Suffer the little children

Pavel Astakhov – the finely suited, American-educated lawyer who, as Russia’s child welfare ombudsman, led the crusade against foreign adoption of Russian orphans – has outdone himself.

It is not the place of Russia’s government or of its appointed advocates for the welfare of children, he says, to set a minimum age for marriage. This, he says, should be done at the regional level, in accordance with local traditions and cultures. Constitutionally, of course, he’s right. But he is not sworn to defend Russia’s Constitution or its current laws: he is sworn to defend its children.

For those who don’t read Russian, allow me to translate:

The Family Code has an article stating that, in exceptional circumstances, the lower [age] limit [for marriage] is determined by regional authorities. In Chechnya it’s 17, in Bashkortostan 14, in the Moscow region it’s 16. There are regions without a lower limit. In the Caucasus emancipation and sexual maturation occur earlier, let’s not be prudes. There are places where women are wrinkled by the time they’re 27 and look by our standards as they they were 50. And anyway, the Constitution forbids interfering in the personal affairs of citizens.

It’s tempting to stop for a moment and take in the beauty of the thing. It takes considerable skill to cram so much ignorance, misogyny, chauvinism, bigotry, hypocrisy and legal idiocy into just a few short sentences. But we’ve come to expect that sort of thing, and it no longer surprises.

What’s most breathtaking here, I think, is the starkness of the view this provides on how law and power can and cannot be used in Russia’s current political predicament. The power that Astakhov and others wield is used quite gladly to interfere in the personal affairs of citizens when it suits the greater good of the regime (as in banning international adoptions) or even the personal good of the apparatchik (as in threatening hapless parents with loss of their rights in front of television cameras). But when an opportunity arises to use the law and the bully pulpit to the benefit of society’s most vulnerable, Astakhov finds himself powerless.

I have no idea, of course, what Astakhov really thinks. I met and interviewed him repeatedly in the early 2000s, when he defended the American accused spy Ed Pope and the Russian oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky against what he openly called – back then – an increasingly authoritarian regime. Lawyers in all systems have to be contortionists, I suppose, fervently and competently representing the interests of their clients while hiding their own thoughts and beliefs, and Astakhov has clearly changed his clientele.

And so I am less worried about what this tells us about Astakhov, than I am about what this tells us about Russian politics today. Astakhov finds himself in this presumably awkward position in response to a scandal that arose when a Chechen military officer well into his fifth decade decided to wed a 17-year-old bride. Putting an end to this sort of practice would be both a morally proper and a politically popular thing to do – at least if what you have in mind is popularity among the Russian citizenry, who are no more fond of child marriage than most Europeans. (Nor are they particularly fond of Chechens, but that’s another story.)

The fact, then, that Astakhov is making excuses rather than making hay suggests that the Kremlin is much more concerned about its popularity among its elite in general – and Ramzan Kadyrov in particular – than among the population at large. That, too, is not particularly surprising. What is surprising is the lengths to which the Kremlin is willing to go to maintain that support, and the costs it is willing to incur.

Some hypocrisy is born of hubris. This hypocrisy is born of fear.

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