🌈 Lessons on authoritarian regime dynamics from Russia’s politics of domestic violence

Russia has engaged in some dramatic genderbashing, most notably in its proclaimed embrace of 'traditional values' to justify the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, writes Janet Elise Johnson, over the past decade, Russia's politics of domestic violence have been remarkably contentious

As Elin Bjarnegård and Pär Zetterberg summarise in this series, many 21st century authoritarian regimes engage in 'genderwashing'. While some signal their virtue globally by enacting gender equality reforms, other authoritarian regimes remain committed to 'genderbashing'.

These observations help political scientists understand why and how domestic politics can lead authoritarian regimes to enact gender equality reform. In my recent article and a follow-up piece, I point to the particularly authoritarian opportunities, allies, and mechanisms, as well as the role that feminists play.

Russia’s dizzying politics on domestic violence

Unsurprisingly, Russia is a laggard when it comes to addressing the problem of violence between women and their current or former partners. Unlike all other post-communist countries, over the last three decades, Russia has failed to pass any specific or comprehensive domestic violence legislation. The general consensus is that Russia is genderbashing here, too, having de-criminalised domestic violence in 2017. In my work, I show just how dizzying Russia’s politics on domestic violence has been over the past ten years, in the cases of five separate policy processes.

In three decades, Russia failed to pass any comprehensive domestic violence legislation

Two of the five cases resulted in failed attempts to pass comprehensive legislation. In 2016 and 2019, legislators introduced bills that would comprehensively address domestic violence. Neither case went as far as feminist advocates would like, but both were assessed to be compliant with the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention. Russia never even ratified this, and the regime seemed serious about the second bill until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Most domestic violence in Russia, if prosecuted, falls under the offence of un-aggravated battery

The other three cases were legislative changes to Russia’s criminal code article on un-aggravated battery. Most domestic violence in Russia, if prosecuted, falls under this offence. In 2016, Russia’s criminal-legal entities pushed for a major overhaul to move un-aggravated battery from the criminal to the administrative code. After protests by feminists, the final legislation included one exception: un-aggravated battery between close persons. This legislation criminalised domestic violence for the first time in a century.

Reversing the criminalisation of domestic violence

In 2017, legislators reversed this criminalisation, supposedly only for the first instance of domestic violence, thus partially decriminalising domestic violence. However, this law was unclear, and, in June 2022 — a few months after it withdrew from the Council of Europe — Russia passed a small reform. The reform clarified that that all subsequent offences were criminal offences, thus partially re-criminalising domestic violence. The law enforcement agencies in Russia like to follow procedure, and this reform is likely to make them hold more perpetrators accountable. I therefore argue that this is a second gender equality policy, albeit a tiny one.

Systematically comparing these five policy processes, I propose the following framework to explain authoritarian gender equality reform.

Opportunities: practical problems

Reform requires opportunity. Sometimes, an autocrat like Vladimir Putin may make gender-equality policy unilaterally, but in most instances, autocrats deliberately send mixed signals. This means they can let things play out among elites and protect themselves from fallout, only weighing in when necessary. Russia’s domestic violence politics shows that the practical problems of the elite can create structural opportunities. Indeed, the two progressive criminal-legal reforms on battery between close persons occurred because law enforcement wanted to address procedural problems. Such problems include police clearance rates and the logic of increasing punishments for repeat offenders.

Allies: male powerbrokers in male-dominated institutions

Secondly, reform requires legislative allies. In authoritarian regimes, these allies are not likely to be feminists or even women. Those fighting for feminist policy are unlikely to have much power, and those that do are likely to be men. The politics of most authoritarian regimes, including Russia, is overwhelmingly male-dominated, although some women have been fast-tracked into formal roles. In the two aforementioned progressive reforms (and absent in the two failures to pass legislation), the male legislative allies had access to the most powerful criminal-legal elites. These male legislators publicly criticised the regime’s policy at times and/or changed their expressed preference without consequence.

In authoritarian regimes, legislative allies are not likely to be feminists or even women

In contrast, the State Duma forced out Oksana Pushkina, the only openly pro-feminist female legislator. A feminist activist who later tried to replace Pushkina and two prominent feminist domestic violence organisations were branded 'foreign agents'.

Mechanisms: gendered intra-elite conflict and signalling

Without clear direction from an autocrat, legislative politics in authoritarian regimes are driven by intra-elite conflict and shaped by signalling because of regimes’ precarity and lack of transparency. Edmund Malesky and Paul Schuler synthesised this as 'needling or nodding'. In Russia’s domestic violence politics, those in social services and human rights bureaucracies needled the regime for comprehensive reforms. The most powerful woman in formal politics, upper house head Valentina Matvienko, constantly shifted in line with Putin’s mixed signals.

In the three cases above in which laws were changed, the Supreme and Constitutional Courts worked with the Ministry of Internal Affairs to needle the regime into attending to their practical problems. At the same time, they nodded to Putin’s signal to reverse the 2016 reform. Reflecting the regime’s male dominance, the more masculinised criminal-legal entities succeeded where the more feminised proponents of comprehensive reform had failed.

Agenda-setting: feminist efforts and selective responsiveness

This is not to say that feminist efforts do not matter, but they are most effective at amplifying attention on what policy scholars call focusing events. In Russia, feminists brought two horrifying incidents of domestic violence to public attention, one of which became the human face for a damning report from Human Rights Watch. Feminist activism has led two rulings against Russia by the European Court of Human Rights. Feminist efforts led elites to insert responsiveness to domestic violence into the 2016 overhaul. They later got the issue back on the agenda in 2019. In the 21st century, most authoritarian regimes feel some pressure to appear responsive to popular demands.

No.15 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Janet Elise Johnson
Janet Elise Johnson
Endowed Chair in Women’s and Gender Studies, Brooklyn College, City University New York / Professor, Political Science & Women’s / Gender Studies, Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center

Janet is a specialist on Russia, gender, feminist activism, and gendered violence.

Her work has appeared in The Conversation, The New Yorker, The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, The Boston Review, The Nation, and the Kennan Russia File, as well as in four scholarly books and two dozen articles and book chapters.

The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia

The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia
Routledge, 2022
co-edited with Katalin Fábián and Mara Lazda
Winner, Heldt prize for best book in Slavic / East European / Eurasian Women’s and Gender Studies, from the Association for Women in Slavic Studies

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram