Putin’s Next Target Is Russia’s Abortion Culture

The Russian president is worried about his country’s shrinking population. His social-conservative allies say they have the solution.

The "For Life" anti-abortion demonstration in Moscow's Sokolniki park on Sept. 14. (Joel van Houdt for Foreign Policy)
The "For Life" anti-abortion demonstration in Moscow's Sokolniki park on Sept. 14. (Joel van Houdt for Foreign Policy)

MOSCOW — On a recent windy afternoon, members of a prominent Russian religious group were busy laying out 2,000 pairs of children’s shoes in the corner of a park — each representing an abortion performed on an average day in Russia.

Fighting the elements to keep the tiny slippers and rubber boots in place, the organizers from “For Life” took to loudspeakers to reel off the reasons why Russia should make abortion illegal. Simultaneously, two men unfurled a long red-and-white banner with a quote by President Vladimir Putin, reading: “Demography is a vital issue… Either we’ll continue to exist, or we won’t.”

“If we don’t illegalize abortion, we cannot grow our population, and how can Russia retain its strength and greatness without that?” asked Maria Studenikina, an organizer from the Moscow faction of “For Life.” The group’s shoe project, called “If Only They Could Go to School,” has been staged in recent months in 40 cities across Russia. The shoes are accompanied by blackboards, cheery children’s backpacks, and squishy fetus dolls.

Russia’s anti-abortion movement has gathered momentum in recent months, as activists — usually devout members of the influential Russian Orthodox Church — have started seizing on the country’s demographic crisis as an urgent reason for banning the practice. They have also started citing Russia’s newfound commitment to a more forward-leaning posture on the global stage, from the wars in Syria and Ukraine to the diplomatic crisis over North Korea.

Both reasons seem designed to appeal to Putin, who, despite a growing alliance with the church — which critics say he uses as an extension of his administration — has yet to speak out about the abortion debate gripping the country. But he may soon be obliged to take a stand.

In August, “For Life” announced they had collected 1 million signatures in favor of banning abortion, including from Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church and Putin’s close ally. That permits them to present their petition to the State Duma, or lower house of parliament, and then, if it gains a majority there — which seems likely — to the upper house and eventually Putin himself. The group, which says it receives no financial backing from the church, helped draft a bill two years ago that aims to remove abortions from the free national health care system; it is still being reviewed by parliament.

Anna Kuznetsova, Putin’s ombudsman for children’s rights, is vociferous on her stand against abortion. Married to an Orthodox priest and with six children, she famously said wombs “remember the death” of aborted fetuses. But Putin has been far more circumspect.

His reluctance to comment may stem from financial concerns. Banning abortions would be costly for the state: among other consequences, the Ministry of Health says it could lead to a rise in complications from underground and unprofessional terminations. The Russian leader could also be wary of its potential effect on his enormous popularity ratings — according to a survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM a year ago, 72 percent of Russians oppose banning abortion. Legal abortion has a long history in Russia. In 1920, in the spirit of gender equality, the Soviet Union became the first state in the world to legalize abortion, and the practice has remained popular ever since (it was banned once before — for a 20-year period beginning with Josef Stalin in 1936).

But even as the anti-abortion activists indulge in hyperbole, there is reason to think that abortion’s role in Russian culture is in need of some correction. Many Russian women use abortion as their sole course of birth control, and official figures show almost 930,000 women terminate a pregnancy each year. That number is half of what it was in 1995, and one seventh what it was for the Soviet Union in 1965, when abortions nearly tripled the number of births. But the abortion rate is vastly higher, per capita, than other European countries or the United States. Russia has a ratio of around 480 abortions per 1,000 live births, for example, while the United States has around 200; the most recent available statistics from Germany, from 2015, show 135 abortions per 1,000 births.

Even the majority of Russians who are in favor of legalized abortion admit there may be a problem. A current TV advertisement for Durex condoms on the youth-directed TNT channel makes the point: “Women!” a man’s voice yells. “One in three of you have had an abortion. Why not try Durex instead?”

And while direct links to abortion are difficult to calculate, there’s no doubt that Russia’s population problems are serious. The country, which is currently home to 144 million is still suffering the aftereffects of Stalin’s purges and gulags of the 1930s, combined with the Soviet Union’s loss of at least 20 million people in World War II. Worse, the important trends all point downwards, with the sanctions-soaked economy, a high mortality rate, and a general reluctance of women to have many children contributing to a shrinking population. Some demographers predict the number of Russian people could be reduced by a fifth by the middle of the century. According to Russia’s federal statistics service, 17,000 fewer people were born in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period last year.

Putin has made demography a regular feature of his rhetoric, often addressing the issue in his annual, carefully orchestrated press conference. His government has long offered positive inducements to encourage child-bearing; a payment of approximately $7,500 is currently given to families who have a second child. When he was president, in 2010, current Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev tempted growing families with free land, saying Russia would have suffered without third children such as the writer Anton Chekhov or Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space.

At the same time, Putin has rarely hesitated to sacrifice women, or other marginalized groups, to a socially conservative agenda. The abortion debate comes at a time of shrinking freedoms for Russian women. In February, Putin decriminalized domestic violence, making it easier for abusers to beat their partners. This follows Russia’s law against promoting gay “propaganda” in 2013, which the European Court of Human Rights recently ruled as discriminatory. All of these policies are part of Putin’s desire to project strength at home, which is also “about placing where Russians are in a geopolitical sense,” said Kate Schecter, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a specialist on women in the former Soviet Union. “And with this strong leadership and return to traditional roles, the misogyny that was there before has been exacerbated,” said Schecter, who is also president of the nonprofit organization World Neighbors.

Russia’s traditionalist movement is rapidly gaining strength. Today, over 70 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, up from just over a third in 1991, according to a recent major Pew Research Center study. But church values have often proven irreconcilable with existing rights for women. The same Pew study said that Orthodox-majority countries tend to believe women should hold traditional roles. In Russia, 36 percent of those polled said women should obey their husbands and have a social responsibility to bear children.

The church is also becoming more audacious, increasingly targeting artists and accusing them of committing blasphemy. A ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre about the life of the Russian openly gay and exiled dancer Rudolf Nureyev was stopped in its tracks earlier this summer, after Orthodox activists apparently made a fuss. Controversy is boiling over “Matilda,” a new Russian film about the last tsar, Nikolai II, that depicts his romance with a young ballet dancer when neither were married. In late September, Alexander Kalinin, the leader of a Church-affiliated group called Christian State, said he wants Russia to become a state similar to Iran, a “monarchy within the borders of the Soviet Union that has faith in God.”

Even though Putin keeps some distance from the church’s most extreme positions, he encourages its activism more generally, and some believe he is no longer able to control the forces he has allowed to run free. “Once you unleash something like this, it is hard to put back,” said Yulia Gorbunova, a Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch, saying the authorities’ “tacit approval” encourages such behavior.

At the “For Life” rally, there were high hopes that the government’s quiet guidance will soon consolidate into an official endorsement of their campaigns. “We must help our president overcome the demographic crisis,” said Studenikina. “We’re here for him.”

Photo credit: Joel van Houdt

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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