Child Abuse, the State, and the Russian Family
It was another episode in a series of shocking crimes against children. Little Sasha, just three years old, was pulled from the frigid waters of the Pekhorka River in January 2009. He was bound to a car battery with adhesive tape, his body battered and bearing the marks of cigarette burns. It was the second death of an adopted child in the Grechushkin family: The December before Sasha’s body was discovered, their one-year-old’s death had aroused suspicions. The third child was placed in an orphanage, and the adoptive parents were arrested.
A more recent official outrage has stoked the flames of public anger and dismay regarding the treatment of children in Russia. In February the Internal Security department of the St. Petersburg militia opened an investigation of a pedophilia case involving a deputy in the city legislature and militia officers who may have covered for him and other pedophiliac officials. According to investigators, militia officers are accused of providing protection for United Russia Deputy Andrei Smirnov. Smirnov operates a children’s home in the city and stands accused of molesting the boys in his care for over two decades. After being taken into police custody, Smirnov confessed his crimes and told the investigators shocking stories of orgies involving the boys and pedophiliac state officials. He provided pictures to confirm the details. According to press accounts, some of the boys were sent to Moscow, where they were reportedly involved in sexual activities with officials from the Emergencies Ministry. There were also claims that some boys were sent abroad over the years, suggesting that Smirnov and others were involved in an international pedophile ring.
These cases sparked a controversy over the role of the state and social services in dealing with children, and President Dmitri Medvedev’s recently appointed ombudsman for children’s rights, Pavel Astakhov, asserted that this latest case of abuse showed that Russia needed a juvenile-justice system, along with a social-services network that would intervene to protect children from dangerous situations. Juvenile-crime rates, children being abandoned by parents, and child-abuse/child-pornography cases that have attracted media attention have put the Russian government in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, the Russian Orthodox Church has denounced any plans to introduce a juvenile-justice system or child-protective services. The views of the ROC should be familiar to Chronicles readers: State intervention represents a threat to the integrity and autonomy of the family; it is a concept imported from the West that Russia does not need. On the other hand, Astakhov points out that layers of bureaucracy and a lack of proper legislation prevent the state from intervening and saving children in a situation like Sasha’s. According to Astakhov, the law does not protect the interests of minors. In addition, from the age of 16, Russian teens are automatically treated as adults by the courts. A juvenile-justice system would separate underage prisoners from adults. Meanwhile, Russia has been experimenting with a system of juvenile courts, though the criminal code would have to be amended to institute such a system across the country. Adding to the authorities’ discomfort is the fact that Russia is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Social Charter, mandating protective services for children and a juvenile-justice system (though the provision for juvenile courts was removed from the version of the European Charter approved by the Duma last May).
The possibility of instituting intrusive protective services recalls painful memories from Russia’s Soviet past, when the state (and the Party) claimed complete loyalty, even above family, and a host of bureaucrats “fulfilled the plan” at all costs. Vladimir Khomyakov and the Narodny Sobor movement oppose juvenile courts and protective services. Khomyakov has said that he fears social services would “collect complaints from children about their parents and will be able to take away children easily. Specialists will be employed just to ruin families; otherwise they would lose their jobs.” The Russian bureaucracy has a notorious reputation for corruption, racketeering, and turning any official function into extortion. Members of Narodny Sobor and like-minded people across Russia are naturally wary.
Despite these sensible arguments, a sad fact remains: There is precious little of family life left in Russia.
The destruction of family life is the end result of a harrowing history of war, revolution, totalitarianism, corruption, and collapse; of atheism, a people’s loss of self-confidence, and the common end of materialist ideologies—nihilism, our own social disintegration in the West magnified, intensified, and reflected in 21st-century Russia. Abortion, divorce, and the disintegration of family ties are common results of spiritual ailments in modern societies, but in Russia we can see the end game playing out: In a recent poll 32 percent of respondents stated that their attitude regarding Stalin could be described as “admiration,” “respect,” or “sympathy.” According to the same poll, 34 percent said that Stalinism’s holocaust was, at least to some degree, justified by the regime’s achievements (especially victory in the “Great Patriotic War”), and 50 percent rejected the description of Stalin as a “criminal.” The Great Teacher and Generalissimo consistently turns up on lists of admired leaders, and Moscow authorities—not without controversy—are planning to place posters of the Soviet dictator around the capital as part of this spring’s Victory Day celebration. Stalin’s shadow hangs heavy over Russia today.
In the Stalinist Soviet Union, the state gave, and the state took away. It was perhaps inevitable that the Bolsheviks, faced with the possibility of another European war and a backward, peasant-dominated country, would embark on a course of forced modernization and state building, simultaneously making Stalin the chief proponent of what many American conservatives would call “family values” and the agent of the destruction of Russian families on a vast scale. Indeed, in some respects, Comrade Stalin seems to have been to the right of our present-day American liberals—and many self-styled conservatives—in his support of the family and traditional values. Under Stalin, the Soviet state frowned on abortion and divorce, supported pro-natalist campaigns to increase the population, and reversed radical Bolshevik progressive-education practices in favor of discipline in the schools. Patriotism was brought back (in a Sovietized form), as was, on a limited and controlled basis, the Church. In official propaganda, Stalin was portrayed as the Father of the Peoples, an image that outlived the dictator. His death in 1953 was viewed by many in the Soviet Union as a national catastrophe. The poet Joseph Brodsky, then 13, once recalled being told of Stalin’s death at school. His teacher ordered the entire class to get down on their knees to receive the dreaded news. Later, some 500 people were trampled to death in Moscow as a vast crowd rushed to pay their respects to the Great Strategist.
The flip side of Stalinist modernization was forced labor and the demand for absolute loyalty. (For the story of Stalin’s assault on the families of his own courtiers, see Simon Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.) In his monumental Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told the tale of families destroyed by the regime’s need for slave labor amid the hunt for “enemies of the people.” The masses of orphans of war and revolution were swept into the camps, and the numbers swelled as a result of parents’ execution, or, during the war, death at the front. As the number of victims mounted during Stalin’s collectivization and mass terror, swarms of orphans covered the country, and the “Best Friend of Children” authorized that, from the age of 12, they were to be treated as adults by the Soviet Criminal Code. In the camps, they faced sexual abuse and all the agonies of camp life. In the Gulag, the children, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, “saw the world as it is seen by quadrupeds: Only might makes right! Only the beast of prey has the right to live!”
Following the death of the great dictator, the regime’s “de-Stalinization” program included freeing large numbers of prisoners from the Gulag, the end of mass terror, and relaxing Stalin-era social policies, particularly those regarding divorce and abortion, changes that survived “re-Stalinization” under Brezhnev. Abortion became a common practice, a casual means of contraception. The demographic hole dug by revolution, mass terror, and war was set to be dug deeper by modern pragmatism, nihilism, and a Russian fatalism magnified by the Soviet experience. Declining birthrates and “demographic winter” are commonplace in modern societies, but the alarming trends in Russia have been the subject of handwringing there and of study by Western demographers, who are often shocked and amazed by what they see. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union the pathologies of the West have been magnified and seemingly accelerated in Russia, including low birthrates, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide. To this Russia adds a mortality rate that is 135 percent higher than Western Europe’s (according to 2006 figures) and a life expectancy that is low, especially for a developed country.
One of these trends is what Nicholas Eberstadt called “the withering away” of the Russian family (“Drunken Nation: Russia’s Depopulation Bomb,” World Affairs Journal, Spring 2009). Many Russian women are opting to have only one child. At the same time, divorce, illegitimacy, and cohabitation are rapidly increasing. By the mid-90’s, barely one third of Russian women were getting married and staying in that same marriage by age 50. And what of the children?
According to prevailing tenets of Western economic thought, a decline in fertility—to the extent that it occurs under conditions of orderly progress, and as a consequence of parental volition—should mean a better material environment for newborns and children because a shift to smaller desired family size, all else being equal, signifies an increase in parents’ expected commitments to each child’s education, nutrition, health care, and the like.
But, as Eberstadt writes, that is not the case:
[I]n post-Communist Russia, there are unambiguous indications of a worsening of social well-being for a significant proportion of the country’s children—in effect, a disinvestment in children in the face of a pronounced downward shift in national fertility patterns.
School enrollment is sharply lower for primary-school-age children—99 percent in 1991 versus 91 percent in 2004. And the number of abandoned children is sharply higher. According to official statistics, as of 2004 over 400,000 Russian children below 18 years of age were in “residential care.” This means that roughly 1 child in 70 was in a children’s home, orphanage, or state boarding school. Russia is also home to a large and possibly growing contingent of street children whose numbers could well exceed those under institutional care. According to Human Rights Watch, over 100,000 children in Russia have been abandoned by their parents each year since 1996. If accurate, this number, compared to the annual tally of births for the Russian Federation, which averaged about 1.4 million a year for the 1996–2007 period, would suggest that in excess of 7 percent of Russia’s children are being discarded by their parents in this new era of steep sub-replacement fertility.
It is worth recalling that the trends described by Eberstadt have played out in an era of relative prosperity, in a Russia buoyed by huge amounts of petrodollars. According to official statistics, per capita incomes doubled between 1998 and 2007.
Russians wary of more state intrusion command the sympathy of social conservatives in the West, but people of good will, and with no vested interest in expanding the state bureaucracy, can be excused for wanting to do something, anything, to ameliorate the dire situation of Russia’s children. The actions of the state in various forms have helped bring on a situation in which anything like a normal family life is receding into the recesses of collective memory, and little but the state remains to deal with the destruction. Social conservatives in Russia are faced with a much larger task than simply resisting another intrusive state program: They must find ways to bolster the Christian Faith and to begin to rebuild the people’s understanding of marriage and family.
Will we learn anything from this?
This article first appeared in the June 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.