Staunton, November 6 – Given the bloody history of the USSR, few in either Russia or the West are surprised by the discovery of mass graves from the Soviet period. But the appearance of new mass graves in a Russian region, in this case of infants who were stillborn or died shortly after birth, is something else again.
Last week, Stavropol and federal news outlets reported “the mass burial of children” on one day in a Stavropol hospital and provided photographs showing that all were buried on one day, Anton Chablin reports. Some were stillborn and none of the others had reached the age of 18 months, judging from the crosses erected at the site.
Many Russians were even more shocked, the journalist continues, when local health officials said that “such burials are alas something quite ordinary,” given that in Stavropol Territory alone “about 400 children die” in birthing facilities. As a result, Vladimir Polubaryenko, deputy human rights ombudsman, demanded an independent investigation.
The ombudsman said that a cemetery worker confirmed that all the children were buried on the same day but refused to say more because his bosses had forbidden him to respond to such questions. Polubaryenko said that in his view “children shouldn’t be buried in this way, without a priest or relatives.”
His remarks, Chablin continues, prompted Natalya Kozlova, the deputy health minister in the territory, to tell the media that the children buried on that one day were all stillborn and not children of various ages as had been reported. And she noted that “in the majority of cases,” relatives did not claim the remains, forcing officials to “periodically” bury them.
At the same time, she announced that the health ministry would convene a conference to “clarify all the details which had attracted the attention of journalists. One error clearly has to be corrected, she said: the tablets on the graves should indicate the date of death “and not the date of burial.”
Under the terms of a 1996 federal law, stillborn children are buried without charge to the parents. The federal government provides subsidies to the regions and the regions in turn hand the money to municipalities. The last are responsible for paying for ritual services, Chablin continues.
Three years ago, Russia changed its approach to the definition of infant mortality to bring it into compliance with WHO standards. Prior to that time, it had been operating under a Stalin-era instruction from the Peoples Commissariat for Health. The new rules have lowered the weight of a child at birth and as a result boosted infant mortality figures in 2012 by 16 percent in Russia as a whole and by 27 percent in Stavropol Territory alone.
(Until the change was made, Russian and earlier Soviet figures underreported infant mortality because doctors in the USSR and then the RSFSR did not count as live births babies who subsequently died if their birth weight was below a much higher figure than the WHO has established as the norm.)
At present, infant mortality in Stavropol is 10.4 deaths per 1,000 births – or 381 deaths among those declared to have been born alive who died before their first birthday. Many of these, Chablin says, were among children of women from the neighboring republics of the North Caucasus.
Neonatalogists now can keep even extremely low birthrate children from dying, but they need special facilities and equipment; and this is both expensive and controversial, given that many of these children often grow up with defects that doctors cannot correct later, the journalist says.
Those who oppose making the investment to keep such low birthweight children alive argue that they will not only place enormous burdens on their families and societies but also will impose “a so-called ‘genetic burden’ on the population” because they may pass on their defects to future generations, Chablin says.
“But,” he adds, “deeply patriarchal Russian society is simply not prepared for this.” And consequently the appearance of pictures of “a ‘medical’ cemetery of stillborn infants generates an inadequate Internet reaction rather than attempts to thoughtfully reflect about what should be done with these little babies and why there are so stupefyingly many of them.”