MOSCOW — Elvira Letunovskaya has preserved her lively giggle and quick mind despite living her eight years in harsh conditions that could drive another to despair. The bubbly girl was handed over to one of Russia's state orphanages by her birth parents who, like many Russians, were embarrassed by what Western doctors might diagnose as a mild case of cerebral palsy.
The staff at the Baby House in Moscow has labeled Elvira, unable to walk without assistance, mentally retarded. This means that she is denied toys and education, fed unpalatable gruel, and sometimes drugged into inactivity. Now, she has reached the age to be transferred to a mental institution, where child advocates say young inmates are often left naked and abused.
The good news for Elvira is that an American family from Oklahoma is seeking to adopt her. But the Russian system may defeat this outcome. Inefficiency and corruption by custodians of orphans make potential adoptions by foreigners difficult.
And legislation, nearing final approval, will raise more barriers.
"Children like Elvira will be lost if they are not adopted," says Sarah Philps, a trustee of the British charity Action for Russia's Children. "They'd have normal lives if they lived in England or America." The chances for local adoption of children like Elvira are virtually nil.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union seven years ago, Russia has become a big supplier of white babies to America. The number soared to around 3,000 last year from just a few hundred in 1992.
Some 600,000 orphans live in Russian children's homes, where the death rate during the first year of life is five-fold that of other infants.
Children's rights groups say it is not easy to get children with disabilities out of institutions, which still embrace an old Soviet view that they should be held out of the public eye. Some children's advocates claim that some institutions even encourage parents to hand over such children so that the homes' authorities can pocket the state subsidies paid for each child.
Bureaucracy or wrangling by Education Ministry officials holds up many adoptions. Agonizing delays often come while officials wait for bribes that have reached $45,000 or higher. Those who cannot pay the exorbitant fees are priced out of the market - including many would-be Russian adoptive parents.
Citing this corruption, which Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov likened to a "slave trade," legislators voted overwhelmingly this month to tighten regulations on foreign adoptions. They are radically watered down from an earlier version which would have created a virtual moratorium on foreign adoptions until Russia signed treaties with adopting countries.
If approved by President Boris Yeltsin, as expected, the latest version stipulates that Russian children keep their citizenship until age 18, which could cause naturalization problems in countries which do not allow dual citizenship. It is also sufficiently vague on the use of "representatives" to help a family adopt, which has raised fears by adoption advocates that bureaucrats could block a case.
Concern over Russia's birthrate
Some nationalist legislators seem more concerned with Russia's diminishing birthrate than with children's welfare.
Nina Krivelskaya, a deputy of ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, recently declared, "Healthy children are a guarantee of the demographic security of the Russian Federation. The healthy gene pool must be left in Russia."
Nationalists have seized upon two cases of abuse of Russian children by American adoptive parents last year. A woman in Colorado was convicted of murdering a 2-year-old in her care, while a Phoenix, Ariz., couple was denied custody for a while after being charged with neglect for hitting two 4-year-olds on a flight from Moscow to New York.
Falling number of adoptions
Adoption agencies such as Cradle of Hope, based outside Washington, argue that such politicians are not thinking about the best interests of the country's orphans, one-third of whom live in institutions.
They say that with the number of adoptions in Russia falling - they nearly halved from 13,942 in 1992 to 8,799 in 1996 - foreign adoptions should be encouraged. (About 80 American adoption agencies operate in Russia.)
"There is a huge need for these kids to find decent homes. They have no hope, they have no future. If they are adopted, they have a chance," says Cradle of Hope's executive director Linda Perilstein.
This is particularly true, she and other adoption advocates say, for mentally or physically challenged children like Elvira, who are unlikely to find homes in Russia where a stigma prevails about people with disabilities.
Ms. Perilstein says the proposed amendments to the adoption law are sufficiently vague so that foreign agencies can continue to do business in Russia.
"I can't say adoption agencies are embracing this, but it's livable," she says.
Stricter regulations for trade in children is needed, says Viktor Parshutkin, an adoption lawyer who has frequently spoken out against corruption.
But he stresses that political capital should not be made out of isolated incidents of child abuse.
"Such tragedies are the exceptions," Parshutkin says. "The overwhelming [number of] cases of Russian kids who are adopted by foreigners end up with good families."