Putin the Pro-Choice Champion
The Russian leader’s fans among the U.S. Christian Right prefer to ignore his liberal views on abortion
When Yulia became pregnant last year, her instinct was to have an abortion.
She already had a son — with a man who was jobless and regularly drank himself into oblivion. “He’d use his fist on us,” she said, recoiling at the thought of him. They lived in a small, lightly-built wooden house, more like a summer cottage or dacha. During the months of snow and ice that engulf her native Sakhalin island, in Russia’s Far East, she lived in constant fear of her son freezing to death. Another child would be too much.
Besides, she had not fully recovered from a lopsided C-section when she gave birth. The thought of opening up her scar terrified her. And she had gone through an abortion before, six years earlier.
But when Yulia (not her real name) arrived at a state-run clinic in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the island’s administrative center, ready to go ahead with the termination, she discovered the staff had another plan for her. “I was told I had to wait,” she said.
After being given a scan confirming her pregnancy, she was sent for a consultation with a psychologist. There were photos of ruddy-cheeked babies on the wall, Yulia recalled. They were children, the psychologist told her, who had been “saved.”
“I told her I couldn’t bring another baby into a family like ours, not with a violent father,” Yulia said. But the psychologist responded by sending her home for what is called a “week of silence,” a policy introduced in 2011 with the aim of reducing Russia’s high abortion rate. And by the end of that week Yulia had changed her mind. Despite all her misgivings, she would go through with the pregnancy.
If you listen to anti-abortion activists in Russia, such cases are increasingly common and have led to a marked fall in the country’s high abortion rate. It’s a sign, they say, of how their campaign to ban abortion, backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, is changing government policy and public opinion. It’s a campaign that the Kremlin has given the impression it agrees with — both to maintain its alliance with the church, and support among advocates of conservative “traditional values” at home and abroad, for whom abortion is a touchstone issue. One result is that the Christian Right in the U.S. and elsewhere have held up Putin’s Russia as a global example.
Yet, as so often in Russia, not all is as it seems — and many choose to see what suits them.
“The Kremlin has given the impression it agrees with the campaign, to maintain its alliance with the church, and support among “traditional values” conservatives at home and abroad”
When President Vladimir Putin was inaugurated this May after winning a fourth term in office, he made sure to give the stage to the Orthodox Church — in effect putting the Kremlin’s alliance with the church on public display.
Resplendent in an emerald green cloak, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the church, presided over the ceremony, which took place in the Kremlin’s 15th-century Cathedral of the Annunciation, once the personal chapel of the tsars. This was Putin the pious on show.
The Russian leader crossed himself in front of the camera and then, after receiving the Patriarch’s blessing, kissed a large icon of the Virgin Mary before crossing himself once more.
It was a blessing from a man who has been very public about his views on abortion. Speaking to members of the Russian parliament last year, the Patriarch said it was time that what he called this “evil” was outlawed. “This would not be some revolutionary step,” he told lawmakers, “but a necessary return to normality, without which it will be impossible for men and women to achieve happiness.” And fellow believers say things are going their way.
“Step by step, we have slowly changed people’s minds,” said Maksim Obukhov, a Moscow archpriest and founder of an anti-abortion group called “For Life.”
Obukhov described how he and his fellow campaigners used to distribute leaflets around city apartment blocks to promote their cause in the dying years of the Soviet Union. As he saw it, they were rebels on the edge of society.
A quarter century later, speaking under the glow of the candelabras hanging in his church in northern Moscow, he triumphantly listed what he regards as a string of victories. As well as the “week of silence,” Obukhov cited the introduction of crisis centers — refuges for women who need support to go through with a pregnancy — and a 2011 law that state-run clinics must show pregnant women an ultrasound if they are considering an abortion. “When the woman hears the heartbeat,” he said, “this is when we get real success.”
Demonstrable success would mean a significant and sustained reduction in terminations. As things stand, Russia has one of the highest abortion rates in the world — partly a legacy of Soviet times when it was the primary form of birth control.
The biggest test for Russia’s anti-abortion movement lies in the country’s Far East, a vast region about the size of Australia. Here, the abortion rate is three times greater than in Moscow. Government officials partly attribute this to the region’s high unemployment. The Orthodox clergy cite the historically low number of churches. “It was a place for migrants, and had more atheism than religious worship,” said Obukhov.
On the mainland, going southwards from Sakhalin, is the port of Vladivostok, the largest city in Russia’s Far East, and affluent by comparison with the rest of the region. It has also become a hub for an increasingly active network of Christian charities. They have even got their supporters inside state-run clinics, putting them in positions that can influence a woman’s decision in getting an abortion. But they also have an interest in exaggerating their impact.
It was an encounter with one of these Christian activists that changed 33-year-old Ekaterina Zinyukhina’s mind. She initially wanted to have an abortion when she became pregnant two years ago. Zinyukhina already had two children and was concerned she wouldn’t be able to balance work and child-rearing, with her husband working too. “I have no parents to look after the kids,” she explained, sitting in her small Vladivostok apartment, and balancing the blue-eyed boy she gave birth to last year on her knee.
She said her resolve started to crumble when she was made to listen to the fetal heartbeat, during her first visit to the local state clinic. And then she had a session with a psychologist linked to a charity called “Cradle,” who had become known in the city for “rescuing” babies. “That’s when I changed my mind,” said Zinyukhina.
Now Cradle helps her with baby-sitting, and members regularly call in, bringing cakes and children’s toys. “It’s tough,” she said, “but we survive and make do.” Her consultation with the psychologist “made me realize that God was giving us a gift,” Zinyukhina said. “People shouldn’t be the ones who decide.”
That idea has become something of a refrain for anti-abortion campaigners. Back on Sakhalin Island, I met an obstetrician who has become an insider activist. “It got to the point when I felt every woman wanting an abortion was making a mistake,” said Svetlana Moskaleva.
After 20 years of running a clinic in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Moskaleva performed her final termination at the end of last year, when she decided not to renew her abortion license. “Russians are very emotional people,” she said. “They need guidance making such decisions.”
What she didn’t mention is the guidance coming from above, from her employer, the Russian government. For all the closeness between church and state, the state continues to have full control over policy, and in essence that policy is “pro-choice.”
Just months before the election that handed him his fourth term, a different version of the Russian leader was on display. This, you could say, was Putin the pragmatist.
Every year, Putin holds a live televised news conference, with questions coming in from across the country as well as from his studio audience. It’s an occasion that he uses for grand announcements, or to set out his views on major issues of the day. Someone asked a question about banning abortion. And his answer could not have sounded more distant from the beliefs of his allies in the Orthodox Church.
“In the modern world, the decision is up to the woman herself,” said Putin. “Any decisions on restricting abortion in the future, he continued, “must be careful, considered and based on the general mood in society and the moral and ethical norms that have developed in society.”
You can understand why the Russian leader appears to be performing this balancing act when you look at public opinion figures. According to a Pew Research Center study last year, 71 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox Christians, and there’s no doubt that the church is widely revered. But a very slightly larger proportion of Russians — 72 percent — say they oppose an abortion ban, according to a survey by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).
For comparison, polls in the United States show that opinion is evenly divided, with around half of Americans describing themselves as “pro-choice,” and a similar proportion identifying as “pro-life,” or against abortion.
Yet you could hear that Putin was choosing his words with care, with none of the blunt language he is known for, sidestepping this major difference of opinion with the Orthodox Church and his wider traditional values support base.
He needs both constituencies to maintain power and promote his vision of Russian exceptionalism. And so, aided by its grip on the Russian media, the Kremlin has fostered the illusion that it is on side on this crucial issue for conservatives, while actually doing the opposite.
Putin also gets help from his cheerleaders abroad — who are sometimes willfully blind to his publicly-stated views. A case in point is the World Congress of Families, a U.S.-led coalition of right-wing Christians opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion. At their annual gathering, in Chisinau, Moldova, earlier this month, delegates heaped praise on the Russian leader for his leadership style and what they see as his support for family values.
“Putin is very conservative,” said Lech Kowalewski, one of the delegates, who heads the Polish branch of Human Life International, a U.S.-based anti-abortion group. “He’s not a leader, he is a monarch of his kingdom.”
The Polish campaigner refused to even acknowledge that Putin had publicly backed continued state funding for abortions. “Even if he [Putin] is pro-choice, he would not say so out loud because the political climate right now in Russia is religious,” said Kowalewski. “I don’t know his views, but I know he wants to limit abortion.”
You see similar contortions among the growing number of Trump Republicans who admire the Russian leader — who not only ignore Putin’s position on abortion, but on issues like gun control too.
Orthodox Church leaders have behaved in much the same way, avoiding any mention of Putin’s pro-abortion stance, clearly conscious of their own wider interests.
But some priests lower down the hierarchy have spoken out, even questioning the Russian leader’s faith. “Anyone who thinks Putin is a true believer is fooling themself,” said Mikhail Plotnikov, a priest and lecturer at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University in Moscow. “True believers do not become friends with people like Trump and Berlusconi. They do not divorce their wives.”
Though he believes the momentum is in his favor, Moscow-based Archpriest Maksim Obukhov concedes the reality. “Putin follows public opinion,” he said. “So he won’t do anything that would make him lose favor with the population.” From his point of view, this underlines the importance of continuing with efforts to change attitudes and prevent women from going ahead with terminations.
But even on this count, the shift may be more imagined than real. Take the much-heralded “week of silence” for instance. Although there are no comprehensive figures, anecdotal evidence from Russia’s Far East suggest it has had a minimal effect at best. In interviews, several psychologists in the region said that on average just 1 in 10 women give up on the idea of an abortion after completing their one week “cooling-off” period.
“When that happens, I am so happy,” said Svetlana Ustyuzhanina, a psychologist in a Sakhalin state clinic, her eyes widening with delight. “They have chosen a life,” she added. “To kill another person is a sin.” But then, acknowledging how few women actually change their minds, she said: “It’s not nearly enough.”
Her consultation room was decorated with gilt-edged Russian Orthodox icons, and drawings she said had been sent by “the grateful” — mothers she had persuaded to change their minds. She also has a collection of tiny fetus dolls, which she uses as a prop to make her point during her consultation sessions. An icon of the Virgin Mary stood beside her computer screen. “She protects families,” said Ustyuzhanina, giving the picture a pat.
In answers to written questions, Russia’s Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova said that the ministry had worked “primarily with the Russian Orthodox Church” in formulating its abortion “prevention strategy,” as well as with lawmakers and civil society groups.
The signs are, though, that the “week of silence” and other measures billed as restrictions are designed as much to appease the church and its supporters, maintaining the Kremlin’s cloak of traditional values, while making sure that abortions remain widely available, and free.
The minister reiterated Putin’s opposition to an abortion ban, adding that she feared it would only make things worse for women, leading them to resort to illegal procedures, putting their own lives at risk. Skvortsova noted that the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, imposed just such a ban in the 1930s (with the aim of boosting the population), lasting for nearly 20 years, which led to a spike in female mortality.
The Kremlin has a real interest in raising birth rates, with the country on the verge of a demographic crisis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has seen its population plummet. There were 203,000 fewer people born in 2017 compared to the year before, according to the federal statistics service.
Anti-abortion activists claim that the high abortion rate is a major reason why. Although the number of terminations has dropped from Soviet times, at around 400 per 1,000 live births it is still far higher than the figures for countries at comparable levels of economic development. But demographic experts say that a far more important factor in explaining the population decline is the high overall mortality rate, and the desire of many women to have fewer children than their predecessors.
Putin has long offered cash incentives to encourage childbearing. Ahead of this year’s presidential election, he expanded the subsidy for families, hoping this will prompt Russians to have more children. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has previously sung the praises of large families, explaining that Russia would have suffered without third children such as the astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
So far, though, such efforts appear to have had little effect. “The conditions still do not exist to make women and couples willing to have larger families,” according to Marge Berer of the International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion. And she said that anti-abortion measures advocated by the Orthodox Church and its supporters “are bound to fail.”
What would put a real dent in Russia’s abortion rate, population experts say, is improving the availability and affordability of contraception. While the state provides abortions for free, a 30-day pack of birth control pills costs $16 on average, a lot of money for hard-pressed Russian families.
Widespread myths about birth control are another problem, according to Tatyana Nikonova, a sex education advocate and blogger based in Moscow. “There are a lot of lies out there about contraceptives,” she said, “that they’ll make you infertile, or blind.”
But in the Far East, the commitment of Orthodox activists remains undimmed, regardless of their impact.
Since deciding to have her third child, Ekaterina Zinyukhina has joined them, becoming an anti-abortion evangelist herself.
In the past, she would have described herself as most Russians do, she said: as a follower of the Orthodox faith, but not a church-goer. But after her psychological consultation, Cradle arranged for a priest to visit her. And he finalized Zinyukhina’s conversion — to being against abortion, and believing in God.