Uzbek Nanny Confesses to Murder of Russian Child; Russian State TV Silent on Story

March 1, 2016
Police vehicles converged on Oktyabrskaya Metro Station February 29, 2016 to arrest an Uzbek nanny who had murdered a Russian child. Photo by TASS.

LIVE UPDATES: An Uzbek nanny who murdered a 4-year-old Russian girl and paraded with her severed head at a metro station shouting “Allahu Akbar” has confessed to the crime and may have been under the influence of drugs. Russian state TV did not cover the gruesome story and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov supported their decision.

Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.

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Russian Journalists Debate Rationale for News Blackout of Nanny Murder Story; Social Media Undeterred

Russian journalists have been debating the decision by Russian state broadcasters not to cover the story of the Uzbek nanny who murdered a 4-year-old child and then paraded outside a metro stop with her severed head, crying “Allahu Akbar.” The grisly story has flooded social media channels, with the video attached, sometimes blocking out the worst scenes and sometimes not.

State-run and pro-Kremlin wire services, newspapers and web sites have covered the story, mainly publishing official statements or leaks from the investigation. Only Moskovsky Komsomolets, an independent tabloid-style newspaper that often hews to the government line has shown some initiative in tracking the nanny back to Uzbekistan and talking with people in her home town, including the police there. This produced the claim that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia as long ago as 2000, had been hospitalized multiple times including two years ago, and was unable to find work or evidently survive on state aid so she went to Moscow in search of a babysitting position. 

Whatever the ban at state TV, private channels, even those loyal to the Kremlin, feel entitled to cover the story to get ratings.

LifeNews released a video this afternoon of an interrogation of the nanny, sent through “LifeCorr,” which is their “citizen journalism'” program, using a smart phone app. It’s not clear if a law-enforcer is the questioner in the video or a reporter allowed to question her; most likely the former given that it was aired from LifeCorr and not from a camera crew’s work, although LifeNews has very close ties to police and intelligence services.

Answers involving the names and information about other persons is clumsily muted in the video. In very broken but coherent Russian, Bobokulova explains that her three children live with her parents and her former husband and that she is divorced. LifeNews writes here, evidently based on her account, that she “recently” divorced her husband, but police told MK that this happened in 2002. Towards the end, she breaks down crying and says her family threw her out on the street, which was “inhumane.”

Popular blogger Oleg Kashin’s published a post noting that in fact a few TV channels did cover the story of the nanny (but not the main three: TV1, Rossiya 1, and NTV).

Most independent media have published the story using official information and have been satisfied with the explanation that the nanny was on drugs or mentally ill and have not looked further for any ISIS angle — which appears to be non-existent.

That wasn’t the end of the story for the reading public, however, which remained with doubts and curiosities. 

Blogger Oleg Kashin, who has 244,000 followers on Twitter, dug up information that the nanny that pointed back in the direction of Islamism:
Translation: Gulchekhra Bobokulova recently behaved strangely — she would spend hours sitting on Arabic sites, and forget about the child.

Others, including Kirill Martynov, a co-author and close associate of Boris Nemtsov who left Russia after his assassination when he was threatened himself, countered him:

Translation: Bobokulova suffers from schizophrenia, and her relatives took away the children. No connection with migrants, ethnicity or Islam. I’m sorry.

Russian officials took to social media to reassure the public; Pavel Astakhov is the Russian child rights ombudsman and has 277,000 followers. 

Translation: The nanny suspected of the murder of the child has been detained thanks to vigilant police near the Oktyabrskoye Pole metro.

This didn’t stop people from discussing it however and wondering if they were misled. 

This tweet from an independent news site Svobodnye Novosti [Free News] published a meme circulated by other readers comparing the saturation coverage of the fake “toddler crucifixion” story based on a refugee woman’s account and the murderous nanny:

Translation: A. Plyushchev: “Bloody Nany” and TV.

While the state TV wanted to suppress the ethnic angle and indeed didn’t mention she was Uzbek in a number of stories, independent bloggers, even those like Ilya Varlamov, who has covered Islam in Russia positively and has 244,000 followers, felt they should inform readers:

Translation: The identity of the nanny has been established, who severed the child’s head. She turns out to be a citizen of Uzbekistan, Gyulchekhra Bobokulova.

At least two-thirds of Russians have Internet access and they will seek out news if they are curious enough, although many don’t look for alternatives to state TV as opinion polls have shown. 

Translation: Somebody is interested in the Oscars, but I’m interested in Gulchekhra Bobokulova, who cut off a child’s head and walked around waiting that head on the street.

And it will be impossible to stop people from invoking the ethnic and religious angle: 

Translation: She is Gyulchera Bobokulova. What sort of Russian Orthodoxy is that?

As we noted, many commentators said this tragedy was a real version of a fake story promoted by Russian state TV as war propaganda, claiming that Ukrainian soldiers nailed a toddler to a notice board and then dragged his lifeless body around the square before his horrified mother. This story was instantly debunked by independent media and even some pro-Kremlin sources, and appeared to have started with a social media post by the Russian ultranationalist figure Aleksandr Dugin.

Later, TV1 semi-apologized for the story and seemed to concede it was made up by a refugee in distress but continued to blame Ukraine for alleged mistreatment of Russians.

Vladimir Posner was a notorious Kremlin propagandist in the Soviet era who was transformed into a seasoned TV executive and frequent commentator on Russian racism and xenophobia after the coup. Ultimately he moved to Paris, citing the intolerance of Russian nationalists for Jews and other non-Russian minorities. He spoke out today on the blackout of the nanny story, Novaya Gazeta reported:

“I can only say that every journalist decides this, or every executive, for himself. There are no rules and laws regarding this in our country or in the world. Everyone himself conceives how important it is to report, how much this information is needed, so that people understand what is happening, to the extent it is necessary.

I was somewhat surprised when I saw how much was written about the central channels not showing this subject. I immediately recalled when terrorists ran into the towers in New York with their airplanes, and the main American channels did not show how people jumped out of the windows. It’s approximately the same.”

The big difference is that while US TV didn’t show 9/11 jumpers, they covered the story of their existence based on police and eyewitness reports. The matter of not showing the graphic photos of people driven to their deaths was one of privacy for the individuals and their families and decency. There was never any question that the entire topic would be blacked out, however.

In the Russian equivalent, the story of the very existence of the nanny and her crime was not told at all on the main TV channels. Most executives would agree that they should not display the images, and even the sensational LifeNews blurred them out in videos on their web site. 

Posner said he personally “would not have shown it,” but he doesn’t make clear whether he would still report the story as distinct from showing images.

Aleksandr Plushchev, an Ekho Moskvy writer once furloughed for an injudicious tweet about  the death of the son of Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov, believes that the media shouldn’t overly coddle audiences with blackouts:

I have worked for 22 years in the news service at Ekho Moskvy. All these years I have professionally encountered news every day. And all these years the discussion continues about what should and should not be said on television for the domestic viewer.

At first it was discussed how the war in Chechnya affected his psyche. Why should he know this, after all, he cannot help in bringing order to the rebellious republic? Then the viewer’s fine soulful construction was blocked from information about terrorist acts. Well, anything’s possible, what if panic broke out and prevented the intelligence services from working?

Opposition members and their actions were not shown under the pretext that that they just aren’t interesting to anyone. What if the viewer turned off his box and then forgot to turn it back on?
And that in the capital of the country, a woman walks in front of a metro stop dressed in black with the severed head of a child in her hand and shouts that she is a terrorist — and this is not news. No such event occurred. You imagined it. Syria is on all the programs, Ukraine is all #theywanttotakebackourCrimea — even the manipulation of gauges in an exploded coal mine shaft is covered, which was totally hard to expect.

But the bloody nanny –no. For me, frankly, this was unexpected: I had thought that it was a rich subject to be used full tilt to whip up hysteria, as if to say, “ISIS is at the gates, we haven’t bombed enough in Syria.”

Plyushchev recounts that authorities seemed to be afraid of whipping up ethnic hatred, although he pointed out that they didn’t suffer from such concerns when they did saturation coverage of the story of “raped Liza,” a Russian immigrant girl in Germany who made up a story that she was molested by Middle Eastern immigrants when she ran way from home but which was ultimately debunked both by the police and her own account.  He also pointed out that broadcasters had no such sensibilities about the “toddler crucifixion” story.

If people claim they don’t want to know about or look at such a horror, the figures at Mediametrics belie them says Plyushev; the story is on the top of the 20 most popular stories.

Plyushchev believes the story can be covered without descending into yellow journalism and should have been broadcast.

Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that the Kremlin did not put pressure on news channels not to cover the story, and they made the call themselves. But the independent wire service RBC said broadcasters were in fact given recommendations not to show the story of the child’s murder on the news. 

In doing so, those who received the official notice got the impression that the government was most afraid of the ethnic side of the issue. There are already existing tensions between Central Asian migrant laborers and Russians; some Russian nationalists want them to be deported completely. Russia also has an uneasy relationship with Tashkent, as Uzbekistan has not always wanted to join in Russian-dominated efforts through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and has demonstratively stayed away from some summits. Uzbekistan has been quietly critical of the invasion of Ukraine and abstained from the UN resolution condemning the annexation of Crime. 

Social media is still driven largely by establishment media and to a smaller extent by blogs — which react to mainstream media, especially in Russia. So if there is a news blackout and even LifeNews runs out of something to say, social media discussion will die down as well. Russian officials likely are counting on that phenomenon, but continued reaction from nationalist groups uneasy about Central Asian migrants — officials like Ella Pamfilova who called for better background checks of migrant workers — and the pursuit of a jihad angle by at least some bloggers will ensure that the story’s effect will remain unpredictable even if manageable for the Kremlin.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 

Uzbek Nanny Confesses to Murder of Russian Child; Local Police Say She Was Diagnosed with Schizophrenia
Russia’s Investigative Committee issued a statement today on the “inexplicable” case of Gyulchekhra Bobokulova, the Uzbek nanny who murdered and decapitated a 4-year-old child, then set the apartment of her employers on fire and traveld to a metro station to parade with the severed head 
The account tracks with versions of the story given by LifeNews and Interfax although the fact that the woman cried “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great!), audible on the LifeCorr video, has been omitted. The Investigative Committee writes (translation by The Interpreter):

Everything occurred early in the morning at a building on Narodnogo Opolcheniya [People’s Militia] Street. The parents left with the older child after which Gyulchekhra Bobokulova murdered the sleeping little girl. Then she set the apartment on fire and left, hiding the severed head of the child in a plastic bag. Afterward she headed to the Oktyabrskoye Pole metro station.

A policeman approached the suspicious citizen to check her documents. In reply, the woman withdrew the girl’s head from the bag and began to cry that she had killed the child and would now blow herself up. A video appeared on the web in which the woman can be discerned dressed in black, she is holding in her hand the severed head of the child. The concerns about the explosives turned out to be in vain. Intelligence agents conducted a personal search of Bobokulova and did not find explosives on her body, after which the woman was taken to the Shchukino Precinct

The Investigative Committee said Bobokulova, 39, explained the motive for the murder was her husband cheating on her, but did not explain how this was connected to the family she worked for. Investigators have scheduled forensic psychiatric examination for her after declaring that she “made the impression of a mentally ill person.” Says the Investigative Committee:

The investigators have not managed to speak to the family. The parents are literally crushed by this horrible news and for now require the help of specialists and doctors. The main thing that investigators are determining now is how this woman ended up in the family: through a specialized agency or just from the street. The latter is hard to believe. If the nanny ended up in the family not through an agency, then someone could have recommended her. The question remains open — was this woman in the capital on a legal basis and did she have the right to work?

Earlier, Russian media had reported that she had legal permission to visit Moscow, but no working papers.
The Investigative Committee does not mention drugs in this statement, but TASS has reported leaks from the investigation that say Bobokulova had taken a drug, which was said to be PVP, but that she was later coherent during interrogation.
Interfax reported today that the nanny had confessed to the murder. Investigators returned Bobokulova to the scene of the crime and she pointed out the building, entrance and apartment. 
Russian state broadcast media decided not to cover the story at all; LifeNews covered it on their Internet site as did other media. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said state media was not pressured to do this but made the decision on their own, and the Kremlin supported it.
Clearly, at least in its public statements, the Russian authorities have decided to emphasize the angle of an illegal Central Asian migrant committing a crime rather than anything to do with ISIS-related terrorist groups, as not to stir up panic regarding a possible terrorist attack. The Russian media has recounted several other stories about single mothers decapitating their children.
The case is reminiscent to that of a cae of a New York City nanny who murdered two children in her care which sparked concern about immigrant child-care givers.
But in this and similar cases, overwork and lack of pay have been cited as a motive, unlike the case in Moscow where the most detailed account appears to confirm psychiatric illness.

Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) reported that Bobokulova was a native of Samarkand Region and a citizen of Uzbekistan who had just obtained a new passport in January.

MK has cited a police source in Bobokulova’s home town who said she was placed on a state registry in Uzbekistan in 2000, more than 15 years ago, with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and had been hospitalized in the past. She formally divorced in 2002, and her ex-husband quickly remarried and had two children, which was known; therefore the motive for the murder of any kind of recent “cheating by her husband” did not make sense.

The Uzbek police chief said that Bobokulova had recently visited her home town over the winter holidays. Her own two children, ages 16 and 20, remained in the town; the younger son lived with his father.  

He said her former husband and parents were summoned for interrogation “and gave testimony until late at night” and then “continued the next morning.” He said they were “shocked” but “the actions of this woman did not provoke surprise” due to her past mental illness. She had been unable to find work at home due to her condition which is why she left for Moscow, and concealed her condition. Her parents said they often hospitalized her in the spring when her condition worsened and her last stay was two years ago.

Russian human rights ombudsperson Ella Pamfilova has called for an international agreement to be signed by the members of the former Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States mandating the sharing of information about migrants who were placed on psychiatric registries, MK reported.
Muscovites have brought flowers and candles to the apartment building where the child lived with her family and a comment frequently found on social media is that the case is real, unlike the fake story of a murdered toddler in Slavyansk, Ukraine, which was put out as war propaganda by state media in 2014.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick