Deep emotions run beneath Russia's adoption ban

The Duma's bill to ban US adoptions of Russian children, which passed another legislative hurdle today, appeals to Russian pride and concerns about the US.

Misha Japaridze/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday. Putin says a draft bill banning US adoptions of Russian children is a legitimate response to a new US law that calls for sanctions on Russians deemed to be human rights violators.

You usually can judge Vladimir Putin’s dislike of a reporter's question by the intensity of his expression. Such was the case this week at his annual news conference, when he greeted with a hard scowl the subject of pending Russian legislation that would ban Americans from adopting orphaned children. Mr. Putin unleashed invective on the fact that consular representatives aren’t allowed to visit adopted Russian children in the United States.

“I believe that is unacceptable. Do you think this is normal? How can it be normal when you are humiliated? Do you like it? Are you a sadomasochist or something? They shouldn’t humiliate our country,” he told reporters in Moscow.

As is often the case in Russia, there is the issue of what is going on versus what is really going on. And as is often the case in Russia, it’s complicated.

There is very little doubt as to the goal of the legislation, which passed its third and final reading in the lower house of parliament Friday and must still be signed by Putin. The bill is named after Dima Yakovlev, the toddler who died of heat stroke in 2007 after his adopted father forgot him in a locked car in Virginia for nine hours. The father, Miles Harrison, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Dima, whose adopted name was Chase. His acquittal in 2008 sparked banner newspaper headlines, incendiary TV news reports, and howls of outrage in Russia.

Lawmakers in the State Duma made it clear that today's legislation is a direct response to the US “Magnitsky Act,” a law designed to sanction a particular group of Russian officials connected to the death of a whistle-blowing lawyer in a Moscow prison.

In other words, a law designed to punish people tied to a lawyer’s prison death has been answered with a law to prevent people from adopting orphaned children, many of whom have have developmental or other disabilities and will otherwise end up living much of their lives in orphanages that often resemble state mental hospitals of a bygone era.

Adoption is a searingly emotional issue for Russians, and one easily manipulated by the Kremlin. The institution of adoption is relatively uncommon in Russia, for cultural and other reasons. And judging by headlines in the Moscow tabloids, and the rhetoric of some state lawmakers, you’d think that Americans adopt Russian children to eat them.

Bolstering those who are suspicious of adoption is a smattering of abuse cases in Russian orphanages that have seized the public attention. In one notorious case, a nurse in a southern Russian children’s home was accused of taping pacifiers to the mouths of children to keep them from crying. And cases like that of Dima and of Artyem Savelyev, whose adoptive American mother sent the then-7-year-old boy home to Russia with a "to whom it may concern" note of rejection in 2010, give Russians fair reason for pause over foreign adoptions.

But for many Russians, the adoption of children by foreigners is a polite way of saying “foreigners are purchasing our children for export.” Some 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans in the past two decades, and Russia trails only China and Ethiopia in popularity for Americans seeking to adopt foreign children, according to the US State Department.

Many also see it as ironic that Russia is being sanctioned for human rights violations by a country whose policies over the past decade have seared “Guantanamo” into the English language lexicon – an irony that Putin, who like many Russians has a nose for hypocrisy, clearly relished in pointing out.

“Not only are those prisoners detained without charge, they walk around shackled, like in the Middle Ages. They’ve legalized torture in their own country. Can you imagine if we had anything like this here? They would have eaten us alive a long time ago,” he said.

But regardless of the moralities involved, the fact of the matter is that there will be clear winners and losers from this ordeal.

The winners will be the middlemen, the orphanage directors, the bureaucrats, and the administrators all of whose signatures or stamps, essential to the adoption process, can yield a lucrative stream under-the-table revenues – revenues from well-meaning, would-be foreign parents with the means to pay thousands of dollars for the right to adopt a Russian orphan.

And the losers will be orphaned children who remain institutionalized. That was the point of US Ambassador Michael McFaul’s statement released Friday after the Duma vote: “The welfare of children is simply too important to be linked to others issues in our bilateral relationship.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a man not known for pulling his punches when it comes to US policy, has voiced his doubts, suggesting that more moderate voices might stop the bill's passage. Perhaps Putin, having made his point with his press conference performance and with the performance of the malleable State Duma, will relax his rhetoric and soften the bill to open the door to foreign adoptions again, thus portraying himself as doing the best for the children.

Mike Eckel reported from Moscow for five years.

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