andrey Kormukhin tells the crowd. The leader of the “Forty Times Forty” movement, he speaks from a small stage, standing in front of a banner that shows him flanked by children bearing candles. 

About 200 people crowd around, having trekked to Sokolniki Park to meet at one of the city’s “hyde parks,” where small public demonstrations are legal without official permits. Many carry red flags labeled “DSS” (Forty Times Forty), “PVO” (Patriots of the Great Fatherland), and “MP” (The Man’s Way). There are other banners, too, and they’re easier to tell apart: the white flags belong to the Association of Parents’ Committees and Communities, and the blue flags represent the right-wing political party LDPR.

Demonstrators have also brought signs with slogans like “The family is love, not violence,” “The family is against violence,” “The family is the safest place,” and “Don’t touch the family, Ms. Pushkina.” Oksana Pushkina — the deputy chairperson of the State Duma’s Committee on Family, Women’s, and Children’s Issues — is one of the lawmakers who's co-authored new draft legislation against domestic violence. Throughout Saturday’s protest, activists address many of their comments to her directly.

The day before the rally, Kormukhin published a video where he urged Pushkina to come to Sokolniki Park and explain her position to his followers. He promised that the demonstrators would “show her no negativity,” but Pushkina didn’t accept the invitation. A few days earlier, she told reporters that she and several women’s rights activists helping to develop the domestic-violence legislation have received threats online.

When speaking from the stage, Kormukhin complains about the cold and the fact that his group couldn’t find a better, more central location to rally in support of “traditional spiritual and moral values.” He suggests beginning the event with Russia’s national anthem, and the audience (which includes many children) happily oblige. 

After Kormukhin’s speech, he welcomes to the stage Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber and the father of seven children. “Alright, so where’s that wife of mine?” he says, looking around. When he finds her, he says, “Olga, come up here. You tell them that I don’t beat you, otherwise they won’t believe it.” The crowd laughs, but Pozhigailo’s comedy routine isn’t done. “Vanya! Kids, where are you? Come up here! Vanya! Come here and let people see that nobody’s got any bruises,” he says to his family. Only his wife comes to the stage, but she stops at the edge, keeping her distance from her husband. Pozhigailo calls her “kitty,” and reveals to the audience that she’s now pregnant with their eighth child. More applause follows, as he adds, “Look at her! Rosy-cheeked and happy!” 

Pozhigailo says he’s sure that the statistics circulated by the news media about domestic violence (he mentions claims that it occurs in a quarter of all homes) are in fact “a bunch of hocus pocus,” and “there are no such statistics and there’s no such problem at all.” He then shifts to classroom education, complaining that schools today supposedly spend six hours a week studying English and just four hours a week on Russian. “Are we raising little Brits or something?” he asks, fuming. 

An elderly woman to the right of the stage watches the speakers attentively, nodding from time to time. She tells Meduza’s correspondent that her first name and patronymic are Tatyana Fyodorovna, and says that she happened upon the rally by chance, after a woman in the park handed her a flyer. “I’m always in favor of things being only in Russian. I have a grandson who’s 17 years old. Who put it in his head that it’s better in America? My second grandson is already studying two languages: English and German. What for?” she asks. “Our family is pretty much all patriots: My son is a soldier, my daughter-in-law works in the police, and we’re all pretty much pureblooded Russians.”

When asked about domestic violence, Tatyana Fyodorovna says she had a wonderful husband (now deceased) and personally she believes “the woman is always to blame” in any conflicts at home. “They say the head of the family is the man, but no — it’s the woman. Whatever the woman says, slowly but surely, that’s how it will be. The woman is the fox, after all. I was the fox, and everything was always great,” she recalls, adding that she knows someone whose husband beats her. But this woman doesn’t leave him and she keeps bearing him children, Tatyana Fyodorovna says. “If she wanted, everything would work out,” she explains.

* * *

Next to the stage is Vsevolod Chaplin, an influential priest and former spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate. “Do our people need this law?” he asks the crowd. “No!” they shout back. “Everyone knows we don’t need it,” he says. “But on television they’re airing propaganda to support it.”

Chaplin argues that Russia already has enough laws to stop “husband-tormentors” and “fathers who harm their own children.” The new draft legislation, he warns, is being designed “to turn the family into a place that’s incompatible with life.” “They’ll pass this law and people will be afraid to get engaged, to get married, and to have kids. Because this law will turn nonprofits into a system that will earn good money sticking its nose into the lives of every family,” says Chaplin.

Conservatives protest against draft legislation that would raise penalties on domestic violence. Moscow, November 23, 2019.

A young man wearing sunglasses and a soldier’s cap agrees. He says his name is Alexey, and he’s come to the rally with his wife, Elizaveta. She hugs one of his elbows, as he holds a sign with both hands that reads, “The law ‘against domestic violence’ is violence against the family!” Alexey believes that violence visits homes “where there’s alcohol and too much of it.” “If we want to cut domestic violence by 80 percent, we need to fight alcohol,” he says. Elizaveta agrees.

Meanwhile, publicist Valentin Lebedev has taken the stage. Like Kormukhin, he says the people in the crowd are the “salt of the earth,” and he congratulates them on living in a “wonderful time,” which he describes as “a spiritual springtime” for the Russian people. But storm clouds are gathering again, he says, pivoting to the domestic-violence legislation. Now raising his voice, he shouts, “This isn’t about families at all! This is the murder of the people! This is in fact a step toward what our activists, our writers, publicists, and priests correctly call dehumanization. It’s the destruction of what our evolutionists (we don’t stand with them, of course) call homo sapiens. That’s what brings us before you here today!”

Next up is attorney Valentina Litkova, who doubts that the draft legislation will protect anyone. “It interprets violence very broadly, defining it as any liberal civil rights,” she explains, saying that even the forms of violence specified in the bill are problematic. She runs through a whole list: psychological violence (“you can’t reprimand your child”), sexual violence (“if your children suddenly want sexual freedom, you’re powerless to interfere, and they might be taken from you, if you do”), exploitation (“putting children to work”), and physical violence (“if we don’t allow our children to go somewhere, if we threaten”). “Despite what the lobbyists say, the law has absolutely nothing to do with beatings [in the home],” says Litkova. 

Not everyone has endured the cold to stay for these remarks. Roughly an hour after the start of the rally, only a hundred or so demonstrators now remain. 

Alexandra Mashkova, a coordinator for the CitizenGO association, keeps running with this idea: “We’re all against violence anywhere in any form, but the fact is that the legislation’s lobbyists aren’t against violence — they just want to pass some legislation.” Mashkova says she opposes the draft law’s statutes on public and private-public prosecutions, warning that anyone who dislikes how she raises her children or speaks to her spouse will be able to get a restraining order “and maybe criminal charges.” The legislation isn’t designed to stop violence, she says, and in fact targets “the safest place on Earth” (the family). According to Mashkova, this is why the bill has the support of “70 organizations” including “open feminists, LGBT groups, and foreign agents.”

“The family is the last bastion!” says the sign Natasha brought to the rally. She says she came because she’s worried about her three kids. “I wouldn’t want my children to be taken away because of some made-up suspicions. As a psychologist, I understand the damage to children who were taken for some reason, and then their parents proved that they weren’t guilty, and their children were returned to the family. There will still be psychological trauma,” Natasha explains, saying she’s certain that fear of punishment under a new law against domestic violence won’t deter anyone. In these cases, she says, all that can help is “the ability to love, to talk about your expectations in the family, and to solve these conflict situations.”

As she’s describing this action plan, an elderly woman approaches Natasha, reads her sign carefully, and says, “The last bastion? If we want to defend Rus’ [the Russian ethnos], we’ll need to free it from the West!”

* * *

In the next speech, “People’s Council” social movement coordinator Vladimir Khomyakov says, “You’ve already heard the phrase ‘information war’ here today. In our time, they don’t fight with tanks so much as with perceptions. We’ve seen this on display in Ukraine and in other countries.” Khomyakov says he believes “the same kind of war” is now being waged against Russia, and the domestic-violence legislation’s advocates “are just the vanguard of a foreign threat that’s trying to destroy the country from within.” He adds that Russia currently rests on three apparently fragile pillars: traditional values, Christian Orthodoxy, and the family.

By the time the rally is 90 minutes in, there are only 50 or so demonstrators left. To fight the cold, some start doing little warm-up exercises, and a few people even crouch, while others drink hot tea (to the left of the stage, several bearded men pour out cups for anybody who wants some). Grab some tea and you’re also in for a lively discussion about how good it would be if there were a firearm in every home. “Minin and Pozharsky didn’t ask anyone’s permission when they set out for the Kremlin,” says one excited man, sharing his thoughts about the draft legislation against domestic violence. “True — Minin and Pozharsky are very timely right now!” another man agrees wholeheartedly. 

Back on stage, Andrey Kormukhin invites up several mothers of large families. “This law is mainly against women,” he says, claiming that “the woman is the guardian of the hearth” and that she is more “supportive of the family” than the man. “Who are men? Men like to wander in outer space and refashion the world. But women are more practical. They are the family hearth, so our homes are warm and welcoming. They know how to cook. It’s for the sake of these women that we boys gathered here today, so nobody can come to our families and destroy our homes.”

“People like Pushkina, people like [Federation Council Chairperson and supporter of the domestic-violence legislation Valentina] Matviyenko, and the other scum — they haven’t given birth to any children. They’ve killed them,” says a woman in a pink down jacket and cap. On behalf of the mothers brought on stage, she reads out a vote of no confidence addressed to the authors and supporters of the draft legislation, adding that the bill is undoubtedly meant to benefit the LGBTQ community. “If it’s adopted, any transvestite will [be able] to accuse us normal people and traditionalists of committing psychological violence,” she says. “The state is headed in the wrong direction now. It’s headed away from large families, love, and mercy.” The woman says Oksana Pushkina should be “kicked and dragged out of office,” while women’s rights advocate Alyona Popova (who’s also helped develop the legislation) should be kept from Russia’s State Duma and Civic Chamber by a restraining order. “These are foreign agents doing tremendous harm. They’re enemies,” says the woman angrily, proposing the return of firing lines as punishment for “selling out the motherland wholesale — selling out families and betraying Russia’s interests.”

The rally isn’t over yet, though. The next speeches come from the representatives of men’s organizations. One of these people is Pavel Dobrolyubov, who reads a poem he wrote himself that ends with the words: “Juvenile justice disorder, the Devil in the director’s chair. The enemy’s inside the gates, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

* * *

By 4 p.m., when the event is scheduled to end, there are still people who want to deliver speeches to the few remaining demonstrators. The microphone, however, returns again to Andrey Kormukhin, who reads out a resolution drafted by Forty Times Forty along with other organizations and signed by those who’d attended the rally. In his closing speech, he criticizes the “anti-family” legislation, and blames feminists, the “anti-Russian” news outlets Radio Svoboda and Deutsche Welle, and the social groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for undermining Russians’ trust in law enforcement.

“We don’t trust feminists, homosexuals, or the beneficiaries of foreign states to create laws that affect our families,” says Kormukhin, advocating “all possible measures to counter the destruction of the family in Russia.”

As soon as he’s finished, the loudspeakers start blaring “The Sacred War” — one of the USSR’s most famous songs from World War II. The words ring out (“Arise, our mighty motherland, arise for Sacred War”) as everyone hurries toward the subway.

Report by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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