Putin’s Other War: Domestic Violence, Traditional Values, and Masculinity in Modern Russia

Putin’s Other War: Domestic Violence, Traditional Values, and Masculinity in Modern Russia

. 8 min read

Margarita Gracheva asked for protection. Law enforcement failed her.

After her husband had dragged her into the woods behind their home and threatened her with a knife, the mother of two called the police. It was not the first time she had reported abuse, but, under Russian law, her abuser could not be arrested unless the abuse was so violent that she would be hospitalized. Three months later, the police received a call saying that Gracheva’s hands had been cut off with an ax. Only then was her husband arrested.

Gracheva, who has now become an outspoken advocate for domestic violence protection, told reporters that her only advice for women facing similar situations is to “run away. Look for a way out. Because the police won’t help.”

Unfortunately, Gracheva’s story is far from unique. One in five Russian women face domestic abuse every year. In 2018, 5,000 Russian women died at the hands of their abusers. The problem is disproportionately severe in Russia, where a state-sponsored culture of machismo and isolation has eroded what few protections survivors had left. Of all those who die from domestic violence each year, 10 percent of them are in Russia, a country which makes up less than 2 percent of global population. A dismal 10 percent of Russian women who are abused go to the police, and only three percent of those cases ever make it to court. The failures of the police are part of a larger systematic failure of the Russian government to protect women.

In 2017, the Duma, Russia’s legislative body, decriminalized domestic violence that does not require hospital treatment. Under the law, if domestic violence leads to bruises or “minor” injuries, then there is no punishment for the offender. It is only when domestic violence causes such severe injuries that it sends the victim to the hospital does it become a criminal act. First-time offenders often receive fines of only 5,000 rubles (US$88). The number of domestic violence reports to police dropped by nearly half after the law was passed. Concurrently, the Anna Center, one of the few domestic abuse centers left in Russia, reported an increase in calls from 20,000 in 2016 to 27,000 a year later.

While it may be difficult to understand why any government would allow and even enable domestic abuse, the callous actions of the Russian government may reflect a larger political strategy of praising masculinity in the name of traditional values. Whether intentionally or not, Putin’s emphasis on traditionalism, accompanied by a state-promoted culture of masculinity, has enabled a domestic violence crisis in Russia.

The Battle For Traditional Values

After reforming the constitution to extend term limits in 2012, Putin lost significant support from a variety of Russians, including some Russian traditionalists who believed firmly in the tradition of the constitution. These traditionalists, often those who were conservative, strict orthodox voters, are vital to Putin’s base. This sense of “unfairness” united a powerful coalition of communists, traditionalists, and the middle class against Putin. Even the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, in many ways a functional extension of Putin’s regime, did not come to his defense. Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, defended popular protests as a “lawful negative reaction” to corruption. However, by appealing to rigid gender roles and so-called “traditional family values,” Putin avoided a political crisis. He passed legislation the following term aimed at gaining back public support by appealing to traditionalism and Orthodox ideals, including a ban on “gay propaganda” in 2013, economic incentives to boost population growth throughout his terms, and the decriminalization of domestic battery in 2017. By echoing the views of the Church and other conservative institutions, this strategy allowed the Kremlin to turn the attention of traditionalists toward “violations” of traditional values and away from Putin’s erosion of democracy and Russia’s rampant inequality.

To many in the Church and politics alike, re-criminalizing domestic violence would run against these values. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, the family is a “small church,” meaning that state interference in family matters like domestic violence would be tantamount to restricting religious rights. Some religious leaders, like Dimitry Smirnov, a Russian Orthodox archbishop, also worry that laws criminalizing domestic violence would break up the family unit, leaving Russian children to be adopted by “homosexuals.”

Putin’s strategy to divert Russian attention away from corruption and towards morality has been incredibly successful. In 2019, the same year Putin cracked down on free expression online and arrested at least 1,300 protesters, conservative groups were occupied in their fight against Russian feminists. After a bill to recriminalize domestic violence was introduced to the Duma in 2019, more than 180 ultraconservative and religious groups in Russia signed a letter in protest of the bill, stating that criminalizing domestic violence was “anti-family.” These groups encompassed everyone from paramilitary organizations to those advocating for families to have more children. The bill failed soon after.

Putin has also weaponized the issue of domestic violence to create a divide between the West and Russia. After refusing to ratify the 2014 Istanbul Convention, a major international convention about preventing violence against women, Russia said that it found the Convention to be inconsistent with “the principal approaches of the Russian Federation to the protection and promotion of traditional moral and family values.” This division between Russia and the West has only encouraged an us versus them mentality among the Russian public. After a new round of cries by activists for an anti-domestic violence law in 2020, mass vigils emerged around the country to protest western liberalism. Meanwhile, Russian priests took to the news to lament the forces of globalization. While isolating Russia from the rest of the West on this issue may create “moral sovereignty” for the country, it also acts as a form of perverse nationalism. By defining Russian values in opposition to western ones, Putin can mobilize tradition and religion in the service of a constructed national identity. All of this ultimately helps Putin politically. When the West pressures Russia to adopt feminist, liberal values, it hands Putin the opportunity to highlight his strongman defense of Russian values and culture against the West.

Putin’s Masculinity Agenda

Because traditional values emphasize clear gender roles for men and women, perhaps the more subtle way in which Putin’s emphasis on traditional values has enabled the rise in domestic violence is through his use of masculinity.  Putin’s use of masculinity, a subset of these traditional values, models a dangerous and violent type of masculinity to a receptive Russian male audience.

Liberalization in the mid-1980s under Gorbachev's perestroika gave life to the nascent women's rights movement in Russia. Between 1993 and 1997, the first 14 crisis centers for women appeared in Russia, distributing literature and providing safe locations to those facing violence. By 1996, an estimated 400 civil society groups existed that were focused on the advancement of women’s rights. Economic decline following the collapse of the Soviet Union thrust many Russian women into the workforce to make up for declining incomes as their husbands lost work. Consequently, many households no longer had a man as the primary breadwinner, a phenomenon that scholars now believe may have emasculated millions of Russian men as their status parallelled that of their country. The wounded masculinity of these men led to a swift change in state policy regarding women: what limited talk of equality existed was replaced by the language of “protection.” Under a 1996 labor law, women were prevented from working in “dangerous” jobs out of caution for women’s health, particularly their reproductive health. Consequently, women were formally taken out of running for certain jobs, putting men in a position to become the breadwinner again.

As Putin rose to power, he capitalized on this emasculation of the country and adopted a more masculine, physical, and even sexual public persona. Much like how the downfall of Russian masculinity mirrored the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin’s masculinity became emblematic of the resurgence of Russian power. At political rallies, he played songs like “A Man Like Putin,” in which a young pop band sings about how they want to date a man like Putin. He has also insulted the masculinity of his opponents by comparing them to women and commissioned shirtless pictures of himself riding horses and fishing in the Russian taiga.

Putin’s shirtless expressions of masculinity would be comical if they were not so damaging. A robust body of social research suggests that domestic violence is highly correlated with harmful or "toxic" masculinity, an attitude characterized by male, physical domination and its emphasis on traditional gender roles. Putin’s toxic masculinity has, whether intentionally or not, condoned violence against women. In 2006, after Israel’s President, Moshe Katsav, was accused of rape by 10 women, Putin remarked that Katsav was a “mighty man” and that “we all envy him.” More recently, Putin partially quoted a lyric from Soviet-era punk rock band Red Mold about rape in criticizing Ukrainian President Vlodomir Zelenskyy. It is perhaps little surprise that feminism has not flourished in an environment laden with victim-blaming, rape jokes, and hypermasculine politicians.

Today, Putin is often seen as the pinnacle of manliness in Russia, which is why his vulgar, dismissive comments about women’s bodies may be particularly dangerous. More than 44 percent of Russians named Putin when asked to name a “real man.” Importantly, there is no sign Putin will stop his approach anytime soon, as his hypermasculinity has been hugely beneficial to his political strategy. Professor Valerie Sperling of Clark University attributes Putin’s political victories to his unique position in politics, noting that even as early as 2004, the voters either liked Putin and saw him as capable, or simply could not imagine anyone other than him occupying the position and handling its demands as well as Putin had “because of his monopoly on masculinity.” She adds that Putin’s image of masculinity had served to reinforce this idea so well that even by 2015 “Putin was painted as the only possible leader for Russia.” As of November 2017, when Russian survey participants were asked what they liked about Putin, 19 percent of Russians offered up the fact that Putin was a “real man,” “manly,” or similar phrases. As long as Putin, who seems to define what it means to be a man in Russia, implicitly or explicitly condones violence against women, a major cultural shift is unlikely.

The Path Forward

While the Kremlin may be taking a regressive stance on domestic violence, Russians as a whole are becoming more concerned about the problem. In January 2017, nearly 60 percent of Russians supported the decriminalization of domestic violence. Just two years later in December 2019, almost 70 percent of Russians said that they favored a law to protect Russian women against domestic violence. The tireless protests of Russian feminists have, in many ways, been somewhat successful at changing the minds of the public. Unfortunately, as Putin’s approval rating rises and his administration consolidates power, meaningful protections for women are still far from becoming a reality.

As Russia staggers into its 22nd year of the Putin regime, understanding why Putin has power is vital to understanding how he could be unseated, or, more immediately, how to avoid further destruction of women’s rights within Russia. Putin’s defining use of “traditional values” and hypermasculinity would have been impossible without an existing misogynistic society that views women’s lives as expendable and capitalizable. Thus, Putin’s strategy on domestic violence represents a powerful warning not only to Russia but to global citizens that authoritarianism and discrimination work in tandem. Ultimately, such a dynamic should serve to embolden, rather than discourage, social justice advocates, particularly in Russia, and to encourage opposition movements to uphold equality, rather than playing into Putin’s hypermasculine, traditionalist persona. Putin’s political strategies should serve as a call to arms for advocates across the world: fight against social oppression, and the leaders who oppress will fall.