Bigamy, teenage brides and abortion rights: How ‘tradition’ threatens Russia’s women 

William Echols

Tacit consent for a 17-year-old’s “forced” marriage in Chechnya, apparent acceptance of bigamy and a recent attempt to roll back abortion rights show that those tasked with protecting women and children in the Russian Federation have put a skewed sense of tradition over their citizens’ actual health and welfare.

On May 19, Russia’s lower house of parliament submitted a bill which seeks to criminalize abortions that are conducted outside of state-run hospitals. The legislation would entail administrative fines of up to $4,000 dollars for private individuals, $16,100 for officials, and $50,450, (or a suspension of operations for 90 days) for companies that run afoul of the proposed law.

One stipulation, which reads that “the artificial termination of pregnancy funded by mandatory health insurance will be possible only in the presence of certain medical or social reasons,” has sparked fears the bill is the first step in banning abortions all together.

The legislation would be a massive step back for women’s reproductive rights in Russia, which was the first country in the world to permit abortions for any and all reasons in 1920.

According to the bill’s authors, the widespread availability (and broad public acceptance of the practice), is a threat to national security at a time of national crisis. The Russian Legal Information Society (RAPSI), citing state-run media agency Ria Novosti, claims experts estimate that 5-8 million abortions are conducted in Russia each year. That would be a massive figure in a nation of 143.5 million, though it appears to have been pulled out of thin air.

According to the government’s own statistics, the abortion rate in 2011 was 989,375, less than half the 2.11 million performed in 2001.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped over the course of the past 20 years, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination. That figure lies in stark contrast to the first decade after the Soviet collapse, when the number of live births amounted to half the number of terminated pregnancies.

Source: Forbes

Source: Forbes

The abortion rate, while still high by global standards, has clearly gone down without a need for government proscription. The Kremlin, however, seems reticent to use more effective and less intrusive measures to tackle the problem.

In December, for example, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said sex education would never become part of the curriculum in Russian schools, claiming such classes would contravene the country’s morals and traditions.

Previously, he had rather quizzically argued that Russian literature was the best kind of sex education for teenagers, adding that schools “must raise children in chastity and with an understanding of family values.”


This, mind you, coming from someone who once warned that signing onto international agreements intended to protect children from sexual exploitation was the “first step towards the destruction of a child.” In his parallel reality, children being made aware of abuse so that they can hopefully identify it and possibly even prevent it is somehow more destructive than being molested in silence — just as actually being aware of sexual health issues that aren’t covered in Anna Karenina will endanger, and not protect teens.

It should come as no surprise that Russia’s grand defender of children has recently become infamous for justifying a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, arguing that in some parts of the Russian Federation, women “are already shriveled at age 27.” 

In a further coup of irony, he washed his hands of responsibility in the matter, saying “the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”

So Astakhov, who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby, does not want to get in the way of a 46-year-old man taking on a teenage-bride. But how does the fate of a teenage girl in Chechnya connect with the latest bill seeking to roll back abortion rights?


As it turns out, one of the conservative lawmaker behind the legislation not only concur’s in Astakhov’s belief that a powerful pedophile lobby is active in Russia, but she has also thrown her tacit support behind polygamy via the case of the Chechen teen.

“To criminalize [bigamy] is ridiculous, because the cause is not connected with an absence of criminal law, but rather the fact that there are not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children,”  Ria Novosti cited Yelena Mizulina as saying.

Mizulina, who heads up the Duma’s Women and Children Committee, seems to believe that controlling abortion and allowing polygamy are the best ways to combat Russia’s demographics crisis.

Yelena Mizulina

Yelena Mizulina

But strangely, for a lawmaker so concerned with upping Russia’s birth rates, Mizulina has also strongly come out against surrogate motherhood, which she said “threatens not only Russia but all of mankind with extinction.”

How exactly surrogacy threatens the human race is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain: the women and children of Russia are clearly in good hands with such advocates.

Of course, in Russia, where all public politics is virtual, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; the stage-managed illusion from the actual policy. But as the proposed abortion bill shows, Russia’s current leadership is definitely holding true to the old adage that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, especially when “traditional values” can intersect with cost cutting measures.

And at a time when most economic sectors are facing 10 percent cuts and where healthcare spending is down 9 percent over the past two years, Mizulina argues that money saved from the state healthcare budget [for “unnecessary” abortions] will be used to support pregnant women in a tough life situation.”

How much money Russia’s austerity-ridden healthcare system could actually save by denying abortions seems nominal, and fails to take into account the cost shifting burden to the states already overburdened and drastically underperforming orphanage system.

But like so many things in Russia, to view this proposed legislation in light of its presumed function is to fall victim to the bait and switch. It was Mizulina, after all, who introduced the 2012 Russia internet blacklist law, ostensibly to protect children from harmful internet content, but which was later used as a tool to counter “extremism,” which is often a code word for the political opposition.

In Russia, the leadership has become deft at creating one boogyman as a smokescreen to attack the last remnants of civil society, or as in the case of limiting abortions, seizing on a legitimate social problem in order to create another mechanism of control. Victims of this approach, women or otherwise, are merely collateral damage.

So instead of empowering people through sexual education and teaching them about properly using contraception (which is to say, treating citizens like citizens and not subjects), the Russian state would rather put the fate of women’s bodies firmly in its hands, forcing further unnecessary government intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to a 46-year-old police commander taking on a teenaged-bride, well, sometimes a laissez faire attitude is needed to keep the peace.

In the end, the Kremlin is sidestepping real solutions to public health problems affecting society in general and women in particular for the same reason it has abandoned a 17-year-old girl to the wolves in Chechnya: the only thing that really matters to Russia’s leadership is doing whatever it takes to keep the power vertical in place.

That strategy might allow for self-satisfying diatribes on state TV rallying against the “decedent West’, but will do little to alleviate a country racked by crisis, demographic or otherwise.

And sometimes, the pageantry of sovereign democracy entails warping tradition to defend “traditional values”, just as the governments defenders of women and children ultimately have to leave those they are ostensibly advocating for by the wayside.

Twerking leads to suicide? Russian propaganda break down

William Echols

A recent claim by the face of Russian domestic propaganda that twerking contributes to teenage suicide brings to the fore Moscow’s not so subtle attempt to employ failed American-style strategies of female subjugation to tackle very real social ills.

It all started with the apotheosis of political kitsch and trailer park sexuality. A bunch of white girls in a transcontinental city, provocatively dressed in the two-tone colors of Russian military valor and Ukrainian invasion, twerking around Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot.

At around the 0:37 mark, a horrified mother and her child can literally be seen doing their best imitation of the San Diego illegal alien crossing sign.


Yes, this video pulled off a trifecta of Post-Soviet trash; a veritable hat trick of ‘This is Russia bitch’ if you will.

And in a time when Russia’s ruling class is excessively fond of aping the histrionics of American far right moralists to decry the morally decedent West, Russia’s spin doctor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov didn’t miss a beat in his most recent condemnation of the twerking bees.

“We’re not going to dwell on this for long, but we simply need to ask ourselves one question: are we for or against early sex,” he asks in his all to familiar rhetorical style.

True to Kiselyovian theatrical form, the presenter then purposes a false dilemma, whereby those who are “for” minors having sex need to put an end to the “persecution of pedophiles”, purge the legal codex of corresponding laws, and “close your eyes to the obvious harm of early sex, which is accompanied by a crippled life…teenage abortions and suicide.”

That’s right, this isn’t just about girls in a provincial town expressing themselves in a manner that some might find distasteful. No, this is the decline of Western civilization, and Russia risks becoming America’s decedent watershed least they built up their moral defenses.


A few issues are at play here. One, the false equivalency Kiselyov makes between sexually charged dancing and actually engaging in sexual activity, or the ungrounded claim that the former is a slippery slope to the latter, is glaring.

Secondly, Kiselyov assertion that sex among teens leads to depression and suicide is contingent on a 12-year-old study from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, whose methodology leaves much to be desired.

Thirdly, seeing that Russia has a lower age of consent than the US (16 vs. 18), some of the girls portrayed in the clip are (by the country’s own standards) not likely minors to begin with. Not that any of this matters. The manufactured scandal which has led to a criminal investigation being launched by the Russian equivalent to the FBI is merely another form of public theater, whereby the government feigns religiosity for the sake of consolidating political power and further carving out a few slivers in that artificial East Vs. West divide.

When it comes to issues of sexuality, Russia is a patriarchy, but certainly not a theocratic one. Due to deep societal atomization and a politically apathetic culture which embraced rampant consumerism as the only truly binding national ideology, “unchaste” women are part and parcel of the everything is possible playground of the Third Rome. Sex has been more commodified in Russia than possibly any other place on Earth, and this is not a ruling class that has any interest in rolling back its access to pleasure.


Rather, any attempts to “chasten” Russian women will likely have little to do with limiting the actual availability of willing sexual partners for men in the country, but rather change the social dynamic which gives women (at least limited) control over their own sexuality. Despite all its faults, after all, the Soviet Union (sometimes out of pure necessity) did a lot to empower women regarding employment, maternity benefits, and control over their own bodies (though, in one of those perfect Soviet contradictions, it never found a need to manufacture tampons for them.)

There are more than a few men who would be more than happy to roll those rights back. This is, after all, a country where a politician can threaten a pregnant female journalist with rape and see no consequences (he also blamed the Ukrainian revolution on “female hysteria.”)

Add to that a political need to vilify the West and you find the government investigating the activities of a provincial dance studio. But there are real issues as well. Rampant rates of substance abuse, STD transmission (particularly HIV), high abortion rates and relatively low birth rates have led many a pundit to declare Russia a dying nation.

The problem with these moral crusades (manufactured or not), however, is that they rarely examine the actual issues in good, scientific faith. Rather, they engage in a form of bait and switch, whereby one proposes an ineffectual, ideologically-driven solution to a real problem.


This, of course, is a tactic borrowed from the American right, which sought to tackle the issues of teen pregnancy, abortion and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases with curtailment on women’s reproductive rights, the repression of sexual education, and  a war on sex itself. This cultural war continues to be waged, despite all available evidence pointing towards higher rates of the above mentioned social maladies in those avowedly more religious states which embraced the abstinence only ethos.

Evangelical teens, in fact, have sex at the same rates as their non-religious peers, and no amount of guilt or slut shaming actually stops this biological drive, though it might adversely affect their self-esteem (see the Heritage study) and, with a lack of education, leave them needlessly exposed to unwanted pregnancy and preventable diseases.

On the abortion front, Russia has seen a dramatic drop from the shockingly high rates of the 90s, when the number of live births were often doubled by the number of terminated pregnancies.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination.

Despite these positive trends which had nothing to do with religious influence, The Russian Orthodox Church, which recently framed the country’s demographic crisis within the false dichotomy between “free choice” and “moral norms,” is similarly using genuine social maladies to artificially insert itself into what is ultimately a public health issue.

Likewise, if Kiselyov is really worried about teenage suicide, instead of fretting about “morally decedent” western cultural imports, perhaps he should do something useful, like rally the government to both destigmatize therapy (which was deeply damaged by Brezhnev’s use of psychiatry as a weapon against political dissidents), and to make counseling available to at-risk kids. Of course, Kiselyov does not care about twerking. His primary goal is to besmirch the West via its “moral decadence”, even if manifestations of that moral decadence (substance abuse, rates of STD transmission, abortion rates) are actually more prevalent in Russia.

But to talk about Russia’s issues honestly, to view them as public health problems that need solutions which might not be beneficial to an authoritarian government seeking “tradition” as a means of further consolidating and controlling the population, is to defeat the great point of this mad metanarrative. Why talk about introducing comprehensive sex education throughout all Russian schools when you can just decry the West for teaching Russian girls to dance like sluts (which makes them become sluts, and sluts, as we all know, get abortions and then kill themselves.)

Why talk about a culture that has made it impossible for children to openly express their feelings or grapple with issues of sexuality, when it is much more politically expedient to create citizens who lock up their spirits and embrace conformity at all costs, even if it is killing them inside?

As for Russian women and sex, perhaps the perfect example of where all of this twerking nonsense could be going if the country’s real nationalists ever ascend to the throne came in October, when Aleksandr Mozgovoi, leader of the quasi-rogue pro-Russian ‘Ghost Brigade’ in Luhansk, Ukraine, announced (an ultimately unenforced) ban on women going to bars and clubs. In his own words, they should instead “sit at home and embroider.”


In a coup of poetic justice, it was Anastasiya Pyaterikova, a high-profile Luhansk separatist (and one-time stripper), who put Mozgovoi in his place.

“You’ve gone too far, Mozgovoi!,”  she wrote on VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook.

“What right have you got to arrest women,  and, what’s more, establish order in this way??? Have you got women troubles? That’s how it looks.”

It is not difficult to imagine that Russia’s steadily growing chorus of “traditionalist” voices have a lot of women troubles, none of which involve twerking. But as history has borne out time and time again, when men have problems with women, it often spells trouble for “the fairer half.”