Sarcastic smile of the Devil


The Russian Orthodox Church appears to be close, even intimate, to the authorities. On Christmas night flocks of functionaries, raised in the atheistic USSR, clog the halls of Moscow cathedrals parading in front of TV cameras the picture of peace and harmony between officialdom and the clergy.

Ironically, one of the potentially most wide-reaching protest movements is being nurtured and led by the Patriarchate. On December 22, three thousand activists from various Russian cities got together in Moscow for the First All-Russia Forum ‘Save Family – Save Russia’ to stand up to what they call ‘juvenile justice’. The forum is just the tip of an iceberg. To see what people think one just needs to google the words and dozens of angry sites and hundreds of furious blogs will have popped up before one positive webpage appears.

There is a terminological jumble here. For juvenile justice is courts that deal with young offenders, so that underage delinquents are kept separate from adult criminals. The bill that sparked an outrage – the whole law consisting of several sentences - sought to do just that, but was turned down. That was clear from the outset - new courts cannot be introduced without amending the Constitution.

In Russia the term has acquired a broader meaning: it is a system of control over families, so that the state can step in and in extreme cases seize a child from his or her parents. For the delegates, such interference defies traditional values and destroys families. ‘Juvenile justice,’ said Alexei Osipov, professor of Moscow Theological Academy, ‘is a sarcastic smile of the Devil’.

Somewhere around 100,000 children are abused in Russia each year and about 1,400 get killed. Statistically, the most dangerous people for a child are those of his inner circle. Nine out of ten sexually abused children know the perpetrator in some way; seven out of ten are abused by family members.

Aliens watching us from another planet and judging by these, hugely under-reported, figures would have viewed us as savages preying on our offspring where the family is an instrument of humiliation and abuse. It is not the proverbial paedophile wandering around and devouring stray boys and girls, but it is close ones who pose the real threat: a father, mother or step-father.

From a practical perspective, abused children provide fertile fodder for crime. It is now conventional wisdom that abused or neglected children are far more likely to become criminals. Those who begin their lives amidst violence turn to violence too. The simple truth is that the road to combating street crime passes through troubled families.

So, why are parents so disturbed? To put it bluntly, can’t they see reason? Actually, they can.

The problem is not the laws the authorities propose, but the authorities themselves. People do not trust them and the very idea that someone, for whatever good purpose, will be able to interfere with your family and even take your child from you, terrifies parents at the most intimate level.

The main question: what is a bad parent, remains worryingly blurred. There were cases when children were taken from parents whose only fault was poverty. This is a dangerous but tempting road to go down. It creates an illusion that the problem can be resolved without investment in social programs, but by redistribution of children from troubled families to better ones or to state orphanages.

For many Russians a bad parent is a poor parent. When last year Natalia Zarubina won a long legal battle in Portuguese courts and brought her daughter home, astonishingly many Russians fought to have the girl sent back – and that would be against the law of any civilised country - because her mother was relatively poor.

In a country where about a third of the population live below the poverty level and corruption is beyond the level of reason, the idea, seemingly very good and timely, may become a leap from bad to worse.

Still, the problem is largely psychological. The public’s skittishness about overhauling the system, its feeble appeal to the so-called traditional values of the patriarchal family reflects something else: the deep-seated mistrust in the authorities that makes people resistant to any change when it comes to something really close to their heart.

January 10, 2010