“If we are slapped in the face, we must retaliate, otherwise they will keep on slapping us.” Thus spoke the Russian President Vladimir Putin, just before he signed into law the Dima Yakovlev bill, which bans the adoption of Russian orphans by US foster parents.
The American slap to which Mr Putin was responding was a new law that bans Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses from entering the US or having property there. Dubbed the Magnitsky act, the law primarily focuses on officials allegedly involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009.
Furious at this perceived meddling in Russian internal affairs, Russia decided to go beyond a mere tit-for-tat response. As well as drawing its own reciprocal list of US officials to ban from Russia, the Kremlin went one step further and banned adoptions, a move which has become one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of Mr Putin’s 12-year tenure as Russia’s leader. Rather than a retaliatory slap, say a growing number of critics, the bill appears more like shooting oneself in the foot to prove a point.
Despite a wave of public outrage over the bill, Russian officials went ahead with the ban, and indeed Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Pavel Astakhov, has gone even further, stating that the country should not send its children to “pain and death” in the US. In an interview with state-controlled Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Mr Astakhov said only 30 per cent of adopted children lead happy lives in the US, and that many were sold by their adopted parents. Rather than portray the ban as a retaliatory political measure, Mr Astakhov has tried to claim that children are really better off in Russian orphanages than in US foster families.
There are over 100,000 orphans in Russia and another 200,000 children whose parents are alive but who are nevertheless in institutional care. US parents adopted around 1,000 children in 2011, but although the legislation only affects a small proportion of Russia’s orphans, the public response has been enormous. While the majority of Russians say they support the law, increasingly vocal protest from the urban, middle-class minority has shown that Mr Putin is continuing to alienate this small but important segment of the Russian populace.
A march last month in protest at the bill attracted tens of thousands of Russians and surprised even the leaders of the street protest movement that has grown up in Russia over the past year. With Mr Putin back in the Kremlin and no sign that the protests could achieve any real change, fewer and fewer showed up for the rallies, and the discontent among Moscow’s so-called “creative class” returned to a latent state. But the adoption bill got people angry again, and even drew some out onto the streets who had never been before.
“I’m here for the first time, because this law is just madness,” said 27-year-old Marina, who attended with her two-year-old son. “The political rallies made sense but they seemed far from me, whereas, as a mother, this makes me really angry.”
“The people who came out overlapped with the usual protest constituency but were not exactly the same,” says Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Centre. “This is a purely moral issue. Many people saw it as a cruel and inhuman law.”
In response, Mr Putin’s supporters have tried to regain the moral high ground. They called the event a “march of child-sellers” and accused critics of the ban of a lack of patriotism. “All the enemies of Russian sovereignty have revealed themselves as ardent supporters of American adoption,” wrote Andrei Isayev, of Mr Putin’s United Russia Party. “They are marching for the right of unrestricted export of Russian children to America.”
The new orphan law is just one of a number of “anti-American” laws to be introduced recently, such as the expulsion of US development arm USAid and the requirement of NGOs receiving foreign money to label themselves “foreign agents”.
Analysts say the anti-American drive is partly down to a genuine perception among hardline sections of the Russian élite that Washington uses NGOs and other instruments to stir discontent in Russia, and partly a tool to whip up support among the conservative majority of Russians against the street movement of the urban middle class. “Our anti-Americanism in 2012 came about because of the Kremlin’s attempt to explain to the population why massive protests were starting in the capital and other big cities,” the newspaper Vedomosti wrote in a recent editorial. “Vladimir Putin’s anti-Americanism has similar internal political roots to, for example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s.”
With state-controlled television telling stories of the abuse of adopted children by their US parents, the majority of Russians support the ban. “The growth of the protest movement has forced Putin to pit the more conservative Russia against the moderate Russia,” says Ms Lipman. “This has been successful, but at the same time, it has deprived him of the image he cultivated before of the leader of all Russians.”
Disgust at the law has appeared in unusual places. Some drew links between the Russian President and the biblical King Herod. Alexei Venediktov, the editor in-chief of the liberal Ekho Moskvy, said that he had spoken to dozens of MPs, and most of them had admitted to him privately that they at the very least had misgivings about the law but went ahead and voted for it due to a need to conform to party discipline.
Yuri Norstein, a legendary Soviet-era cartoonist, used a televised awards ceremony to rail against the ban, and the death of Mr Magnitsky, whom Mr Putin has said was not tortured or ill-treated.
“Mr Putin said that Mr Magnitsky died from heart failure,” said Mr Norstein. “But I think he died due to the failure of Mr Putin’s heart.” The rest of his words were drowned out as the entire hall burst into sustained applause and shouts of “Bravo!”
Particular concern has been raised about disabled children, who were often adopted by US families but struggle to find foster parents in Russia itself. “The Russian way of treating disabled children is very outdated, it’s about 70 or even 100 years behind the West,” says Sergei Koloskov, head of the Russian Down’s Syndrome Association. Many Russian children with disabilities are deposited in institutions because their parents are never given the help and support they need to raise them at home, he says. Russian foster parents do not adopt disabled children, and going abroad is “the only chance for them to lead a normal life”.
In order to stimulate Russians to adopt “problem” children, the government is planning to introduce payments of up to 100,000 roubles (£2,000) to families who adopt disabled children. Mr Koloskov says that one potential benefit of the ban could be that Russia will indeed pay more attention to its problems. “Elites are finally talking about orphans and disabled children. Before it was a topic that neither the government nor the liberal opposition was particularly interested in,” he says. “So far it is just talk, and what we need is a systemic approach to change everything. But even talk is better than nothing.”