The Kremlin's children’s rights ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, loves the limelight. And he has been getting a lot of it in recent weeks.
On February 18, he tweeted news of the January 21 death in Texas of 3-year-old Russian adoptee Maksim Kuzmin (who was given the name Max Shatto after his adoption).
It was a tweet that was heard around Russia -- prompting a moment of silence in the Russian Duma and calls for an immediate end to all U.S. adoptions, even those approved by Russian courts prior to a law adopted in January banning new adoptions of Russians by U.S. citizens.
When asked on February 19 why the Kuzmin case had suddenly captured his attention, Astakhov claimed his office was combing foreign media reports, looking for evidence of crimes against Russian adoptees.
"At the end of 2011 we created in my office a monitoring group that follows the foreign mass media and foreign human rights organizations -- including American ones -- and receives this information," he said.
It was a remarkable admission and a possible indication that Astakhov not only opposes new foreign adoptions but is seeking a potentially wide-ranging review of past adoptions as well.
Astakhov complained that the United States government had been unable to provide information on the fates of the estimated 60,000 Russian children that have been adopted in the United States over the last two decades.
"Today the question of monitoring, that is, of finding out about the life circumstances or, more importantly, about crimes against our children – that’s the main question," he said. "And, unfortunately, the United States, on the federal level, cannot handle this task, they really can't. And I am not saying they are doing this on purpose or are hiding something. No, they simply do not know."
Tit For Tat
The circumstances surrounding Maksim Kuzmin’s death are still being investigated by authorities in Texas.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow said the State Department informed the Russian Consulate in Houston about the incident weeks ago and has been keeping the Russian Foreign Ministry informed. Russian officials have also reportedly been given access to Maksim’s brother, Kirill, who was adopted by the same family.
Earlier this month, the Russian government reached back even further into the archives of U.S.-Russian adoption.
Konstantin Dolgov, responsible for human rights and the rule of law in the Foreign Ministry, tweeted on February 13 that in 2007 an American lesbian couple "deceived a Russian court" and adopted a Russian child. He said the couple’s marriage fell apart in 2009 and "the child became the subject of a custody dispute between two lesbians." He added that a U.S. court "intentionally" sealed information about the case.
But Astakhov has taken the lead in Moscow’s war against U.S. adoptions of Russian children. In fact, Astakhov said in 2011 that he was "an absolute opponent" of international adoption in general.
In 2011, he drew attention to the case of Russian adoptee Isaac Dykstra, who died in 2005. His adoptive father was acquitted in November 2011 of killing the child. Astakhov charged that the United States hid the six-year investigation of the matter from Russian authorities, and the Russian Investigative Committee opened its own probe.
Astakhov was the lead Russian negotiator of a bilateral agreement with the United States that was ratified in December 2012 and was intended to regulate the process of adoption between the two countries.
Almost immediately after the agreement was ratified, however, Russia adopted legislation barring all adoptions of Russians by U.S. citizens, a move that was widely seen as retaliation for a U.S. law that imposed individual sanctions on Russian officials believed to have committed human rights abuses.
That law prompted strong opposition from many in Russia who argued that Russian orphans -- many of whom have physical and mental disabilities -- were being used as pawns in a Cold War-like dispute.
In December, many leading cultural figures signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin opposing the law in the strongest terms. Leading children’s author Grigory Oster wrote that Russia’s orphans were "hostages" and its lawmakers were "terrorists."
On January 13, thousands demonstrated against the law in Moscow, many calling for all lawmakers who voted for it to be included in the sanctions mandated by the U.S. law.
A Colorful Character
Astakhov, meanwhile, has been focusing on the fates of those children who have already been adopted in the United States.
In an interview with Russian state television in December, when the accord on adoptions with the United States was in the Russian legislature, Astakhov emphasized this feature of the agreement.
"The first thing we will do after the agreement is ratified is to raise with the U.S. State Department the question of a full accounting and complete list of all our children who over the last 20 years were taken practically without any control from Russia and who ended up in American adoptive families," he said.
He added that a key goal of the agreement was to pave the way for Russian adoptees to choose Russian citizenship as adults.
"We will follow them until their 18th birthday when they face the question of which citizenship they want," he said. "Today the [Duma] committee posed the question very correctly when they said that voting to ratify or not, you must answer a simple question -- are you in favor of these 60,000 children who are now in the United States getting Russian citizenship and the right to be considered Russian citizens equally with their U.S. citizenship or are you against this? No country in the world can allow itself the luxury of rejecting such a large number of its small citizens living abroad."
The signature plan of Astakhov’s office is called Russia Without Orphans. Among other things, it offers cash payments to Russian families that take orphans into foster care or adopt them.
But in 2010, United Russia Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina, chairwoman of the Committee on Families, Women, and Children, said the program was a failure. She claimed that 30,000 orphans had been returned to orphanages as soon as the benefits were paid out.
Astakhov is one of the most colorful figures in the Russian political elite. He holds law degrees from both the Feliks Dzerzhinsky KGB School in Moscow and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in the United States.
He has participated in many high-profile cases over the last 15 years or so. In December 2000, he delivered his summation in defense of accused American spy Edmond Pope in iambic pentameter. In 2003, he wrote a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush volunteering to defend deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In 2001, he publicly slammed Putin for his "total disregard of human rights" and for using the courts to carry out the will of the government. But in 2007 he co-founded the For Putin public group that demonstrated in favor of Putin’s seeking an unconstitutional third consecutive term as president.