Is the Russian Orthodox Church Pushing Battered Women into Feminism?

by Lena Zezulin


As expected, President Putin signed the law decriminalizing family violence, shifting certain offenses from criminal to administrative proceedings. Ostensibly this was done to bring the law into compliance with changes to the criminal code that had redefined assaults that do not result in “substantial bodily harm” from criminal to administrative violations. The change was decried by human rights activists in Russia and foreign observers as a step in the wrong direction. In addition, the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in support of the measure, and the Church’s opposition to the very notion of “family violence” as an import of Western “gender ideology,” received widespread criticism. Now that the law has been changed, where are we?

Family violence in Russia was, and remains, a huge problem. Data on family violence collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that worldwide 38% of murdered women are killed by their partners (data for 2013). It is difficult to find data on how many women die from family violence each year in Russia. According to estimates based on studies in selected regions by the Russian Ministry of Interior, a shocking 600,000 women in Russia face physical and verbal abuse at home every year. Out of those, an estimated 14,000 die from injuries inflicted by husbands or partners. That is almost 40 a day. Another way to put it is that in Russia, one woman dies every 40 minutes from domestic abuse.

Comparing this to the United States, with its gun violence, shows us how serious a problem this is. In the US, 1,706 women a year die from violence inflicted by husbands or partners. The loss is so much less than in Russia, especially considering that the US population is more than twice that of the Russian Federation (US is 324 million and Russia is 143 million). Clearly Russia HAS a serious domestic violence problem. And of course, domestic violence that stops short of death leads to other ills for the 600,000 or so Russian women subject to it. Family violence is not an isolated social ill. It is closely linked to alcohol abuse. And women suffering from family violence are more likely to finally retaliate by killing their partner.

Under the previous legal regime, the criminalization of family violence did not lead to effective law enforcement. Women were unable to get redress from the police. It is unclear if reducing penalties from criminal to administrative is going to lead to a decrease or increase in family violence in Russia. There is widespread evidence in the U.S. that raising the level of legal sanction from a “domestic dispute” to a crime reduced family violence by strengthening law enforcement. Russia may be different – if enforcement improves, the critical factor will not be how the law defines family violence, but how well enforcement is undertaken.

The causes of family violence are complex. Researchers generally agree that they include: 1) being raised in a violent family; 2) gender inequality; 3) alcohol and substance abuse; and 4) economic hardship, such as prolonged unemployment. The times when violence is likely to occur are pregnancy as well as divorce and separation.

Family violence involves the entire community, including the family’s church. Churches and individual clergy can play an important role. The traditional perspective of clergy was to seek to resolve domestic disputes and to “save” a marriage. In the U.S., churches have recognized that if the marriage has broken down and there is either a risk of violence or violence ongoing, it may be harmful to take that approach. The case of the Catholic Church is particularly interesting, given its opposition to divorce and pro-family policy positions. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have made clear that “violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form- physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal is sinful; often it is a crime as well” (When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women). Some abused women believe that Catholic Church teaching on the permanence of marriage requires them to stay in an abusive relationship and may hesitate to seek a separation or divorce. The Catholic bishops emphasize that “no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.” Violence and abuse, not divorce, break up a marriage. The abuser has already broken the marriage covenant through his or her abusive behavior.

What causes consternation is that the Russian Orthodox Church was more concerned about the possible effect of Western values on the Russian Orthodox family than by the suffering of persons trapped in violent families. It simply denied the existence of the problem by referring to family violence as “so-called” and opposed prevention programs. In so doing the Russian Orthodox Church is more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution. Clergy who urge wives to “forgive” and be “patient” will only perpetuate violence, as will clergy who insist on the notion that female subservience is part of Russian Orthodox marriage.

It appears that the Russian Orthodox Church has abandoned women in abusive relationships and has decided that it is better to keep families intact even in the face of abuse. This position is fundamentally contrary to the Orthodox concept of family and marriage. The Orthodox marriage is not a property or subservience relationship. It is a relationship built on love. It is a domestic church.

What will be the consequence? One possibility is that individual clergy or parishes will understand the need for pastoral care and concern and will try to prevent family violence and assist victims as part of their religious mission. Another possibility is that women will find a refuge not in the Church but through outside community, civil society, or social media support systems.  In spite of restrictions on press and media in Russia, there was recently an outcry on social media sharing stories of abuse. By abandoning women because it fears “gender ideology,” the Russian Orthodox Church may give them no choice but to seek refuge in feminism.

Lena Zezulin is a US attorney and international development advisor on democracy and governance and economic reform. She lived and worked long term on legal reform in Russia, Armenia, and Tunisia.