‘Caveman’ politics: Putin’s Russia stirs abortion debate

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Chat-show host Yulia Vityazeva shot to fame in Russia at the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, swiftly becoming a favourite of the Russian pro-war and hyper-nationalist blogging world. 

Then, earlier this month, she spoke out on an unexpected topic: she defended abortions and said she had had one herself.

As quickly as they had embraced her, pro-war influencers began to turn against her online.

The rift in the patriotic ranks was representative: since the start of the war, Russia’s turn towards socially conservative values has gathered pace, and abortion has landed at the heart of the debate.

In the past six months, private clinics in three Russian regions have heeded calls by the church and local officials to relinquish their licences for performing abortions. In Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, abortions are no longer available privately. Two other regions have introduced penalties for “influencing women to have abortions”, with several considering following suit.

Interrupting her usual flurry of conspiratorial, belligerent and anti-Ukrainian broadcasts, Vityazeva has emerged as an unlikely defender of women’s rights.

“This is already reaching the level of schizophrenia and caveman obscurantism,” she wrote on her Telegram channel. “Behind these calls and demands lie the destroyed destinies of millions of women.”

In an unusual attack on fellow pro-Kremlin commentators, she said they were taking Russia back to the stone age and criminalising anyone who did not “fit into their retrograde picture of the world”.

For Russia, the trend is striking. Though President Vladimir Putin has pushed traditional family values in recent years and promoted the role of the Russian Orthodox Church, liberal abortion laws have a long history in the country. Two decades ago, Russia had one of the highest abortion rates in the world.

Pro-Kremlin chat-show host  Yulia Vityazeva
Pro-Kremlin chat-show host Yulia Vityazeva has emerged as an unlikely defender of women’s rights after revealing she had undergone an abortion © Yulia Vityazeva/Youtube

The call to curtail abortions has been aligned with fears of Russia’s demographic decline as the birth rate falls.

“The population will increase . . . if we learn to dissuade women from having abortions,” Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said earlier this month.

Statisticians say this is false. Independent demographer Alexey Raksha, who previously worked at state statistics agency Rosstat, said there was no correlation historically between Russia’s abortion rate and birth rate. “This is a religious or an ideas question. It has nothing to do with demographics,” he said.

The debate comes at a time when the number of abortions in Russia has fallen dramatically amid more widespread access to contraception and family planning services.

In 1988, just over 4mn pregnancies were terminated in the country, a figure that excluded miscarriages, Raksha said. In 2022, the number was about 300,000. Of these, only 180,000 were voluntary rather than medically recommended.

Voluntary terminations in Russia were more common among married women who already had children, with the rate among under-25s below the EU average, Raksha said.

“It’s very strange that the number of abortions is at an all-time low and at the same time the intensity of this debate is at the highest in history,” he added.

Line chart showing the number of abortions has been falling in Russia since the 1990s

The discourse, stirred up by government officials, was an attempt to import US culture wars to Russia and steer the conversation away from other topics, Raksha argued. “It’s a distraction.”

With presidential elections scheduled for March next year, the Kremlin is keen to minimise awareness of the war in Ukraine and its effects on society, and to prevent dissent, say analysts.

Others argue that abortion is being blamed for demographic issues even as the Kremlin conducts a war that has killed more than 100,000 Russian men and triggered waves of emigration.

“There is no abortion epidemic in the country, so why is this topic being floated now?” human rights lawyer Alena Popova wrote on her Telegram channel. “Populism always comes to the rescue when it is necessary to divert attention from real problems.”

She added: “War is a cause of fertility decline. The male population is also shrinking as a result of the war. But we will be told that abortion is to blame.”

Memes have spread on the Russian internet, linking the rise in anti-abortion rhetoric to a Kremlin desire for more soldiers. In some regions, anti-abortion groups have erected billboards showing two pictures side-by-side, one of a foetus, the other of a child in military uniform. “Protect me today,” the foetus is shown as saying, “so that I can defend you tomorrow,” the child in uniform says.

The Soviet Union legalised abortion in 1920, becoming the first state to do so. The procedure was banned by Josef Stalin’s regime but legalised again after the second world war as the government sought to drive women into the workforce.

In the second half of the 20th century, abortion was the primary method of contraception in the Soviet Union, with the number reaching a peak of 5.6mn in 1964 and women having on average about six such procedures each.

Polls by the independent Levada Center show attitudes to abortion have become more conservative since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but in 2017 about 60 per cent of Russians said the issue was a private matter rather than one for the state to regulate.

Meanwhile, Russian officials have proposed a series of anti-abortion measures: a regional governor has advocated removing terminations from the public system and the health ministry has suggested curbing access to abortion drugs. Members of parliament have discussed forbidding married women to end pregnancies without written agreement from their husbands and lowering the limit for voluntary terminations from 12 to eight weeks.

Putin earlier this month described the issue as an “acute” problem, asking “what to do about it”. He listed possible solutions, from banning the sale of abortion drugs to improving wages and social services to encourage people to have children.

But his position remains more moderate than that of some of the regional leaders vying for his attention, said Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, a think-tank

“Opinion polls show Russians are against an abortion ban but do favour restrictions,” she said. “Everything happening currently aligns with this concept — posing no political problems for Putin.”

Source: Financial Times

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