The latest statistics are depressing, to say the least. According to Rosstat, Russia’s Federal Statistics Service, one in five Russian women is violently abused by her partner.
Following the publication of this data, the natural response would be to proclaim it a social ill that is impossible to solve. The response would entail throwing up your hands and shrugging your shoulders.
Yet for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian lawmakers are beginning to get serious about the problem of domestic violence in the country.
The State Duma is now set to consider a bill that would finally see domestic violence specifically defined in the criminal code. Talk to any Russian cop at length, and you will see how much this is needed.
“Until domestic violence is classified as a specific crime, our hands are often tied,” a senior police official in Moscow told me just a few months ago. “This is especially true when a victim comes from a poorer background and can’t simply move away from her abuser.”
The age-old apartment question is felt by domestic violence victims most keenly. Often lacking the necessary resources to move away, they are forced to continue to cohabit with their abusers.
The new bill, however, would make the abuser legally responsible for the victim’s rent - and this is beside the additional legal responsibilities toward children.
Naturally, it remains to be seen if this bill will be passed. Even for bills that are passed, the question of how enforceable any particular law is continues to loom large - particularly in a country such as Russia.
Yet the mere fact that this legislation is now being considered at the highest levels is proof of how far Russian society has come. It is proof of the fact that people are beginning to grow just a tiny bit sick of the screams coming from their next door neighbors’ apartments.
Even the Russian Orthodox Church acknowledges the fact that domestic violence is a problem.
Naturally, there is plenty of disagreement within individual parishes. Having been in contact with a great deal of priests throughout my lifetime, I know that attitudes toward abuse can vary wildly within the institution of the Church. Although 19th century Orthodox figures spoke out against domestic violence, the idea that some people, women in particular, “deserve” this kind of treatment has remained.
The state is now counting on the Russian Orthodox Church to help provide temporary shelters for the victims of domestic violence. It remains to be seen if such a scheme will work out - but if it does, it can only be a good thing.
The truth is, the best of the Russian Orthodox clergy, the most learned and the most compassionate among the priests, is firmly against the normalization of abuse. Most of them know exactly how horrific abuse is - and how it contributes to the fraying of the social fabric (the fact that children who have witnessed abuse in the home frequently turn into criminals is not lost on these people, for example).
It will take a whole lot more than laws to change society’s mind about domestic violence, of course. Yet most social revolutions start with exactly these kinds of bills - bills that stir controversy and finally get people talking about some of the most difficult topics imaginable.
For thousands of abuse victims, it’s already too late - and it’s hard to keep from growing embittered by this fact.
Many others, including women, are so thoroughly entrenched in the culture of daily brutality that they completely reject any notion of legal recourse for the victims.
It’s impossible to take comfort in any of this.
But it is still possible to “rage against the dying of the light.” How many deaths will it take? Plenty of Russians, including high-placed members of government, have had enough.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the acting editor-in-chief of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.