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As emotions over US-Russia adoptions intensify, a rift widens into a chasm

Some 20,000 people turned out for a protest in Moscow this weekend over the death of a 3-year-old adoptee in Texas, which was ruled an accident. Russian officials are demanding more evidence. 

By Correspondent / March 4, 2013

People take part in a rally in defense of Russian children in Moscow, March 2, 2013. Demonstrators walked along Moscow streets to support the new law prohibiting the adoption of Russian children by Americans and to commemorate the adopted Russian-born children who later died in the United States, according to participants. The board displays portraits of boys and read "Maxim Kuzmin" (l.) and "Dima Yakovlev."

Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS

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Moscow

Angry demonstrators in the streets of Moscow echoed top Russian government officials over the weekend in casting doubt on a Texas autopsy finding that the January death of a Russian-born adoptee, 3-year-old Max Shatto, was an accident.

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In a diplomatic rift that's becoming increasingly shrill, the Kremlin children's rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, who had earlier accused the child's adoptive US parents of "murder," suggested Sunday that the US government was guilty of a cover-up and of whitewashing the case.

The official autopsy report issued Friday, representing the conclusions of three local medical examiners and one outside expert, found that Max, born Maxim Kuzmin in Pskov, Russia, almost certainly died accidentally due to a self-inflicted blow.

Astakhov and other Russian officials are demanding that Max's younger brother Kirill, whose American name is Kristopher, be taken away from the same adoptive family and be repatriated to Russia.

In an interview with the official Voice of Russia radio station, Mr. Astakhov listed the reasons to doubt the report, including differences with preliminary information, what he described as "rushed forensics," and the fact that Max was buried in Louisiana, not Texas, which he said would make a second autopsy more difficult.

The Russian foreign ministry's human rights commissioner, Konstantin Dolgov, posted a statement Saturday calling the autopsy results "incomplete" and demanding US authorities turn over all relevant documentation to Russia, including the boy's death certificate.

"Only an examination of these documents will enable meaningful conclusions to be reached about the circumstances surrounding the Russian child's death and determine our possible future steps," Mr. Dolgov said. "We are expecting that the US side will fulfill its obligations on this matter fully and without delay."

Deepest chasm of public misunderstanding

Experts say the emotional nature of the controversy is starting to turn what started out as a diplomatic flap between the US and Russia, including dueling human rights laws, into the deepest chasm of public misunderstanding between East and West since the cold war ended.

"President Vladimir Putin is using populist campaigns like this and aggressive foreign policy positions to strengthen his own legitimacy in the eyes of Russians," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center.

"This is a very emotive issue, involving allegations of deliberate abuse of Russian children by American parents, and sounds like the Kremlin is standing up for the defense of those children....  Astakhov in particular, and the Kremlin in general, also need to keep face, after making a lot of allegations about the death of that little boy before the facts were all in. This is all for domestic consumption, but it has serious implications for Russia's image around the world," he says.

Russia's 'lost children' march

On Saturday, Russian officials got a boost from the streets, as up to 20,000 people marched through downtown Moscow to support the ban on all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens passed by the State Duma late last year.

The march was organized by a new pro-Kremlin group called Russian Mothers, which says its goal is to bring home all Russia's lost children and work to find homes in Russia for all the country's approximately 120,000 institutionalized children.

Critics say Russian Mothers is a Kremlin pocket group, and the Russian blogosphere was full of allegations that many of the marchers were paid to come out, or ordered by their bosses in state companies and institutions.

But Irina Bergset, one of the founders of Russian Mothers, says the organization was started a year ago to defend Russian families against what she claims is rampant abuse of Russian children by foreigners.

"We want to draw the world's attention to the forced confiscation of Russian children," Ms. Bergset says.

"Our purpose is to unite all forces and political organizations to protect our children, all political, religious, and other forces who believe that international adoption should be stopped... The mass media is full of stories that show there is an epidemic of violence against children in the US, some 6 million cases per year. We have child abuse in Russia too, but there is no such epidemic. We need to cope with this problem, and quickly," she says.

Cases of neglect

A January poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that about half of Russians approve of the Dima Yakovlev Act, which bans all US adoptions of Russian children, while about 30 percent disapprove.

Bergset, who addressed Saturday's rally, says that Max's case has touched a public nerve in Russia and that people should no longer believe that the US, or Americans, can be trusted.

"We do not believe that the adoptive parents of Maxim are innocent," she says. "We have a different attitude toward children here in Russia, perhaps due to cultural differences, we don't treat them like cats and dogs....  This autopsy verdict is a slap in the face of Russian civil society; we cannot accept it," she says.

There have been 19 documented cases of Russian children dying due to abuse or neglect in adoptive American homes, out of approximately 60,000 US-Russia adoptions in the past two decades.

That's a far lower rate than the 1,220 Russian children who've died at the hands of adoptive Russian parents in Russia, out of approximately 170,000 adoptions in the same period.

Experts say rates of child abuse in Russia are extremely high, and efforts to address the problem are hampered by lack of public education, media reluctance to cover the issue, and an unwillingness on the part of authorities and courts to prosecute offenders.

Astakhov has argued that the adoption ban is just the first step toward implementing his Russia Without Orphans program, which he says will eventually provide happy homes inside Russia for all its children.

But Tatiana Tulchinskaya, director of Here and Now, a charity that works with orphanages, says that all the negativity building up around the issue is not helping Russian children.

"I wish I could say that all the discussion around this is a good thing, and will lead us to better understanding of the issues. But it's unfortunate that the starting point was that law banning US adoptions rather than a real conversation about why we have so many orphans in Russia," she says.

"In the specialist community we've been talking about the real problems for a long time before all this hysteria began. Child care specialists are certainly ready to offer serious advise to our authorities, but are they ready to listen?"

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