Suffer the little children…

A new Russian law banning US adoptions has been roundly criticised at home and abroad; a toddler’s unexplained death has been held up as justification. For Daniil Kotsyubinsky, it is all a case of history repeating: Russia’s past is full of tragic cases where children have become innocent victims.

Almost every state has its ‘secret memories’ or skeletons in the cupboard, which are commonly remembered in a Freudian way, coded and distorted.  One of these grim archetypes in Russian history is the ‘tears of a tormented child’ (Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov) which has featured down the centuries in varying forms and been part of many a murderous discussion…

A mysterious death of a Russian-born child while he was playing with his friends in the street has turned into a PR hype of gigantic political proportions. At its centre are the same emanations of evil as there were 400 years ago – power, personal gain, ambition, hatred and envy – no matter whether it’s Uglich on the Volga or Ruston in Louisiana. The stage set may be different, but the play’s the same, a Moscow one: a song and dance over a child’s bones – now not the 9-year old Tsarevich Dmitry [son of Ivan the Terrible], but 3-year old Max Alan Shatto (he was Maxim Kuzmin in Russia).

‘The play’s the same, a Moscow one: a song and dance over a child’s bones’

Centuries roll by, but the metaphysics of Russia as a state outside of the rule of law are the same, and speculating on the corpses of innocent children is just as much in fashion. The basest political calculations are covered up and society’s attention is distracted away from crimes committed by the government, including against children. But there are a huge number of children’s skeletons in the cupboards of Moscow civilisation, present and past. They are essentially part of its historical foundations.

Russian imperial cruelty

Ivan III was the first Moscow ruler. He seized the throne from the enfeebled Chinggisid. and his villainy makes many other extremely vicious crimes pale into insignificance.  In 1492 he perfidiously imprisoned his brother Andrey the Large, who was clapped in irons and died within the year. He then imprisoned and shackled his brother’s sons: 14-year old Ivan spent 30 years there and died in chains and was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church for this suffering; Dmitry’s chains were only removed a few years before his death, when he was nearly 60.

It is probably not worth dwelling too long on Ivan the Terrible’s bloodthirsty deeds or his scaffold democracy, where age, sex, belief and social status were immaterial.  One has only to remember the 1570 Massacre of Novgorod, when women and children of all ages were bound and thrown from a high bank into the Volkhov river where they were trapped under the ice.  Or how, not long before that, Tsar Ivan had forced his 9-year old cousin Maria, daughter of Vladimir Staritsky, to drink poison.  Another version has the autocrat commanding his soldiers to take Maria and her mother outside with no clothes on - it was October – and shoot them for his amusement. 

Tsarevich Dmitry, son of Ivan the Terrible is just one of the most well-known subjects of child abuse in Russian history. He is supposed to have been stabbed in the neck at the age of 9 by order of Boris Godunov. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia

Everyone knows about Boris Godunov, the ‘Tsar Herod’, who allegedly killed the younger son of Ivan the Terrible. Or almost everyone. But no one, or almost no one, remembers another innocent victim of political villainy, publicly sacrificed on the altar of the imperial future of the Romanov dynasty.

‘Practically any ancient monarchy will have its nightmare stories of the past, but in the case of Russia this phenomenon relates not to a monarchy, but to the essentially cannibalistic nature of the Moscow state which grew stronger by devouring the flesh and blood of its completely disenfranchised subjects.’

In 1614 Ivan, the 3-year old son of the Polish princess Marina Mniszek and False Dmitry II, gave his ‘life for the Tsar,’ [opera by Glinka] though even after his martydom he continued to be called the ‘little thief’ by his god-fearing contemporaries. This little boy was one of the claimants to the throne of Muscovy. In 1613, however, 16-year old Mikhail Romanov was elected Tsar of Russia and in July 1614 the 3-year old Ivan was hanged at the Serpukhovo Gate in Moscow. It was said that the child was too light and only died several hours later by strangulation and from cold.

Another dumbfounding story concerns the child-emperor, Ivan VI.  He was the great-nephew and heir of Empress Anna of Russia and was proclaimed Tsar in 1740, the year of his birth.  But within a year Empress Elizabeth (‘the Mild’), daughter of Peter the Great, overthrew and imprisoned him. He spent all his life incarcerated and was killed in the Fortress of Schlisselburg in 1764, during the enlightened age of Catherine the Great, Mother of all the Russias.

Practically any ancient monarchy will have its nightmare stories of the past, including the suffering and death of children caught up in the struggle for a throne.  But in the case of Russia this phenomenon relates not to a monarchy, but to the essentially cannibalistic nature of the Moscow state which grew stronger by devouring the flesh and blood of its completely disenfranchised subjects. Children who suffered and died are but the tip of this multi-million pyramid of skulls….

Incidentally, the last ‘Petersburg’ decades of the history of tsarism are by no means the most violent (by comparison with what had gone before and would come later). But as the Russian monarchy became less stiff-necked, bloodthirsty and redolent of the ‘Golden Horde’, it became enfeebled and began to implode.

More recent history too

At last, in 1917, the ‘too liberal’ monarchy collapsed. One of the first atrocities of the new Moscow government once again involved the murder of children: this time, the shooting of the last Russian emperor and his family. Then there were the decrees ordering the annihilation of the ‘family members of traitors to the fatherland’, including children, and sanctioning the execution of children from the age of 12 (1935).

This was followed by the deportations of whole peoples, when it was often the children who died on the way. Tens of thousands of Afghan children died at the hands of Soviet occupation forces. Thousands, if not tens of thousands (who will ever give the real figure, and when?) of children died during the two Chechen wars.  The children of Beslan were blown to bits by tanks or incinerated by the army’s flamethrowers.

Alas – like the thousands of homeless children living rough or the children who endure parental violence and die at home in today’s Russia – such cruelties usually flicker somewhere on the edges or at the back of public consciousness, only flaring up when the current Kremlin tsar decides to use that flame to prepare his next piquant dish.

The Brothers Karamazov

Which brings us neatly on to Dostoyevsky. Opponents try to shout each other down, declaiming passionately ‘…if everyone must suffer to attain eternal happiness, then tell me what have children got to do with it?’ or ‘..the whole world  of knowledge is not worth the tears of a child..’ or ‘…I renounce absolutely supreme harmony, because it’s not worth the tears of one tormented child…’ (The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan to Alyosha, Book V - Pro and Contra, Chapter 4 - Rebellion).   

Both sides are convinced that Dostoyevsky is ‘on their side’. What is so amazing is that they are both right!  One not unimportant factor usually ignored when the ‘tears of a little child’ come up in conversation is that it is said not by the author, but by his character, the militantly atheistic Ivan Karamazov, in conversation with his god-fearing brother Alyosha.  Ivan ends his speech defiantly: ‘… too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much for the entrance ticket….. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, I only most respectfully return him the ticket.’ (ibid.)

Ivan is then rebuked by Alyosha with the words ‘That's rebellion.’ 

In other words, the chapter Rebellion in The Brothers Karamazov is not meant as a judgment of infanticide as such – it would indeed be absurd to suspect that Dostoyevsky would suddenly start forcing that particular moral and legal door, already so wide open. It has its meaning in the question of the justice of heaven – Dei Judicium – which, to restore world harmony, can both save the soul of a murdered innocent and pardon his tormentor.  ‘…you, says Alyosha to Ivan, have just asked if there is in the whole world a Being which could and has the right to forgive [the murder of a child? DK]. There is a Being and He can forgive everything…..because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice..’

If we extrapolate Alyosha Karamazov’s ‘faith as a justification for child murder’ on to Russian reality, we arrive at a very familiar, ‘typically Russian’ ideological justification for any, even the most excessive, sacrifice made by its people on the altar of the Great Russian State.  This state is, after all, nothing other than Holy Mother Russia, where God (and his heavenly justice) repose, irrespective of the historical guise His state has taken at that particular moment in time.

The sequence that results from this is consistent with the ‘Moscow version of the Stockholm syndrome’:

  1. The government is a stern parent and may do evil;
  2. The people are defenceless children and may, therefore, suffer, though innocent;
  3. But if Holy Mother Russia is alive i.e. the Russian state, then world harmony is not destroyed, the people’s souls are saved and the government forgiven.

We should not think that Dostoyevsky in this book unequivocally condemns Ivan and, therefore, ‘takes Alyosha’s side’. In the dialogue between the two brothers, the writer is not preaching, but expressing the chief ‘cyclical collision’ of the whole of Russian history. This is the yearning for rebellion against abhorrent ‘prison’ government, the impossibility of devising a sensible plan of rebellion and, as a result, the desperate attempt to convince oneself that, in the words of another character from a completely different book, ‘maybe that is the great homespun truth’ (Ilf and Petrov, The Golden Calf, 1931).  Then…another wave of protest.

Acceptance or rebellion?

The dispute between Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov thus remains unfinished. It is, of course, not about children as such, but about the rights of man and human dignity. Should we accept an authority that condemns us to eternal humiliation and suffering?  Or should we rebel?

The answer is clear.  It all depends on age.  A child has neither the right nor the opportunity to rebel against an adult, whereas an adult not only has this right, but is obliged to rebel if someone – it doesn’t matter who – encroaches on his sacred and inalienable rights.

‘While Russian society continues to regard itself as a child being punished, until it starts to reflect reflecting on justice and excessively severe parental punishment, nothing will change.’

We have only to decide the age of the Russian nation. If it is an ‘infant’, then questions to which there is no answer will start piling up in any conversation about rebellion.  What will happen to ‘Holy Mother Russia’?  To heavenly justice?  Would it not be rebellion against God?  But if the Russian nation is adult, all these questions fade into the background: rebellion by an adult against the prison in which he has been incarcerated, though innocent, is no rebellion against God, but in the name of freedom.

This is why it is so vital for the Russian government in its relations with society to insist on a style which is ostentatiously patriarchal. This is why each time the next round of Moscow rulers makes such efforts to implant its own myth of ‘innocent children, tormented by enemies of the people’, ‘bourgeois kulaks [rich peasants]’, ‘Yankee knackers’.  This is why Kremlin propaganda, independently of its ideological covering, has such need of Tsarevich Dmitry (referred to above), Pavlik Morozov [Soviet child who denounced his own father and was then killed by his family] and Dima Yakovlev [Russian boy who died when his adoptive American father left him in a car].  The archetype of the child killer is a constant reminder to the nation-infant of what could happen to it if it, heaven forfend, were suddenly to find itself without the protection of the Grand Inquisitor.

Has an infantile perception of the relationship between state and people prevented proper scrutiy of power abuses in Russia? Photo: (cc) Demotix/Nickolay Vinokurov

This is why the theme of the ‘tears of a child’ is so spellbindingly significant for Russian society, surrounded as it is by the power of the Grand Inquisitor on all sides. Society sees itself in this child, as it were, defenseless against the awful and hated ‘monster’ and hopes for the help of a dear, kind Lord. It doesn’t notice that both the monster and the Lord are the same age-old Russian authorities, which, to give the ‘infant-nation’ a correct historical education, has put him to sit in a cold latrine for ever.

While Russian society continues to regard itself as a child being punished, until it starts seriously reflecting on the subject of justice and excessively severe parental punishment instead of presenting the ‘prison that is the state’ with a full reckoning for all (not only the children’s) bodies and souls it has destroyed, nothing will change.  ‘Biological ombudsmen’ will continue to convince society that it should sit in the latrine as meekly as possible and the 500-year old ‘infant-nation’ will continue to beat its breast, as Dostoyevsky says, praying to its ‘dear, kind Lord in the foul-smelling privy with its unexpiated tears….’ (ibid.)

About the author

Daniil Kotsyubinsky is a Russian historian and journalist based in St. Petersburg