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Russia's paedophile hunters

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Combatting child sexual abuse in Russia involves some unexpected players – on the one hand, vigilantes who hunt down online child abusers, and on the other, the Kremlin, anxious to discredit the opposition. Mikhail Loginov reports.

 

Mikhail Loginov
17 May 2013

Once a month Ilya Stepanov turns into a girl. He registers on a popular Russian social networking site and creates a page apparently belonging to a teenager of 14 or so. ‘Tanya’ or ‘Viktoria’ starts acquiring friends of her own age, and sometimes an adult male friend. To draw this man into arranging a meeting with the young girl, Ilya posts real photos of his thirteen year old niece on the page. Sooner or later one of these older friends will hint that he’d like to meet up for real. ‘Tanya’ warns him that she’s under age, but this doesn’t deter him and he insists on a meeting. And when he turns up at the agreed place there is someone to meet him – but it isn’t a young girl called Tanya.

It can’t happen here!

‘We don’t have sex here’ – said a Soviet woman in the mid 1980s during one of the first Soviet-American live TV ‘bridges’. The subject of sexual relations was indeed taboo in the USSR; in the arts and literature even any mention of heterosexual relations was strictly limited. So it is not surprising that an esoteric sexual area such as paedophilia was considered non-existent. Both sexual abuse involving violence and non-violent relationships with minors were simply impossible to imagine. Paedophiles did, of course, exist. Russian psychotherapists today frequently find themselves treating older people who were sexually abused in childhood. But at the time these events usually remained a secret between the child and their abuser.

In Soviet times even ‘normal’ sexual relations outside marriage were considered deviant, so a desire to seduce a child just seemed impossible. The Criminal Code did in fact provide for exemplary punishment for ‘corruption of a minor’, but no such cases ever made the papers.

There were two reasons for this. The official line was that moral standards, including sexual ones, were higher in the Soviet Union than in the west. People in the west were in thrall to their own sexual urges, whereas Soviet Man (and Woman) acted rationally and reasonably and didn’t give in to his or her base appetites. Even ‘normal’ sexual relations outside marriage were considered deviant, so a desire to seduce a child just seemed impossible. The Criminal Code did in fact contain articles providing for exemplary punishment for ‘corruption of a minor’, but no such cases ever made the newspapers.

In practice, however, most Soviet citizens were ruled not by the progressive morality of the future, but by a traditional peasant morality that laid the blame for the crime at the feet of the victim: she disobeyed her mother, stayed out late and so on. A child who reported either sexual violence or consensual intimate relations with an adult could expect not help, but scoldings and beatings at home and jeering from classmates.

So the subject of paedophilia was taboo at both an official and everyday level. Parents used to frighten their children with terrifying tales of a boy or girl being promised a ride in a car (there were so few private cars around at the time that this would be a really tempting prospect), taken away somewhere and subjected to something very bad. But what that might be, was never explained.

A misdemeanour – or a capital offence?

Paedophiles were rarely caught and their trials were held in closed session, given that their crimes were an official secret. And once convicted, a Soviet child abuser would quickly realise that a long prison sentence was the least of his worries. The only social group that recognised the existence of paedophiles were convicts. Someone convicted of a ‘nasty’ offence would often be murdered even before he could be sent off to a prison camp, or be himself subjected to sexual abuse and as a result be consigned to the lowest rung of the prison hierarchy. It didn’t matter whether he was a ‘new boy’ or a hardened criminal - there were no exceptions. Nor did it make any difference whether he was a violent rapist or a sports coach who had consensual sex with a young athlete.

Someone convicted of a ‘nasty’ offence would often be murdered  ...  or be himself subjected to sexual abuse and as a result be consigned to the lowest rung of the prison hierarchy.

So the terrible tales that went around among teenagers less about ‘maniacs’ who molested kids than about unfair convictions that more or less amounted to a death sentence. One story that did the rounds went as follows: an 18 year old student met a girl at a party and they spent the night together. The next morning it emerged that she was 16 or 17 [in the USSR the age of consent was 18; it is 16 in Russia now] and started blackmailing the student for a large sum of money. In the eyes of the law she was underage, and he was an adult. So if she made a complaint and the ‘paedophile’ was sent to prison, his cellmates might not know the circumstances and treat him as though he had abducted and raped a seven year old.

What’s the difference between a pedagogue and a paedophile?

When the communist regime fell in Russia and the country acquired a free press, it seemed as though there was a sex maniac around every corner: suddenly the papers were full of court reports about the latest paedophile conviction. ‘Parents left child alone for fifteen minutes and it was raped’, ran one headline; another read, ’Everyone in the building knew he loved children. No one knew he was raping them’. Some parents only found out from the tabloids that it might be dangerous to let your child out to play in the yard.

The hacks, however, offered the public not just lurid child molestation reports. Readers discovered the existence not only of paedophiles, but also of blackmailers. The popular press was full of tragic stories about a mother who persuaded her underage daughter to accuse her boyfriend of rape and demand money to hush it up. The victim had no money and was sent to prison, where he was raped and turned into a passive homosexual. On his release he went home and murdered the women who had falsely accused him.

So the subject of sex between and adult and a minor began to provoke more than one reaction. Sexual violence against children remained the object of universal condemnation, but where a child or young person seemingly consented to sex with an adult reaction was more nuanced and there were even jokes along the lines of: ‘Q. What’s the difference between a pedagogue and a paedophile? A. Paedophiles actually love children’. In intellectual circles people proudly pointed out that it was a Russian writer, Vladimir Nabokov, who had first uncovered the theme of a relationship between an adult and an adolescent to the world in ‘Lolita’.   

A change of attitude

The start of the 2000s saw a change in government and public attitudes to paedophilia. Articles began to appear in the press about shocking cases where the police refused to act on claims by parents that their children had been subjected to sexual advances and even violence. There were reports of court cases where people who had raped children received suspended sentences. The Criminal Code was updated to provide for more severe penalties for child sexual abuse, both violent and non-violent. The concept of an age of consent was also clarified; the existing law, formulated in Soviet times, used the woolly phrase ‘persons who have not reached sexual maturity’. A law of 1998 set the age of consent at 14, but in 2003 it was raised to 16.

In this new climate, the courts started imposing stiffer sentences, some of them highly controversial. One man was sentenced to 13 years for abusing his young daughter, although the only evidence produced against him was from an expert witness on the basis of the child’s drawings: in a drawing of a cat the animal’s tail evidently resembled an erect penis (the defence also protested that the witness herself, a well known aficionada of lesbian BDSM parties, could not be considered impartial). In the end the sentence was reduced to five years.

One man was given 13 years for abusing his young daughter, although the only evidence produced against him was from an expert witness on the basis of the child’s drawings: in a drawing of a cat the animal’s tail evidently resembled an erect penis.

Another case concerned a lorry driver who stopped at a roadside for a pee and was accidentally seen by two small girls, who called their parents. The driver himself suggested calling the police, and admitted to a minor offence. Later, however, he was suddenly charged with deliberately exposing himself to the children. He claims a detective offered him a deal – a suspended sentence in return for 200,000 roubles - which he refused, and he was sent down for seven years. His case is now up for review.

Real rapists, on the other hand, sometimes still get away with it. Take the pop singer Igor Kondratyev, who performs under the name Konstantin Krestov. He would drive around towns on the outskirts of Moscow and whenever he saw a young girl would stop, let his Pekinese dog out of the car and ask her to catch it for him. When the girl handed the dog to him, he would grab her and pull her into the car. Most of the time, the charges made against him would be settled out of court: his wealthy parents would buy his victims off with large sums of money and new flats. One case did reach the courts, and he was given a light, two year sentence, but under public pressure he was retried and sent down for five years.

Children are also taught at school not to talk to strangers and to shout for help if approached, and the message is hammered home by public service videos shown on large screens on city streets. But there are some people in Russia who believe that this is still not enough to deter paedophiles.  

A non-consensual interview

A man walks into a cafe, sits at a table, looks at his watch. He’s waiting for a teenage girl, but a burly man sits next to him instead. ‘Were you expecting Viktoria?’ he asks. ‘I’m here instead’. The first man says there must be some mistake, but the other takes a piece of paper out of his pocket and shows him a printout of his online conversations, which shows that he had indeed arranged a meeting with a young girl called Viktoria. He wants to leave the cafe, but two more men in masks made out of knitted ski hats appear and sit on either side of him. A fourth man records the meeting on a camcorder.

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Maksim Martsinkevich, a neonazi and a former leader of the far-right extremist group Format18, after serving a sentence for incitement to ethnic strife, has become famous as a self-proclaimed paedophile-hunter. He filmed his own abuse of people suspected of paedophilia and published videos on the Web. Photo: Polit.ru

‘Viktoria’s’ friend is faced with a choice: he can answer the questions honestly and admit he is a paedophile, and then his admission will not be posted on the internet. Or, if he doesn’t, the recording will appear online, along with screenshots of his messages to an underage girl.

The conversation proceeds rather like an interview, although not a consensual one. Viktoria’s friend is faced with a choice: he can answer the questions honestly and admit he is a paedophile, and then his admission will not be posted on the internet. Or, if he doesn’t, the recording will appear online, along with screenshots of his messages to an underage girl. Usually child abusers agree to an ‘interview’ to avoid trouble, although if the conversation takes place on the street, rather than in a cafe, they may try to make a getaway and a fight may ensue. Sometimes it’s the paedophile that comes off worse, sometimes the anti-paedophilia activists. In one provincial city the ‘target’ came to the meeting by car, and when he saw he was being filmed he drove straight at his ‘hunters’, knocking down and permanently disabling two of them.

The war on Nabokov   

Over the last year, paedophilia has become a target for political propaganda campaigns by both marginal activist groups and government structures. The hateful nationalist politician Maksim Martsinkevich, better known by his nickname, ‘the Slasher’, has proclaimed himself an ‘anti-paedophile warrior’. Martsinkevich owes his fame to fake footage he posted on line which apparently showed the beheading of a Central Asian drug dealer (on closer inspection the head was that of a sheep). Now he is campaigning for the killing of paedophiles.  

Recent events in St Petersburg could also be seen as part of this political ’war’. Here the victims have been Vladimir Nabokov and popularisers of his work. One night a window of the writer’s museum was smashed by a bottle containing a sheet of paper with quotations from the bible denouncing sexual vices, and a wall at his family’s country estate, also now a museum, was defaced with the word ‘paedophile ‘ painted in large letters. At the same time Artyom Suslov, the producer of a show based on Lolita, was set upon and beaten up in the street, although his unknown attackers accused him of paedophilia not over his Nabokov connection, but because his page on the social network VKontakte shows photos of naked children (the work of acclaimed US photographer Sally Mann). The show was also cancelled thanks to the efforts of some so-called ‘Petersburg Cossacks’, although official Cossack leaders deny any involvement.

Martsinkevich owes his fame to fake footage he posted which apparently showed the beheading of a Central Asian drug dealer ... Now he is campaigning for the killing of paedophilesThe most high profile politico-paedophile row concerns, however, the prominent blogger Rustem Agadamov, who posts under the name ‘drugoy’ (‘the other’). In December 2012 his ex wife accused him in her own blog of sexually abusing a young girl (who was not named). Agadamov dismissed her claim as ‘bollocks’, but refused to lodge a complaint. Russia’s Investigative Committee then began to examine the claim, but no details have been made public, and the chief police officer in the Norwegian town where Agadamov’s ex wife lives has denied there have been any allegations there or that any investigation is taking place.

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Nabokov's museum walls with graffiti saying 'paedophile', in letters large enough to be seen from the nearby highway. Photo: Polit.ru

You’re part of the opposition – you must be a paedophile!   

 The attack on Suslov, the broken window and the Agadamov scandal are probably all part of a Kremlin smear campaign. It’s all quite transparent: if the opposition leaps to the defence of the blogger or condemns the ‘Cossacks’, it can be confidently announced that a significant number of its activists are paedophiles. Krasnoyarsk journalist Oleg Leontyev, for example, has been the object of a trumped up charge, accused of exposing himself to a young girl in the lift at his block of flats. He had an impeccable alibi – at the time of the alleged offence he was out covering a ‘fair elections’ rally and was caught on police cameras. But the local police are still insinuating that he had some connection to the incident in the lift.   

Ilya tells me he’s an apolitical person. He sees paedophilia as a real threat to Russian society and denies that politics has anything to do with it. ‘I’m not in the least interested in the opinions of a person who sets up a meeting with an underage girl. I don’t care whether he’s a communist or a liberal or a nationalist from ‘The Other Russia’. He preys on children - that’s enough for me. So I prey on him.’ 

The highjacking by the Kremlin of the public’s anti-paedophile mood may turn out to be a passing phase, unlike its continuing harassment of homosexuals, culminating in new legislation banning gay ‘propaganda’. The Kremlin’s ideologues have, particularly over the last year, taken to appealing to the public’s worst prejudices and outdated stereotypes. In Russia today there are nevertheless people who are unafraid to come out as gay and there are organisations that support them. But no one is going to admit to being a paedophile or to supporting paedophilia. Where prominent opposition figures have been ‘fingered’ by the regime for alleged child abuse, their defenders have always emphasised the falsity of the allegations. And given that none of them have been proved guilty of paedophilia, the chances are that the Kremlin dogs will be called off them and told to concentrate on 'the gays'. The opposition’s vocal criticism of the anti-gay campaign gives the regime, after all, an excuse to portray it as an element that rejects the values held by most of the Russian public. 

As for the paedophile-hunting vigilantes, once Kremlin, and therefore public, interest dies away, they might also abandon their campaign. However much the recent furore has been driven by the regime, Russians’ attitude to paedophilia has genuinely changed. Both the government and the public recognise the existence of the problem, and people who sexually abuse children no longer get away with suspended sentences, as they did 15 years ago. And children are taught in school that they should report any inappropriate behaviour by an adult. So if paedophilia itself will not disappear, it should perhaps become less prevalent.

Thumbnail: (cc) Flickr/quapan

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