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Russia Mulls Legislation To 'Save' Its Youth

Out past curfew? A young couple at the Tochka Club in Moscow
Out past curfew? A young couple at the Tochka Club in Moscow
Irina, a Moscow teenager with white-blond hair dressed in laddered tights and a black leather jacket, sits on a park bench in the city center with two girlfriends, drinking a bottle of beer and enjoying the warm summer afternoon.

The girls, sporting punky combinations of dyed hair, nose rings, and slightly sullen expressions, look like average teenagers in many parts of the world. But in Moscow, they are the target of a new government campaign to purge Russia's youth of immorality and sin. Irina, for one, is skeptical.

"Body piercing is a method of self-expression. People have the right to adorn themselves as they wish," she says. "If a child is able to express himself from an early age, he may not want to keep this piercing later in life. To be honest, I don't understand what authorities have against it. They might as well ban certain haircuts or hair dyes."

The plan that has Irina nervous is a package of bills and amendments, introduced in Russia's State Duma in June, aimed at "protecting children's morality." If some Duma deputies have their way, young Russians could soon find themselves in trouble for activities as seemingly innocent as carving pumpkins or listening to music.

Together with proposals to combat child alcoholism and pornography, the policy project outlines a raft of draconian measures such as a 10 p.m. curfew for all school-age children and a ban on tattoos and body-piercings.

Under the new measures, schools would be prohibited from celebrating Western holidays like Halloween and St. Valentine's Day, which are deemed inappropriate to "Russian culture." Toys in the shape of monsters or skeletons would be banned as "provoking aggression."

'Spiritual And Moral' Crisis

The proposal also sets its sights on teenage subcultures such as emo, a style of hardcore punk, and goth, which lawmakers accuse of "cultivating bisexuality." Both styles, the legislation implies, are social scourges on a par with the skinhead movement, and must be eliminated from the social landscape.

"The country has overcome its economic crisis, but now we're faced with another kind of crisis -- a spiritual and moral one," says Natalia Karpovich, the deputy head of the Duma committee for family, women, and children that is the driving force behind the proposal.

"Drugs and other external interferences are replacing our original traditions and culture," she adds. "Money has replaced family values, spiritual values, respect for elders, love for the motherland."

The policy project, which is still under discussion in parliament but could see a Duma vote as early as this autumn, is part of a broad government initiative to promote patriotism and national pride.

Supporters of the proposal say the chaos of the 1990s tore away the social safety net that the Soviet Union had provided the nation's children and youth. The country has seen an alarming rise in alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide among young Russians. The number of orphans and street children has also skyrocketed since the Soviet collapse.

Bad Influences

In such a climate, some child-welfare experts say the new legislation is long overdue. Not surprisingly, the proposal has its supporters among parents as well.

"As a mother, I'm 100 percent for it. Children watch all this butchery and screaming on television, [in films like] 'Halloween' and 'Friday the 13th,'" says Svetlana Trubochkina, a Muscovite with a 15-year-old daughter.

But Trubochkina points to a possible weak spot in the proposal: its failure to offer teenagers appealing alternatives to the behavior it seeks to ban -- and support for parents unable to devote as much time and resources to their children as they would like.

"It's one thing to prohibit things, but nothing is offered in exchange," she says. "Only large cities have big sports grounds where children can play, or music clubs or art studios. Parents are usually so busy working all day, running and trying to manage everything, that unfortunately, there's not much time left for children."

Some critics go further. Psychologist Olga Makhovskaya says the proposed measures are excessively harsh, and that it's time for child-welfare policies to start focusing on compassion, rather than coercion.

"This kind of total, blanket measure enables us to soothe our conscience or spend budget money, but we're unlikely to solve the problem of child solitude and neglect," she says. "Only society's solidarity and compassion can save and support children. That's what the government should be striving for. The level of solidarity in our country is very low; we're not interested in each other's lives."

Too Late For Some?

Some supporters of the project -- including Duma deputy and film director Stanislav Govorukhin -- take a particularly dim view of the country's young people, saying the new rules are chiefly intended for toddlers and children who have yet to be born. Children older than 2, says Govorukhin, are already "lost" and beyond rescue.

Most authorities, however, have been more inclusive. Russia's mounting demographic crisis means the country can ill afford to sign off on an entire generation as a hopeless cause, and the government in recent years has demonstrated a growing interest in young people. Pro-Kremlin youth groups like Nashi have found active backing, as have the newly formed Mishki, or Teddy Bears, which aims to instill patriotic values in 7- to 15-year-olds.

Critics say initiatives like Nashi and the Duma's new policy proposal smack of Soviet times, when children were heavily indoctrinated both at school and in state-sponsored movements like the Young Pioneers. Some skeptics fear the Kremlin will use the proposed legislation as a weapon to nip political dissent in the bud.

Government harassment of youth-based opposition movements like the now-outlawed National Bolsheviks only cements the conviction among many that the government's youth policy is highly selective and deeply political.

Ulterior Motives

Sociologist Lev Gudkov, who heads the Levada independent polling agency, says such strong-arm ideological molding is the true aim of initiatives, like the Duma proposal, purportedly meant to "save" Russia's youth.

"It won't work, but I don't think anyone expects it to," Gudkov says of the Duma package. "It will be a means of repressing undesirable political opponents and youth movements. If it is passed -- and it probably will be passed -- it will be used to selectively repress specific groups."

As the government buzzes over plans to rescue young Russians from themselves, not everyone is convinced that a life raft is necessary. Gudkov, for one, says today's young people treasure their independence regardless of their political orientation, and are certainly not as "lost" as deputies make them out to be.

"Young people are, on the whole, more educated than the average citizen, better clued in to market changes, and a lot more self-sufficient than their parents and the older generation, which depended on the government to a much greater extent," he says. "Only in that sense can we say that young people are lost -- they're lost for the regime."

Listening to Masha, a 20-year-old student dressed in black from head to toe, that would seem to be the case.

"The State Duma would do better to fight corruption, the government mafia, bribe-taking, and other abuses than to restrict the lives of ordinary children," she says angrily. "The government is just fooling around."

RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold contributed to this report from Moscow

'Protecting Children's Morality'

Photo Gallery

'Protecting Children's Morality'

A photo gallery of the Russian youth targeted by the proposed legislation -- and those considered to be beyond help.