The nuclear family has become a political tug-of-war in Russia and Poland

Domestic violence has now become a matter of dispute between liberal and conservative forces, which demonstrates that even authoritarian ruling powers have to take the popular opinion into consideration.
According to researcher Jørn Holm-Hansen, there are limits to what people in Poland and Russia will accept from the national conservative narrative about the family as the perfect idyll and the foundational building block within a harmonious national state. Photo: Istockphoto

“If there is one lesson we have learned from this complex problem, it must be that the results may be used to put national right-wing populists on the spot,” says Jørn Holm-Hansen.

“It appears that you have a good hand of cards when you address people’s everyday problems: Right-wing populists’ talk about how protection of victims of domestic violence threatens the harmonious family unit does not resonate with people’s everyday experiences.”

Holm-Hansen is a political scientist and researcher at Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR) at Oslo Metropolitan University. He specialises in Russia and Eastern Europe. In the latest issue of Journal of Gender Research, he has an article about how domestic violence is debated within the political discourse in Russia and Poland.  

Vulnerable populists

Both Russia and Poland have been through what may be called an ‘illiberal turn’ during the past decade, which is particularly characterised by a rejection of so-called Western values. In both countries, an important element within the national conservative narrative has been family rights. As a result, individual rights of women, children and sexual minorities have been challenged. Both countries have recently made changes in their legal system with regards to domestic violence, and this has revived the debate.

Jørn Holm-Hansen is a political scientist and researcher at Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research NIBR at Oslo Metropolitan University. Photo: OsloMet

Holm-Hansen has studied children’s rights in these countries for a long time. When he worked with the article for Journal of Gender Research, he explored arguments related to domestic violence, and he soon discovered that the debate followed the same line of reasoning as debates concerning children’s rights, abortion and sexual minorities.

“The same types of arguments and rhetorics are used in all cases, and it therefore makes sense to apply the same theoretical approach,” he says.

He points out that both Russia and Poland are characterised by right-wing populism, more specifically a national conservative right-wing populism that is clearly expressed through topics such as domestic violence. At the same time, this is also a topic that can make the national conservative particularly vulnerable, as they do not appear to be in line with the people on this issue.  

“Populists often claim that they represent the ‘true’ people. In Norway, we also have examples of political parties that claim to represent the people despite the fact that they have relatively low popular support,” says Holm-Hansen.

“Having said that, the populists in Russia and Poland are not fascists in the sense that they want to abolish elections and introduce dictatorship. Instead, they use the elections to confirm that they enjoy popular support. But this also puts them in a vulnerable position when they risk losing that support.”  

Threat against the nation

The national conservative right-wing populism in Russia and Poland is also visible along another line: security policy. Here, the debate revolves around securing and protecting borders and territories, and around protecting the culture and the ideological foundation on which the nation is built.

“And according to the national conservatives, the ideological foundation is the family unit,” says Holm-Hansen.

He refers to the Polish think tank Ordo Iuris, which has recently started a campaign for a convention for family rights. The campaign is a counter-reaction to the Istanbul Convention, a human rights convention against domestic violence and violence against women, which was passed in 2011.

There is a close connection between the victim of violence’s prospects of protection against the assailant and the sovereignty of the nation.

The Istanbul Convention has become one of several targets in the national conservative rhetoric, as the convention represents the principle of universal individual rights, including women and children. It is accused of being a strategy to undermine the natural family hierarchy. Poland has ratified the Istanbul Convention, but Ordo Iuris and other actors are trying to convince the country to pull out.

“In their opinion, granting even women and children individual rights threatens the foundation upon which their nation is built. This is connected to an ideology of self-government, in which each nation is self-sufficient and global or common European problems do not exist,” he says.  

“All these things are interconnected. There is a close connection between the victim of violence’s prospects of protection against the assailant and the sovereignty of the nation.”

Legislative amendment creates debate

In 2018, the Polish government, which consists of the political party Law and Justice (PiS) and two minor coalition partners, presented a proposal to an amendment of the law on domestic violence. One of the proposed amendments was that domestic violence should no longer be considered a criminal act. But when the law was passed in spring 2020, the formulation was far more moderate than originally proposed.

For instance, Holm-Hansen shows in his article that the legislation opens for restraining orders for the assailant. This is in line with the Istanbul Convention, but voices such as Ordo Iuris claim it to be an unwelcome encroachment on the family.

Opinion polls also show that Ordo Iuris does not enjoy the people’s support in their desire to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. This was also the case when the government a few years ago argued for restrictions to the abortion legislation to ensure that abortion was only legal if the mother’s life was in danger. This led to huge protests, not only from women, but also from men.  

But many sides of the national conservatism enjoy major support from civil society, and the authorities gain a lot of popularity by following an effective line of welfare politics, Holm-Hansen explains.

“And particularly in Poland, the Catholic Church has a lot of influence with its doctrine of social harmony: One should take social responsibility and avoid suffering through a good social welfare policy. Then we see from opinion polls that most people are not anti-German or anti-Semitic. They do not strongly support the cultural content of the national conservative message,” he says.  

“But they do support the welfare policy. Furthermore, the left struggles with their credibility, as the social democrats primarily consist of wealthy descendants of communists.”

He explains that from a Norwegian perspective, we easily think of civil society as a progressive force, but this is not necessarily the case.

“In these countries, the progressive organisations are often not well rooted in society, whereas the reactionary forces are better at mobilising the grass root and the church, where people actually are. The biggest social movements in Poland in recent years are anti-gender and against children’s rights etc.”

See also: European gender scholars unite in resistance against right-wing attacks

The trigger word: ‘gender’

In his article in Journal of Gender Research, Holm-Hansen demonstrates how the term ‘gender’ has become a linguistic marker that the right-wing applies to signalise everything that gives associations to something foreign, Western, liberal, elitist or threatening. This is what forms the background of the major conflicts related to the Norwegian Child Welfare Service that we have seen in Poland and other countries in the past years.  

The ‘anti-gender’ language has been strengthened, particularly in the wake of the UN’s women’s conference in Beijing in 2005.

“The debate is often intensified in connection to legislative proposals. What is new now compared to earlier is that the ‘anti-gender’ language has been strengthened, particularly in the wake of the UN’s women’s conference in Beijing in 2005. The reactionary forces have organised themselves internationally and successfully created a counter-reaction to the ‘gender ideology’.”

The situations in Russia and Poland are not identical, according to Holm-Hansen. In Russia, Putin is not himself an ideologically convinced national conservative, although he willingly plays on such associations when it is to his advantage. He has become more allied with the church and other reactionary and patriotic actors in recent years.

“It was Putin himself who took the initiative to make restrictions to the legislation on domestic violence a few years ago, because he claimed that the law provided too little protection of the victims of violence. He then had to withdraw his suggestion because right-wing forces and the church turned against him, but they are now trying to restrict the legislation once more.”

Different perspectives

For several years, there has been a tug-of-war between various forces within the Russian government apparatus concerning the legislation on domestic violence. The law was amended in 2017 following a draft legislation presented by a leading conservative politician. As a consequence, domestic violence that does not result in hospitalisation was decriminalised and instead considered an administrative violation within the Russian legal system.

But after several cases in which domestic violence has led to murder, a new draft legislation was presented in 2019, which would again criminalise domestic violence. Since then, then, the proposal has been moderated; for instance, the objective is now to protect the family, not the victim of violence as in the original formulation. The proposal is still being processed, but the debate related to these processes has demonstrated the tug-of-war between the conservative and the liberal voices in Russian politics.

“They need to weigh the various considerations, and the consideration for the people is essential here. We know that Putin is following the opinion polls closely to check the atmosphere among the people,” says Holm-Hansen.

Russia differs from Poland in that the governing party United Russia does not have a clear ideology. But the party resembles the old communist party in the sense that you have to be a member in order to succeed within the system. Consequently, many different perspectives are represented in the party, and the support they get at elections cannot be interpreted as support for any specific ideological direction.   

“The elections do not really give any indication of the public opinion, and this makes Putin particularly interested in opinion polls,” he says.

He further thinks that there are limits to what people in both Poland and Russia will accept from the national conservative narrative about the family as the perfect idyll and the foundational building block within a harmonious national state. Too many people have their own experiences with domestic violence, and they do not buy into the right-wing argumentation that domestic violence is part of a threatening ‘gender ideology’.   

“This may therefore be a weak spot for the national conservatives. People generally like to hear talk about family harmony. But when the national conservatives attempt to propose amendments that will affect people’s own freedom, health and dignity, they begin to react.”

– Serious development

Rachel Eapen Paul, who knows the European work against domestic violence and violence against women well, confirms this picture.

“There are strong forces in Poland that want to pull out of the Istanbul Convention. But Poland has not officially taken a stand on this,” she says. 

Rachel Eapen Paul explains that social organisations and women’s organisations are having a rough time in Poland. Photo: Norwegian Women's Lobby. 

The Polish Minister for Justice’s party Solidarna Polska has suggested Polish withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. The Prime Minister has submitted the proposal to the Polish Constitutional Court, where it is currently being processed.

“People speculate what this means. It could be a way of prolonging the matter, which may indicate that there are also strong forces that do not wish Poland to pull out of the convention or the European community.”

One thing is clear however: internationally oriented social organisations and women’s organisations are currently having a rough time in Poland.

“They receive very little financial support from the government, and much of the support that they once got has been withdrawn. Several women’s organisations have been searched by the police and had their computers confiscated, especially in the wake of major demonstrations that took place during last year’s women’s day,” she says.

Simultaneously, the think tank Ordo Iuris is working to gain international support for their ‘counter convention’ in order to protect the ‘traditional family’.

“It is a very serious development. It is difficult to say how long this development has been going on, but it has been very clear since the establishment of Ordo Iuris, which is not that many years ago,” says Paul.

Before that, one could observe similar ideas on blogs and web pages, but now they are promoted by a consolidated movement consisting of many highly educated members, who also form international networks. But according to her, the extreme right-wing forces are also met with resistance.

Translated by Cathinka Dahl Hambro. 

Latest news


News Magazine

Our news magazine is an independent online newspaper and a member of the Norwegian Specialised Press Association Fagpressen.