20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late January, Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, addressed the State Duma of the Russian Federation for the first time in the history of the country. In his speech, he pointed to the high number of abortions that take place annually in Russia, calling it one of the main problems facing the country today. According to IMR expert Ekaterina Mishina, if the Patriarch’s address results in a prohibition on abortion, this problem will only get worse.


On January 22, Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, addressed the State Duma for the first time in the history of the country. In his speech, he listed the problems that he considered crucial for the Russian state. Photo: TASS


Whenever some Very Important Person shows up in the highest representative body of a country for the first time or after a very long break, he is usually engaging in a powerful lobbying move. By his mere physical presence before the body, this VIP makes it clear that whatever he has to say is very important. In 1913 this technique was used by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson in defiance of a century-old tradition of written-only communication between the president and the Congress. For the first time since John Adams, Wilson appeared on Capitol Hill in person in order to focus the attention of both chambers on the issue of tariff reform, and he achieved the desired effect: the passage of the fundamentally important Underwood Tariff Act (also called the Revenue Act). But the president is a secular person. And when for the first time in the history of the country such a high-ranking spiritual leader as the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia speaks before the parliament, his every word may be considered as good as gold.

Although under Article 14 of the Constitution Russia is a secular state where religious associations are kept separate from the government," the relationship between the secular and spiritual authorities sometimes raises a lot of questions. Far from answering this question, the Patriarch’s recent address to the Duma makes it even more urgent. It seemed that during his speech the Patriarch was much more preoccupied with earthly concerns than with the affairs of the Church. And on the basis of the issues that it covered, this speech was more like a message of the head of state to his loyal parliament than one of a religious leader to his flock, for it emphasized both the major sore spots and the key objectives of modern times, as well as the challenges facing the country today. The Patriarch touched upon a broad range of topics, offering his opinion on the following subjects, among others:

  • “Politically and ideologically biased media”
  • The “deadly threat to humans and society” of “freedom of choice as an absolute value in isolation from moral principles”
  • “The rule of law”
  • The evolution of the fundamental values of Russia at different stages in its history
  • Members of the Komsomol who developed uncultivated lands and built the Baikal-Amur Railroad
  • How exactly political parties should compete in traditional Russian society
  • The evolution of family law
  • Surrogate motherhood
  • State-of-the-art identification technologies

In his speech, the Patriarch also identified “issues that deserve special attention”: “Often philosophical views of freedom encroach on the legal sphere, putting a huge strain on the legal system and adversely affecting personal and social morality,” he said. “Examples are well known. Among them are legalization of so-called same-sex unions, legalization of euthanasia, and the introduction of certain hazardous elements of the juvenile justice system into social life. All these legally mandated innovations that sometimes contradict not only moral values, but also universal common sense and the instinct for self-preservation, are becoming more common and widely recognized by some countries.”

The Patriarch’s speech evoked a host of emotions. It’s hard not to agree with the opinion expressed by politician Alexey Melnikov on Radio Liberty: “Several messages were transmitted throughout this address: ‘I am a loyal partisan of the authorities.’ ‘We believe that the political order we have in this country is good enough—in fact, the best possible—and there is no need to change it.’ ‘I do not like freedom,’” Melnikov said. “Whatever overtures he made toward these concepts, whatever his intentions were, today the subject of his criticism was freedom. I think that this address fits into the general stance of our leadership: to confront Europe, [and] to oppose anything that may be called the European political order.”

But in my opinion, the most important part of the Patriarch’s speech is not what was said, but where it was said. The delivery of a speech by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in the State Duma naturally implies that his conclusions will be followed by the enactment of the relevant laws. And the Patriarch did his best to achieve this noble goal. First of all, he noted the willingness of both houses of the parliament to engage in a constructive dialogue and cooperate with the Russian Orthodox Church, and outlined the historically important role of the deputies: “The ability of our country to stand up to modern pseudo-values that corrode an individual and the human civilization as a whole will depend to a great extent on the active position of Russian parliamentarians.” Next, the Patriarch praised the “strong and clear-cut position of both chambers of the Russian parliament on burning issues, such as the protection of feelings of the faithful and their revered shrines, the preservation and revival of our cultural heritage, [and] concern for the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.” I think that after these words, the parliament will most likely enact the bills that have been proposed on these subjects, since, according to the Patriarch, these issues to a great extent determine the fate of the country.

The drafted bills will undoubtedly be revisited and adjusted in accordance with the position expressed by the Russian Orthodox Church. And apparently, the proposed measures will conjure up a feeling of déjà vu.

In his speech, the Patriarch also identified some of the priorities that Russian lawmakers should have: “The work of legislators affecting the social and moral sphere seems extremely important,” he said. “In particular, this applies to legislative policy in the area of family, maternity, and child support.” He spoke at some length on the issue of abortion, calling the large number of abortions that take place in Russia annually one of the main problems facing the country today: “Overcoming this evil requires comprehensive measures, including assistance to families in resolving housing problems, financial support to families with many children, the incorporation of ethical standards into the health system that would encourage physicians to care about the life of a conceived child, as well as the imposition of restrictions or a total ban on advertising and promoting abortion. I consider it morally justified to exclude induced termination of pregnancy from the system of compulsory health insurance, supported by taxpayers, including those who strongly oppose abortion.”

However, as it turned out, the deputies already had something to offer in response to the Patriarch’s suggested program of legislative activity. According to the Russian Legal Information Agency (RAPSI), the State Duma Committee on Family, Women and Children has already drafted several bills. As noted by committee chair Elena Mizulina, one of these bills is “on licensing of activities related to abortion”; a second concerns regulation of drugs that can cause termination of a pregnancy; and a third proposes the introduction of audio and video monitoring of fetal heartbeat in health institutions.

This is not the first time that Russian parliamentarians have tried to either severely limit or ban outright the termination of pregnancy. Particularly active in this regard was the tireless moral crusader Alexander Chuyev, who in 2003–2004 prepared and submitted to the parliament a number of striking legislative initiatives that were subsequently rejected by the State Duma. All those initiatives were developed far before the Patriarch’s recent landmark speech in the Federal Assembly. Now, however, those drafted bills will undoubtedly be revisited and adjusted in accordance with the position expressed by the Russian Orthodox Church. And apparently, the proposed measures will conjure up a feeling of déjà vu.

Our country once strictly prohibited abortion. The following are some excerpts from the June 27, 1936, decision of the Central Executive Committee and Council of People’s Commissars “on the prohibition of abortion [and] provision of financial aid to women giving birth.” This decision remained in force until 1955.

“1. In connection with the established fact that abortion is a health hazard, such procedures shall be banned both in hospitals and in other specialized health facilities, as well as at medical offices of private practitioners, or at places of residence of pregnant women. Abortion shall be allowed only in cases where continuation of pregnancy is a life-threatening condition, or can cause serious damage to the health of a pregnant woman, as well as when parents suffer from serious hereditary diseases, and exclusively in the setting of a hospital or a maternity clinic.

“2. Abortions performed outside a hospital setting, or in a hospital setting, but in violation of the above conditions, shall be considered a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment of 1 to 2 years, and abortions performed in unsanitary conditions or by persons without specialized medical education shall be punishable by no less than 3 years in prison.”

The penalty for pregnant women “terminating pregnancy in violation of this prohibition” was a public reprimand, and a repeat violation of the law was punishable by a fine of up to 300 rubles.

This prohibition, like many other strict legal prohibitions, backfired: the number of abortions went up dramatically. By 1939, the number of reported abortions had increased by more than 150,000 compared to 1937. From 1936 to 1955 most abortions were carried out illegally, often in unsanitary conditions. As a result, many women died or lost the ability to have children in the future.

But initially, it was our country that pioneered legalization of abortion. The November 18, 1920, ruling by the People’s Commissariat of Health and Justice entitled “On Women’s Health” is a compelling example of reasonable and progressive legislation from the early years of Bolshevik lawmaking. Despite considering abortion an evil, the government of workers and peasants foresaw the gradual disappearance of the procedure as a result of “strengthening the socialist system and anti-abortion propaganda among the masses of the working female population.” The criminalization of abortion was strongly opposed: “Contrary to producing any positive results, this measure would drive this procedure underground and would make women victims of unscrupulous and often ignorant abortionists. . . . As a result, up to 50% of women are infected, and up to 4% of them die.”

“In order to protect women’s health and the interests of the race from ignorant and selfish predators and considering repressive methods in this area clearly counterproductive,” the resolution ruled as follows:

“I. Artificial termination of pregnancy procedures are allowed free of charge in the setting of Soviet hospitals, which guarantees that such procedures are harmless to the maximum extent possible.

II. It is strictly and expressly prohibited for anyone other than a licensed physician to perform such an operation.

III. Those responsible for administering such an operation [without a license] shall be disqualified and brought before the people’s court.”

In addition to a generally positive assessment of this act, I would like to emphasize that it states the most important point: prohibition and repression of abortion do not solve the problem, but only exacerbate it. Prohibited goods and services simply move into the informal market. We’ve been through this many times, and every time with a negative result. Now it is time to draw conclusions, especially when as a result of such a ban the health and lives of thousands of women are at stake.