Voices from Russia

Monday, 16 April 2012

Death Becomes Us


In recent weeks, the Russian media suddenly revived the topic of the death penalty… with both the likes of government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta and colourful TV host Arkady Mamontov weighing in. Since 1996, Russia has had a moratorium in place on the death penalty. A moratorium or an outright abolition of the death penalty is mandatory for all Council of Europe members… hence, the move to stop capital punishment. Nevertheless, popular opinion tends to be in favour of the death penalty… as most Russians aren’t particularly interested in what the Council of Europe wants, as it’s an amorphous alien body to them. Most Russians just take note of the heinous crimes happening all around them, become horrified, and cry out for vengeance.

One such heinous crime was the murder of baby Anya Shkaptsova, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. The case shocked the town of Bryansk and the whole of Russia. Anya “disappeared” from her stroller when her mother popped into a shop… and the authorities launched a massive search, only to halt it when Anya’s parents confessed to murdering the child and faking a kidnapping. Pictures of Anya’s mother, Svetlana, celebrating the 8 March International Women’s Day holiday seemingly without a care in the world just a few days after Anya was killed and her body burned, have made their rounds in the media… fully convincing the public that Svetlana and her boyfriend Aleksandr Kulagin, who was the one to kill the child, are monsters. In a video released by the police, Svetlana makes a statement in which she tries hard to make it seem as though Kulagin did not mean to hit Anya while he was, allegedly, in a drunken rage, saying, “He told me later that he didn’t even remember what had happened”. However, Aleksandr gave the police a detailed statement, even mentioning what kind of beer he was drinking at the time. It’s obvious from Svetlana’s own statement that she’s desperately trying to cover for her boyfriend.

A police officer who had been in the presence of baby Anya’s murderer told the audience on Spetsialny Korrespondent, a talk show hosted by the aforementioned Arkady Mamontov, “The people of Bryansk want blood”. There was a hot debate on the topic of the death penalty, with many of the guests referencing the United States, where 34 states have death penalty statutes and the majority of the population supports carrying out the death penalty in the case of murder. American author and journalist Jeffrey Tayler, who was a guest on the show, pointed up that the states that carry out the death penalty also tend to have higher rates of poverty and violence… but it seemed as though Mamontov wasn’t interested in the point that Jeffrey was trying to make. I believe that the point is that the death penalty doesn’t improve society and doesn’t rein in cold-blooded killers. To be specific, it isn’t a deterrent. Not only that, but there are theories that suggest that the death penalty makes society more brutal over time… if kids grow up seeing that the government has the right to take people’s lives, then, human life’s devalued in their eyes.

Again and again, studies have shown that most Russians, like most Americans, support the death penalty. Yet, studies also routinely show that Russians don’t trust law enforcement… in Moscow alone, two-thirds of the population mistrust the police. I believe that the recent scandal with sadists on the police force in Kazan only reinforced such views… in many ways, Kazan is only the tip of the iceberg. The horror that people experience when something as tragic as the murder of baby Anya occurs runs up against the terror people experience when they consider that many of the police officers charged with keeping them safe are corrupt and negligent. Add to that the fact that Russian criminal courts rarely exonerate individuals charged with crimes, introducing the death penalty seems like a sure recipe for disaster.

So, why do so many Russians still insist that capital punishment is the way to go? Personally, I think such insistence is a defence tactic. Russians know that popular opinion isn’t likely to sway the authorities on this issue any time soon… but people also need a way to blow off steam. There’s a sense of helplessness most of us feel when we encounter a situation in which a defenceless child such as Anya becomes the victim of a horrific crime and a cynical cover-up… and debating the death penalty at a time like this is a great means of wresting control back from the forces of evil. The banality of it all… the drunken fight, the broken body of a child, the rural bonfire in which Anya’s remains were destroyed, the cell phone pictures of the grinning mother just a few days afterwards, the residents of Bryansk screaming “give her to us, we’ll tear her apart!” as cops led the mother towards a police car… must be counteracted with a period of reflection.

The Lord said, “Vengeance is mine”. Like many people, I take comfort in that. I also take comfort in the existence of Bryansk police officer Vladimir Didenko. Vladimir lost his own child, Kirill, in a horrible January accident that shocked the country and shamed Bryansk officials tasked with keeping the infrastructure in decent condition… Kirill, a toddler, died in a pavement collapse that also nearly killed his mother. In the wake of his personal tragedy, Vladimir Didenko hasn’t given up on people. He was among the hundreds who searched for Anya when we thought that she might still be alive.

13 April 2012

Natalia Antonova



Editor’s Note:

As for me, I believe that we should reserve the death penalty for crimes against society and/or the state, not individuals. Tsar Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, no weak sister he, routinely commuted all the death sentences of murderers that crossed his desk. However, he never commuted the death penalty in cases of treason or political assassins (such as the killers of his father)… ergo, the recent execution of the Minsk Metro bombers was in accordance with such a tradition. Russia isn’t Texas… and it shouldn’t start copying it. Thank God, Vladimir Putin isn’t Rick Perry… he isn’t a hangman…



Sunday, 1 April 2012

Infant Murder Puts Child Abuse in Spotlight in Russia


When nine-month-old Anna Shkaptsova was reported missing in the western Russian city of Bryansk on 11 March, police and volunteers spent almost the next three weeks in a desperate search for her. However, on Friday, investigators alleged that she had become just one more of the many children murdered every year by adults in Russia… in this case, by her father. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the SKRF told journalists, “During an argument, the child’s father, Aleksandr Kulagin, first hit his girlfriend, and, then, their small daughter, throwing her from her stroller. For at least the next 24 hours, he refused to allow the mother to approach the child or call an ambulance. The girl died the next day”. Markin also said that the girl’s 19-year-old mother, Svetlana Shkaptsova, helped Kulagin, 31, attempt to cover up the crime.

Police say she left the child’s empty stroller on the street while she went into a shop, after which Kulagin… dressed in women’s clothes, a wig, and glasses to disguise his identity… took it and dumped it in the entranceway of a nearby building. Then, Shkaptsova called police to report the “disappearance” of her daughter, triggering a search involving some 1,000 police and scores of volunteers. Police initially said they suspected internal migrants or gypsies.

However, on Thursday, Shkaptsova confessed to the cover-up after four hours of questioning, a source from the Oblast Procurator’s office told RIA-Novosti. She also revealed that Kulagin had burnt the girl’s body and then buried it in a different part of the city. Unconfirmed media reports on Friday suggested police recovered the remains of the girl’s body and that Kulagin wasn’t the girl’s biological father.


Although the case was just one of many in Russia… on Friday, police said they were searching for a missing seven-year-old boy in the Urals city of Perm… the reported disappearance of Anna Shkaptsova made news headlines all across the country, and state-run Channel One led with investigation footage of her mother’s tearful confession on Friday afternoon. In addition, the death seemed set to usher in an unusual period of national soul-searching in a country where, as RF Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, Pavel Astakhov, said on Friday, “over 1,000 children” are murdered every year … with the child’s parents guilty in a third of the killings.

Anatoly Kucherena, head of the RF Public Chamber Committee on Citizen Safety, told RIA Novosti, “We have to pay attention to why some parents are so aggressive and heartless toward their own children. This is a question for the society in which we live… we need to dampen aggression, which has increased a lot of late”. On Friday, Astakhov said the government “urgently” needed to take steps to help vulnerable children and families, writing in his Twitter micro-blog, “Thousands of families are in a dangerous position”. He also criticised social services after it was revealed that Kulagin had been stripped of his parental rights in a previous relationship.

In an interview with Channel One, psychiatrist Sergei Enikolopov of the Moscow City Psychological-Pedagogical University said, “In recent years we’ve seen a lot of cases where people have killed children simply because they cried or disturbed their sleep or drinking”. Leading Church official Vsevolod Chaplin blamed the media for Anna Shkaptsova’s death, saying at a Moscow news conference, “The media has reported recently on terrible crimes as if they are something ordinary. This played a not-insignificant role in what happened in Bryansk… people start to think of such horrible things as somehow normal and everyday”.

Provincial Desperation

Like most Russian provincial cities, living standards in Bryansk lag behind those in Moscow and St Petersburg. Like almost everywhere in Russia, substance abuse is a real problem, with dozens of online advertisements offering to cure alcoholism and drug addiction. Veteran criminal psychiatrist Mikhail Vinogradov told RIA-Novosti, “The socially vulnerable section of society has psychological problems. In this case, we had a criminal father and a belligerent mother”. Bertrand Bainvel, the head of UNICEF in Russia, told RIA-Novosti that social ills were a major factor in Russia’s depressing statistics on child abuse, saying, “The family’s in crisis. For a number of different reasons… from alcoholism and problems in the relationship between the parents, as well as stress and poverty. However, very often, the system isn’t able to pick up and detect situations where there is a higher risk for children in families. Right now, it’s a very retroactive system”. He welcomed government campaigns to discourage child abuse, saying, “The government’s aware of the problem”.

In Bryansk, Svetlana Shkaptsova looked set to be charged as an accomplice in her daughter’s murder. Leading Moscow lawyer Oksana Mikhalkina told RIA-Novosti, “This was a silent acquiescence to a crime against her child”, adding, “This tragedy reveals deep tendencies in our society, in particular, unmotivated violence towards those who are weaker… children and the elderly”.

30 March 2012

Marc Bennetts



Saturday, 31 March 2012

What the Brief Life of Anya Shkaptsova Can Teach Us


I write a fluffy column about trends. I don’t want to write about child murderers. However, when the kind of domestic violence that leads to the death of a child is itself a trend… I can’t stay silent. The initial “disappearance” of 9-month-old Anya Shkaptsova shocked the town of Bryansk… and the whole of Russia. Anya’s 19-year-old mother, Svetlana, claimed that she left the child outside for a few minutes in her stroller in order to be able to visit a shop, and that when she came out, both the stroller and child were gone.

Ever since the 2010 disappearance of little Liza Fomkina and her mentally-ill aunt ended in tragedy in Moscow Oblast (the child and her aunt got lost in the woods and froze to death… the search effort was criticised for being poorly organised), the Russian public has reacted strongly to the issue of children gone missing. A volunteer organisation, Liza Alert, has helped reunite many kids with their parents. Therefore, when little Anya went “missing” on 11 March, both volunteers and the police mobilised quickly. Everyone with access to any kind of Russian media outlet became familiar with a picture of baby Anya in her pink jacket. Police reported that 20 unrelated crimes were solved as the result of the effort to find Anya (I don’t know if I have a lot of faith in the numbers the police throw out during times like these, but I like to retain some faith in the notion that sometimes people are honest).

Then, police discovered that Anya was killed “in the course of a family dispute”. Investigators said that her mother and her mother’s boyfriend had confessed. The baby died on 2 March, her body transported out of town and burned. They made up the fake kidnapping story to cover up what really happened. Neighbours told the prosecutor’s office that Anya’s parents performed repair work in the apartment, possibly to clean up the murder scene. There’s every reason to believe that Anya’s death wasn’t accidental. According to one report, Aleksandr Kulagin, Svetlana’s boyfriend, who may or may not be the biological father of the child, first beat up the mother, and, then, hit the baby so hard that it died from injuries a day later. Svetlana listened to Aleksandr, who demanded that she get no medical help for the baby. She listened to Aleksandr when he told her that they would cover up the crime together.

Once the initial shock passed, the wave of anger began. A lot of that anger is directed towards the mother. How could she? People scream. How could she? Yet, in our heart of hearts, we know that there are many mothers like Svetlana out there… growing up, they were taught that there is nothing too unusual about living with a violent man. They heard the saying, “If he hits you, it means he loves you”. They’re broken people, raised in broken families… and they go on to break their own children, or to watch, as their children are broken. Statistics say that one in four families in Russia experiences some form of domestic violence. I don’t know what the statistics are on women who remain loyal to their abusers… even when said abusers commit crimes as horrific as what Aleksandr Kulagin did… but I’m willing to bet they’re pretty high. The very nature of an abusive relationship often depends on a twisted bond that demands allegiance from the victim.

As the mother of an infant, I want to believe that Svetlana Shkaptsova had a choice. That she could have taken the baby and made a run for it. Nevertheless, would the neighbours have listened if she knocked on their doors? Would an ambulance have come if she called it from the street? Would the police have paid any attention to what was going on in that household before it was too late to save Anya’s life? Was there anyone that Svetlana could’ve realistically turned to? Yet, I’ve also listened to the taping of her crying over the phone, demanding to know “who could have possibly taken the baby”. It’s very well done, this crying. It’s convincing. It seems this young woman made her choice a long time ago. At 19-years-old, perhaps, she thought her baby was too demanding. Perhaps she didn’t see herself as a mother at all… and going to bat for the sake of her child’s murderer only seemed natural.

Moreover, what of the killer himself? What kind of a person takes his rage out on a helpless baby? Was he trying to teach Svetlana a lesson when he killed the child? Did he see the baby as an obstacle, a drain on his resources? People like Aleksandr Kulagin are beyond broken… and they often display warning signs that the people around them simply summarily ignore. It takes a crime of an enormous magnitude before anyone realises that, holy crap, the Kulagins of this world should not be allowed anywhere near children. The inventiveness with which Kulagin attempted to cover up the murder also leads me to believe that the guy has a cool head after all. He may have killed Anya during a fight… but he was probably hoping to get rid of her for some time. From everything I’ve read about this case, it seems that Anya was doomed from the start… both because of her parents, and because Russian society still largely treats domestic abuse as a “private matter”, as opposed to something criminal.

I like to think that this is changing. I see a lot of kindness around me, not the least via such organisations as Liza Alert. I want, I need, this kindness to keep growing… as we all do. Otherwise, what’s the point of anything at all? Liza Alert’s website was updated to acknowledge the fact that little Anya no longer needs volunteers to search for her. At the end of their message, there is a note… “Forgive the adults, little child”.

30 March 2012

Natalia Antonova



Editor’s Note:

Is there anything that I hate? Yes… I hate child abuse… I hate those who make excuses for child abuse even more… but most of all, I hate those who cover up child abuse “for the good of the Church” (or, to “protect” a clergyman). There’s a specially-cold corner of Hell for such people (with more than one mitred occupant, to be sure)…

I’m for protecting our children… now, THAT’S “Pro-Life”…


Sunday, 22 January 2012

22 January 2012. Sergei Yolkin’s World: The Gonepteryx Butterflies Woke Up!

The Gonepteryx Butterflies Woke Up!

Sergei Yolkin



The press service of the Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve reported that warm winter temperatures and heavy precipitation in the Bryansk forests precipitated a premature awakening of Gonepteryx (Brimstone) butterflies; they usually hibernate until early spring.

18 January 2012

Sergei Yolkin



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