Tragedy of baby-snatch case shocks Russia

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The Independent Online
SOME blame the absurdity of the past, an outdated and dangerous superstition. Others blame the folly of the present, the emergence in Russia of a "rat pack". But there is unanimous agreement on one point in this harsh, disorientated society: the case of Yegor, a four-week-old baby, should never be allowed to happen again.

The boy was stolen from his pram last week after his mother left him in the street next to the entrance of a Moscow gynaecology clinic, while she popped in to give flowers to a doctor. Few mothers in London, Paris or New York would take such a risk, but Irina Nisevich, 30, appears to have had her reasons, albeit misguided.

The doctor has told reporters she was observing a Russian superstition in which a baby should not be shown to strangers until he or she is 40 days old. The belief has its roots in the fear of the "evil eye". Yegor had only reached Day 23. It probably did not occur to her that her baby might be at risk: baby-snatching is rare in Russia, where babies are treated with huge consideration.

Police say only one other baby has been abducted in the Moscow area in the last three decades. In Soviet times, clusters of prams were a common sight outside shops or clinics. Even now, when small children get lost, the search becomes a matter of communal concern. It is hardly surprising, then, that Yegor's case immediately became a cause celebre among the Russian media.

Three days after her baby's disappearance, a distraught Mrs Nisevich leapt to her death from the window of her eighth-storey apartment. Her exhausted husband, Dmitri, was asleep. Unlike child-snatching, suicide is alarmingly common in Russia. The government's State Committee on Statistics says there were an estimated 54,900 in Russia last year - a staggering 150 a day - a figure up sharply from the 39,200 in 1990. Psychologists blame economic instability, a fall in the standard of living, growing unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse.

But Mrs Nisevich's case falls into a separate category. By the time of her death, she had endured three days of intense press interest, of unending telephone calls, questions and interviews. Some say the press frenzy - a relatively new phenomenon in Russia - helped drive her to suicide.

"It was not only the fact that journalists were at her door with questions," said sub-colonel Vladimir Zubkov of the interior ministry in Moscow. "It was also what they were writing in their reports - saying the baby had been kidnapped to have his organs transplanted."

To his voice has been added that of Sergei Topol, a reporter from the newspaper Kommersant Daily who covered the story. He told the Moscow Times he too, believes media pressure could have played a part. Such was the strength of his feelings over the issue that he declined to interview Mrs Nisevich: "There are some moral barriers that should never be crossed."

Russians have not forgotten the allegations made against the Western paparazzi after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Although the evidence in this case is arguable - Mrs Nisevich was said to be unable to forgive herself for the loss of Yegor - a debate over media ethics is looming.

Almost as shocking as the tragedy itself are the theories about the abduction of Yegor, who has yet to be found, despite a search of airports and railway stations. Russian newspapers say he may have been stolen by beggars, who use children as props on the street to induce pity. He may also, they say, have been taken by professional criminals intent on selling him to an illegal adoption racket.

In this society, with its deep love of children, that is about as sick as you can get.