Last Friday, following almost unanimous approval in both houses of parliament, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a law that bans the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. The right to all other foreign adoptions – which are plentiful – remained intact.
This knee-jerk measure of patriotic fervor was taken in response to recent U.S. Congressional approval of the Magnitsky Act, legislation that will bar Russian bureaucrats entangled in human rights violations from owning assets in and traveling to the United States. Needless to say, it was harder for Russia to reciprocate the gesture, largely due to the disparity of their American counterparts not traveling to Russia as often, having less invested assets there, and not being accused of human rights violations with the same frequency.
In this context, the fact that Putin and his mignons-called-representatives decided to hit below the belt seems as inevitable as it is cruel and in bad taste. At its minimum, blocking American adoptions is typical, blind Putin hubris.
In the aftermath of the law’s speedy approval last week, much has been discussed regarding the other items on the U.S.-Russian communal dinner table: disagreements over Syria, reliance on Russian supply routes to Afghanistan, the need for help pressuring Iran or China, and even the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
However, there is a broader element that has gone largely untapped – Putin’s jarring anti-American rhetoric during his earlier sham of an election has turned out to be more than just campaign antics. Along with catchphrases reminiscent of the Cold War and blatant affronts such as blocking U.S. financial support of democracy groups, the adoption ban cements the impression that Putin is acting on the worst kind of patriotic sentiment, a misguided nationalism that is isolationist of the West, intolerant within its borders, and hegemonic in its aspirations.
The discussion has also rightly focused on the painful plight of those hopeful American parents who had already identified a Russian child they wished to adopt. Still others had already gained official approval for their adoption, no small task considering the requisite convoluted bureaucracy reminiscent of a Gogol play, and are now left in limbo. From this personal perspective, using children as political pawns is thoughtless, irrational, and unnecessary at its very core, not to mention anathema for the rising powerhouse status that Russia pretends to be on cusp of realizing.
But after these valid concerns wane, there remains a more bitter truth: Russian orphans are the biggest victims of this tug-of-war, not the U.S.- Russia relationship.
UNICEF estimates there are over 760,000 orphans living in Russia, with that figure growing substantially each year. What is most relevant about this statistic, however, is that 95% of these children are ‘social orphans,’ meaning that they have at least one living parent who has elected to give them up to the state.
According to figures cited by the Russian Children’s Welfare Society (RCWS), 2.5 million children in Russia are homeless. In what can only be called a deeply saddening and vicious cycle, approximately 50% of children in Russia are born into poverty-stricken families and the Russian Health Ministry cites that 60% of the country’s children and youth are in poor physical or psychological health. It should be noted that data from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs is unreliable and incomplete, so most available figures are several years old and most likely conservative estimates.
As if these figures were not already disturbing, over 50,000 children in Russia have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, according to UNICEF data. Regrettably, as the New York Times reports, the only chance children with medical conditions or disabilities have of being welcomed into a home is to be adopted by foreign parents.
In this context, the handful of U.S. abuses that the Russian Parliament cited as cause for concern in foreign adoptions – a Russian child sent back alone on an airplane in 2010 and another dying in a parking lot in 2008 – seem equally sad but significantly less probable. This is not to say that cases of abuse by adoptive parents should be taken any less lightly; rather, that it is absurd and hypocritical to imply that a handful of outliers present a bigger threat to Russian orphans than ill treatment in their own motherland.
If the present conditions of Russia’s orphans are bleak, their future is often an exercise in continued heartbreak. In a nation where local adoption has only recently come a subsidized and more frequent practice, most orphans stay in the system until they age out in their later teens. Only 4% go on to study at colleges and over 50% fall into a “high risk” categorization. According to the RCWS, 40% become involved in crime, 33% stay unemployed, 20% become homeless, and 10% commit suicide. Given these historic probabilities while leaving room for their conservative and inaccurate estimation and considering that thousands of teens leave Russian orphanages each year, the absolute numbers are quite stunning.
Of course, Russia is not alone in this kind of outlook, and as President Putin pointed out, there are better standards of living in many other nations – a fact that he dismissed by asking, “Should we move there ourselves?” All the same, other nations welcome foreign adoption, in part because they can recognize that it alleviates a small percentage of the burden orphans place on a state that is clearly unable to bear it.
In 2011 alone, around 1,000 Russian children were adopted by American families, joining the 60,000 that have been adopted in the past 20 years. Although neither a comprehensive or representative sample, the adoptive parents I spoke with over the weekend gave me the impression that their Russian children go on to live healthier, more fulfilling lives than they could have ever hoped for in their home country.
Russia’s child welfare system is notoriously inept. But instead of being a positive gesture for his population, Putin’s actions trade on the future opportunities of Russia’s orphans. As such, a prominent host of “Echo of Moscow” radio compared him to the Bible’s King Herod ordering the killing of innocents in Bethlehem; the metaphor couldn’t be more fitting.
As a senior Russian government official commented, foreign adoptions are not good for the state. With saddened sarcasm, Russian bloggers quickly jumped on this remark to point out what should be obvious: adoptions are meant for the good of the child. This priority seems to have been lost in a mislead game of political chicken.