Hansel and Gretel, paedophiles, and law

TEXT: E. Istomina
PICTURE: Arthur Rackham


There are moments when historical challenges come to a nation at a very deep, personal level. The eight year hunt for Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killer and a paedophile, was the most massive and expensive operation in the history of Russian security forces. In the turbulent year, 1985, when the country was galloping towards collapse, the state’s leaders realised that this case, no less than the failing economy, was an ordeal to save the people’s loyalty.

“It is under the control of all enforcement agencies… the situation is being monitored by the Central Committee of the Communist Party,” the tension cries out from the documents of the time, “There is no more important task in the country at the moment than operation ‘Forest Belt’”.

Now, twenty seven years on - after Beslan and Nord Ost - it is hard to imagine that the petty psychopath kept the whole country in horror. Russia has changed: it has become more cynical, tough and pragmatic. The nature and the root causes of sex crime have changed too. And so should the ways to fight it.


An old evil

There are few cultures that have not produced some version of a story about a terrifying monster whom the hero must confront in the fight to the death.

Hansel and Gretel, a classical tale about child abandonment, is marked with conspicuous signs of modern day paedophile scares. A nightmarish witch in a cake house with sugar windows - an ultimate temptation but also a trap – causes a shudder of archetypal horror of a monster which devours our children.

To what extend this fright is irrational is a matter of debate. Some research suggests that public reaction is often overheated. Yet the fact is that the situation in Russia is deteriorating.

We do not know how many children in Russia are molested, or raped. Official statistics show a 30-times increase in sexual offences against children during the last seven years. A total of 126,000 children were reported victims of violence only last year with nearly 2,000 dead and another 12,500 missing.

In March president Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia must take urgent actions, “We need a normal system of childhood protection in the most accurate sense of this word. Today there is no such system in the country.”


Or a new one?

The matter is complicated by the transformation the country, the society and the crime has undergone in the last decades.

Attacks on children have become more brutal. Offenders not only abuse but murder their victims to hide the traces of crime. Russian and Soviet law has been remarkably lenient to those who molest young boys and girls but do not cause them physical damage and severe to rapists who use force. The idea was to give victims a chance to survive.

Unfortunately, the system is not working. A possible explanation is the extremely harsh attitude to child abusers both in society in general and in prisons. The anger – though understandable and just - taught molesters a lesson: stay out of jail and make sure the victim can't ever report you.

Investigating crimes where children are involved is treacherous. It requires special expertise and very special people which police lack. There is evidence that Russians do not trust the law enforcement agencies and many non-violent crimes remain unreported: with nearly 20 murders per 100 thousand population, which is 3.5 times the US's and almost 12 times the UK's rate, Russia registers 6 times less rapes than America and 3 times less than Britain. It appears that the authorities see only a fraction of what really happens.

In research conducted in Cornwell University an experimenter asked children to undress for the examination. Then another researcher asked them whether his colleague had touched their genitalia. In 40% cases children lied and said yes, eager to agree and not disappoint an adult. Where the question was rephrased in a simpler, child-to-child manner, the result was staggering 70%.

In 2007 3-year old Alisa fell two floors down a common stairwell in the building where her mother and grandmother lived. An 11-year-old boy, a friend of a neighbour’s son, witnessed the fall. He stood on the landing a floor above and said that he had seen “an older girl (Alisa’s mother) pushing a younger one down”. Although no apparent motive for the crime was found, the 22-year-old mother was tried and convicted of the attempted murder of own daughter based solely on this evidence.

The most worrying trend, however, is that child abuse is becoming business. According to Internet Watch Foundation the Russian share of the web with child pornography content is about 30%; research conducted by the Moscow-based Friendly Runet Foundation shows that this number can be even higher and reach 40%. Together with the United States, Russia is the leading supplier of such materials to the world market.

Despite reforms in 2003 which, for the first time, made the production and distribution of child pornography illegal, Russian law remains comparatively lenient with sentencing ranging from 2 to 10 years in prison and archaic – unlike in most western countries mere possession of images with child abuse does not constitute crime.

The root cause, however, is the number of homeless and parentless children. According to the official data about 100 thousand of them live on the streets and up to 5 million in deprived families without actual adult supervision – as if the country has been going through the Second World War once again.


New tricks: castration

Last week a draft law on chemical castration of child molesters was filed to Parliament. Earlier a similar act was adopted in Poland. Now, being a part of criminal justice in quite a few countries, it is likely to come to Russia where import of law has become second nature.

Many members of parliament and public figures have already embraced the bill. “On one hand, as an advocate, I am, of course, against any physical means of persuasion, especially because there is a chance for mistakes and miscarriage,” said Kucherena, a member of the Public Chamber, the state think-tank, “On the other hand, as a human being, a citizen and a father I realise that we must take radical action against those bastards who rape and murder children.”

There are those, however, who expressed disapproval. The leader of the Communists’ fraction in parliament called chemical castration a ‘measure of last resort’ which can have ‘drastic consequences’. “Equally well we could have adopted a law on cutting the hands of thieves or the execution of murderers”, he said.

It is worrying that they do not appear to understand what they are talking about. The term ‘chemical castration’ is actually a misnomer. It is neither castration nor sterilization but simply a medication designed to reduce libido and sexual activity. The effect is usually temporary and lasts as long as the treatment continues.

The word play changes the actual meaning to the contrary. In plain English the law says, ‘Hey buddy, this guy has raped your daughter but because our prisons are overcrowded we want to set him free early as soon as he agrees to take some pills. And you will have to pay for his medication.’

Somehow in the heat of the debate the very substance of the law has evaporated: it is about the release of a paedophile from jail. Yet, in Russia the problem is how to bring him in.

Castration is not a deterrent to sex crime. It is well-known that Chikatilo, with few exceptions, did not have intercourse with his victims. “Sexual assault and rape are crimes of power and control and have nothing to do with the sexual act itself,” says Lawrence Boze of the US National Bar Association. “If a perpetuator wanted to assault someone, he does not necessarily need his penis,” adds Bea Fisher, a sexual assault counsellor.

It does not tackle those involved in sex exploitation either, as they are not paedophiles in the medical sense at all.

The State – understandably - looks for an easy solution to a difficult problem, one that is capable of creating lots of buzz but requires the least real effort. Looking back at how the Chikatilo’s story ended, this is a treacherous way to go.



The state tends to take a simplistic approach to complicated problems