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We talked to the Russian lawmaker who's leading the fight against domestic violence from inside the system

Source: Meduza
Alexander Artemenkov /TASS

On November 29, Russia’s Federation Council published the draft text of new legislation that would impose additional penalties on domestic violence. Lawmakers have introduced similar bills in the past, but not a single initiative has survived the parliament’s revisions process. Now, the current bill is also showing signs of failure: Women’s rights advocates who helped develop the legislation reported that the text omits several key components they supported. Throughout this process, the legislator leading the charge for more stringent protections against domestic violence has been Oksana Pushkina. Pushkina, who spent 30 years as a media celebrity at predominantly Kremlin-supportive outlets before entering politics in 2015, has been the singular voice for feminist causes in multiple State Duma debates. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with her shortly before the draft text of the domestic violence bill was revealed. We translated several excerpts of their conversation.

On whether right-wing activists use Orthodox Christianity as a smokescreen

Some of them, yes. But faith and Orthodoxy have nothing to do with violence. I have respect for every religious confession. And it’s very hurtful to me that “these people” hide behind the purity and sincerity of faith.

A few days ago, people started attacking us through the platform CitizenGo. We’ve started receiving a constant stream of emails that are completely identical: against the law, against Pushkina. The same thing is happening at the Federation Council. I understand that it’s important to these people to be front and center on the news. They’ve found a headliner with the last name Pushkina — it’s a great name, and it sounds good in the West as well.

On colleagues who said they cared about the issue but withdrew their support

At the height of the bullying — and what’s happening now is a textbook bullying campaign against the bill’s co-authors — I got a call from one of my colleagues, a very strong, powerful personality, and he said: “When I was little, I witnessed my dad laying hands on my mom. I told him back then, ‘When I grow up, I’ll kill you.’ Later on, I asked my mom, ‘Why do you tolerate all this?’ And my mom told me, ‘Because I love him very much. When you grow up, you’ll understand.’ That’s why I’m against violence — and against this bill.” And further on [in the conversation], his phrasing was, “we shouldn’t be making them divorce; we should heal them.” I [tried to say], “That’s exactly what this bill is about!” But my colleague didn’t hear me. He hung up. And he hadn’t even read the text of the bill.

A November 23 protest against the domestic violence bill.
Alexander Nemenov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

On the state of domestic violence in Russia

Thanks to St. Petersburg University, we have four volumes of scientific research ordered by the State Duma that include, among other things, the following figures: domestic violence is applied in every 10th family, 70 percent of Russians surveyed have experienced or are currently experiencing domestic violence, 80 percent of them are women, followed by the elderly and children. More than 90 percent of family violence cases take place exclusively in the home; in 77 percent of cases, physical, psychological, and economic violence take place simultaneously; more than 35 percent do not turn to law enforcement agencies for help. The reasons for that vary widely: Some are psychological (shame, fear), and some are institutional (distrust, fear that they won’t help).

Overall, it’s very difficult to talk about statistics at this point. Usually, they only start being recorded five years after a law is passed. That’s the international standard. But there are statistics from crisis centers, both state-owned and private. That’s our internal statistics, and we have them thanks to those who have already been dealing with this issue for many years. Now, the abscess has been revealed, and we’ve started coming together, searching for one another, and a concrete set of numbers appeared. Now, there’s scientific research, too.

On resistance to the bill in the Duma

Many of my colleagues believe that current legislation is already sufficient to protect victims of domestic violence. And then there’s the fact that we are products of our time. How do we usually talk here? “They’ve always beaten [women], and they always will”; “the family is untouchable”; “you should never bring the fight outside of the hut”; “if he beats you, he loves you”; “he’s crooked, he’s cross-eyed, but he’s mine.” But that mentality is changing. New women and men have come into this world who feel this very sharply as disrespect to them more than anything. Why did the topic of sexual harassment come up, why did the #MeToo movement come up? Because at some point, the quantitative becomes qualitative because everybody’s tired of living as they did before.

Young women won’t live like that anymore. They’re different; they want to protect themselves from an aggressive world, so when they build their families, they want everything to stem from love, respect, and mutual consent. And that sounds just wild to people who are used to the principle that “whoever’s the strongest is the head of the family.”

Oksana Pushkina (right) and her often supportive colleague Irina Rodnina.
Anna Isakova / State Duma Photography Service / TASS / Vida Press

On gender in the Russian government

The people controlling politics in our country are primarily men who don’t have the willpower to recognize the problem of domestic violence. We live in a male state. Fifty-four percent of the country is women, but we don’t have a woman question. De jure, we [women] are present in politics. De facto, we do not participate in running the government. We accompany those who do, we support them, we carry out policy. But we don’t formulate the directions in which the government develops. […] Right now, we can earn small or large victories, but a generational switch will have to take place for any changes to become palpable. I would give it 25 years.

On state media reactions to the domestic violence bill

[State media pundit] Dmitry Kiselyov talked for around 40 minutes on his Rossiya-1 wrap-up about domestic violence and the bill that’s under consideration. Margarita Simonyan talked about the importance of the law on Vecher [Evening] with Vladimir Solovyov, and all weekend on Rossia-24 they were showing reports about women who suffered at the hands of violent husbands.

On the fact that state media campaigns are usually dictated from above

Well, they happened. Oksana Pushkina is no lightweight in the media business. You’ve said that if it weren’t for me, there wouldn’t be a [domestic violence] law. I know that nothing could have happened without a pit bull — that’s what my adversaries call me — like myself: [you need somebody] who’s convinced and knows how to convince others.

Interview by Sasha Sulim

Excerpts translated by Hilah Kohen

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