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Putin’s Innocent Victims

A mean-hearted ban on the adoption of Russian ­children by American parents.

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By CATHY YOUNG
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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. (Grani.ru 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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