Three-year-old girl caught in the middle of a war raging between French and Russian courts of law and a fevered media campaign

The victim of adult passion

By Alexander Arkhangelsky

It appears that the story of an unfortunate little girl named Liza is nearing an acceptable conclusion. The little girl has become a bargaining chip in the relationship between her French father and her Russian mother. But while the Russian media has raised a lot of noise about the “victimized” mother and the evil-doing father, speculating about which laws and court orders the parents should abide by, few have thought about the effect that this media campaign may have on the little girl herself.

The story goes that her mother, Irina Belenkaya, divorced her father, by the name of Jean-Michel Andre. The latter, in accordance with the French law, proved that he is the one who should have custody of the girl: the French family code assigns more importance to the solvency and civil substantiality of the parent than to the emotional right of gender. But the mother did not give up and defended her maternal rights in a Russian court, since our legal tradition paints a different picture—the woman gets the child, while the man gets the support obligations. After this she took Liza back to Russia, without consulting the father or the French authorities.

The father then did the same: he kidnapped the girl in Russia and took her back to France, failing to discuss this decision with the mother and to take Russian laws into consideration. Then the loving mother struck a deal with some people who beat up the father right in front of his daughter, put the girl in a car, and took her through Hungary to the Ukraine, in order to make a dash for home from there. In the end, Liza witnessed yet another pleasant episode – the policemen arresting her mother, and then lived through another instance of being forced to return to France. The mother is now awaiting extradition in prison – either to the Russian Federation or to the French Republic. The father is prepared to negotiate on joint custody, and is withdrawing his lawsuit. Oh, the bliss!

However, what's amazing is not the story itself: worse things happen. What is mindboggling are the media and even the socio-political reactions to it. Sure, our compatriots say, Belenkaya didn't quite behave well, but she was driven into a corner, she fell victim to the circumstances. But most importantly, look at that Andre! Why doesn't he show any respect for the Russian court? Why doesn't he turn their joint, Franco-Russian child over to our Russian mother?

The first question is what in the world was this wonderful woman thinking when she married a French citizen and moved in with him? Did she think that they would recognize the ruling of the Tushinsky District Court in Arles? Similarly, back in the 1970s our cute girls married fun guys from the Suffering Continent and fled with them, only to find that they would be asked to live according to the laws of Sudan or Congo. And the reverse is also true. Those foreigners who move to Russia and marry out compatriots (in ever increasing numbers) must understand that if something goes wrong in the family, it won't be the London Crown Court that is going to hear the case.

The second and most important question is why is it that in this story of cowboys and Indians, we are interested in the mother and the father at all? They are both adults, they both have to bear responsibility for their actions, they have both shown us their best and proven that they are unable to put their daughter's interests before their own uncontrolled emotions. Their instinct for parental possession is stronger than that for parental service. It would be perfect to deprive them both of their parental rights before it's too late. But since this is impossible, it would be best to follow the advice of a Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and send them both in for psychiatric assessment, to be followed by medical treatment.

However, I would like to further develop Lukin's thought, and to prescribe some tranquilizers to the Russian media society. This is not the first (and probably not the last) time that it is raising hell and portraying our fellow countrywoman as a victim, even if she's not fully righteous, while the insidious foreigner is depicted as a persecutor who has been wronged just a bit. And this is not just a matter of statist rage. If our informational realm was a bit freer, and if (let us imagine the impossible) there appeared a pro-Western media outlet in the spirit of NTV before it was destroyed and humiliated, we would have most likely ended up with a mirror image: the suffering European father about to get run over by a tank of an aggressive Russian mother. But since we do not have anything like the former NTV, our psychosis is unilateral. One of our own is in trouble—a martyr for a cause. Give us our Irina Belenkaya back; do not dare extradite her to the unjust French authorities!

This psychosis also needs to be treated, so that we don't develop a maniacal dependence on fake pathos. Give Irina Belenkaya to us! Do not dare deport her to Paris! What do we care where the lady gets sent to? Let her be held responsible by the laws she broke. In the same way, if Andre crosses the Russian border, let him answer for kidnapping his daughter according to our laws. There is only one reason that can (and should) force society to take a side, or to demand moral amnesty for both. If this helps the poor Liza. Can anything else be done to make sure that this three-year-old victim of adult passion grows up without having been traumatized? Or is it too late? If for Liza's sake we need to get the mother out of prison and give her the right to partake in the child's upbringing, then so be it. Not so that Irina can be relieved of the responsibility she bears for her actions, but only so that the girl doesn't suffer any more.

The most important thing is to minimize the damage (a good solution would be to deprive both sides of their parental rights, but that's impossible). After which we should all forget that Liza Belenkaya even exists, and stop torturing her in the media torture chamber. Maybe then she will be able to recuperate from the severe trauma that was inflicted on her by adults on her own.

29 April 2009 — Return to cover.