In Russia, an anti-war cartoon can cost you your daughter – POLITICO
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YEFREMOV, Russia — The list of cases at the Yefremov Interdistrict Court last week seemed far from another offensive in the Russian crackdown on those who oppose the war in Ukraine.
Judges in the provincial town four hours south of Moscow heard a case for minor theft and another for drunk driving. They also held what was billed as a preliminary inquiry into a parental custody case; a simple formality on paper. But for many gathered in Yefremov that day, it was a sign that the Russian authorities were ready to hit their opponents where it hurt them most: their children.
“A tragedy is unfolding before our eyes, and all we can do is show them that we see what they are doing,” said Kristina Markus, a 38-year-old IT manager who had been on a six-hour bus ride from Moscow to attend the hearing.
The case concerns Alexei Moskalyov and his 12-year-old daughter Masha, who came to the attention of authorities when she made a pro-Ukrainian drawing at school last April. Almost a year later, Masha is in state care. His father, Alexei, faces two trials: one for restricting his parental rights and a second for “discrediting the Russian army” – which could land him in jail.
Serve the country
In the center of Moscow, it is easy to forget that the country is at war. But not in places like Yefremov in Tula, an area south of Moscow ruled by a former bodyguard of President Vladimir Putin.
Along the central street of Efremov, a sign calls for a “world without Nazism!” Occasionally, a jet from a nearby air base can be heard flying overhead. And at the local cemetery, dozens of those who died in combat in Ukraine are freshly buried.
Their names are listed on the website of School No. 9, which Masha attended, above her own staff. A poster on the side of the school promotes a fundraiser for “defender families”.
For years, the Russian education system has been tweaked and modified to pander to the president’s brand of revisionist history and patriotism. Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February accelerated and formalized this push. Since September, Monday mornings begin with the raising of the Russian flag and the singing of the anthem, followed by a lesson in patriotism.
From the age of 9, pupils are encouraged to think about idioms such as: “To love one’s country means to serve it”.
Although the program is compulsory, there is little real supervision and much depends on schools, teachers and parents. Efremov School No. 9 is not one to slack off.
Even before the war, law enforcement officials were called upon to give lessons to schoolchildren in “crime prevention.” Videos circulating online show 7-year-olds ‘taking an oath’ as part of a special cadet class for ‘future police officers’.
Masha’s troubles began shortly after the war began, when her art teacher tasked the class with producing images supporting the Russian armed forces. Masha depicted a woman and child standing next to a flag reading “Glory to Ukraine” in the path of a rain of rockets coming from the direction of a Russian tricolor labeled: “No to the war”.
Versions differ on what happened next. According to Masha’s father, the teacher informed the school principal who then called in the police. The director told the media that she did not.
Either way, the father and daughter were met by the police at the school the next day and taken in for questioning. On the same day, Moskalyov was fined for “discrediting the army” for a comment on social media comparing Russian soldiers to “rapists” – which, according to a court ruling, “undermined trust in the special military operation”.
A day later they were interrogated again – now by the FSB, the Russian security service. “For three and a half hours they told me that I was not raising my daughter properly and said that they were going to take her away from me and put me in prison,” Moskalyov told OVD-Info.
Frightened, the family moved to a nearby town. But in December, the FSB came knocking on the door. According to Moskalyov’s account, they raided his home, beat him and forced him to listen to the Russian anthem at full volume for hours. He was again charged with discrediting the Russian military on social media, now as a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison.
Restrict parental rights
Moskalyov is Masha’s only guardian (her mother has been away since she was 3 years old). Afraid of losing his daughter, Moskalyov shared his story with two independent outlets. Two days after the publication, on March 1 this year, he was detained again.
Although he was released the next day under house arrest, his daughter remains in state custody. Social services say she is being held at the local “rehabilitation centre”. A tall green fence separates Masha from anyone who wants to see or talk to her.
Now city authorities have asked a court to restrict Moskalyov’s parental rights, for unknown reasons.
There is a sanitary cordon around the case: Father and daughter are cut off from each other and the outside world; and the family’s attorney, Vladimir Biliyenko, was slapped with a nondisclosure agreement, forcing him to tread carefully.
Citing the need for confidentiality in custody cases, Wednesday’s hearing was held behind closed doors. (Biliyenko later told reporters that neither her father nor her daughter were present.)
In the meantime, Moskalyov has been the subject of a local smear campaign.
“I wouldn’t defend Moskalyov if I were you,” city police chief Andrei Aksyonov told independent online media outlet Spektr. “This man lives in contradiction with society. That’s all I can say.”
Local media reported that Moskalyov had engaged in drug and alcohol abuse – accusations that those who know him emphatically deny, but which seem to have impressed at least some of Efremov’s residents.
Outside the Moskalyovs’ five-story Soviet-era apartment building, an elderly woman in a lavender puffy coat said she knew nothing about an anti-war cartoon. “But I know Moskalyov is a sick person,” she said.
Two other residents approached by POLITICO said they had not heard of the case.
Local independent MP Olga Podolskaya doubts it – in a place like Yefremov, which has a population of 30,000, news usually travels quickly. “People are scared, they’re confused, so they try to lay low,” she said. “But among themselves, in their kitchens, they talk about it.”
“They are pretending,” admitted Larisa, 51, one of the few residents of the court who refused to give her last name for security reasons. She had once attended the same school as Masha and even learned the art from the same teacher. “Something like that was unimaginable in my time. If I were a parent today, I wouldn’t know what to say to my children. We live in a country where the rules change every five minutes.
The online campaign in support of Moskalyov saw over 130,000 people sign a petition demanding Masha’s release.
The man behind the petition is Andrei Morev, a politician from the opposition Yabloko party. He said even in Russia’s current political climate, public outcry could affect the outcome of the case. “Officials don’t like people starting a storm.”
There have been several other cases where children and their families have gotten into legal trouble because of anti-war actions. But the Moskalyov case in particular risks setting an important precedent, echoing Stalin’s practice of separating children of “enemies of the state” from their parents and pushing them to renounce them, Morev said.
“It would be a step, and not the least, in the direction of totalitarianism,” he told POLITICO.
faith in the courts
After an hour of waiting, a court spokesperson informed those gathered that the hearing was over and a new date had been set for April 6.
“We have an impartial tribunal, it will deal with the case fairly,” she said. Later in the day, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed that message of neutrality, saying he could not comment on a pending case.
But in practice, politically sensitive cases in Russia have their own momentum – and once they go to court, they almost never end in an acquittal.
Outside the courthouse, Biliyenko, the lawyer, said that under Russian family law, only a threat to safety or health can be grounds for separating children from their parents. But in court documents, “the only complaints I’ve seen against Alexei relate to his political beliefs,” he said.
He quoted Moskalyov as telling him that he preferred prison to a home where everything reminded him of his daughter, whom he had been unable to get to safety.
When asked if he thought his client would get a fair trial, Biliyenko smirked. “If I tell you that I have faith in our courts, would you believe me?