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Demonstration in support of the Khachaturian sisters.
Demonstration in support of the Khachaturian sisters.
Anna Akage

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.

Russian activist Alexandra Mitroshina supporting #IDidntWantToDie initiative— Photo: Lera Arbatskaya

"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."

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