American families adopted 962 Russian children in 2011, and the figure for 2012, once it is finalized, will likely be similar. In 2013, however, that number may very well drop to zero.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill barring American families from adopting Russian children. The ban ensures that none of the more than 100,000 Russian children currently without parental care will find homes in the United States.
The adoption law was openly presented as retaliation for a U.S. law punishing Russian officials believed to have been involved in the 2009 death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The U.S. law prohibits officials involved in Magnitsky’s detention and treatment from entering the United States or using the U.S. banking system. It was passed in conjunction with the establishment of permanent normal trade relations between America and Russia, a result of Russia’s recent admission to the World Trade Organization.
Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison after being held for nearly a year without trial. His arrest was, apparently, the Kremlin’s punishment for his work in uncovering a major embezzlement scheme involving many high-level Russian officials. Evidence suggests his death may have been caused by denial of medical attention and possible torture in prison.
Russian advocates of the adoption ban have argued that, like the Magnitsky Act, the law seeks to address perceived human rights violations. They point to 19 cases over the past 20 years in which Russian children adopted by American families allegedly died as a result of abuse on the part of their adoptive parents.
The adoption ban is also tied to Russia’s wounded vanity, as the country’s political and social underdevelopment clash with its aspirations for recognition as a global power. Yekaterina F. Lakhova, a member of the Russian Parliament who sponsored the ban argued, “No normal, economically developed country gives away their children.” For Russia to prove its economic development, according to her argument, it must hold onto its parentless children – whether or not it is actually prepared to care for them. In a similar move in September, Russia kicked out the United States Agency for International Development, which was working to combat tuberculosis, H.I.V. and other serious public health issues in the country.
While Russia pretends not to need outside assistance, its willingness to sacrifice its most vulnerable citizens to make a political statement is, in itself, powerful proof that Russia is not yet the “normal, economically developed country” it wants to be.
Russian critics of the U.S. child welfare system, including Putin, are right: It is not perfect. A key difference between Russia and the U.S., however, is that here failures are acknowledged and addressed, not routinely covered up.
An illustration of the difference between the two countries can be found in the individuals for whom the two laws are named. The adoption ban, like the Magnitsky Act – technically the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 – bears the name of a particular individual. The Russian law is the namesake of Dmitri Yakovlev, a Russian toddler who died of heatstroke after his adoptive American father accidentally left the child in a parked car. But while Putin has actively blocked inquiries into the circumstances surrounding Magnitsky’s death, Yakovlev’s death was the subject of a thorough investigation. The child’s adoptive father was ultimately acquitted, not because of political bias, but because evidence revealed the incident to be a tragic accident rather than a crime.
Despite our system’s flaws, our commitment to justice and transparency is real, as is our ability to address failures when they inevitably arise. The same is not true of Russia under Putin.
As the adoption ban goes into effect, adoption proceedings that are currently underway will end up in legal limbo. Unfortunately, this means that families will learn, in heart-wrenching fashion, the same lesson that many businesses have already learned – that, despite its ambitions, Russia is still far from “normal.”