Today I have for you a juicy Russian government scandal. Namely, the resignation of Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov. Astakhov reported directly to President Putin. His job as Ombudsman was to be a spokesperson for the more vulnerable members of society, such as children, and also women.
Abridged version of the story: Astakhov uttered an inappropriate joke in public. Putin called him on the carpet and ripped him a new one. Astakhov subsequently wrote his letter of resignation and it was accepted.
Here is more detailed version of the story, with more background as I can scoop up from the Russian press and other sources.
Pavel Astakhov was born in 1966 in Moscow. He graduated from the Dzerzhinsky KGB School in Moscow in 1991. (Now known as FSB Academy.) After that, the 25-year-old apparently moved to America to continue his studies, since his bio shows that he graduated in 2002 from Law School at the University of Pittsburgh, which is in Pennsylvania, USA. Pennsylvania is the 33rd largest, the 6th most populous, and the 9th most densely populated state of the 50 United States. The state’s five most populous cities are Philadelphia (1,560,297), Pittsburgh (305,801), Allentown (118,577), Erie (100,671), and Reading (89,893). The state capital is Harrisburg. Pennsylvania has 51 miles (82 km) of coastline along Lake Erie and 57 miles (92 km) of shoreline along the Delaware Estuary.
After studying in Pennsylvania, Astakhov moved back to Russia and earned his Dctorate in Law from an unnamed institution. His English-language wiki entry claims, quite cattily, that his dissertation was 99% plagiarized from other sources. Well, that’s okay, because my entire preceding paragraph was plagiarized from wikipedia! Turn-about is fair play.
While practicing law in Moscow as a private Defense Attorney, Astakhov took on several high-profile clients, including American spy Edmond Pope, media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky, and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Astakhov’s fame earned him his own TV show which was modelled on the American show “Judge Judy”. Politically, Astakhov was vehemently anti-Kremlin until he suddenly turned (in 2007) and became pro-Kremlin. Or, more like pro-Putin, whom he idolized. In December 2009 then-President Medvedev appointed Astakhov as Ombudsman for Children’s Rights in the Russian Federation, even though Astakhov had no legal experience in the area of children’s welfare or family law.
In May of 2015 Astakhov got himself into hot water with some politically incorrect statements about women. The context: A national scandal erupted when, in Chechnya, a 47-year-old police chief married a 17-year-old school girl. Seventeen is just one year shy of the legal marriage age in Russian federal law. Not only that, but the police chief already had a wife, so this was polygamy as well. Polygamy is illegal under Russian federal law, but some exceptions are made for Chechens because they are … well, Chechens.
Many Russians were outraged at this blatant overriding of federal law in favor of local Caucasian customs. But Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a traditionalist who espouses “family values” Chechen-style, jumped into the fray to defend Chechen/Muslim customs. The girl herself, Luiza, insisted to the media that she was marrying of her own free will. However there were serious doubts she was telling the truth about this, not to mention allegations that the local police had intimidated her family into handing her over for hubby’s harem.
Let us stipulate: Nobody except the groom, the bride, and her family knows the real truth. Was she happy or not? Was she willing or not? We don’t know. Her downcast eyes in the photos is not necessarily a clue, as Chechen custom requires even the most joyous of bride to put on an appearance of clinical depression during the ceremony. Wedding night, even if mutually satisfactory, is supposed to look like a rape. In some regions of the Caucasus, the bride must even undergo a ritual pantomime, such as pretending (or not?) to be kidnapped by the groom’s best men. File it away under the rubric “colorful and possibly sinister local customs”.
Now, whether this particular bride was willing or not, was an investigation that was supposed to be carried out by Pavel Astakhov. Since it was his job to defend the rights of women as well as children. And in this, Luiza was technically both. What Americans call a “twofer” (“two for the price of one”). So, Astakhov conducted his investigation and came to a conclusion. Whether his conclusion was valid or not, he proceeded to soil his own nest by emitting some egregiously sexist utterances in the context of his “official findings”. These are his exact words at the time:
«В Семейном кодексе есть статья, что в исключительных случаях нижний предел устанавливается региональными властями. В Чечне – 17 лет, в Башкортостане – 14 лет, в Московской области – 16 лет. Есть, где нет нижнего предела. На Кавказе раньше происходит эмансипация и половое созревание, давайте не будем ханжами. Есть места, где женщины уже в 27 лет сморщенные, и по нашим меркам им под 50. А вообще Конституция запрещает вмешиваться в личные дела граждан», – дословно сказал он.
“In the family codex there is an article which permits, in exceptional circumstances, a lower (minimum legal marriage age) when approved by regional governments. In Chechnya the lower age is 17, in Bashkortostan it’s 14, in Moscow it can be as low as 16. In some places there is no minimum age. In the Caucasus emancipation and sexual maturity come earlier, let’s not be hypocrites about this. There are regions where women already have wrinkles by the age of 27, and looking at them you would think they were 50 years old. And, in general, the constitution forbids (the government) getting mixed up in the private affairs of citizens.”
Do Caucasian Girls Age Prematurely?
Astakhov’s sexist comments caused an uproar in Russian media, with many women posting selfies of their “wrinkled faces” under the hashtag #сморщеннаяженщина, i.e., #wrinkledwoman.
And another term entered the Russian language, with people referring to “Astakhov age”, in other words a woman who is only 27 but looks like she is 50.
In Astakhov’s defense, he is not the first Russian gentleman who has made catty references to the physical appearance of Caucasian women. People may recall the poet Pushkin’s critical comment about Gruzian women in his travelogue Journey to Erzerum. Namely this quote:
Многие из них были в самом деле прекрасны и оправдывали воображение Т. Мура:
a lovely Georgian maid,
With all the bloom, the freshen’d glow
Of her own country maiden’s looks,
When warm they rise from Teflis’ brooks.
Зато не знаю ничего отвратительнее грузинских старух: это ведьмы.
“Many of them [Gruzian women whom Pushkin encountered in the public bathhouse in Tbilisi] were in fact quite beautiful and justified the words of the poem [see above, poem in original English]. On the other hand, I do not know anything more repulsive than Gruzian old women: They look like witches.”
But who knows? Maybe there is something to the stereotype of Caucasian lassies growing up fast and maturing early. Physically, at least. Because where there is early marriage, then you can be assured there will be lots of babies popped out. Sometimes resulting in premature aging of the exhausted mom.
Be that as it may, and it’s okay to discuss these matters frankly on blogs; however, it is not okay for a public official to say such things out loud, when he is talking about citizens of his own country. And by expressing his own stereotypical thinking patterns in such a manner, Astakhov did not inspire confidence in his supposed “findings” that the rights of young Luiza had not been violated; and that she had entered into the polygamous marriage of her own free will.
Astakhov’s story of public scandals and incorrect utterances continued with another gaffe from last week. And this is the incident, not his remarks about Caucasian women, which apparently led directly to his
So, a group of teenagers were drowned in a horrible boating accident on a lake in Karelia. When comforting one of the survivors, Astakhov apparently joked around, asking the child: “So, how was the swim?”
The Lincoln Gambit
In America, this type of black humor is known as the “Abraham Lincoln” gambit. The typical joke, which always gets a laugh, after something goes horrendously wrong, is to turn to the suffering party and quip: “So, Mrs. Lincoln, aside from that, how did you find the play?”
Again, this type of joke can be funny, among morons, in private life; but is not appropriate to a public official.
And so, in conclusion, Russian news confirmed this morning, that Astakhov will be leaving his post. Apparently the “swimming” quip was the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to Astakhov, he met with President Putin, was reamed out, and was asked to resign. Astakhov attempted to tell Putin his side of the story, “I didn’t mean to offend anybody, I was just joking arond, trying to talk to them [the kids] in their own language.”
Astakhov went on to say, remorsefully, that he deserved the reaming out: “I undermined myself, I deserved the reprimand I received from the President.” In other sources, Astakhov says that he has found religion. In the Russian Orthodox Church, of course. Because Jesus is all-forgiving of sinners, as well as old gaffers with crows feet around their eyes.