MOSCOW – Sitting in the cramped kitchen of her Moscow suburban headquarters, Alyona Popova pointed out the nearby five-story brick complex and explained why domestic violence is at the center of her campaign for a Duma seat, the lower house of the Russian parliament.
“In every entry we have a story of domestic violence,” she said. “Right there, we have two grandmothers who have just been beaten by their relatives. In the next one, we have a mother with three children. She is beaten by her husband. And there we have a mother who is beaten by her son.
As she crosses the 205th electoral district, a working-class area on the eastern fringe of Moscow, Ms Popova pleads with women to turn against the ruling party of Vladimir Putin, United Russia, which canceled protection for women during the last years. Ahead of this weekend’s election, she put the issue in urgent terms, and a proposal to make all acts of domestic violence punishable by criminal law is at the top of her campaign platform.
According to Ms Popova’s analysis of data collected by Russia’s state statistics agency, there are more than 16.5 million victims of domestic violence every year. More than 12,200 women, or two-thirds of those murdered in Russia between 2011 and 2019, were killed by their partners or relatives, according to a study.
“This is our reality; the only term we can use is ‘epidemic’, ”said Ms Popova, 38, a lawyer and activist who runs with the liberal Yabloko party, although she is not a member.
There is evidence that many Russians agree with it. A 2020 poll conducted by independent center Levada found that nearly 80% of those polled believe legislation to tackle domestic violence is necessary. A petition launched by Ms Popova in favor of such a law has collected nearly a million signatures.
But will these supporters vote? And in an authoritarian Russia, where election results are indeed predetermined, would that make a difference?
Even in a country where women represent 54% of the population, domestic violence remains largely absent as a problem of animation for the voters, relegating to the background problems such as corruption, rising consumer prices, the lack of economic opportunities and the coronavirus pandemic.
“For our voters, this problem is in 90th place,” said Duma vice-president Pyotr O. Tolstoy, who is seeking a second term with United Russia.
He scoffed at suggestions that women could abandon his party, which holds 336 of the Duma’s 450 seats. Indeed, women are an integral part of the electoral base of United Russia. Part of the reason is that they hold the majority of public sector jobs in fields like teaching, medicine, and administration, which means their income often depends on the ruling political system.
Irina Yugchenko, 43, also expressed skepticism about Ms Popova’s emphasis on domestic violence as she stepped out of a metro station one evening recently. “Of course, of course, there should be a law, but if this happens to women more than once, we have to ask ourselves why,” she said, expressing a common point of view in Russia. “If my friends took care of this, they wouldn’t take it.”
She said she did not know who to vote for and that she doubted the election would make any change, adding cynically “we are not voting for the first time”. July 2021 The survey found that only 22 percent of respondents planned to vote, which would be a low of 17 years.
Over the past decade, Mr. Putin and his party have become increasingly conservative in their social policies. As the conflict between Russia and the West widened, the Kremlin began to present itself as the bastion of traditional family values. The state promoted patriarchal family structures and supported reactionary attitudes towards LGBTQ Russians.
In 2016, the government called the Moscow-based Anna Center, which provides legal, material and psychological assistance to abused women, a “foreign agent”. The designation carries negative connotations and imposes onerous requirements. Last year the government appointed another group, Nasiliu.net (“No to Violence”), as a foreign agent.
Duma deputies voted 380-3 in 2017 to partially decriminalize domestic violence, reducing it to an administrative offense if it does not occur more than once a year. Damage that results in bruising or bleeding, but not fractures, is punishable by a fine as low as 5,000 rubles, or $ 68, a little more than illegal parking. Only injuries such as concussions and broken bones, or repeated offenses against a family member, lead to criminal charges. There is no legal instrument allowing the police to issue restraining orders.
An anti-domestic violence bill that was proposed in 2019 sparked debate in the Duma, but it was eventually amended to such an extent that its early supporters, including Ms Popova, were “horrified”. It was never put to a vote.
But in recent years, several dramatic cases have sparked outrage, making the problem more politically powerful. In one famous case, Margarita Gracheva’s husband cut off both of her hands with an ax in 2017, months after she started asking for police protection. (He was later sentenced to 14 years in prison. She now co-hosts a state television show about domestic violence.)
“Finally, this issue has attracted so much attention that it has become a political issue,” said Marina Pisklakova-Parker, director of the Anna Center.
In April, Russia’s Constitutional Court ordered lawmakers to amend the penal code to punish perpetrators of repeated domestic violence, concluding that protections for victims and penalties for offenders were insufficient. And advocacy groups have recorded an increase in domestic violence linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Duma did not act.
Many voters in United Russia appreciate government coupons given to mothers. Benefits were recently extended to women with one child, as Moscow tries to increase the country’s declining birth rate.
But it does not replace basic protection, said Oksana Pushkina, a popular television personality who entered the Duma with United Russia in 2016 and has made combating domestic violence one of her priorities.
“All of these measures are supportive measures designed to leave a woman at home and not to create opportunities for her personal fulfillment and economic independence,” she said. “In this way, the Russian authorities provide for the basic needs of Russian women, in return for their political loyalty. But such government spending is by no means a social investment. “
Ms Pushkina, who defended the domestic violence law in the Duma, was not invited to run for a second term.
“Apparently United Russia and members of the presidential administration saw me as too independent and the pro-feminist agenda too dangerous,” she said.
Experts and survivors say much of the opposition to the 2019 bill was misinformed, with many opponents mistakenly claiming that if a restraining order were imposed a man could lose his property or that children could be removed from their families.
“They are afraid that the Stalin era, when people informed their neighbors, may return,” said Irina Petrakova, a human resources assistant who survived seven years of abuse by her ex-husband. She said she reported 23 incidents to authorities on eight occasions, but her husband did not spend a single day in prison.
She, Ms Gracheva and two other women are suing Russia in the European Court of Human Rights for failing to protect them.
Ms Petrakova, who also works as a life coach, said she supports Ms Popova, whose district is adjacent to her own. But she shrugged when asked if United Russia’s refusal to tackle domestic violence could keep women away from the party. Many of her constituents, she said, lived through the turbulent 1990s and appreciated the stability.
She had planned to vote, but said there were no worthy candidates in her constituency.
“If I could put a checkmark against everyone, I would,” she said.
Most of the Russian opposition has been imprisoned, exiled or banned from running in this weekend’s election. In a small meeting with potential voters in a park on Sunday, Ms Popova, who faces 10 other candidates, said she was committed to participating in elections, even uncompetitive ones, for as long as possible.
And she was optimistic about the polls her team had commissioned, showing her very strong support among women aged 25 to 46.
“It means women unite for the future, for change,” she said. “This is the main victory that we can imagine during our campaign.
Two young women in the audience said they were planning to vote for her.
“Maybe women of an older generation see domestic violence as normal,” said Maria Badmayeva, 26. “But we, the younger generation, are more progressive. We believe that the values that Alyona stands for are essential.
Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.