After retaking Russia’s presidency last year, Vladimir Putin seemed to be headed for master-of-the-universe status. The political stage had been cleared of potential challengers to his power. The protest movement that had risen in December 2011 in response to his planned reelection had dwindled by the summer of 2012, demoralized by a lack of clear goals, divided, and weakened by stepped-up repression. Yet at the start of the new year, anti-Putin passions got a boost from an unexpected source: a law that made Czar Putin and his minions look like bullies taking out their anger on children.

The “Dima Yakovlev law,” passed by the Russian Duma on December 21 and signed by Putin a week later, includes a ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens. Its informal name comes from a tragic 2008 case in Virginia: Eighteen-month-old Chase Harrison (born Dmitri Yakovlev in Russia) died of heat stroke after his adoptive father, Miles Harrison, left the boy in a parked car outside his office, believing he had dropped him off at day care. Harrison, described by witnesses as a caring and attentive parent, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter by a judge, who accepted the defense’s argument that his negligence was a terrible but innocent mistake. Back in Russia, the story set off a media-driven wave of anti-American outrage: Here was proof that American parents treat adopted Russian children as disposable toys, while American courts regard them as worthless Untermenschen.

But the peculiarity of the Dima Yakovlev law is that the impetus for it came not from this or any other horror tale of a Russian-born child victim. Indeed, only last July the United States and Russia finalized a treaty regulating adoptions, now rendered void by the new law. The adoption ban was part of a larger bill imposing sanctions on American citizens involved in “violations of basic human rights”—Russia’s answer to a U.S. law that targets Russian human rights abusers.

Overwhelmingly approved by the U.S. Senate in December, the so-called Magnitsky law penalizes Russian officials implicated in egregious human rights violations, and specifically in the persecution of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009. (Magnitsky, a Moscow adviser to a financial firm owned by U.S. businessman Bill Browder, was jailed after trying to expose a tax fraud scheme by Russian police and government officials; his death was almost certainly a result of brutality and medical neglect.) Offenders can be barred from entry to the United States and denied access to the U.S. banking system, including their assets in American banks.

Russia’s first reaction was to reciprocate with a visa ban against American malefactors, particularly ones deemed to have wronged Russian citizens. These provisions still make up most of the legislation. But they have little bite: Americans don’t travel to Russia much, and they certainly don’t keep money in Russian banks. The adoption ban was intended to hit at least some Americans where it hurts.

The explicit linkage of the adoption ban and retaliation against the United States exposed the measure as utterly cynical, giving the lie to protestations of concern for Russian children. Indeed, critics were quick to denounce the legislation as “anti-child,” pointing out that those hit hardest will be Russia’s most vulnerable: orphaned and abandoned children, many with physical or developmental disabilities, who cannot find adoptive families in their own country. American aid organizations estimate that up to 800,000 Russian children live in notoriously underfunded and mismanaged state-run “children’s homes.” Russian officials cite far lower estimates of about 105,000. Whatever the actual number, adoption by Western couples usually represents these children’s only chance at a decent life, quality medical care—and a family.

Since 1991, 19 children from Russia—out of about 60,000 adoptees—have died as a result of abuse or neglect by American adoptive parents. The numbers for children adopted within Russia are fairly similar. Meanwhile, there seem to be no available statistics on fatalities in Russia’s orphanages, but Russian child welfare activists cite grim numbers from the Ministry of Education. Fewer than 1 in 20 young adults raised in institutions go to college, 1 in 5 are unemployed, 2 out of 5 become involved in crime, and 1 in 10 commit suicide.

The plight of institutionalized orphans in Russia is well known, and the Kremlin’s brazen use of these children as pawns incensed even many people hitherto apolitical. Bizarre rhetoric from many of the ban’s supporters added fuel to the fire. Duma member Svetlana Goryacheva asserted that many American-adopted children were used for organ harvesting and sexual exploitation, while the rest would be trained as cannon fodder for America’s wars. Russian Orthodox church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin opined that Russian kids in America were unlikely to be raised as good Christians and would not go to Heaven (prompting journalist Yulia Latynina to retort that, on the other hand, children in Russian orphanages had a good chance of going to Heaven very soon).

In the pro-government business newspaper Vzglyad, journalist Denis Tukmakov bluntly stated that it was better for Russian children to die than to become Americans and potential enemies of Russia, and that banning foreign adoptions could motivate Russians to take better care of their own. Putin weighed in with his trademark macho crudeness, asking a journalist who questioned the law at a press conference if he was “some kind of sadomasochist” who enjoyed being pushed around by the Americans.

Meanwhile, anti-Kremlin journalists, bloggers, and activists referred to “King Herod’s law,” “the anti-orphan law,” and “the scoundrels’ law.” A petition to repeal the ban gathered more than 100,000 signatures; a group of Russian adoptive parents wrote an open letter imploring Putin “not to turn orphaned Russian children into hostages and not to deny them a future.”

On January 13, as many as 50,000 Muscovites braved bitter cold to turn out for the city’s largest demonstration since last winter, billed as the “March Against Scoundrels.” Many carried posters of Putin with the scarlet letters POZOR!—“shame”—across his forehead. There were smaller rallies in St. Petersburg and several other cities.

The Dima Yakovlev law appears to have shamed many Russians out of their apathy. Perhaps it was the Kremlin’s blatant hypocrisy—or its stark inhumanity, this time not toward dissidents or tycoons but children and families. ( commentator Ilya Milshtein pointed out the twisted irony: The United States passes a law to punish Russian officials who mistreat Russian citizens; Russia strikes back with a law that mistreats Russian children.)

The backlash is mainly an urban middle-class phenomenon. Russia’s official polling agency, the VTSIOM (All-Russian Institute for the Study of Public Opinion), reports that three-quarters of Russians support the adoption ban. Lev Gudkov of the independent Levada Center polling firm told the Voice of America that this result was obtained partly by stacked questions; but it also reflects genuine sentiment, born of a mix of nationalist sensitivity and media misinformation.

Still, a revitalized protest movement, even drawn mostly from the same base as before, will affect the political climate. “Putin’s decision to tighten the screws and intimidate civil society has run up against its first real roadblock, sparking a strong and angry response,” opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote in the Moscow Times. “That should prompt the authorities, civil society, and the opposition movement to reevaluate the political outlook for this year.” The title of Ryzhkov’s column—“The Straw To Break Putin’s Back”—seems too optimistic, as does his prediction that without real change a “social explosion” may be imminent. But while the Putin regime is not about to fall, it is unlikely to enjoy dissent-free domestic bliss.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine and a columnist for RealClearPolitics.

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