MOSCOW — In a recent letter to the European Court of Human Rights, the Russian Minister of Justice Aleksandr Konovalov declared that the level of domestic violence in the country is overstated, adding that there is no evidence that women suffer from it more than men. This was a response after the European court citing Russia law enforcement agencies failure to protect victims of violence and its tendency to ignore their complaints. Instead, a new bill on the prevention of domestic violence in Russia is aimed first and foremost at preserving what it says is the central traditional value of Russian society: the family.
Last month, three years after being first introduced, the bill entitled "On the Prevention of Domestic Violence in the Russian Federation" was finally published, though still not signed into law. This follows a 2017 bill adopted by the Russian parliament that decriminalized certain actions that are typically associated with domestic violence, including "beatings," sending more domestic violence cases to administrative courts.
The adoption of that law provoked a series of protests and complaints from human rights and feminist organizations. Now, the Federation Council's long-awaited rewriting of the bill has also sparked outrage from its own initial authors.
"Together with the authors, we reviewed the proposed edition of the Federation Council. And I am personally in total horror," wrote Alyona Popova, a Russian public activist, politician, who helped write the first version of the proposed law. "Starting from the purpose of the law: "save the family" and not protect the victim, ending with "Promote reconciliation of the parties'?! We continuously tell real stories of victims when, after reconciliation, the aggressor kills the victim."
Moreover, it appears unlikely that the law will be debated in Parliament before the end of the year, again delaying a response to this societal problem.
The source of the current approach to this area of legislation is linked to the concept of Russian state "family policy," approved in 2014, with the stated goals to support, strengthen, and protect the family. Among the objectives of the concept: the prevention of family crisis, as well as the development of a system of state support for families, including giving birth and raising children.
A culture of shame doesn't allow victims to seek help.
In this context, nationalists and the Orthodox Church have helped lead the fight against strong measures to punish domestic violence, seeing in the protection of the individual a threat to the Russian family. Psychologists say that Russia's apparent high tolerance for violence, especially against women, is manifested in popular culture, and even the sayings "beating means love", "be patient, fall in love." A culture of shame does not allow women, as well as men, to seek help and recognize themselves as victims of violence.
Statistics tell a contradictory story, and are largely in the hands of the Russian judicial system and law enforcement agencies. Even according to the testimony of its own representatives. Vladislav Schepelkov, a professor at the Department of Criminal Law at St. Petersburg State University, said that the number of domestic crimes was decreasing: in 2015 there were about 50,000, which has dropped in four years to 33,000. Yet Schepelkov points to the results of a police survey: only 56% of those who reported crimes to law enforcement agencies said that their statements were registered. The rest were lost without ever being reported.
Some victims, having lost hope of finding protection and justice in the Russian judicial system, have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, which will require even further supplies of courage, patience and money.
Still, in the summer of 2019, the European Court sent questions to the Russian government based on the cases of four Russians who complained about the authorities' inability to protect them from domestic violence. These four cases, previously widely covered in the Russian media, were the following:
*Natalya Tunikova was regularly beaten by a civilian partner who tried to throw her out of the 16th floor window.
*Elena Gershman survived nine episodes of severe beatings from her ex-husband, but the authorities refused to bring a criminal case against him. He later abducted her young daughter, took her oversees and kept out of contact with her mother for more than 18 months.
*Irina Petrakova was beaten and raped by her husband; he continued to pursue and beat her even after the divorce – once he beat a woman right at the exit from the courtroom. He was sentenced to community service, but later this punishment was also abolished.
*Margarita Gracheva's husband beat her when she sought a divorce. The police did not respond to the woman's complaints, after which the husband took her to the forest, where he chopped off her hands with an ax. The man was sentenced to 14 years in a colony.
A month before her murder, Anna Ovchinnikova contacted the police because her husband threatened to kill her. The woman considered the threat real since her husband had previously tried to strangle her. However, the police refused to open a criminal case. Police officers who refused to initiate a case were warned of incomplete official compliance but faced no charges.
Three teenagers accused of plotting their father's murder.
Russia's Deputy Justice Minister Mikhail Halperin said that "the scope of the problem of violence within family and household, as well as the gravity and extent of its discriminatory effect on women in Russia, is sufficiently exaggerated." He also stated that the complaints to the ECtHR are an attempt to "undermine the legal mechanisms already existing in Russian legislation, as well as the government's efforts to improve the situation."
For more than a year, the spotlight has been on the criminal case of the Khachaturian sisters, three teenagers accused of the planned murder of their father. The sisters say that their father had subjected them to sexual, physical, and psychological abuse for years, and the sisters were forced to take the most extreme step in necessary self-defense after another series of beatings.
Co-author of the law on prevention of domestic violence, Alexei Parshin sums up Russian society's mentality on the issue, as "too tolerant ... and often condemns the victim, believing she is to blame, that she somehow provoked such an attitude towards herself."
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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