In 2012, a special police unit was set up in Russia to combat sexual assault on minors, but it does not seem to have brought any results – Russia’s Investigative Committee estimates that every day 11 or 12 children are victims of sexual abuse.
Crime without punishment
‘Psychiatrists tend to think that the number of paedophiles in the population, that is, people with a psychiatric disorder, has not changed through the centuries,’ says psychotherapist Yevgeny Chetarov. ‘But we can probably talk about some kind of everyday social paedophilia as a malady of our society. People drink more, they lose their moral inhibitions and they act not out of an unhealthy desire for a child’s body, but because they haven’t got anyone else to have sex with: a child is easier to deal with both morally and physically. And we have a general problem around morality – there aren’t any accepted rules any more. But the subject of paedophilia, which used to be taboo, is blown up out of all proportion. And have you noticed that there’s a lot more coverage of the crime than the punishment, and when punishment is mentioned it’s in terms of its lightness, its lenience. And degenerate people get the message – you’ll get away with it, why not have a go?’
‘We can probably talk about some kind of everyday social paedophilia as a malady of our society.’
Not everyone gets away with it, but one who did was Lieutenant Colonel Andrei Litvinov, former Head of Information at the Novosibirsk Region Police headquarters. Members of the local ‘Novosibirsk against Paedophiles’ group organised an exchange of emails with the colonel, pretending they were from a 15-year-old teenage boy. The colonel, they told the district court in September, wrote with both feeling and obvious acquaintance with the matter: ‘It will hurt at first, but I’ll try to be gentle.’ When Litvinov turned up to meet the boy, he had with him a packet of crisps, a packet of condoms, a pack of Viagra, and an enema bag. The investigation lasted nearly a year, and examinations by two specialists revealed the boy to be sexually immature. The colonel admitted his guilt right up to the end of the trial, but then suddenly told the court that he had planned to tell the boy how dangerous it was to have relations with strangers, especially such intimate ones; and he was acquitted.
‘Just about everybody who is caught in inappropriate correspondence with children, falls back on that line of defence,’ says Mikhail Kostin, a lawyer who is one of the leaders of “Novosibirsk against Paedophiles.” ‘We’ll try to appeal against this absurd verdict.’
How to find a culprit
The verdict in the trial of 25-year-old Anton Boychenko at the Novosibirsk regional court was equally absurd, but in the other extreme – he was sent to prison for 14 years, although once again no assault took place. The eight-year-old girl had a vague memory of the man who had suggested they do ‘something nice,’ but it was revealed in court that the police had first shown her a photograph of Anton, and only then held an identity parade. And it made no difference that the five young men he was with at the moment of the crime, all of them law-abiding citizens, corroborated his alibi – the High Court confirmed the sentence.
The problem was that Anton was a stranger, a new guy in the small town of Barabinsk; and it would take too long to look for the real criminal at the station, where all Siberia’s railways lines meet. Later, another incident surfaced, when an unknown man had burst into the girls’ toilet at school No.48, also up to no good. No one was sure what he wanted to do with the girls, but they guessed. Skinny little Anton is nothing like the large 45-year-old man described by the children and the duty janitor – to the extent that he himself hasn’t been sexually assaulted in prison (as popular opinion is convinced happens to anyone convicted of child sexual abuse; as he says, nobody there, neither staff nor fellow prisoners, believe he’s guilty).
‘Paedophiles aren’t identified here, they’re designated.'
‘I am sure that Anton’s arrest was no accident,’ his mother Yelena tells me. ‘At the police station they kept asking both him and his fiancée whether he had any family living in Barabinsk. They needed a fall guy and Anton, a stranger, fitted the bill. My husband and I tried to do a bit of investigation ourselves, but the locals were afraid to speak to us, and a car followed us everywhere. We were afraid that something might happen to us, and then what would become of Anton? Our life turned into a living hell, and it killed his grandmother. The police and detectives couldn’t care less that they’ve ruined the lives of a whole family. Paedophiles aren’t identified here, they’re designated.’
Yelena’s words about paedophiles being ‘designated’ were unwittingly confirmed by, of all people, the Russian Investigative Committee. The whole of Tomsk hunted for three-year-old Vika, who was kidnapped right out of nursery school. About 4000 volunteers were involved in the search. On 19 August, her body, bearing signs of abuse, was found, and three days later they announced that her murderer had been caught. He had in fact hanged himself. ‘It was a 37-year-old-man, resident in Tomsk, living close by and working as a taxi driver,’ Vladimir Litvinenko, head of the Tomsk Region department of the Investigative Committee, told the press. ‘We are under no doubt that he was the rapist and murderer, and a DNA test has confirmed his guilt.’
The next day, however, his words were rebutted on the Investigative Committee website. The announcement had, it seemed, been premature, and could create an impression among the public that ‘the child’s murder was hastily pinned on the suicide, just to get it over with.’ The case had now been handed over to other detectives working with the Committee, ‘as proof of our serious intention not only to establish the identity of the real murderer or murderers... but also to prosecute the nursery staff that had allowed the abduction to happen.’
The hunters and the hunted
With the authorities evidently unable to deal with the problem, local vigilante groups have sprung up, all with the aim of trapping paedophiles. Every town has its ‘watch,’ its ‘hunters.’ But they all work the same way – set up a page on one of the social networks, pretending to be a young girl or boy interested in sexual matters. They then conduct a lively chat with anyone who responds, trying to find out all they can about them – age, job, religion, hobbies. They then suggest what they might do together, trying to provoke their targets into revealing their desires. Then they set up a meeting, and the whole group turns up to punish the potential abuser by humiliating them: covering them with paint; making them dive into a pond, and roll around in filth. All this is recorded on video, and it is clear from the footage that the vigilantes enjoy their cruel fun. Mikhail Kostin defends these actions, saying that it is something they have been forced into – their attempts to hand their targets over to the police have come to nothing: there is no law against exchanging emails with someone; and their authenticity is also difficult to prove.
The vigilantes humiliate their target: covering them with paint; making them roll around in filth.
Yevgeny Chetarov disagrees: ‘This kind of provocation isn’t the best way to fight the problem. It only encourages potential paedophiles. Someone might never have done anything if he had not been wound up by the supposed child. But now his fantasies might be aroused and he’ll be determined to satisfy them at any price.’
Two friends living in Omsk who last year set up a group called ‘For the Sake of the Future’ assured me that they had no wish to provoke, force or set up anyone. They looked for young, active people to join the fight against ‘paedophilia, exhibitionists and corruption;’ threw themselves into their campaign, organised debates… Now they don’t want to talk about it, apart from one, Pavel. ‘We worked for several months, cooperated with the police and even caught one paedophile. But we’ve stopped now – no one wants to work at it,’ he complained. ‘The guys who came to join us were more interested in showing off to the camera than ridding the town of perverts.’
Novosibirsk lawyer Ilya Razumov may be right in claiming that the hunters are just as much scum as the people they are hunting; they’ve just been able to hide under a cloak of morality. Their methods also allow for any amount of falsification – they could ruin the reputation of anyone they wanted. Perhaps that’s their whole motivation. After all, not a single ‘fighter’ has ever been charged, even with hooliganism. They have also been intimidating male teachers, which is an important reason for their increasing rarity in schools, according to Gennady Fedik, chair of ‘Teachers of Buryatia’, an organisation that promotes teachers’ rights. He himself resigned from his job after the authorities dropped hints about not liking him. In such a situation, he realised that anything could happen to him.
Looking closer to home
The anti-paedophile groups may be hard at work, but they aren’t looking in the right place. They are doing useful work closing down dangerous websites – but then what is the Ministry of the Interior’s Department K, set up to combat online crime, doing? Of course in Russia the internet has long been considered the work of the devil, a debaucher of children, and now also a CIA espionage project. Close it down – and the problem will solve itself! But the thing is that 70% of ‘paedophile’ crimes take place in impoverished villages where there are no computers, no work and no money; the only thing there is plenty of is samogon [moonshine].
The anti-paedophile groups may be hard at work, but they aren’t looking in the right place.
The Novosibirsk Region prosecutor’s office analysed court records, and came to the conclusion that the main factor in the increase of sexual assaults on children was the social position of the victims and their molesters – both categories came mostly from deprived groups. In one in five cases, the molesters were family members; in half of cases, family friends – for which read drinking buddies. 34% already had a criminal record; and 15% for a similar sexual offence.
It is understandable that the government propaganda machine is keen to unite Russians in their concern about the ‘safe’ parts of society, so taking their minds off the bigger problems faced by their country. The roots of paedophilia hysteria are probably the same in any country. But in Russia it has become a kind of national cause. It is no coincidence that a law providing for life imprisonment or voluntary chemical castration for reoffending paedophiles was passed in February 2012, at the height of the Presidential election campaign. The intensified discussion of the issue that this led to has not abated since; and will no doubt continue, fanned by official inertia. Previous strategies, such as probation for offenders, have been abolished, and preventive measures are no longer even mentioned.
Under Russian law, doctors, teachers, and neighbours are obliged to inform the police and the social services if they believe a child is bring physically or sexually abused. But for some reason, seven-year-old Kolya Kukin’s father, who had regularly beaten and raped him in front of the boy’s mother, didn’t call out a doctor. His teacher also didn’t realise what was happening to the child; the neighbours, who suspected the father of violence towards his wife and children, were afraid to report it. If Kolya hadn’t died, his father wouldn’t have been arrested, and the violence would just have continued.
‘It is not always easy to establish the main threat to the life and health of a child or young person,’ says a specialist from the child protection department of one of the region’s education authorities. ‘There are so many dangers: bare wires; an unheated home; parents in a drunken stupor; the absence of such basic needs as food and warm clothing. There should also be photos, witnesses… it all needs to be in the system. A one-off episode of neglect, even a prolonged one, is not grounds for taking children away from their parents; and the law says there must first be adequate proof. And neighbours, especially in rural areas, often suffer from “bad eyesight and hearing” – they have to go on living in the village, after all. It is almost impossible to prove sexual violence – it is left to the conscience of the mother, who sticks with her husband or boyfriend because she is afraid of being left alone with the children. And what can we do?’
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman, tells me that there are 17 national organisations working on child-related issues. But where are they? The Novosibirsk district, child protection department has about four or five employees, who are supposed to ensure the safety of 3000-4000 children. Astakhov understands the problem: ‘We are physically unable to investigate every “at risk” family, and we haven’t a clue about what goes on in “normal” families.’
The paedophilia problem can be easily solved – by treating the causes, not the symptoms; by giving people work and hope. But no one is interested in that. Anti-paedophilia propaganda and legislation is government policy. One section of the population will be too drunk to take it in; another too busy just staying alive. And some, picking up the term ‘liberast’ [a conjoining of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘pederast’], will be overjoyed: after all, to them, paedophilia, homosexuality, and liberalism are all just different kinds of perversion. And with that, we can all join ranks and march boldly into the past, chanting the old Soviet slogan: ‘Thank you, our Motherland, for our happy childhood!’