Family Violence and Traditional Values: What Does Anti-Gender Movement Mean for Women?

On the International Day of Elimination of Violence against Women and Girts—25 November 2014—the Patriarchal Committee on Family, Protection of Motherhood and Children announced its disapproval for the new bill on criminalizing spanking and other forms of physical discipline of children. Russian Orthodox Church insisted that such criminalization cannot be justified because parents are entitled “to use sensible and moderate physical discipline on their children.” This provoked an angry reaction from the Russian public, who, at least theoretically, do not accept any physical punishment of children and any forms of physical violence against other family members. Protection of the rights of parents, calls for women to return home and solely devote themselves to reproduction and family life, be respectful and obedient to their husbands, and refuse abortion to have more children are at the centre of the campaign for promotion of traditional values. These ideas even entered the draft Concept of State Family Policy (2013), a policy paper composed by the State Duma Deputy Elena Mizulina, a prominent fighter for traditional values and traditional family, but were excluded in the final version of the document due to not only experts’ and wider public criticism, but also negative perception on behalf of governmental agencies.

At the same time, Russian NGOs, international organizations and Russian governmental agencies all recognize Russia has a high level of domestic and gender-based violence. The irony is that they cannot provide any accurate statistics on that (with the exclusion of criminal statistics on reported rape and other forms of sexual abuse). Scattered evidence, from time to time provided by the police, suggests that in one in four families women and children become victims of abuse. Criminal statistics on sexual violence is disturbing as official crime statistics provided by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) says that (reported) rape constitutes between 6 and 8% of all crimes committed in Russia and recently (over 2013 and 2014) even this rate dropped, which in their opinion means that women are safe. Legal initiatives to introduce a special law on domestic violence meet with strong resistance from those deputies who represent “traditional values” and think that state intervention into domestic conflicts contradicts Russian traditional family values. However, none of them provides any sufficient information on what this tradition is. In connection with the dearth of literature on the history of women, violence against women, history of domestic violence, the issue of gender-based violence in perceived as one imposed by “the West” to destroy Russian authenticity.

In this short essay, I would like to highlight main historical developments in violence against women in Russia to argue that this issue has been discussed and dealt with long before the World broke into such categories as the East and West, and that despite patriarchy, both familial and political, women developed strategies to protect themselves which resulted in strong feminist movement in the second half of the nineteenth century which was greatly supported by all liberal public at the time. The ideas of feminism as the western plague and violence against women as a non-existed issue in Russian society just point out to the creation of a suitable type of the tradition based on the recent gender backlash.

Old Good Rus’: family violence and traditional society

There is no question, that medieval society or pre-Petrine society (as Russians still see the reign of Peter I (1682-1725) as a major landmark in transition between traditional and modern societies, sort of local fall of the Roman Empire) was a traditional as it could be. The common reference point here is the Domostroi, Russian household management manual, dating back to the 1550s. It enjoined (chapter 33):

Beat [a disobedient wife] when you are alone together; then forgive her and remonstrate with her. But when you beat her, do not do it in hatred, do not loose control.” The text goes on to list items that men should not use in beatings, because they cause too much injury: “a stick or staff or … anything made of iron or wood.

Other religious writings citing church fathers rules and apostolic canons as well as the Bible insisted on the right of a husband to teach and discipline his wife, children and other household members. However, this conventional description just reflects religious teachings of the era, common for all European societies. After all, they all refereed to the same text looking for justifications of paternal dominance. Close analysis by researchers, myself included, shows that physical discipline, in fact, was not recommended by the clergy; the State in its process to monopolize violence during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sought to limit the authority of household heads (fathers and husbands) reserving the power to intervene into family conflicts by prosecuting for excessive violence.

Thus, in Russia, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century authors acknowledging that excessive punishment could result in death of a wife, insisted on the application of a full-pledged penalty against the husband (which was death penalty, according to the Legal Code of 1649, ch. XXII, art. 19). Penitential literature supported this idea by inflicting harsh penances on those who killed their spouses. The first printed Book of Prayers (trebnik) already contained a question, which had probably been a regular feature of the nomocanons and confessional guides since the fifteenth century, “did you torment your wife without any reason, unlawfully?” In addition, the Church defined the limits of a husband’s authority by recognising the attempt on a spouse’s life as a legitimate reason for divorce. And women did file for divorce on the grounds of marital cruelty. Thus in eighteenth-century St. Petersburg 6% of all divorces were filed on the grounds of domestic abuse (in addition to 73% on the grounds of adultery of either of spouses, but in cases of husband’s adultery, which is half of the cases, 70% included additional charge of domestic abuse.

Reforms and Westernization: family violence in pre-1917 Russia

Catherine II (1762-1796) paid a substantial attention to creating a civilized society via improving social mores. Her Enlightenment project included prescriptive norms of behavior universal for every social class. The duties of family members were defined in the Police regulations of 1782 under the title “Rules of Public obligations.” The law prescribed:

VIII. Let a husband join his wife in love and concord, respect her, protect her and excuse her defects, help her in sickness and provide her with a living according to his status and capability.

IX. Let a wife love, respect and obey her husband, please him and show attachment to him as a mistress of the house.

Although the law constructed the hierarchical model of obedience to the head of the household, at the same time, it included such norms as love, respect and concord. These were (and are) the basic Christian values, which the leading hierarchs of the church promoted. Platon, the archbishop of Moscow (1737 – 1812), in his catechism for small children (1780) taught:

The husband’s duty is to love his wife heartedly, do not be strict and brutal with her, but correct her weaknesses with reasonable indulgence, and hold her as his faithful assistant in the household management and education of children. The wife’s duty is to love and respect her husband, adapt her manners to his tastes, and suffer insult in an obedient state. Both of them shall be faithful to each other.

Russian society in the nineteenth century moved to criticize family violence to the degree that violence against a spouse was criminalized in the 1845 Penal Code (art. 2075-2076). Russian classic literature highlighted the spread of domestic abuse and low status of women, while lawyers, historians, men and women of letters unanimously called on the reform of the women’s status which was held responsible for domestic abuse. Russian society insisted that the level of domestic abuse was high, especially in peasant families, blaming their low educational level and traditional ways of organization. However, many learnt about domestic abuse from court cases, which often appeared in press. Women did complain to the authorities and often received satisfaction in a form of divorce, monetary compensation or removal of the abusive husband in cases of life-threatening violence. That women complained means that they did not perceive domestic abuse as normal or inevitable as it was often presented.

Thus in a typical case from the Perm’ region (1884), reported in a local newspaper, a woman came to the local volost’ court with the complaint that her husband had tried to batter her to death and then expelled her from the house, with nowhere to stay. Her husband claimed he did it because she stole fifteen kopecks from him to buy ferial oil to make some pancakes for her six children. The wife confessed to stealing from her husband, but the volost’ court, taking into consideration the family’s situation, ruled to punish the husband for domestic abuse (corporal punishment) and not providing for his family (ordered to feed his wife and children). This is one of the numerous cases that were dealt with at the community level.

This situation was doomed to change with new ideology in power, the ideology which promoted women’s rights and targeted traditional family and abusive husbands.

Semeino-bytovye (domestic) crimes: Soviet project in gender equality and modern family

The Revolution of 1917 and early Bolshevik legislation made radical attempts to alter the role of the family and woman’s place in it. Early Soviet lawyers attacked pre-revolutionary family law and drafted family codes of 1918 and 1926 based on equality of spouses and availability of divorce. Women were proclaimed to be liberated. However, it did not rule our domestic abuse, which in the 1920s was widely discussed and prosecuted by the Soviet courts. By the 1930s, especially after proclaiming that “woman question” was solved, prosecutions for domestic abuse dropped, as this category of offending moved to that of hooliganism. Reduced to the notion of “byt” (everyday life) domestic abusers were treated as hooligans, which was a lesser charge compared to the criminal prosecution for bodily harm. The government, though, justified it by easiness and fastness of prosecution, as hooliganism was prosecuted under administrative law. Lowering the profile of domestic abuse and silencing the public sphere, turned domestic violence into mundane private problem, women had to deal with on their own. The spark of interest in the 1960s and 1970s on behalf of sociologists made mass media pay attention to what was now called “problem families” (neblagopoluchnaia sem’ia), but new focus shifted to children. Soviet criminologists quickly developed the category of “semeino-bytovye” crimes, blaming alcohol consumption and unfavorable family background for violence within the family. Soviet press assumed patronizing tone over abused children portraying women as helpless victims of drunken husbands.

Obedience, Violence and Discipline: at the auspices of the post-Soviet modernization

It had to wait till the renewal of women’s movement in the 1990s when the issue of domestic violence and violence against women became visible again; and again was used to describe low status of women. Compared with the pre-revolutionary women’s movement rhetoric, the 1990s feminists operated by the categories of the international law and CEDAW convention, comparing Russia to the West arguing that Russia was far behind on such issues as violence against women. While it was not entirely the case and the 1990s feminists just did not have any information on the history of responses to domestic violence in Russia besides widespread Soviet criticism of traditional family, these discourses resulted in negative reaction of those who participated in the building of new strong and great Russia. Ironically, denying feminists their say in domestic violence, they proceed with legislation against domestic abuse, the latest of which includes an idea to treat domestic abusers as hooligans! The contemporary lawmakers try to combine traditional family as a hierarchical institution in which a wife voluntary submits to her husband and protection of women against domestic abuse, which results in quid pro quo, that is, those women who behave correctly (respect their husbands and do not provoke them) are entitled to such a protection.

History of violence against women in Russia as well as social and official responses to it reveal that neither women nor indeed some categories of men were content with abuse as a method of discipline. Russian legal system accommodated complaints against abusive husbands, Russian Orthodox Church granted divorces on the grounds of marital cruelty; Russia was the first country to criminalize domestic violence in 1845 and Russian women’s movement and feminists promoted violence-free environment to liberate both women and men. It was Soviet society after Stalin’s conservative backlash which silenced the issue of domestic violence arguing that “woman question” was solved and Soviet women being liberated and having equal rights to men were in no danger. Domestic violence was contained within “semeino-bytovye” crimes, a part of everyday way of life together with drinking and brawling. It is this understanding of violence against women that is spread among policy-makers and some part of the Russian public. Based on still popular Soviet axiom that women in Russia do have equal rights with men, gender discrimination does not exist (or happens very rarely), violence against women must be a part of excessive drinking which characterizes certain social groups and that women, in fact, bear responsibility for that as they provoke men into it. Russian women work outside home, make money, not obsessed with housekeeping, have high educational level and do express their options open and freely; all these is justifiable provocations to patriarchy and masculinity, which needs to be handled via return to traditional values, which include the right to discipline those in subjected positions. This attitude runs through the present-day reactionary policies offered by numerous committees and societies for Christian values or traditional family close to the political elite.

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