I write a fluffy column about trends. I don’t want to write about child murderers. But 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 the Moscow region (the child and her aunt got lost in the woods and froze to death - the search effort was criticized for being poorly organized), the Russian public has reacted strongly to the issue of children gone missing. A volunteer organization, Liza Alert, has helped reunite many kids with their parents. And when little Anya went “missing” on March 11, both volunteers and the police mobilized 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).
And then it was 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 March 2, her body transported out of town and burned. The fake kidnapping story was made up to cover up what really happened.
Neighbors told the prosecutor’s office that Anya’s parents performed repair work in the apartment, possibly to clean up the murder scene. There is every reason to believe that Anya’s death was not accidental. According to one report, Alexander 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 Alexander, who demanded that no medical help be given to the baby. She listened to Alexander when he told her that they will cover up the crime together.
Once the initial shock has passed, the wave of anger has begun. A lot of that anger is directed towards the mother. How could she? People scream. How could she? And 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 are 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 Alexander Kulagin has done - 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. But would the neighbors 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 have realistically turned to?
Yet I have 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.
And 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 Alexander Kulagin are beyond broken - and they often display warning signs that are summarily ignored by the people around them. It takes a crime of an enormous magnitude before anyone realizes 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 organizations 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 has been 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.”
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.
Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was born in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.