‘We’re an ordinary Soviet family’ Russian officials seize six children whose father says he’s being persecuted because he believes the USSR never collapsed
Last September, Karelia’s Supreme Court took away the Kiselyovs’ children, after officials concluded that the married couple failed to provide adequate education and living conditions. Over the past several years, the family has been cited a dozen times for different violations. In response to the ruling, the Kiselyovs resorted to “evacuation.” The court then issued an arrest warrant for Lydia Kiselyova, who managed to evade the authorities until mid-January with her five children in tow. On January 17, police finally tracked her down in Moscow, where they pulled her off a bus and seized all the children, whose ages range from four to thirteen. They haven’t spoken to either of their parents since. Anatoly Kiselyov, Lydia’s husband and an activist with the “Union SSR” trade union, says he’s certain the loss of his children is punishment from the local authorities for his controversial political views.
On January 17, 2019, thirty-five-year-old Lydia Kiselyova planned to board a bus in Moscow with her five children — twin four-year-old daughters and three sons, ages five, 10, and 13. The family would then travel to Nizhny Novgorod, to stay with a friend. When the Kiselyovs ultimately left Moscow’s VDNKh bus terminal, however, it was in the back of a police van. “We’d already taken our seats on the bus, and then the police surrounded us, and brought us to the station,” Kiselyova told Meduza. “Seven hours they held them — not me, the children. They didn’t touch me. They said: you’re in some trouble with the law, [but] we’ll sort it out and release you, but for the children we’re waiting on the bailiffs. I was with them all this time. For three hours, with the bailiffs on their way, they held us in a separate room and didn’t let us out. No food. No tea. They offered nothing. I had sandwiches I’d packed for the road, and I fed them [to the children].”
Afterwards, Kiselyova says, the bailiffs arrived, put the children in their car, and drove off, leaving her at the police station. “I saw them through the window. They were screaming: Mama! Mama! There was nothing I could do,” Kiselyova recalls, crying. “I don’t even know where they are or how they’re doing.”
Lydia and Anatoly Kiselyov live in Kostomuksha, a town in Karelia. Anatoly says they’ve been together for 20 years. The couple has six children; not long ago, their oldest son turned eighteen. The Kiselyovs run a small business that sells wooden doors. For 14 years, the family lived mostly in Finland, returning to Karelia in 2014. For nine years, Lydia was the children’s primary caretaker at home. More recently, she’s started taking online classes at Synergy University’s law department. “The children were all born in the same marriage. They are both of ours. We are an ordinary, decent, and traditional Soviet family,” says Anatoly Kiselyov.
“We got the children out of there. We didn’t hand them over to child services.”
In October 2018, the Karelian branch of Russia’s Federal Bailiffs’ Service (FSSP) issued an arrest warrant for Lydia Kiselyova and her five children. The authorities were acting on a ruling by Karelia’s Supreme Court in late September that granted a request by child services to limit the Kiselyovs’ parental custody rights. Local officials had pressed the case several times before, but the court sided with the Kiselyovs until September 28.
From late September to mid-January, Kiselyova and her five children hid from the authorities. “We got the children out of there. We didn’t hand them over to child services,” Anatoly Kiselyov says defiantly. He stayed behind in Karelia, waging a legal battle to maintain custody of the kids. His oldest son, 17-year-old Konstantin, remained in Kostomuksha, as well.
Kiselyov says local officials, child services officers, and FSSP agents raided his home on October 3. “They were rude and aggressive,” he says, and they tricked his son into opening the door by getting an elderly neighbor to knock for them. “My son recognized her voice, opened the door, and at that moment a group of bailiffs flew inside and started running throughout the apartment, climbing up the closets and crawling under the beds, looking for the rest of the children,” Kiselyov recalls. “Then representatives from child services and City Hall barged in. They basically shoved the boy’s face to the floor and took him by force to the orphanage.”
Karelian Human Rights Commissioner Gennady Saraev told Meduza that Konstantin “felt very well” while at a child welfare center, where he had the freedom to explore the city. On January 20, he turned 18 and returned home. “My son works now and he plans to enlist in the army this spring, in Russia’s Armed Forces,” Kiselyov says proudly.
In mid-January, bailiffs found the rest of the children. “On January 17, when executing her next relocation, my wife made a mistake, that is, she committed an act that was strictly forbidden,” Kiselyov explains in a military tone. “She purchased bus tickets using her own identification papers. Accordingly, they removed her from that bus within 20 minutes and brought her to the police station. They didn’t file an arrest report — they just informed her that she was on a federal missing persons’ wanted list, and was also charged with felony abduction. They released her as soon as they seized the children.” Kiselyov says the bailiffs also froze all her bank accounts, as well as his.
According to the Kiselyovs, their children were then transferred to Georgy Speransky Hospital in Moscow, where they were registered “as if they were homeless, as if they’d just been found at a train station, without a word about the fact that they’d been taken from their mother,” says Anatoly Kiselyov. “And immediately they drew up some reports saying the kids supposedly had fleas and worms. I suspect these reports were compiled deliberately to [get] additional allocations [for child benefits].”
The last time Lydia Kiselyova spoke to the children was on January 21, and then their phone was taken away. A day later, still at the hospital, her son Yaroslav celebrated his sixth birthday. Unlike her husband, Lydia is unable to speak calmly when she recalls what happened. “I just can’t talk about it. My heart won’t stop racing. I can’t talk and I can’t communicate. All I want is to get my children back and that’s it,” she says, struggling to find the words.
Kiselyov says the children spent about a week at the hospital, and on January 24 they were moved out the hospital’s rear exit to the Altufievsky Processing Center. Kiselyov says he studied the paperwork and found a mistake in the enforcement order: it identified the wrong court decision. He brought the documents to the police station where his children had been taken, and the juvenile case inspector “carefully studied” the records and acknowledged the error, deciding that it meant the children should be returned to their parents immediately, Kiselyov says. “So we went to Speransky Hospital, where we had to wait around for a whole hour, going crazy. Then I ask: Is there any chance that you take children out through a back exit? But the guards swore to us that the children would be brought to the main entrance.”
When Lydia stepped outside for a cigarette, however, she saw her children being loaded into a van from the back exit. “The vehicle almost ran her over. It was a passenger wagon, I think. A Ford Transit,” says Kiselyov. “The children were crying and screaming when they saw their mother through the window. She ran back and said they’d stolen the children through the rear exit.”
Kiselyov says he went to the Altufievsky Processing Center that evening with the juvenile case inspector who’d offered to “do what she could,” but the police on duty refused to admit either of them. “They told her: this isn’t your neck of the woods. You’ve got no jurisdiction here. Then we called in other police officers, but they weren’t allowed inside, either,” Kiselyov remembers. “I think they would have showed us the children, if they’d been okay.”
Journalists have written repeatedly about the harsh detainment conditions children face at the Altufievsky Processing Center. Kiselyov suspects that someone “placed an order” for his kids, and child protection officials were keen to “sell them to artificial families.” He recalls how the district attorney in Kostomuksha charged local officials in 2017 with appointing guardians to children without the necessary paperwork (including medical reports and criminal records).
“At Altufievsky, they said they wouldn’t tell us anything, because we’re now nobody to them,” Lydia Kiselyova said in an appeal on February 4 to Governor Artur Parfenchikov. “I want very much to have my children returned home. I know they’re suffering without me — we are very close. I don’t know how this could have been done to a family — how could child protection services have acted this way, disregarding the feelings of the parents and the children?”
“You dug your heels in. Now do you see what kind of problems you have?”
State officials and the Kiselyovs offer dramatically different explanations for why the children were removed from their home. Local authorities say the family transferred three of the kids to homeschooling, but never actually provided them with any structured education. The three youngest children didn’t attend kindergarten, and protective services logged problems with the family’s housing conditions. In recent years, the Kisleyovs have been fined a dozen times for the administrative offense of failing to meet parental obligations to provide adequate education and living conditions. At the same time, Karelian Human Rights Commissioner Gennady Saraev says he has no information indicating that the children were ever abused or that the Kisleyovs suffer from any mental illnesses. After the children were put in homeschooling, protective services filed multiple lawsuits to restrict the Kiselyovs’ parental rights. Rulings in all these cases sided with Lydia and Anatoly, until the region’s Supreme Court intervened in September 2018.
Anatoly Kisleyov rejects the allegations that he didn’t provide for his children, pointing out that his family lives in a four-bedroom apartment “with three desks, two laptops, and one desktop computer.” “We did some remodeling, changing the doors, the linoleum, and the wallpaper. Child protective services still wrote that the kids had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, and no way to study,” he says. In response, the Kiselyovs stopped letting protective services officials into their home.
Anatoly believes the suspicions about his parenting are really the local authorities’ means of persecuting him for his civic activism. “I’m like a bone caught in their throats,” he says of his relationship with city officials. “It all started in 2014,” he says, when he discovered documents online about funding for the school his children attended. Kisleyov then publicized what he found. “I learned that our school is well subsidized — that it's been allocated considerable budget resources,” he explains. “And I was tired of paying for [the school’s] toilet paper, for some magical dishwashing soap, for whatever paper towels, and I don’t know what else.” Kiselyov says he did everything he could for the school: “for example, I brought toilets, sinks, and faucets from Finland, and for the fifth graders I brought protractors, try squares, chalkboard rulers, and a video projector.”
Kisleyov says his children faced sudden hostility at school after he refused to pay the “extortion money.” “There started being these weird accusations about them not doing their assignments — it was something different every day. And then, in 2015, they wouldn’t give textbooks to my eldest son, Konstantin,” Anatoly explains in a video he published on VKontakte, after the Karelian Supreme Court’s ruling last September. “My son’s homeroom teacher, Olya Vanyaeva, who was a part-time librarian, sabotaged the lessons. And when the boy came to class, hoping that at least something might stick, they told him: you don’t even have the textbooks, so how are you going to study? Get out of here and don’t disrupt the other children.”
Despite the apparent mistreatment of his son, Kiselyov didn’t back down. “Many people take the attitude: I guess I’ll just pay up, so my kids don’t have any problems,” he explains. “And people have repeatedly told me this, too, saying: You dug your heels in. Now do you see what kind of problems you have? Just pay the money and be quiet! I’m sorry, but I consider this a slave’s mentality. I’m no slave, and I have no intention of bending the knee for anyone. We’re all under the same laws, meaning everyone is equal before the law, and the law is equal before all of us.”
As a result of these troubles, the Kisleyovs decided to pull their children out of the school and educate them at home, instead. Anatoly says Kostomuksha’s local government then refused to provide them with the homeschooling state assistance to which they were entitled.
“I have a Soviet citizen’s passport”
According to school principal Natalia Fedotova, “not everything [the Kiselyovs] say is true.” She says Anatoly Kiselyov demanded that the school issue his children textbooks from the Soviet era, adding that his oldest son frequently missed classes and fell behind in his studies, leaving him with only a sixth-grade education. Fedotova says the Kiselyovs’ other son was held back a year because he didn’t study at home. She denies that the school charges parents any “informal fees,” stating that textbooks are provided to students for free.
Kiselyov openly complains that modern textbooks “are just these little notepads.” “You can’t even call them textbooks,” he says. “The knowledge they teach in schools in the Russian Federation today is complete garbage — there’s nothing do it. We have a fifth-grade physics textbook from 1968. In seventh grade, my son opens this textbook and he’s shocked. In seventh grade, they’re not learning anything they had in the fifth-grade Soviet textbook. That’s the degradation of our education for you.”
Anatoly decided to structure his children’s homeschooling around the textbooks that he considers “necessary” according to Soviet curriculum in the 1970s and 1980s, which he says offers a “wealth of knowledge.” “It’s not that my children are perfect students. There have been some Cs and some Bs. That’s all I’ll say about that,” he adds.
Anatoly Kiselyov is an active participant in the “Union SSR” trade union, whose members believe that the Soviet Union never legally collapsed and that Soviet laws remain in force. Union SSR adherents also ascribe to the view that they have the right not to pay housing and utility bills. Kiselyov says he still considers himself a citizen of the USSR.
“I have a Soviet citizen’s passport, and I have a Russian Federation citizen’s passport, but if we’re going to get into the legalities, then there’s still no such thing as a federal Russian passport law, while Soviet passport law is still in effect, since no one has revoked it,” Kiselyov explains, adding that he considers his children to be Soviet citizens, as well, “by birth.”
Anatoly claims to have graduated from a KGB school in Leningrad, where he says he attained the rank of major. He talks constantly about his ties to Soviet national security agencies, and he often shares photographs of himself in different military uniforms. In his stories, the service is something both past and present. During the legal proceedings against his parenting, Kiselyov says he turned to “comrades-in-arms” from the FSB, GRU, and KGB, who supposedly helped move his family to Moscow and then to Cuba. Children’s Rights Commissioner Gennady Saraev confirms that the Kiselyovs have left Karelia, but he says he has no information about them leaving the country.
Kiselyov’s conflict with the school snowballed, eventually involving City Hall, child protective services, and the local Board of Education, the members of which Anatoly considers to be his personal enemies. The Federal Bailiffs’ Service has also been hostile, he says, because he’s repeatedly provided legal assistance to fellow Union SSR members by “exposing bailiffs for violations of the laws in force.”
Kiselyov’s certainty that the USSR still exists is couched in legal prowess and an ability to articulate his position clearly. “If we believe that we live in a state governed by the rule of law, then we must abide by the laws unfailingly, inside and out,” he argues. “Today our state officials not only fail to comply with the law, but they violate it methodically. Moreover, whenever a citizen encounters some kind of problem, this citizen — to put it mildly — is genocided in different ways, whether it’s in housing and utility bills or traffic fines.”
“The national security threat we face today isn’t terrorists or ISIS or some external enemy. The most terrifying danger today is the sloppy idiocy of our state officials, because it could drive the people to rebellion, and that’s categorically unacceptable,” Kiselyov says.
“Hostility for the entire state”
Regional officials turned their attention to the Kiselyovs’ situation after Russian Civic Chamber member and conservative activist Elina Zhgutova sponsored a video appeal from Anatoly and Lydia to Karelian Governor Artur Parfenchikov. On February 7, the governor ordered his local human rights commissioner to take the necessary steps to return the children to their parents.
Karelian Human Rights Commissioner Gennady Saraev told Meduza that he believes “every child should be with their family,” and stressed that restricting parental rights isn’t the same thing as seizing kids from their homes. The latter measure is a “last resort,” he says, while less severe limitations are “preventative.” “Children are removed from their home for a certain period of time, so they can receive the necessary help, giving parents time to create the necessary conditions at home. It’s a temporary measure that lasts up to six months,” Saraev explains. When that time is up, child protective services are supposed to present their conclusions to the court, arguing either that parental rights should be revoked, or that the children should be returned home. Or officials might ask to extend the temporary separation. Saraev says the state can also request psychological examinations to determine the children’s relationship with their parents.
In early February, spokespeople for Moscow City Hall said the Kisleyovs’ children were behind held at the Altufievsky Processing Center, with plans to return them to Karelia. Saraev told Meduza that he didn’t know when they’d be brought back, but he said the children would be housed at the same facility in Kostomuksha. “No one would dare divide up the family,” Saraev said. “Specialists are currently assessing their education and psychological condition. I hope very much to get assistance from experts in Moscow. In my view, the children need psychological help right now. They find themselves in a crisis situation,” he said.
Gennady Saraev hasn’t seen or communicated directly with Anatoly Kiselyov or Lydia Kiselyova, and he says he hopes they will contact him. “I don’t have the right not to trust the specialists working in Moscow,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know when the Kiselyovs will be permitted to speak to their children again. “In theory, the children should be able to communicate with their parents, but so far I haven’t been given that information.” Saraev promises to provide the necessary assistance if the Kiselyovs reach out to him.
Karelia’s human rights commissioner points out, however, that Anatoly and Lydia will need to work with protective services to resolve any problems, in order to get their children back. Asked how the Kiselyovs might work with officials whom they view with such hostility, Saraev says, “You know, I get the feeling that these parents view the entire state with hostility. Because they have problems not just with child services, but also with housing and utility bills, and education, and everything.”
Anatoly Kiselyov says he doesn’t put much faith in promises from bureaucrats. “You can say whatever you like, with all the smoke and mirrors you want. Since there’s no way to verify, you and I can make up anything — we could even say the kids were ground up into hamburger meat.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock