Traditional values and teenage brides: Russia’s ombudsman for children goes off the rails

William Echols

Recent comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ombudsman for children’s rights, in which he defended a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, gets to the heart of Russia’s rotten core of “tradition” and hypocrisy.

The gist of the most recent scandal, which highlights Moscow’s tenuous power over Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, involves Nazhud Guchigov, a 46-year-old police commander in Nozhay-Yurt, and a 17-year-old girl named Kheda Goylabiyeva.

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According to reports, Guchigov, who is already married with children, has prevented Goylabiyeva from leaving her home and threatened her family with reprisals least they hand her over.

On May 5, Kadyrov refuted those claims on Chechen television, saying a trusted envoy had been sent to the girl. The envoy, unsurprisingly, reported back that the girl and her family were kosher with the arrangement.

Earlier this week, Lifenews, a tabloid media outlet with connections to Russia’s security services (and who’s founder infamously resettled in Brooklyn), ran an interview with the taciturn girl, who looks visibly uncomfortable and rarely makes eye contact.

In it, she claims to have known her husband-to-be for a year, saying he is good because he is “manly” and “dependable.”  Goylabiyeva also says she is not bothered by the age difference. It is difficult, based on body language alone, to know if she was coached to give her answers, or if they are genuine.

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According to gazeta.ru, the marriage is set to go forth on Saturday, though it is illegal under Russian law. Georgy Bovt, who regularly writes for the Moscow Times, sounds a note of capitulation, responding to all of the marriage’s critics (and there are many) that attempting to enforce Russian law in Chechnya may lead to “new terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro and other Russian cities, or quite possibly “a third Chechen war.”

He could be right. But what’s really telling is that Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s ombudsman for the Russian Federation, is not only all right with the entire affair, but essentially argued that it was okay for Russian men to take on teenage brides because some Russian women age prematurely.

“Let’s not be prudes,” he said. “There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look around 50. And, in general, the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”

This, mind you, is coming from someone who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby in Russia, adding that children’s advocacy groups were the leading means through which pedophiles battled for legalization.

Following a public backlash, Astakhov would “apologize,” not for essentially promoting the marriage between a 46-year-old man and a 17-year-old-girl, but rather for offending “the fairer sex” with his “awkward comments” by basically calling some of them ugly.

Astakhov, of course, is the quintessential hypocrite so endemic in Russia’s leadership. He says whatever is required of him — he believes in nothing.

The children’s commissioner, who sent his wife to France to give birth to their third child, once complained that he had to go to Cote d’Azure every weekend out of fear that his son would forget him.

When anti-corruption blogger criticized Astakhov for parking his family in an “elite mansion in Nice” and his money “in a “Swiss bank account,” Astakhov claimed Navalny was employing the “longstanding tricks of the enemies of Russia.”

astakhovThis incident is one of those made in Russia moments where the elite’s hypocrisy and obsession with promoting “traditional values” converge.

Tradition after all, is often a euphemism for justifying the domination of one group over another. When ‘the woman question’ arose in Russia in the 19th century, a bleak picture, whereby Russian men reportedly beat and raped their wives and daughters en masse, while members of the upper classes could molest peasant women with apparent impunity, emerged. As noted by the academic Marianna Muravyeva, instances of rape between a daughter-in-law and her father-in-law in Russian and Cossack communities were so common, the crime received a special name: ‘snokhachestvo’.

Russian nobles were also known to possess harems of women who existed merely to satisfy their masters’ sexually.

Under the Code of Laws of the Russian Empire in 1866, statutory rape could only be committed against a woman under the age of fourteen. In that light, Astakhov is clearly supporting “traditional values” at a time when Russia is doing its best to drag itself back into the 19th century.

And much like every other Russian official, those who question where he sends his children or his money are the “real enemies of the people”.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of all is that Russia wants to protect children from gay propaganda which does not exist. But when it comes to protecting teenage girls from the sexual advances of middle-aged men, tradition rules the roost. After all, there is only one rule that Russia’s leadership ever abides by: never roll back access to sources of pleasure.

In April, when a group of teenage girls caused a scandal (and incited a federal investigation) simply by twerking, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov asked if Russia was “for or against early sex.” 

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Astakhov, it seems, has provided an answer.

Twerking leads to suicide? Russian propaganda break down

William Echols

A recent claim by the face of Russian domestic propaganda that twerking contributes to teenage suicide brings to the fore Moscow’s not so subtle attempt to employ failed American-style strategies of female subjugation to tackle very real social ills.

It all started with the apotheosis of political kitsch and trailer park sexuality. A bunch of white girls in a transcontinental city, provocatively dressed in the two-tone colors of Russian military valor and Ukrainian invasion, twerking around Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot.

At around the 0:37 mark, a horrified mother and her child can literally be seen doing their best imitation of the San Diego illegal alien crossing sign.

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Yes, this video pulled off a trifecta of Post-Soviet trash; a veritable hat trick of ‘This is Russia bitch’ if you will.

And in a time when Russia’s ruling class is excessively fond of aping the histrionics of American far right moralists to decry the morally decedent West, Russia’s spin doctor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov didn’t miss a beat in his most recent condemnation of the twerking bees.

“We’re not going to dwell on this for long, but we simply need to ask ourselves one question: are we for or against early sex,” he asks in his all to familiar rhetorical style.

True to Kiselyovian theatrical form, the presenter then purposes a false dilemma, whereby those who are “for” minors having sex need to put an end to the “persecution of pedophiles”, purge the legal codex of corresponding laws, and “close your eyes to the obvious harm of early sex, which is accompanied by a crippled life…teenage abortions and suicide.”

That’s right, this isn’t just about girls in a provincial town expressing themselves in a manner that some might find distasteful. No, this is the decline of Western civilization, and Russia risks becoming America’s decedent watershed least they built up their moral defenses.

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A few issues are at play here. One, the false equivalency Kiselyov makes between sexually charged dancing and actually engaging in sexual activity, or the ungrounded claim that the former is a slippery slope to the latter, is glaring.

Secondly, Kiselyov assertion that sex among teens leads to depression and suicide is contingent on a 12-year-old study from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, whose methodology leaves much to be desired.

Thirdly, seeing that Russia has a lower age of consent than the US (16 vs. 18), some of the girls portrayed in the clip are (by the country’s own standards) not likely minors to begin with. Not that any of this matters. The manufactured scandal which has led to a criminal investigation being launched by the Russian equivalent to the FBI is merely another form of public theater, whereby the government feigns religiosity for the sake of consolidating political power and further carving out a few slivers in that artificial East Vs. West divide.

When it comes to issues of sexuality, Russia is a patriarchy, but certainly not a theocratic one. Due to deep societal atomization and a politically apathetic culture which embraced rampant consumerism as the only truly binding national ideology, “unchaste” women are part and parcel of the everything is possible playground of the Third Rome. Sex has been more commodified in Russia than possibly any other place on Earth, and this is not a ruling class that has any interest in rolling back its access to pleasure.

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Rather, any attempts to “chasten” Russian women will likely have little to do with limiting the actual availability of willing sexual partners for men in the country, but rather change the social dynamic which gives women (at least limited) control over their own sexuality. Despite all its faults, after all, the Soviet Union (sometimes out of pure necessity) did a lot to empower women regarding employment, maternity benefits, and control over their own bodies (though, in one of those perfect Soviet contradictions, it never found a need to manufacture tampons for them.)

There are more than a few men who would be more than happy to roll those rights back. This is, after all, a country where a politician can threaten a pregnant female journalist with rape and see no consequences (he also blamed the Ukrainian revolution on “female hysteria.”)

Add to that a political need to vilify the West and you find the government investigating the activities of a provincial dance studio. But there are real issues as well. Rampant rates of substance abuse, STD transmission (particularly HIV), high abortion rates and relatively low birth rates have led many a pundit to declare Russia a dying nation.

The problem with these moral crusades (manufactured or not), however, is that they rarely examine the actual issues in good, scientific faith. Rather, they engage in a form of bait and switch, whereby one proposes an ineffectual, ideologically-driven solution to a real problem.

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This, of course, is a tactic borrowed from the American right, which sought to tackle the issues of teen pregnancy, abortion and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases with curtailment on women’s reproductive rights, the repression of sexual education, and  a war on sex itself. This cultural war continues to be waged, despite all available evidence pointing towards higher rates of the above mentioned social maladies in those avowedly more religious states which embraced the abstinence only ethos.

Evangelical teens, in fact, have sex at the same rates as their non-religious peers, and no amount of guilt or slut shaming actually stops this biological drive, though it might adversely affect their self-esteem (see the Heritage study) and, with a lack of education, leave them needlessly exposed to unwanted pregnancy and preventable diseases.

On the abortion front, Russia has seen a dramatic drop from the shockingly high rates of the 90s, when the number of live births were often doubled by the number of terminated pregnancies.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination.

Despite these positive trends which had nothing to do with religious influence, The Russian Orthodox Church, which recently framed the country’s demographic crisis within the false dichotomy between “free choice” and “moral norms,” is similarly using genuine social maladies to artificially insert itself into what is ultimately a public health issue.

Likewise, if Kiselyov is really worried about teenage suicide, instead of fretting about “morally decedent” western cultural imports, perhaps he should do something useful, like rally the government to both destigmatize therapy (which was deeply damaged by Brezhnev’s use of psychiatry as a weapon against political dissidents), and to make counseling available to at-risk kids. Of course, Kiselyov does not care about twerking. His primary goal is to besmirch the West via its “moral decadence”, even if manifestations of that moral decadence (substance abuse, rates of STD transmission, abortion rates) are actually more prevalent in Russia.

But to talk about Russia’s issues honestly, to view them as public health problems that need solutions which might not be beneficial to an authoritarian government seeking “tradition” as a means of further consolidating and controlling the population, is to defeat the great point of this mad metanarrative. Why talk about introducing comprehensive sex education throughout all Russian schools when you can just decry the West for teaching Russian girls to dance like sluts (which makes them become sluts, and sluts, as we all know, get abortions and then kill themselves.)

Why talk about a culture that has made it impossible for children to openly express their feelings or grapple with issues of sexuality, when it is much more politically expedient to create citizens who lock up their spirits and embrace conformity at all costs, even if it is killing them inside?

As for Russian women and sex, perhaps the perfect example of where all of this twerking nonsense could be going if the country’s real nationalists ever ascend to the throne came in October, when Aleksandr Mozgovoi, leader of the quasi-rogue pro-Russian ‘Ghost Brigade’ in Luhansk, Ukraine, announced (an ultimately unenforced) ban on women going to bars and clubs. In his own words, they should instead “sit at home and embroider.”

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In a coup of poetic justice, it was Anastasiya Pyaterikova, a high-profile Luhansk separatist (and one-time stripper), who put Mozgovoi in his place.

“You’ve gone too far, Mozgovoi!,”  she wrote on VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook.

“What right have you got to arrest women,  and, what’s more, establish order in this way??? Have you got women troubles? That’s how it looks.”

It is not difficult to imagine that Russia’s steadily growing chorus of “traditionalist” voices have a lot of women troubles, none of which involve twerking. But as history has borne out time and time again, when men have problems with women, it often spells trouble for “the fairer half.”