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The Uktussky Assisted Living Facility

‘My tubes are tied now’ Victims recount 10 years of forced sterilizations at an assisted living facility in Yekaterinburg

Source: Meduza
The Uktussky Assisted Living Facility
The Uktussky Assisted Living Facility
Sverdlovsk Regional Ministry of Social Policy

On October 17, the news outlet “Lampa Yekaterinburg” published a video message from Lyudmila Guseva, a resident at the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg. In the video, Guseva explains that the care center’s staff had forced her to undergo sterilization. The response to the story was colossal. Local officials and the facility’s management admit that sterilizations and other surgeries were performed regularly, but they say these women agreed to the procedures voluntarily. In a dispatch from Yekaterinburg, “Meduza” special correspondent Liliya Yapparova talks to several people who used to live at the facility and remember staff members forcing women in their care to have abortions, give up their children, and undergo sterilization.

‘This is called genocide’

Anna Bannykh and Vladimir Bakhteev met in a children’s home. “I fell in love with Anechka during my childhood, from an early age. As everyone falls in love, by talking with her: we played ball, tag, I sang her songs and told her stories,” 26-year-old Bakhteev says, recalling how they still managed to get together even after the boys and girls were separated into different buildings. 

Even during their childhood, Vladimir promised Anna that she would never end up in a psychiatric facility, “They wanted to lock her up there: she has a serious diagnosis, an ‘intellectual disability with behavioral problems’,” Bakhteev explains in conversation with Meduza. “But I promised that she wouldn’t leave for a [psychiatric facility]. I left [the orphanage] earlier and waited for her at the assisted living facility for three years. I called her and said: ‘Wait: I’ll make an agreement with the director so you [can] come to me.’ And indeed, she was sent to the Uktusskyy Assisted Living Facility.”  

Located on the outskirts of Yekaterinburg, the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility was the site of an “elite sanatorium” during the Soviet period, according to its website. Today, it’s a state institution that takes in people with disabilities and senior citizens, as well as orphans with health problems who are too old to continue living in children’s homes (they pay the lion’s share of their pensions to the institutions). 

Anna came to the facility when she turned 18 in 2015; she and Vladimir shared a “family” room. “In order to live together, in a common-law marriage,” Bakhteev explains. “Since we already love each other and can’t be without each other.”

When the facility’s administration found out that Anna was pregnant, Bakhteev put the room on lockdown: all of the residents knew that women there were being subjected to abortions and forced sterilization. “I told Anna to close [the door] and not let anyone in, and I went to the civil registry office myself,” Vladimir says, recalling events that took place in 2017. “I decided to get moving so I could marry her: so that I, as her husband, could defend her rights and so that Anna wouldn’t be sterilized. I returned to the facility and our room was open — they had taken Anna to the hospital.”

Vladimir Bakhteev
Vladimir Bakhteev’s personal archive

Bakhteev has never been able to forgive himself for not being there when Anna was tricked into going to Central City Hospital Number 20. “They said they were simply going for a checkup, and a psychiatrist and general practitioner [from the assisted living facility] surrounded her and began to blackmail her on the spot — she was simply confused!” Vladimir says. Under pressure from the facility’s staff, Anna signed consent forms for both procedures — an abortion and sterilization. “If you don’t sign we will send you right to a psychiatric institution in the same car and they’ll do everything to you there: both the sterilization and the abortion. Forget about the child and everything else!” Vladimir says, recounting the threats from the social workers. He maintains that his wife didn’t fully take in the content of the consent forms.

When Vladimir arrived at the hospital, Anna was already on the operating table; she called him after the anesthesia wore off: “All in tears, and I’m already crying too. And she couldn’t say it, she simply couldn’t utter it [the word abortion],” Vladimir recalls.

Anna didn’t realize that the second operation was an irreversible means of contraception until she returned from the hospital. “I picked her up in a taxi and she couldn’t stand up, or walk, or anything,” Vladimir recalls. When they arrived at the Uktussky Facility, he decided to ask Anna what had happened at the hospital. “My tubes are tied now,” she said.

“She didn’t even understand what they had done to her inside!” Bakhteev says. “Then I told her, ‘that’s it, they tied your fallopian tubes, Anna, you can’t have children.’ She started to cry immediately: ‘How could they do this to me?’ They just put her to sleep — she didn’t know to do what, do you understand?”

Anna Bannykh was the last resident of the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility to undergo sterilization. But at least 13 women living there were subjected to reproductive violence from 2007 to 2017, four former residents told Meduza (regional Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Merzlyakova said there were 12 cases).  One of these women died in March 2020; according to her husband, she complained of abdominal pain before her death. The facility’s staff systematically forced other residents to abandon their children or get abortions. 

On October 17, the local newspaper Lampa Yekaterinburg was the first to report on the forced sterilization — the journalists even shared photographs of the medical records of a woman who had undergone the surgery. The Telegram-based news outlet Baza then covered the story and it caught the attention of state media. Two days later, the assisted living facility confirmed that some of its residents had been sterilized, but claimed that all of the procedures were conducted “for medical reasons.” 

Under Russian law, forced sterilization is only possible in the event that the person in question is considered legally incompetent — and even then, only in accordance with a court order. However, Anna Bannykh is considered legally competent (as confirmed by her husband) and as such, according to the law, should only have undergone such a procedure “for medical reasons and with informed, voluntary consent.” The facility’s employees who allegedly forced her into undergoing surgery through threats and deception could be charged with causing grievous bodily harm (under article 111 of the Criminal Code) or abuse of official authority, lawyer Yulia Fedotova told the website Yekaterinburg Online. 

According to three Meduza sources who used to live at the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility, the majority of the residents who were sterilized were not considered legally competent. “Some had schizophrenia, some have developmental delays, but they were all mild forms, which allowed them to care for themselves,” maintains Lampa Yekaterinburg correspondent Andrey Kazantsev. “Regular people, but with some peculiarities. It’s easier to describe this care home as a sanatorium where they, in exchange for 75 percent of their pensions, can sleep and live. They walk around freely and can leave the institution.”

The threat of being transferred to a closed psychiatric institution is the scariest thing for residents who are living with relative freedom, Vladimir Bakhteev tells Meduza. “Sometimes they threatened ‘to call security, a brigade, an ambulance, or an insane asylum.’ They simply took advantage of the fact that people had nowhere to go.”

Vladimir and Anna have since left the assisted living facility. They live in an apartment they received through social housing. “Of course I would like to punish those who did this,” Bakhteev says. “I wanted a child, I wanted to live like all normal people, [who want] to have their own children and become a mom or a dad. But to them [the facility’s administration] we aren’t real people. We’re like children. No, we’re not even like children — we’re like scum to them. This is called genocide.”

Anna Bannykh — who now goes by her married name, Anna Bakhteeva — told Meduza that she remembers the moment she woke up in the hospital after being under anesthesia perfectly. She refused to speak about her experience in more detail, despite her husband’s encouragement.

The Uktussky Assisted Living Facility
Sverdlovsk Regional Ministry of Social Policy

‘Where else could I go?’

Olga Yegorova lived at the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility for 22 years — but she doesn’t remember the exact year that she was sterilized (she suffers from memory loss due to a childhood injury, she tells Meduza). 

She was on her way to the facility’s infirmary (where she worked as a cleaner) when Marina Kravchenko, a full-time general practitioner on staff, caught her in the hallway and briefly explained that she was about to be permanently deprived of the ability to have children: “‘Olya, you need to get ready to go to the hospital to prepare for sterilization. If you don’t agree, you’ll go to a psychiatric institute.’ And where else could I go?” Yegorova recalls. 

Before the surgery, Kravchenko “frightened me with the [psychiatric] facility” once again, Yegorova recalls. At this point, they were already sitting in front of the doctor at Hospital Number 20. Yegorova didn’t even read the papers she signed at the time. “I’m illiterate and I can’t see well. They said ‘sign’ — where else could I go?” she says.

Yegorova couldn’t sleep the night before the operation and she trembled all the way to the operating room. The doctors spoke to her only once during the entire procedure — when they were trying to bring her out from under the anesthesia. “They kicked me out of the operating room — they woke me up,” she recalls. “I vomited. The pain was hellish, I couldn’t feel my body.” 

Yegorova moved out of the assisted living facility two years ago — she married one of the security guards and found another job. “My husband and I really wanted a child. And now there will be no children, there won’t be anything — is that how it is? Born an orphan and an orphan you’ll die? I really love children. I would never have acted like my mother. I would have raised them.” 

“The employees at the facility need to be punished,” she adds after pausing to think. “They need to be punished financially.” 

While she couldn’t remember exactly when she was forced to undergo sterilization, Yegoreva does remember most of the names of the other residents who were subjected to the same procedure. Among them is Irina Kashina, who actually managed to refuse sterilization in 2009, despite threats from the facility’s staff (she had been forced into having an abortion at a previous institution). “They didn’t press hard on me, I was braver,” Kashina recalls.

The assisted living facility began practicing forced sterilization in 2007 — “after Tatyana Volkova,” three Meduza sources who used to live there recall. “The reason was that Volkova — she had the surname Kuznetsova at the time — got pregnant, hid it, and gave birth,” Kashina explains. “She managed to carry the child to term and never consented to an abortion. And so [the facility’s administration] did such a thing, so that no one would give birth in the future.”

Tatyana Volkova was the first woman to be sterilized. She was also forced to sign over her parental rights and her child was taken away from her. The women were taken for surgery in “batches of three,” Yegorova recalls. Since then, the facility has seen several waves of reproductive violence: for ten years, each new generation of girls who came to there from orphanages in the Sverdlovsk Region were sterilized. 

The video message from whistleblower Lyudmila Guseva
“Lampa Yekaterinburg”

“Volkova gave birth, then Tanya K. gave birth [...] and sterilization began: they did it to Lyusa [Lyudmila Guseva] in 2008, they tried [to sterilize] me in 2009 — [then] it calmed down for a while,” Kashina tells Meduza. “Then they brought [girls] from orphanages — in 2016 Valya M. got pregnant. Volunteers came from the church and she found a boyfriend and got pregnant hoping he’d take her away. But he didn’t take her away — and the child was taken from her. And all these sterilizations started again. After Ksyusha, Vera K. got pregnant — she’s competent but can’t speak, she’s partially deaf; she also had an abortion and was sterilized immediately.” (The last names of the women who didn’t agree to have their medical data disclosed have been abbreviated).

The blame game

The staff at the assisted living facility — including doctors assigned to the institution, as well as the administration — made surgeries that require medical grounds and the patient’s consent mandatory and involuntary. Kashina maintains that they even sterilized virgins, allegedly to avoid carrying out abortions and providing residents with contraception. 

This was an internal decision made at the facility — and all of Meduza’s sources gave the same names when asked who was responsible. “It [began] with chief physician Angelina Anatolyevna Shchepelina,” Kashina recalls, explaining that she came up with the idea of sterilizing residents to avoid “taking the girls to the gynecologist every month.” She added that the ones who threatened to send the women to psychiatric institutions if they refused the procedure were “Kravchenko, Marina Mikhailovna, the [facility’s] general practitioner, and Olga Stanislavovna Aksentyeva, also a general practitioner.”

These doctors no longer work at the assisted living facility, its human resources specialist Anastasia Vasilyeva specified (she refused to answer any other questions or provide Meduza with contact information for the former employees). Angelina Shchepelina, who worked as the deputy head of medical affairs at the assisted living facility, was awarded a certificate of honor by the head of Yekaterinburg in 2018. Marina Kravchenko, a doctor of the highest qualification, is referred to as a “government representative” on the website of the Uktussky district’s main church. Meanwhile, according to open data, a woman by the name of Olga Aksentyeva has been working as a general practitioner for more than 20 years and continues to enhance her qualifications.

According to open data, Olga Aksentyeva worked at Central City Hospital Number Six, but no one by that name works there any more, they told Meduza. Both Shchepelina and Kravchenko currently hold the positions of general practitioner and rheumatologist (respectively) at Mislavsky Hospital Number Two, reception confirmed, but you can only contact them “by personal appointment.” “I’m hearing the names our employees appear here [in the story about the assisted living facility] from you for the first time,” Marina Ivanova, a lawyer for Hospital Number Two told Meduza. The Regional Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Merzlyakova, who is conducting an audit of the assisted living facility, has also made no attempt to contact the former employees that the women accused of involvement in forced sterilizations.

The assisted living facility’s management also knew about the forced sterilizations, the three former residents told Meduza. According to Kashina, when the sterilizations began, a man by the name of Boris Grigorievich Vakhrushev was in charge of the facility — she claims that he actually sent people to psychiatric institutions. When Vakhrushev died in 2015, retired Colonel Andrey Popov took over as director.

“When Popov arrived, he started taking [monthly cash payments] from our pensions, he committed a lot of violations,” Kashina recalls. In 2017, the newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on similar complaints: residents said that Popov was allegedly forcing them to give over larger than necessary portions of their pensions.

“He said that with him we’d be like soldiers, like in the war: marching and shouting ‘hurray!’,” Vladimir Bakhteev recalls in conversation with Meduza. He went to Popov’s office after Anna’s forced sterilization. “What do you want from me now? What do you want? You won’t bring your child back now — that’s enough!” Bakhteev says, describing what the director said to him.

Popov, who left his job at the assisted living facility a year ago, rejects the reports that women under his care underwent forced sterilization. “I’m 100 percent sure the client’s consent is there. Otherwise there’s no way,” he told the website Podyom. 

The regional Social Policy Ministry was pleased with Popov’s work (it even awarded him letters of gratitude on several occasions). The ministry also underscored that there have been no previous complaints about forced sterilization at Uktussky Assisted Living Facility. But the region’s human rights commissioner disagrees: “Such stories arise periodically,” said Commissioner Tatyana Merzlyakova, who is currently conducting an independent audit of the institution. The Social Policy Ministry is also conducting an investigation, as is the facility itself. 

The Sverdlovsk Region’s Social Policy Minister Andrey Zlokazov and local Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Merzlyakova meeting with a woman from the Uktussky Assisted Living Facility
Sverdlovsk Regional Ministry of Social Policy

The ministry and the facility under its jurisdiction are “trying to dodge” the accusations and pin the series of illegal surgeries on the doctors, Merzlyakova told Meduza. Ilya Illarionov, an official from the region’s Social Policy Ministry, has actually already stressed that the sterilization didn’t take place at the assisted living facility itself, but rather at “residential medical institutions.” The facility’s deputy director, Anastasia Pokidysheva also stated that doctors at Yekaterinburg’s Hospital Number 20 were the ones responsible for manipulating the women who were in the facility’s care (employees from Central City Hospital Number 20 directed Meduza to the legal services department, but they didn’t answer our calls). 

“We have no words for this Social Policy [Ministry]!” Commissioner Merzlyakova tells Meduza. “The hospital is least of all to blame here — it’s the social policy that strong-armed [these women] that’s to blame. They went to the hospital with prepared documents, the women were brought to the doctors completely ready [for the procedure]! They were brought to the gynecologist — the gynecologist does his operation.” 

The Uktussky Assisted Living Facility isn’t the only example of social workers attempting to control the birth rate among people in their care, says Svetlana Mamonova, the director of the St. Petersburg-based charity Perspectives, which provides social assistance to children and adults with severe disabilities. “They don’t tie people up or take them for sterilization by force. But women are subjected to unbelievable psychological treatment and sign all of the consents for both abortion and sterilization themselves — after they’re told what would happen to their children: that they’d have no chance of keeping the child or seeing him, that he will travel around orphanages,” Mamonova explains. “As a result, women, who have endured this themselves, basically consent out of mercy and sign all of the papers.” 

The majority of doctors and social workers believe that their wards have no right to have sex, have children, or build families, Mamonova says. She learned this several years ago, when she was involved in developing a questionnaire for residents of psychiatric institutions. “I suggested asking them about their personal space: if people fall in love, do they have a place to meet on the facility’s property, how is this problem addressed?” Mamonova recalls in conversation with Meduza. “A storm of indignation fell upon me from the other members of the group, people from the social [work] system and the healthcare system: ‘What are you saying, suddenly they’ll think they can have sexual relations?! If you ask this question, they will think that’s okay’.” 

Sexuality and psychiatric institutions are considered incompatible, Mamonova says in sum. “The system should address these women directly so that they don’t feel like underage teenagers who are somewhere hiding from adult mum and dad.”

Story by Liliya Yapparova

Edited by Pytor Lokhov 

Translated and abridged by Eilish Hart

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