The young mother spoke softly but with determination. After fleeing from her abusive boyfriend, she and her newborn baby found refuge last month in a women’s shelter on the outskirts of Moscow.
According to Russian law at the time, he could have faced criminal prosecution for striking her. Now, under legislation signed Feb. 7 by Russian President Vladimir Putin, her partner would most likely face an administrative fine of up to $500.
The 30-year-old woman asked her name not be used because her boyfriend, whose abuse she reported to authorities, is still looking for her. But she was blunt in her opinion about Russia’s new law decriminalizing domestic violence for first-time offenders.
“The law mentions one blow, but with one blow, you can kill someone,” she said. “What kind of husbands, what kind of families, will we have with that law? What kind of relationships will we have in our society? Is that normal?”
The young mother and her 2-month-old baby are among five women and nine children staying in the two-story house on the grounds of a Russian Orthodox monastery. It is one of just a handful of shelters serving the Moscow metropolitan area. For a population of more than 12 million, the city has “fewer than 150 shelter spaces,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Backers of the new law, including the Russian Orthodox Church, argued that it would protect families by keeping the government out of one-time domestic disputes that don’t result in serious bodily harm. But human rights groups and other critics say it makes women more vulnerable to abuse.
The changes to Russia’s criminal code were approved by the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, by a vote of 380 to 3. The two female legislators who coauthored the bill, Olga Batalina and Olga Okuneva, both declined interview requests from NPR.
“Domestic tyrants” who repeatedly and systematically resort to violence against family members should be subject to criminal prosecution, Batalina argued in the Duma last month, but cases of light, unpremeditated battery should be treated as a less serious administrative offense.
The Russian Orthodox Church concurred that parents should be free to determine how to discipline their children, as long as they make “moderate and reasonable use of physical punishment.”
Alyona Sadikova, the director of the shelter, finds that position incomprehensible.
“I’m Orthodox Christian. I believe the church will never support any kind of violence,” she said. “It contradicts the idea of the church.”
The monastery where her shelter is located provides the building and some food. A telecommunications company donates staff salaries and medicine. What’s missing, Sadikova said, is a nationwide network of crisis centers that families in need can turn to.
“We try to get women back on their feet. This is not a hotel,” said Sadikova, who is an artist by profession. “We’re not saviors; we want women to save themselves.”
Experience shows that women usually seek outside help only after multiple beatings, she said, when their lives may be threatened and children have become witnesses to violence.
Forty percent of all violent crimes in Russia take place at home, and in 2014, a quarter of murders were committed by family members, according to government statistics.
One problem with the current law is that it doesn’t distinguish between spousal abuse and disciplining children. Another problem is that restraining orders aren’t part of Russian legal practice.
“Inside me, I have a bright picture of the society I want to live in,” said women’s advocate Alyona Popova, who is working with lawyers on an alternative bill to present to lawmakers.
Popova insists that Russia is ready for a “Nordic model” of equality. Two crucial changes would improve the law, she said: First, making the state — not the victim — responsible for bringing a lawsuit against abusers, and second, introducing restraining orders to deal with violent domestic partners.
“They should protect the victims and not the oppressor,” Popova said. “And now, according to that law, we protect the oppressor.”
Sadikova, the shelter director, said that low public awareness of domestic violence is the biggest challenge. Her shelter once won a presidential grant to build a playground, she said, but now “patriotic groups” such as pro-Kremlin bikers get precedence in official funding.
“Unfortunately, we’re not conscious of the seriousness of the problem and the need for preventative measures,” Sadikova said. “We’re moving slower than other countries, but we’ll get there in the end.”