“Beat her when you are alone together”: Domestic Violence in the Russian Tradition, Past and Present

by Nadieszda Kizenko

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On February 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law decriminalizing domestic violence. Now, the first instance of poboi—“actions which cause physical pain but do not lead to grave injury or loss of ability to work’’—will be treated as a misdemeanor rather than a criminal act. This means that the offender will incur a fine of 30,000 rubles (about $500), community service, or a fifteen-day detention. If the offender repeats the offense within a year, the second offense will be treated as a criminal act. If more than a year goes by, the slate is clean, and the repeat offense is once again a misdemeanor with no jail time.

This measure prompted a furious response, both in Russian social media and abroad, when it was first raised in the lower courts last June. It seemed as if the most vulnerable members of society were left without protection, and as if the state considered bloodying one’s wife and children somehow not serious. But the picture is more complicated than it seems. It is more complicated both because of Russian justice and because of the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Initially, when the government decriminalized all acts of battery (the least violent form of assault according to Russian law), the idea was to protect first-time offenders from automatically ending up in prison, with a criminal record. Domestic violence was at first exempted from this decriminalization, as were racially motivated hate crimes. This meant that a parent who once raised his hand against a child, or a husband against a wife, could be jailed for two years.

One could see why this might give pause. A stay-at-home mother might think twice before having the sole breadwinner locked up. Indeed, she might not report the offense precisely because she did not want her partner to automatically end up in prison.

Nor is Russia exceptional. The United States, too, distinguishes between domestic violence misdemeanors and felonies. Here, the penalties for domestic violence misdemeanors vary from state to state. Most misdemeanors result in fines, and only in some cases jail time of up to one year. In some municipalities, domestic violence results in misdemeanor charges for the first two offenses: if the defendant is charged with a third domestic violence offense, it will usually result in a felony. In other words, the Russian move to classify some acts of domestic violence as misdemeanors is fully within the spectrum of American legislation on the same issue.

Why, then, has the Russian decriminalization of domestic violence resulted in a flurry of condemnation by many Orthodox Christians in the United States, when roughly similar penalties in the United States do not?

One obvious answer is that decriminalizing any domestic violence, even to the standards of the United States, goes against the general direction of contemporary legal reform and notions of human rights. Another is that the letter of the law is only the beginning: enforcement is no less important. Most American police officers are instructed to work on the assumption that the spouse who calls for help is telling the truth. In Russia, sympathy for the victim is by no means a given. But part of the answer may come less from the legal penalties for domestic violence as such—but rather from the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.

When the subject first came up for discussion in June, Priest Dimitri Smirnov, the head of the Moscow Patriarchal Commission on Family Matters, did not bring up Christian forgiveness and the possibility of horrified repentance by the offending spouse. He did not bring up the idea that first-time offenders might also be breadwinners, and that a criminal record would limit their ability to provide for their families. In a country where it is estimated that domestic violence kills a woman every forty minutes, he said nothing about the damage to a marriage when a husband “just” slaps his wife in the face. Indeed, he—and the Commission to Protect the Family—said nothing about spousal abuse at all.

He did agree, to be fair, that if parents beat their child to a pulp, or broke their limbs in an alcoholic rage, “they should be sent to jail and deprived of their parental rights.” But he still saw the chief problem as being “the general destruction of the family that began in 19th century literature,” and especially “the notion of individual freedom.” Perhaps in an allusion to the half-legendary Pavlik Morozov (the Bolshevik boy ‘martyr’ supposedly killed by the relatives he turned in for taking ears of corn from the kolkhoz to feed his hungry family), the best Father Smirnov could do was to cite Mark 13:12 (“Children will rebel against parents and have them put to death”). The Commission noted that Holy Scripture (specifically, Proverbs 22:15 23:13-14; 29:15; Hebrews 12:6-11, and “the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church”) upheld the possibility of “rational and loving use of physical punishment as an indissoluble part of parental rights established by God Himself.”

More than the law itself, then, what struck many was the Patriarchal Commission’s  1) appeal to Scripture to justify parents using physical violence against children, and 2) ignoring battered wives altogether.

It is thus all the more striking to realize that there is another tradition in Russian Orthodoxy. True, old Russia was not exactly a haven for battered women. Russian justice was patriarchal, and, like Byzantine law, resolutely on the side of the pater familias. A wife could successfully protest beating only if it endangered her life. Even entering a convent (and wives could be beaten precisely to drive them into convents, so that the husbands could marry again) did not always work: if a woman had been beaten, and entered a convent to escape, her motivations were not ‘sincere,’ and she was returned to her husband. In the absence of laws giving women protection and redress, it is not surprising that before 1917 women matched men in only one kind of felony: spousal murder.

But there was also mercy in the Russian tradition—and room for protest. As Nancy Shields Kollman has noted, women’s relatives thought that excessive beating invalidated a husband’s conjugal authority over his wife. Metropolitans might agree with them. Mothers and brothers could and did sue on behalf of their abused daughters and sisters. One Yakutsk woman won permission for a divorce because of her husband’s abuse, even though she had been caught in adultery. When one father rescued his daughter from crippling beatings by her husband and father-in-law, he won a settlement whereby the guilty men agreed to support her for the rest of her life while she lived apart from her husband. When they asked about sins relating to the fifth commandment, Russian father-confessors asked spouses if they had been cruel to their partners, and parents if they had been cruel to their children.

The Muscovite saints Eve Levin has studied could also take the side of the victim. In several miracle tales, saints intervened to release the wives husbands had tied up or chained. In one account, an abused woman tried to commit suicide by drowning herself in a well, and the saint rescued her. Although this may seem scant consolation to a battered woman, it at least acknowledges her despair.

Thus, even when both canon and secular law took the side of a violent husband, a Russian Orthodox woman in Muscovy could still look to three places for hope: her birth family, the occasional Metropolitan, and the saints. It is a pity that, in the 21st century, members of the Patriarchate’s Commission for the Protection of Family and Motherhood chose silence rather than drawing on their own tradition of concern and mercy.

Nadieszda Kizenko is Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Albany.