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Russian Adoptions, Financial Skulduggery, and National Pride

• December 27, 2012 • 5:57 PM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Vladimir Putin has said he’ll sign a bill from Russia’s parliament that bars Americans from adopting Russian children; given that it was his United Russia party that spearheaded the ban through the rubber-stamp Duma, his promise is no surprise. While the “fate” of Russian adoptees in America has been a long-running trope in Russia, always kept at a near boil by equal parts national shame, jingoism, and genuine concern for children, the spur for this ban was a U.S. swipe not at kids but some dodgy legislators, cops, and judges.

Most Western news sources have focused on the tiff, and not the checkered history of the adoption racket (The New Yorker’s Masha Lipman is a welcome exception).

Sociologist Natalie Cherot wrote for us in our early days that international adoption is routinely a fraught process, commonly seeing fraud and corruption charges. As she wrote in 2008:

When the topic of enforcing international adoption laws comes up, people usually assume it involves irregularities in the adoption process, including kidnapping and coercing birth parents to give up their babies.

This is what has happened in Guatemala, where an estimated 1 percent of the country’s total babies born in 2006 landed in American homes as a result of lenient regulations and a lack of government oversight. In the African country of Chad, six members of a French charity received stiff prison sentences in December for allegedly stealing children who had parents with the intent of passing them off as orphans from Darfur.

While Russian adoptions have their own greasy palms at play, the genesis of the likely ban is a Cold War-esque tit-for-tat response to the U.S. passing the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which prevents the U.S. from doing business with people who are linked to the murder of the eponymous crusading journalist (and perhaps more to the point, freezing their existing assets in the U.S.). That act was stuck onto a trade bill between the U.S. and Russia that actually reduced barriers between the two nations that, yes, dated back to the Cold War. Presumably, the Magnitsky rule ensnares some of the rich and powerful in Russia, which is widely perceived as, if not a kleptocracy, then as a practitioner of capitalism too rough-and-tumble for the west’s genteel tastes.

That the orphans and Magnitsky are linked requires no modern-day feat of Kremlinology; Putin has repeatedly explained that the ban is a response to the act—although he also says that the adoption process is itself flawed, as a story in RT.com explains:

President [Putin] told his audience that the amendment is not against adoptions per se, but rather a response to the US judicial system that regularly denies Russian diplomats from monitoring the wellbeing of Russian children adopted by US citizens. Putin called this practice “a humiliation,” saying that no one should have to tolerate such an attitude.

To add credence to that claim, the Russian law is dubbed the Dima Yakovlev bill, in reference to a Russian tot who died after his American adoptive dad forgot to drop him off at day care and left him in the car while at work. When the parents were acquitted of wrongdoing in a U.S. court three years ago, Russians were not amused. “Serious doubts arise as to the legitimacy of the practice of transferring our children for adoption to a country where their rights, primarily the right to life, turn out to be unprotected,” as Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in telegraphing that a moratorium on adoptions might be possible.

And about a year later, after another American family shipped a troubled 7–year-old they’d adopted back to Moscow with a one-way ticket and note saying thanks but no thanks, the Russians did slap on a quick slowdown that eventually was rescinded. That moratorium was followed in turn by a new bilateral agreement on adoptions that just took effect last month.

Many stories about Russian adoptions in the U.S., outside of the news accounts, have touched on the difficulties adoptive parents have had in dealing with kids from at-risk backgrounds, some suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. In Russia, meanwhile, the stories have often been about the “stream of instances” in which an adopted child was abused or died.  Those stories have some resonance—more than half of Russians support the Yakovlev bill, according to a poll cited by Global Voices, although GV also notes some fervent opposition, too.

Meanwhile, roughly 60,000 Russian kids have been adopted by U.S. families since 1991, and although the pace has been slowing for years, the U.S. remains a key destination. (But  Italy is reportedly the biggest importer of Russian young this year.) Ironically, Russian officials have acknowledged that the death rate for that number of kids would have been higher than the under 20 documented cases in the U.S.

But as Russian legislator Yekaterina Lakhova would say, “that is not the point.”

Lakhova, one of the ban’s drafters, says in an Q-and-A session (recounted by Lipman): “Normally economically developed countries don’t give up their children, not a single of them. I am a Russian patriot.” And so the issue again leaves behind the children for national pride. How very Putin.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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