Alas, it's true. As our own Bobby Ross Jr. mentioned earlier today, nothing seems to push readers away from a news-driven blog quicker than headlines about complex stories on the other side of the world.
Well, culture-wars readers on left and right might click to read something about a Pope Francis statement attacking President Donald Trump's refusal to put gender-neutral bathrooms at gateway facilities in a new border wall. Maybe. Just thinking out loud about that one.
So USA Today had an international story the other day that I ran into on Twitter, before I saw coverage of this topic elsewhere. The headline: "Russia parliament votes 380-3 to decriminalize domestic violence."
Now, that's a rather shocking headline, especially when we are talking about a culture that leans toward the authoritarian, to say the least. However, when I read the overture to the piece I found the details a bit more complex and nuanced than I expected.
Russia's parliament voted 380-3 ... to decriminalize domestic violence in cases where it does not cause "substantial bodily harm" and does not occur more than once a year.
The move, which eliminates criminal liability in such cases, makes a violation punishable by a fine of roughly $500, or a 15-day arrest, provided there is no repeat within 12 months. The bill now goes to the rubber-stamp upper chamber, where no opposition is expected. It then must be signed by President Vladimir Putin, who has signaled his support.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists that family conflicts do "not necessarily constitute domestic violence."
Now, I am no expert on Russia. Most of what I know is from books, from other Orthodox believers (my current parish includes more than a few Russians) and from an intense two weeks in Moscow a few days after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union (click here for info on that).
When I read that lede, as opposed to the headline, I immediately had several reactions as a journalist:
* Look at the size of that vote. Even if you think modern Russia is a no-safe zone for all forms of modern life, that is a stunning number. This might make you think that there were factors in play other than a mere desire to make it A-OK for Russian men to commit violence against women and children.
* Does anyone else think that this is fairly significant punishment regime for what could be seen as first-offense, one-time spanking or slapping that does not cause "substantial" injury? Think about that: How does this standard compare with similar laws in the United States on slapping and spanking?
* Russia continues to have hellish issues with alcoholism. I wondered if current laws on domestic abuse, when mixed with drunken behavior, were creating a crisis in jails. Was the law this replaced simply being ignored, as a result?
* You know that religious leaders had to have been involved in this debate and it would have been impossible to get that vote total against the will of Russian Orthodox and Muslim leaders. We will come back to that.
Now, since this is Russia this story must be shaped by the template used in all coverage of Putin. For many, this means it must then be connected to YOU KNOW WHO. Online that can look like this:
Right. That's what this was about.
As you would expect, the debate that led to this vote was serious, since this is a serious issue. It was strange, I thought, that members of the USA Today team didn't make much of an attempt to define many of the terms used in the publications that they were quoting.
Like what? The word "beat" is used consistently, while groups defending the new law seem to be implying "spanking." In America, is every "slap" the same as a "beating"?
One number jumped out at me in this passage:
A survey this month by state-run pollster VTsIOM found 19% of Russians said “it can be acceptable” to hit one’s wife, husband or child “in certain circumstances,” the Associated Press reported. The nationwide poll by phone of 1,800 people was held Jan. 13-15. The survey had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
In many ways, this reflects the thrust of an old Russian proverb: “If he beats you it means he loves you.”
Might I ask who is being quoted there? Who brought up that proverb?
I ask because I thought that the 19 percent approval figure -- in terms of a more lenient view of domestic abuse -- was much lower than I expected, in light of many old-school trends in Russian life (including the realities of lives twisted by alcohol). And one more thing: About 14-15 percent of the Russian population is Muslim. That raises another tricky question about religion, culture and family life. Right? In America, discussions of "spanking" and related topics are often affected by culture and ethnicity. Right?
Let me stress that I am assuming that the domestic violence issue is real, pressing and dangerous -- especially in a society with rampant alcohol abuse. The statistics for serious domestic abuse in Russian are shocking. The question is how defenders of this bill would defend its logic, in that context.
How did other major newsrooms word all of this? Here is the top of the New York Times report:
MOSCOW -- Russian lawmakers on Wednesday moved to decriminalize some forms of domestic battery for first-time offenders who do not do serious physical harm to their victims.
Members of the State Duma passed the controversial amendment to the Russian criminal code in its second reading, which essentially assures it will go to President Vladimir V. Putin for his signature.
The amendment treats a first conviction for domestic battery as an administrative offense, carrying a penalty of a $500 fine or 15 days in jail. If Mr. Putin signs the measure into law, only injuries like concussions or broken bones, or repeated offenses committed in a family setting, would lead to criminal charges.
Defenders of the measure say it will protect parents’ rights to discipline their children and generally reduce the state’s role in domestic life.
So who wanted this law? The language here gets pretty strong (and predictable):
“In the traditional Russian family culture, relations between ‘fathers and sons’ are built upon the authority of parents’ power, mutual love and personal indispensability as the basis for children’s upbringing,” said Yelena B. Mizulina, one of the initiators of the new legislation and author of a law that banned “gay propaganda” aimed at minors.
Opponents called it a step back to medieval times and a license for violent behavior by domestic tyrants. “It is clear that lawmakers recognized violence as a norm of family life,” said Svetlana G. Aivazova, a Russian specialist in gender studies. “This shows that Duma deputies are not simply conservative or traditional, it shows that they are archaic.”
When church leaders are asked about these issues, it is clear that -- for them -- the key issue is spanking and parental discipline.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has steadily increased its influence in social policy in recent years, said in a statement last year that physical punishment was a Russian tradition and thus should be protected as “an essential right given to parents by God.”
“There is absolutely no doubt that children should be defended against true criminal activities,” the church said. “But you cannot equate such criminal assaults with rational and moderate use of physical punishment by loving parents.”
More than anything else, I was left wondering: If the new law represented a step backwards, were the laws that were already in place working? Was this law really an attempt to signal "OK, Russians, now you have permission to go wild" or an effort to pass something that could be enforced without packing jail cells night after night?
Just curious. Methinks there was more to this issue than another chance to joke about how backward believers are in Russia. I think the problems there have more to do with bars and broken families, not doctrinal conservatives at altars.