Bigamy, teenage brides and abortion rights: How ‘tradition’ threatens Russia’s women 

William Echols

Tacit consent for a 17-year-old’s “forced” marriage in Chechnya, apparent acceptance of bigamy and a recent attempt to roll back abortion rights show that those tasked with protecting women and children in the Russian Federation have put a skewed sense of tradition over their citizens’ actual health and welfare.

On May 19, Russia’s lower house of parliament submitted a bill which seeks to criminalize abortions that are conducted outside of state-run hospitals. The legislation would entail administrative fines of up to $4,000 dollars for private individuals, $16,100 for officials, and $50,450, (or a suspension of operations for 90 days) for companies that run afoul of the proposed law.

One stipulation, which reads that “the artificial termination of pregnancy funded by mandatory health insurance will be possible only in the presence of certain medical or social reasons,” has sparked fears the bill is the first step in banning abortions all together.

The legislation would be a massive step back for women’s reproductive rights in Russia, which was the first country in the world to permit abortions for any and all reasons in 1920.

According to the bill’s authors, the widespread availability (and broad public acceptance of the practice), is a threat to national security at a time of national crisis. The Russian Legal Information Society (RAPSI), citing state-run media agency Ria Novosti, claims experts estimate that 5-8 million abortions are conducted in Russia each year. That would be a massive figure in a nation of 143.5 million, though it appears to have been pulled out of thin air.

According to the government’s own statistics, the abortion rate in 2011 was 989,375, less than half the 2.11 million performed in 2001.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped over the course of the past 20 years, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination. That figure lies in stark contrast to the first decade after the Soviet collapse, when the number of live births amounted to half the number of terminated pregnancies.

Source: Forbes

Source: Forbes

The abortion rate, while still high by global standards, has clearly gone down without a need for government proscription. The Kremlin, however, seems reticent to use more effective and less intrusive measures to tackle the problem.

In December, for example, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov said sex education would never become part of the curriculum in Russian schools, claiming such classes would contravene the country’s morals and traditions.

Previously, he had rather quizzically argued that Russian literature was the best kind of sex education for teenagers, adding that schools “must raise children in chastity and with an understanding of family values.”

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This, mind you, coming from someone who once warned that signing onto international agreements intended to protect children from sexual exploitation was the “first step towards the destruction of a child.” In his parallel reality, children being made aware of abuse so that they can hopefully identify it and possibly even prevent it is somehow more destructive than being molested in silence — just as actually being aware of sexual health issues that aren’t covered in Anna Karenina will endanger, and not protect teens.

It should come as no surprise that Russia’s grand defender of children has recently become infamous for justifying a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, arguing that in some parts of the Russian Federation, women “are already shriveled at age 27.” 

In a further coup of irony, he washed his hands of responsibility in the matter, saying “the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”

So Astakhov, who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby, does not want to get in the way of a 46-year-old man taking on a teenage-bride. But how does the fate of a teenage girl in Chechnya connect with the latest bill seeking to roll back abortion rights?

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As it turns out, one of the conservative lawmaker behind the legislation not only concur’s in Astakhov’s belief that a powerful pedophile lobby is active in Russia, but she has also thrown her tacit support behind polygamy via the case of the Chechen teen.

“To criminalize [bigamy] is ridiculous, because the cause is not connected with an absence of criminal law, but rather the fact that there are not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children,”  Ria Novosti cited Yelena Mizulina as saying.

Mizulina, who heads up the Duma’s Women and Children Committee, seems to believe that controlling abortion and allowing polygamy are the best ways to combat Russia’s demographics crisis.

Yelena Mizulina

Yelena Mizulina

But strangely, for a lawmaker so concerned with upping Russia’s birth rates, Mizulina has also strongly come out against surrogate motherhood, which she said “threatens not only Russia but all of mankind with extinction.”

How exactly surrogacy threatens the human race is anyone’s guess. One thing is for certain: the women and children of Russia are clearly in good hands with such advocates.

Of course, in Russia, where all public politics is virtual, it is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff; the stage-managed illusion from the actual policy. But as the proposed abortion bill shows, Russia’s current leadership is definitely holding true to the old adage that one should never let a good crisis go to waste, especially when “traditional values” can intersect with cost cutting measures.

And at a time when most economic sectors are facing 10 percent cuts and where healthcare spending is down 9 percent over the past two years, Mizulina argues that money saved from the state healthcare budget [for “unnecessary” abortions] will be used to support pregnant women in a tough life situation.”

How much money Russia’s austerity-ridden healthcare system could actually save by denying abortions seems nominal, and fails to take into account the cost shifting burden to the states already overburdened and drastically underperforming orphanage system.

But like so many things in Russia, to view this proposed legislation in light of its presumed function is to fall victim to the bait and switch. It was Mizulina, after all, who introduced the 2012 Russia internet blacklist law, ostensibly to protect children from harmful internet content, but which was later used as a tool to counter “extremism,” which is often a code word for the political opposition.

In Russia, the leadership has become deft at creating one boogyman as a smokescreen to attack the last remnants of civil society, or as in the case of limiting abortions, seizing on a legitimate social problem in order to create another mechanism of control. Victims of this approach, women or otherwise, are merely collateral damage.

So instead of empowering people through sexual education and teaching them about properly using contraception (which is to say, treating citizens like citizens and not subjects), the Russian state would rather put the fate of women’s bodies firmly in its hands, forcing further unnecessary government intrusion into their private lives. But when it comes to a 46-year-old police commander taking on a teenaged-bride, well, sometimes a laissez faire attitude is needed to keep the peace.

In the end, the Kremlin is sidestepping real solutions to public health problems affecting society in general and women in particular for the same reason it has abandoned a 17-year-old girl to the wolves in Chechnya: the only thing that really matters to Russia’s leadership is doing whatever it takes to keep the power vertical in place.

That strategy might allow for self-satisfying diatribes on state TV rallying against the “decedent West’, but will do little to alleviate a country racked by crisis, demographic or otherwise.

And sometimes, the pageantry of sovereign democracy entails warping tradition to defend “traditional values”, just as the governments defenders of women and children ultimately have to leave those they are ostensibly advocating for by the wayside.

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.