The man tasked by the Kremlin with protecting Russia's children has riled his critics by defending marriages between adults and minors, adding that some women look "shriveled" by the time they're 27 years old.
According to Russian law, the minimum legal age to marry is 18. However, Pavel Astakhov, President Vladimir Putin's ombudsman for children's rights, noted in a May 14 radio interview that "in exceptional situations" the law allows for the minimum marrying age to be "established by regional authorities."
"In Chechnya it's 17 years old, in Bashkortostan it's 14 years old, in the Moscow Oblast it's 16 years old," Astakhov said in the interview with the Moscow-based Russian News Service radio station. "There are places where there is no minimum boundary."
He added that in the Caucasus Mountains region, which includes several Russian regions and former Soviet republics, "emancipation and sexual maturity happens earlier."
"Let's not be hypocrites," he said. "There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look like they're 50. And, in general, the [Russian] Constitution forbids interference in citizens' personal lives."
As RFE/RL's Russian Service notes, Astakhov's comments came amid a murky story involving a purported pending marriage between a 17-year-old girl from Russia's mainly Muslim republic of Chechnya, in the North Caucasus, and a local police chief who is reportedly either in his 40s or 50s.
The independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported last month that the girl appealed to its reporter, Yelena Milashina, who wrote that the police chief threatened to kidnap the girl if her parents did not bless the union.
On May 12, the girl gave an interview to the tabloid-style news site LifeNews, which is believed to have close ties to the Kremlin, saying she planned to willingly marry the police chief.
Chechnya's Kremlin-backed strongman president, Ramzan Kadyrov, took to Instagram on May 14 to defend the marriage, quoting a famous line from Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin: "All ages are to love submissive."
Astakhov is widely despised among Russian opposition activists, in particular due to his support for a 2012 law barring U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children.
Putin signed the legislation in retaliation to a U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russians deemed by Washington to be complicit in the 2009 death of a whistleblowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other human rights abuses.
Kremlin critics piled on Astakhov following his comments on underage marriages and "shriveled" women.
"Why is he in the government? Why are we paying his salary?" Russian opposition leader and anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny wrote on his Twitter feed.
-- Carl Schreck