When my kids were fifteen and twelve, we lived through a period during which the Russian government was threatening to take children away from queer parents, and, specifically, threatening to go after my kids. I sent my son, who is adopted, to boarding school in the United States while the rest of us got ready to emigrate. My biological daughter was less at risk, perhaps even at no risk, and yet the question of whether social services would come knocking sent me into a panic.
One day, about a month and a half before we left Moscow, as I was about to go on a short book trip, my daughter asked what would happen if social services came while I was away. “Will you go crazy?” she asked. I reassured her that a small army of lawyers, activists, and embassy officials stood at the ready and would protect her.
“I know I’ll survive,” she responded dismissively. “I mean, Will you go crazy? Will you lose your mind?”
A twelve-year-old was asking me if I had the mental capacity to survive having my child taken hostage. It was the right question.
Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened: this is the moment when a person will confess to anything. The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is “Requiem,” a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children. In “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” a fantastically popular miniseries about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany, a German officer carries a newborn out into the cold of winter in an effort to compel a confession out of his mother, who is forced to listen to her baby cry.
Last weekend, independent Russian-language media published hundreds of photographs from protests that preceded Monday’s inauguration of Vladimir Putin, who has claimed the office of President for the fourth time. In many of the pictures, Russian police were detaining children: primarily, preteen boys were having their arms twisted behind their backs by police, being dragged and shoved into paddy wagons. According to OVDInfo, a Web site that has been tracking arrests since anti-Putin protests began, six and a half years ago, a hundred and fifty-eight minors were detained by police during the protests, accounting for just less than ten per cent of the day’s arrests.
Ella Paneyakh, a Russian sociologist who studies law-enforcement practices, observed in a Facebook post that the police had clearly been directed to target children. A possible explanation, she suggested, is that social services, which will process the minors, is even less accountable than the regular courts are. While Russian activists have learned to make the work of the courts difficult, filing appeals and regularly going all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, there is no role for defense attorneys and no apparent appeals process in the social-services system. The threat is clear: children who have been detained at protests may be removed from their families. At least one parent has already been charged with negligence as a result of his son’s detention at one of the demonstrations last weekend.
Another possible explanation is that Putin and the system he has created have consistently, if not necessarily with conscious intent, restored key mechanisms of Soviet control. The spectacle of children being arrested sends a stronger message than any amount of police violence against adults could do. The threat that children might be removed from their families is likely to compel parents to keep their kids at home next time—and to stay home themselves.
A few hours after Putin took his fourth oath of office, in Moscow, Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed a law-enforcement conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. He pledged to separate families who are detained crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you,” Sessions said. The Attorney General did not appear to be unveiling a new policy so much as amplifying a practice that has been adopted by the Trump Administration, which has been separating parents who are in immigration detention from their children. The Times reported in December that the federal government was considering a policy of separating families in order to discourage asylum seekers from entering. By that time, nonprofit groups were already raising the alarm about the practice, which they said had affected a number of families. In March, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the hundreds of families that had been separated when they entered the country with the intention of seeking asylum.
The practice, and Sessions’s speech, are explicitly intended as messages to parents who may consider seeking asylum in the United States. The American government has unleashed terror on immigrants, and in doing so has naturally reached for the most effective tools.