Children’s rights turned inside out

Stefania Kulayeva

As time goes by, more and more new details become known of how police stormed a house where two desperate students barricaded themselves with a gun in the village of Strugi Krasnye in the Pskov region. It turned out that the SWAT team entered the house with the order to “neutralize an armed criminal”. “Special forces acted in accordance with the situation, they did not know what to expect there,” – head of the press service of the North-Western regional division of the Russian National Guard Valery Viktorov stated.

The whole country knew what was going on, as people watched the online broadcast made by these boy and girl, Denis and Katya, saw how they threw out weapons, heard them saying that they decided together “to leave nicely”, – while the police teams that surrounded the house did not know what was going on and happened to think that the girl was taken hostage by “an armed criminal”… Now these adult people do not dare to admit their guilt in the death of these children, they do not dare to even exclaim sincerely “We hope they did not die because of us!”, because they are used to cowardly hiding behind the official words – “neutralization”, “as appropriate”, “the task”.

A child has the right to a crisis,” the wonderful children’s therapist Ilya Berdyshev writes. This doctor explained to me that the work with the children’s crisis was to be primarily the work with adults, whom he tried to convince that the child was not obliged to always be nice, sweet, accommodating and cheerful. He insisted that a person can be sick, that they can refuse or even be unable to hide this fact, that our goal is to be able to love or at least respect a person who finds themselves in such human condition.

Ilya Berdyshev, who would have turned 60 last November, unfortunately is already dead for two years. And how we miss him now! When people enthusiastically and often even with a little admiration (oh, what a story!) discuss the death of children in Strugi Krasnye, I remember my impressions from the first meeting with Berdyshev. A teenager, who had a hysterical nervous breakdown was breaking windows on the third floor of his school with his bare hands and it was a terrible and mournful picture: a boy standing alone, all covered in his own blood. As doctor Bredyshev rushed to him, the boy shouted: “Semenovich (Berdyshev’s patronymic), do not come closer, I’m not accountable for what I will do!” It was not so much a concern for what could happen, but a cry for help: naturally, Semenovich approached the boy, comforted and helped him, as the boy apparently had hoped deep inside.

I learned about another incident already after Berdyshev’s death from his colleagues. “Picture this, – his colleague V. recalled – the roof of a tall building, on the edge of it sits a boy, ready at any moment to jump down and we’re trying to help Ilya keep his attention and slowly move towards him on that roof”. This climbing exercise performed by a psychologist helped to save the child’s life, V. briefly summarized, and then “it all ended well, and we went together with him to my house to see my new bass guitar”.

Desperate children and their parents called day and night on the crisis hotline where Berdyshev worked. Here is a typical case: “We had a fight with our adopted son, he rushed out to the balcony and is threatening to throw himself down, what do we do now?” A crisis psychologist in a case like this not only gives advice, but takes responsibility for the situation that is developing far away from him, trying to control the behavior of both the parents and the rebellious child in remote mode, to try to guess on the phone a topic that can at least briefly delay or divert a desperate young person from doing something dangerous. By winning these moments, he also wins the child’s life. After all, the promise to show the bass guitar may be more effective than all the appeals “not to do anything stupid”, “not to fool around” and other meaningless speech, which was addressed by the police to Katya and Denis in Strugi Krasnye.

I do not completely understand the circumstances of the death of these children. Everything cannot be explained by the absence of a good crisis psychologist on the spot, or by the fact that both stepfathers involved in this story did not get along with their stepdaughter and stepson, or that none of the adult relatives dared to enter the house, where these armed children were hiding. And certainly it is not a story about “unhappy love”, as love was obviously mutual and happy. I am afraid that despite all the great notoriety and abundance of publications (videos, photos, chats made by the besieged schoolchildren themselves), we do not know and will never know the whole truth about what happened there. The deceased Katya and Denis, whom we are now encouraged not to romanticize, whose posts on social networks are now blocked and removed, did not tell us the truth about themselves, they didn’t tell anyone who wants to hear and understand the sad truth about the lives of so many misunderstood boys and girls. They probably should be posthumously awarded the prize for children’s rights (such a prize for children, who have done something great for the protection of other children exists, but it is given only to successful and “positive” kids).

Let us imagine the present and future life of other schoolchildren, just like Katya and Denis, but who are still alive: they live, love, meet each other… They are scolded and humiliated at home, in school they are driven to a medical examination and there they meet the doctors, whom investigators recently obliged to report on the sexual life of adolescents. How can one find out whether a boy has a sexual activity or not? One can only inquire and there begins a painful interrogation, first in the doctor’s office, and then, perhaps, in the investigator’s office. And the girls, of course, will be tormented with questions about their sexual life at best, or compulsory medical examination at worst, since the Investigative Committee ordered to do this in order to “scientifically” establish what happens in a child’s life sex-wise.

It is quite probable that now both school and regular psychologists will cooperate with the Investigative Committee by completing various questionnaires and tests, not necessarily anonymous, as there are cases when such polls are being made within a group of classmates. From my own parental experience I know how children from one of St. Petersburg schools were taken to an unannounced examination, which neither the schoolchildren, nor their parents were warned about beforehand, let alone asked if they agree or not. The boys were taken into a room, where a psychologist asked them what they would do if they knew one of them was gay. Imagine yourself being one of these 14-15 year-old boys, forced to answer this question in front of all the others. He may be gay, or a person yet unaware of what it is and how he feels about it, or a person who happens to have a friend who is gay… Of course, the children tried to show themselves “at their best”, that is in a homophobic way (“I would kick him down!”, “I would stop talking to him!”) And the psychologist quietly listened to these responses and wrote them down. Was she making this public interview for the sake of writing her thesis, daring to make some practical test on live kids? It took enormous courage and stress for the only kid in this group to respond the way he did (the only one!) – “I would treat him the same as before”.

Practice went ahead of the “legislative base”: at the time the doctors were not obliged yet to report on children’s sexuality “to respective bodies of authority” (and the psychologist worked in a children’s clinic, where this “conversation” occurred). And even if doctors will be formally obliged to report on this, there will be many doctors who will not want to. But will there be many of those who will decide not to carry out this immoral and harmful order by the Investigative Committee? After all, when 10 years ago in Moscow police insisted that the schools provide them with lists of students with Georgian family names, very few directors refused to perform this illegal demand and instead rushed “to provide the required data”.

What really needs to be addressed by the investigators, teachers, doctors is the problem of identification of cases of violence in family, at school, in various institutions, including penal colonies for minors and prisons. Sexual violence in all these places, which are supposed to be “safe” for children, is as widespread as any other type of violence. Children need to be saved from rapists and not pushed to copy this pattern of behavior themselves. They should not be forbidden from loving and being happy in their youthful feelings. But for some reason, everything happens in a completely different fashion: instead, barely adult girls are being judged for romances with boys who are physically quite mature, but legally still younger than the “age of consent”. It is here that is necessary to establish cooperation between the doctors and the law enforcement agencies, maybe the former will explain to the law enforcement officers that people grow up and become mature not according to a calendar, but very differently from one another. “Young” boyfriends are not victims of their loved ones, yet they suffer from their girlfriends being persecuted because of them. Is this really “protection of children”? And at the very same time almost institutionalized sexual violence, which is encouraged and perpetuated by the administration of penal colonies for minors, is completely overlooked by the Investigation Committee, even though it happens at close range and there is no lack of grounds for the work of investigators.

But what else can we say, if even the Pskov police chief believes that Denis and Katya, who died in Strugi Krasnye, “did not need” their own lives?

First published on the website of Radio Liberty