UARU
Vegetarianism Might Have Gotten These Kids Taken From Their Parents
2 August, 2017

In meat-and-potatoes Ukraine, it isn’t easy being a vegetarian. It’s especially difficult in a small village.

But the Batenkov-Shevlyuk family likely never imagined just how difficult it would be when they moved to the village of Buki in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region. Last month, the local village council took away the family’s three children.

The authorities claim that the children were hungry and neglected. But the parents insist the decision was discriminatory against their family for being different.

Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova/HROMADSKE

That’s because Svetozara Batenkova and Svetozar Shevlyuk (born Olena and Dmytro) are Ridnoviry, practitioners of a form of Slavic neo-paganism based upon pre-Christian beliefs. They do not eat meat and allow their children to run through the village barefoot.

Batenkova and Shevlyuk have three children – two daughters aged 11 and 7, and a 4-year-old son. Batenkova is also currently pregnant with their fourth child.  The children are currently housed in “Sunshine House,” a rehabilitation center for children, where they have lived for a month since village chairman Valentyna Ilnitska decreed to remove them from their parents.

Villagers and authorities tell stories of neglect and inattentive parenting. But Batenkova and Shevlyuk claim they have provided their children with freedom, good health, and spirituality. The showdown between the family and the authorities raises questions about where parents’ rights to raises children in accordance with their beliefs end and the law begins.

Village People

The Batenkov-Shevlyuk family has lived in Buki for two years in a house by the river. The house is covered with murals and children’s drawings. Formerly a soldier and teacher, Svetozara and Svetozar now spend their time connecting with the supernatural through prayer and spiritual massage.

Family videos show that the children are encouraged to spend as much time as possible in the yard and by the river. They run around outside the house and through the village. There are no rules while they are enjoying the outdoors.

Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova/HROMADSKE

Batenkova and Shevlyuk base their philosophy in their Ridnoviry faith based on the spiritual practices that dominated the Kievan Rus prior to its 988 BCE conversion to Christianity. In Ridnoviri cosmology, Perun is the highest god, the god of thunder. This and other “Slavic Native Faiths” first appeared in the 1930s and 40s. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Ridnoviry and other such faiths experienced a second awakening. With Gorbachev’s Perestroika, neo-paganism established itself in Ukraine and has grown ever since. As of 2005, there were approximately 5000 to 10,000 practitioners in Ukraine.

But the family’s faith stands out in Buki. Svetozara and Svetozar’s approach to parenting annoys the neighbours and their behavior is considered strange in the tiny, traditional village. The couple’s parenting and lifestyle has even aroused suspicion among the neighbours, who claim that the couple’s children often go unsupervised.

According to one neighbour, Oksana — who initially asked not to be shown on camera in fear “that they would come and kill me in the night — “the children are naked, barefoot, dirty, running on asphalt. When I see them, I take my own kids home. Go home and play there! They even came to ask for some sausage to eat. They tore up parsley in the garden. The children would tear out other neighbors’ tulips. Their faith is incomprehensible. But the most important thing is that the children need to be watched. The parents are often gone.”

A local elder, Anatoly Krasnitsky, says that he was told the social services took the children due to the lack of supervision.

“They called me from the medical centre, saying that they were running around by themselves, pouring water from the well on themselves,” Anatoly says. “As a result, they were placed under the supervision of social workers. The city council examined this case three times. [The parents] pray and pray. They go to the mountain, she gets stark naked, and he’s in underwear…summoning the spirits or something like that.  Children are children. They should be with their mother. But we have to take care of them instead.”

Krasnitsky says the family’s older daughter is often tardy and misses class. But Svetozar Shevlyuk disputes this claim: “This is as if someone bought a packet of sweets and invited them to yard saying, ‘Children, come here!’ Have they spoken to the children, asked them if they were hungry? They were never completely unsupervised. The children have a phone and we are always in contact with them.”

Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova/HROMADSKE

In the local grocery store, the owner shows photos of the children in the store barefoot in the winter. She says that they frequently go to the store to buy sausages and dumplings when their parents are not home. However, she says that the children are very hardy and almost never ill. And they don’t look hungry.

Sunshine House

Every morning, the parents go to the city of Zhytomyr, where the children are being housed, to see them and give them food from home. Svetozara usually goes barefoot.

The children run out into the yard and happily greet their mother. She brings them baked zucchini in butter. In their 15 minutes together, they often have bananas and grapes.

“For some time, we haven’t given the kids baked goods,” Svetozara says. “Only from time to time, I would bake leavened bread. Here, they eat white bread, and they complain that it makes their stomachs ache. At home, we give them cookies, chocolate, or ice cream when they seriously want it. We just try to buy quality. Sometimes overly caring people try to persuade them to eat something, and then when the children do, the kids start to feel bad and become aggressive. Then we try to explain to the children what’s happening with them.”  

The children are confused about why they were taken away. But even at the rehabilitation home, the caretakers say the children like to eat meat, fish, and eggs. They agree not to tell their mother, as they don’t want to be perceived as breaking her rules.

Most children in the rehabilitation center come from broken homes. According to UNICEF, there are approximately 8 million kids in Ukraine, and over 94,000 them live in institutions. Many of these children are abandoned due to family poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and drug use.  However, the Batenkov-Shevlyuk family has no such problems.

Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova/HROMADSKE

“The doctors and psychiatrists are trying to investigate the strange phenomenon of why our children are healthy and socially adapted,” says Svetozara. “Social workers continue to look for justification for their own actions. Recently, Valentina Ilnitska, who initiated the seizure of our children, told a TV station that there are 13 dysfunctional families in the region. But she can’t remove the children from them, because it is huge responsibility. But she is able to do so with ours.”

Soon, representatives of National Corpus — a nationalist political party and the civilian wing of the far-right Azov Battalion — arrive. Among them is Nazar Kravchenko, assistant to National Corpus’ leader, parliamentarian Andriy Biletsky. The save come to settle the issue with the village council. The promise to come to court in late July.

In the rehabilitation center, there are 47 children. None of them are deprived of contact with their parents. Parents cannot take them home, but can visit. The children will only be released into their parents’ custody when a court rules in favor of it.

Psychologist Alla Buluy says that the Batenkov-Shevlyuks claim that the children were taken away due to their vegetarianism. But the real reason is different, she says: “The children were taken away because the police found them in shopping malls without parental supervision. The children visit Zhytomyr by themselves, alone.”

Furthermore, the psychologist says, “the children wish to eat meat, fish, eggs. They said that they are delicious. But they are afraid that the parents will know. I saw how they came to an agreement that they wouldn’t tell mother. ‘Let’s say that we only ate salad.’ They love their mother and are afraid to be perceived as breaking her rules.”

The village council further emphasizes that they did not reach the decision to take away the children easily. The head of the department, Maria Prysiazhniuk, says that they monitored the Batenkov-Shevlyuk family for more than a year.

“The final straw was in 2016. According to the eldest daughter [11-year-old Bogdana], the mother left her to look after her younger siblings. It was winter, the children went around the village, asking for food. I prepared orders to take away the children immediately. But then, the committee decided to work with them one more time,” Prysiazhniuk says. “Only when the children went by themselves to Zhytomyr [was the decision made]. The police arrested them in the mall: dirty, sloppy, tired. The younger daughter, Angelina, had tonsillitis and a leg injury that had turned into an abscess.”

The Zhytomyr district court decided to separate the children from their parents without revoking their parental rights until the trial on July 31st. The parents consider the village council’s action illegal and unreasonable.

Freedom

The parents believe they give their children freedom.

“All the parents that I know surround their children with constant rules: don’t go there, don’t do that, you’ll drown there, and over there you’d be run over by a car,” Svetozara says. “They have a lot more rules than our children. Now, we see the result of the rehabilitation center’s work. The children are complaining about stomach pains and headaches. They watch too many cartoons. They get some food. Lev started to fight, and Angelina began to lie…”

Photo credit: Oleksandra Chernova/HROMADSKE

“Our home was filled with constant laughter and jokes. Even when they were doing or working on something, drawing, reading, it seemed quiet, but there was always such energy, that they felt they are at home. It is so strange – empty, with no children,” says the mother.

On 31 July, the Zhytomyr city court ruled for the children to be returned to their parents. However, the case of the Batenkov-Shevlyuk family versus the village council is far from over. There will be another trial on September 24 to determine the fate of this family.

/Reporting by Oleksandra Chernova

/Translated and adapted by Chen Ou Yang