Maria Zueva and Ingrid Burke

When Galina Ryabkova threw her two sons, aged four and seven, from the 15th story balcony of her Moscow Oblast apartment building last June, the world was shocked. The horrifying incident filled international headlines as people everywhere endeavored to understand what could have driven the young mother to something so unimaginable.

While it would be comforting in some sense to attribute the act to an isolated case of psychosis or some other form of mental illness, we unfortunately don’t have that option. The Ryabkova affair was unfortunately far from being an isolated incident.

Last October, a Nizhny Novgorod mother leapt from a 16th floor window while cradling her one-year-old child in her arms. In April 2011, a grandmother strangled and buried the two-month-old infant her daughter was deemed unfit to care for. In 2008, a Siberian mother threw her seven-year-old daughter from a fifth-story window twice. When the first fall failed to prove fatal, the mother carried her daughter back upstairs for a second attempt, which killed the young girl instantly. The list goes on.

As Ryabkova prepares to stand trial, RAPSI consulted the opinions of several experts in an effort to gain clarity on the roots of this heartbreaking trend, and to gauge the most effective means for bringing it to its end.

Unnerving statistics

When asked whether he thought that the killing of children had become a societal epidemic, Russia’s Presidential Children's Rights Commissioner Pavel Astakhov lamented the latest statistics: last year, 1,762 children were murdered in Russia. Of those, 30% were killed by parents or other close relatives and relations. 108 cases of infanticide at the hands of new mothers have been reported as well. This is the fourth year in a row, he explained, that child murder-rate figures have neared 2,000.

The far-reaching roots of the issue and their solutions

When asked what lies at the core of the problem, our expert’s views varied widely. While all agreed that filicide is nothing new, their thoughts on its underlying causes ranged from young mothers and poor lifestyle choices to society’s lost sense of shame.

Increasingly decrepit moral code

According to Astakhov, the problem can often be attributed to a general lack of preparedness found in young women from unstable backgrounds to raise children. He explained that the women most likely to take the lives of their young tend to lead asocial, transient lifestyles, and tend to give birth out of wedlock. Astakhov explains that these external factors are often accompanied by internal voids in areas such as maternal instinct and family values.

Attorney Georgii Ter-Akolov echoed Astakhov’s concern that loose morality is present in many cases of filicide, asserting that promiscuity, antisocial behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and a general incapacity to act as a mother in any moral or financial sense of the concept are factors widely present in cases where mothers choose to kill their newborns.

But in his opinion, the problem is a bit further reaching than that. In fact, he is concerned that at the core of the problem is society’s general loss of shame. He notes as an example that back in the day, one would have felt a great deal of humiliation about and endeavored to keep under wraps the fact that, say, his daughter was a prostitute. That sense of shame which historically preserved societal moral compass has fallen into decay, coating all that was once considered shameful with a general sense of blasé.

What society needs, Ter-Akolov says, is for all of us to give each other a much harder time. Neighbors, colleagues, friends, family, random passers-by in the streets; if we all chastise each other a bit more for the things we used to view with disdain (back when we had the capacity to feel shame) – alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, you name it – perhaps we would be more attuned to needs of those around us. Specifically, if each of us adopts a wholly more judgmental attitude, we may view with more discerning eyes the child who looks underfed, or generally neglected. Ter-Akolov attests confidently that this heightened sense of judgmentalism will significantly decrease the number of babies killed by their mothers.

Mental illness and the rights

Attorney Olga Davidyuk says that her first question when confronted with facts of filicide is that of the mother’s mental health. Pointing to the fact that its counterintuitive on a biological level for a mother to kill her young, Davidyuk suggested that the problem could be abated by way of intensive mental health screenings.
At the pregnancy stage, Davidyuk suggests that women should be psychoanalyzed, and should undertake counseling in order to become mentally prepared for the trials and tribulations of rearing a child. She lauds the Western affinity for psychoanalysis even in the absence of serious mental illness. While she points out that this won’t categorically end maternal violence, she notes that it could accomplish a great deal in terms of safeguarding children.

The violence on TV

Astakhov maintained that the problem is aggravated insofar as we unwittingly surround ourselves with negativity, violence, and cruelty each time we turn on the TV, even when watching the news. He is currently in the process of developing a law to address the media’s role toward this end.

Inadequate social services

Attorney Ksenia Ivanova, in her turn, asserts that a comprehensive societal approach would prove key to fighting filicide. In her view, it is essential that we combat child abuse and worse by way of a strengthened system of child and family social services. In her view, prevention will do far more than heightened sanctions. She believes that school counselors, teachers, and principals should play a vital role in ascertaining when children are being abused at home.

A harsher stance on filicide?

In Astakhov’s view, the problem is not so much in the legislation as in its enforcement. He notes the leniency of sentences that have been handed down in recent years. When Russia introduced a moratorium on the death penalty 15 years ago, life imprisonment had been expected to replace it. In practice, however, life sentences are handed down extremely rarely, and only to “the most notorious maniacs and terrorists.” Astakhov points out that the courts have a tendency toward underestimating the danger of committing a crime against a child. He anticipates that a double child murder will likely only warrant a 17-year sentence.

Astakhov did point out that the Russian legislation would benefit from an amendment designating the murder of one’s own child as an aggravating circumstance.

Still, Ivanova won’t be taking any cues from the West on this one. Favoring prevention over tougher penalties, Astakhov was unconvinced that Russia should mimic the US in its heavy-handed enforcement of child abuse laws. Despite what may or may not be perceived as shortcomings in the text of the law, he emphasized the imperative of taking preventative measures to stop the problem of mothers killing their own children.

Davidyuk suggests that Russian legislation could benefit from a firmer - perhaps more aptly described as iron - grip on women’s reproductive rights, suggesting that the crazies and the drug addicts should have their reproductive rights stripped entirely. In her view, the current threat of the termination of child custody is simply insufficient to tackle the problem; in practice, when parents are abusive, who is left to file a court claim on the child’s behalf? Davidyuk further explains that society as a whole could benefit from legislation requiring preventative mental healthcare.

When asked whether Russian legislation was up to snuff in terms of dealing with filicide and less serious forms of child abuse, Ivanova maintained her stance that sanctions alone won’t solve the problem. She believes that an integrated approach should be taken toward combating the problem, and thus that any strengthening of the relevant legislation must necessarily be accompanied by a strengthening of the relevant social programs.

Attorney Anton Zharov maintains that judges shouldn’t throw the book at parents who kill their children in the heat of passion. In his view, punishment’s primary purposes are prevention and deterrence; not revenge or punishment for punishment’s sake: “A person needs to feel that he is being punished, but should not, for example, be stoned to death.”

Ter-Akolov believes that amending the relevant legislation to increase penalties for filicide would ultimately prove fruitless, instead favoring a resurgence of societal sense of shame. He does, however, believe that the problem could be abated if more parents faced sanctions under the rarely utilized Article 156 of the Russian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the failure of parents to fulfill their duties in the upbringing of a minor. The article stipulates a sentence of up to three years in prison. This could serve as a valuable deterrent for parents heading down the path toward neglect and abuse. In Ter-Akolov’s view, we should start utilizing what we have before adding to the criminal code.