Child beatings shatter Russian utopia

Commune claims it is a scapegoat in Moscow purge of extremist groups as two of its leaders are jailed

The Guardian/July 26, 2002
By Nick Paton Walsh

Moscow -- They claimed to be innocent dreamers, living in wooden huts outside Moscow and trying to build a perfect society through poetry and the ideas of Pythagoras, Lenin, a Russian folk singer and Mikhail Gorbachev. But the dream was shattered this week when two of their leaders were sentenced to a total of 14 years for carrying firearms and whipping their disobedient teenage members.

The utopian community, Portos, became the centre of controversy when two of its senior members, Irina Derguzova and Tatyana Lomakina, received sentences of eight and six years respectively for beating minors and "organising an armed group".

While the Russian authorities insist that the two women are extremists who need to be reined in, human rights activists say the sentences are harsh and an indication of the Putin administration's attempt to indict people of unconventional beliefs as dangerous radicals.

The police raided the peaceful dwelling of Portos - in Russian, the acronym for poetic alliance for developing the theory of public happiness - in December 2000.

A quiet commune near Lubertsy, to the south-east of Moscow, it had been founded six months earlier to help problem teenagers.

The youngsters were encouraged to abstain from drinking, smoking and swearing, and to write poetry.

But inside this happy nest of wooden shacks and verse the authorities found five teenagers whose buttocks had been repeatedly whipped with a rope.

The group insisted that the boys had asked to be spanked, as they had been caught smoking and drinking repeatedly, and had been offered the chance to leave the group or be punished.

Portos added that the boys received no more than 10 lashes, and that they were not beaten by Derguzova or Lomakina.

"The aim of the commune was to improve our society," one of its members, Nadezhda Chetaeva, said. "The boys had a lot of bad habits - smoking, drinking, and foul language - and their names were repeatedly on the 'list of shame' at the commune.

This was an extreme case, and the beatings happened at the boys' own initiative."

Formed in 1993, Portos adheres to utopian ideas propounded by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras; Lenin; the Russian folk singer, rebel icon and alcoholic Vladimir Visotsky; and the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

While the average age of Portos members is 23, it recently took in five under-16s. Since the court case, it has lost its child members.

"Our organisation still exists, but now we have to deal with the courts," Ms Chetaeva said.

"The case was fabricated. This is part of the state's fight against 'extremism'. While it is difficult to catch terrorists, it is easy to fight with Portos."

She admitted that the group carried arms, but said they amounted to five air pistols, which the women had got for their protection after numerous attacks. The pistols were registered, she added.

On Wednesday Derguzova and Lomakina stood in court dressed from head to toe in black, behind the steel bars of the dock, and angrily asked the judge "Where is your shame?" as he approved the sentences given by the jury.

The pair will appeal, despite their sentences being more lenient than the 12- and 10-year terms sought by the prosecution.

Human rights activists have written to the court asking for the matter to be considered simply as a case of minors being beaten, rather than associated with the fight against "extremism" in Russia.

In the wake of a series of racially motivated beatings and the skinhead overtones of last month's World Cup football riots in Moscow, President Putin rushed through a law against extremist groups. Critics pointed out that it seemed to make it illegal to "impede the operation of the state", an offence open to interpretation.

Valentin Gefter, from the Institute of Human Rights, said the jury's decision to give the women such long sentences represented public hysteria whipped up by the government for the fight against the "broad definition of extremism".

"The minimum sentence could have been two years, [given] the amount of time they have already spent on remand," he said.

"But the accusations on serious charges are not proved. The sentence happened to be very timely to show how eagerly the court and the common public, represented here by the jury, hangs on the Kremlin's every word."

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