Russia’s Top Breast-Feeding Expert Arrested for Running a ‘Cult’

Russia has had its share of problems with religious cults. From faith-healers and doomsayers to messiahs of every description, there are roughly 4,000 of them across the country with some 800,000 followers, according to the Russian Association of Centers for Religious and Sectarian Studies. But with no clear definition of a cult in Russian law, very few of their leaders are ever charged with any crimes, even when their teachings are clearly harmful to their followers. So on Friday, Oct. 18, when Russian police announced the arrest of an alleged cult leader, local media splashed the news across the headlines. The only problem was the supposed cult turned out to be a pre-natal center, and its director, Zhanna Tsaregradskaya, had never claimed to have any occult powers. She merely taught seminars on breast-feeding and natural births.

According to the statement released on Friday by Russia’s counter-extremism police, the Rozhana Center, which was founded in 1989 to help re-introduce home births in Russia, was actually “a sect with a strict hierarchical structure.” Contrary to common practices in Soviet and Russian medicine, the center encourages mothers to breast-feed their newborns, and it provides training courses for midwives and expecting mothers to give birth at home instead of at a hospital, according to the center’s website and its former clients.

In the West, such courses first appeared about a century ago and have become commonplace around the world. In Russia they seem to have resulted in felony charges. In their statement, investigators said they had charged Tsaregradskaya on two counts — “creating a non-commercial organization that encroaches on the personalities and rights of citizens” and “the incitement of hatred and hostility.” If convicted of both charges, Tsaregradskaya faces up to 7 years in prison.

The investigators’ statement emphasized the fact that Tsaregradskaya steered mothers away from traditional “principles.” The center’s roughly 14 “followers” were taught to “reject the family as a social institution, to act negatively toward their spouses (men), to refuse medical help, education, work and military service,” the statement said. In essence, they were being taught disobedience toward social norms. As the statement also claimed, the center used “physical and psychological violence” to maintain control over its followers.

Tsaregradskaya, who has been released pending trial, did not respond to requests for comment. But one of the coordinators at the center, whom TIME reached by phone on Monday, denied that any violence or “brainwashing” was used in their training courses. “We provide free phone consultations to mothers who are having trouble breast-feeding, or who simply want to know more about it,” said the coordinator, Anna, who declined to give her surname as she was not authorized to speak to the press. She said the hotline continues to function as normal, and no police have come to shut it down. “We have no idea why our director has been singled out like this.”

The Rozhana Center’s legal troubles began in 2010, when about a dozen disgruntled clients came to the center’s live-in facility in Kaluga, near Moscow, to retrieve property they claimed to have left there after a seminar. According to police statements and local media reports, Tsaregradskaya accused them of failing to pay for her services and refused to allow them inside. When they insisted, her husband fired shots at them with a “traumatic pistol,” a form of air gun widely sold in Russia, and the husbands of two of the former clients were injured. Police then shut down the Kaluga facility, and Tsaregradskaya’s husband, Andrei, was sentenced last year to five years in prison for assault.

The lawyer who defended the victims in that shooting incident, Alina Pokrovskaya, appeared on Russian television Friday to discuss the case, and even she denied the investigators’ claims that violence or coercion was used against the center’s clients. “There is a great demand among women to organize natural births, because these methods have been lost in our country,” Pokrovskaya told a cable news channel. “Unfortunately, even our grandmothers have lost this know-how,” she added. “And our doctors do not accommodate such needs.”

That helps explain why the Rozhana Center enjoyed such popularity. Under the Soviet Union, the state did not allow private clinics or midwives to deliver babies. Child birth was the responsibility of state-run clinics, which encouraged mothers to use baby formula instead of breast milk to feed their newborns. When Soviet rule collapsed in the early 1990s, natural births started to catch on along with other trends in holistic medicine, dieting and health care — all of which were flooding in from the West. The Rozhana Center was among the first organizations to work in this field in Russia, and Tsaregradskaya often appeared on television talk shows to explain the benefits of breast feeding and natural birth.

According to some of her former clients, she used her popularity to extract exorbitant fees, a charge that Tsaregradskaya has repeatedly denied. But whatever claims could be made against her business practices, they would hardly explain why she is being accused of organizing a sect. Over the weekend, Russia’s state-run media ran stories accusing the Rozhana Center of “brainwashing mommies,” and coercing them into joining a “cult of breast-feeding.” For Anna, the center’s coordinator in Moscow, the reports seemed totally bizarre. “We can’t figure out why there’s this witch hunt now,” she said. “Maybe it’s just a fear of the unfamiliar.”