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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Right to Be a Father

In Moscow, the Union for the Defense of Childhood and Fatherhood is an association of fathers whose former wives have separated them from their own children. With the help of the courts and picket signs, they are fighting for their rights as fathers. But the law and public opinion seem to be against them.

Who keeps custody of the children after divorce? Of course the mother should, say those involved in divorce courts. "How could I give up my child to that swine?" is the response often heard from mothers who forget that only a few years ago he was whispering, "We're going to have a child, dear." Naturally, everything depends on particular cases, but the court usually decides in favor of the mother, even if it is clear that this is not in the best interests of the child.

After parents divorce, the child is often not only deprived of the possibility of seeing his father regularly, he even becomes an object that is bought and sold. The father submissively carries out the demands of his former wife: "Buy me a new this or that and then I'll let the daughter stay with you during the summer. For $500, you can meet with the child every week," and so on.

Russian divorces normally drag on for many months. Special courts that deal with family problems in Russia do not yet exist and are not likely to be established any time soon. Regular courts are blocked up by other pressing cases and have little time to handle divorce suits. After the court decides on how the children and belongings of the couple are to be divided up, drawing a good many functionaries into their lives, the spouses often start a real war, using their children to take vengeance on one another.

One of the leading psychiatrists for adolescents in Moscow, Boris Drapkin, believes that the forced time limits on visits or the separation from one of the parents causes great harm to children's psychological health. The failure of the law to allow for both parents to visit with their children only exacerbates the situation.

At the Union for the Defense of Childhood and Fatherhood, I was told by one father who works in the militsia that he was arrested after trying to prevent his former wife from moving to Germany with his 2-year-old daughter. Another father spent three hours every day in front of his wife's workplace with picket signs that read: "Papa hasn't forgotten you, papa loves you." Only after this did his wife allow him to see his child. But she then changed jobs, and he has been unable to find out where she now works. Another case involves a former wife who, in order to defend herself against a lover who beat her, put her daughter between them to protect herself from his blows. The father has already been waiting a year in court to take custody of his daughter, and the case is still not over.

One member of the union, Vladislav Alekseyev, described a typical experience at court: "After the divorce is officially settled, the former spouses come before an inspector for the Defense of Childhood to draw up a schedule of times the father may visit the child. The inspector is almost always a woman who does not usually take account of the father's wishes. One inspector mechanically allowed a father only two hours per month of visiting rights. How can a father be expected to help raise a child in such a short period? And even such a schedule can be altered by the mother at her discretion. As if allowing a father to see his children were child's play.

"The courtrooms are filled with prosecutors, witnesses and children's defense inspectors who are all women," Alekseyev continued. "I have never participated in a case where the rights of the father have been upheld. The outcomes have always been in favor of women. Not only out of female solidarity. Public opinion also plays a large part. And it is never on the side of fathers." Why?

The answer is simple. It can be traced in history. After World War II, women often had to raise children on their own because their husbands had died in combat. This tragic period in history, however, only partially explains the present way of thinking.

Mothers were seen, with the help of popular Soviet films, as being the sole providers of children who were deprived of a father. The father, on the other hand, has traditionally been perceived as a drunk and a deserter who renounces responsibility for his children. But why is this now accepted as a rule? "You know, I didn't divorce from my children, but from my wife," said Vladislav, and he was not speaking only for himself.

What is the solution to this problem? Alekseyev believes that only a change in public opinion can resolve it. But the children who now need peaceful family circumstances and the possibility of seeing their fathers cannot wait for a change in thinking. For now, Mikhail Labkovsky, a psychologist lawyer working for the consulting firm Families and Marriage, is the only person in Moscow who deals exclusively with divorce contracts. Divorced couples come to him to settle their problems peacefully. Normally they agree on a contract which lays out all possible situations concerning the children, such as leaving the country, visits with the father and with the paternal grandparents, etc. Future problems after the divorce are thus largely avoided.

Should not the courts take similar measures? The new Family Code has not changed the situation. The law does not even fine mothers for refusing to allow paternal visits. It permits the mother to prolong custody cases, if it is in her interest: The fine for failing to turn up in court is 500 rubles, that is, roughly 10 cents. In the meanwhile, parents continue to fight and the court proceedings drag on for years.

And time passes by. For a child, time passes more slowly. Time spent without a father.

Natalya Gamayunova is a columnist for Obyvatel. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.