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In Magnitsky Tit For Tat, Russia's Orphans Become Political Poker Chips

  • Daisy Sindelar

Two photographs of Vanya by Aleksandr Belenky: "All his caregivers said he was a really smart boy, just wonderful," Belenky says. "I'd really like to know the fate of this Vanya."

Two photographs of Vanya by Aleksandr Belenky: "All his caregivers said he was a really smart boy, just wonderful," Belenky says. "I'd really like to know the fate of this Vanya."

Aleksandr Belenky, a St. Petersburg-based photographer, was taking pictures in a Russian orphanage in 1991 when he encountered a little boy named Vanya.

He had photographed some of Russia's most vulnerable orphans -- children suffering from cerebral palsy, HIV infection, and Down syndrome. But even so, he says, Vanya stood out.

"He was probably about 4. He didn't have any legs or arms. And he got around on crutches or special prosthetics they made for him," Belenky says. "But all his caregivers said he was a really smart boy, just wonderful. He ended up being adopted by a family in America. I'd really like to know the fate of this Vanya. I've heard that he's living a normal life, that they made good prosthetics for him. The technology is better than what we have. And the financial possibilities are better."

Belenky takes more than a passing interest in the fate of Russian orphans adopted by Americans. He's personally helped more than 60 adoptive families in the United States track down their children's Russian relatives.

READ: Aleksandr Belenky's connection recollections

In the process, he's learned about children, given up as hopelessly disabled or ill, who have gone on to lead normal, happy lives in the United States. Often, he asks himself how such children would have fared if they had remained in Russia, where their chances of adoption were desperately slim.

With the State Duma having just passed a bill banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children, many people are asking the same thing.

Growing Roar Of Opposition

Russian lawmakers on December 21 gave final approval to the bill, a retaliatory measure to last week's U.S. Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses.

The bill, whose race through parliament this week was fueled by a Kremlin-driven call for vengeance, has raised a growing roar of opposition from Russians who accuse the government of using the nation's most disadvantaged children as political poker chips.

The United States has always been the leading foreign adopter of Russian children, with American families last year adopting 956 children, including 89 with serious physical or mental disabilities.

Lena Smirnova, who heads the Moscow-based Sozidaniye children's charity, says the bill is a "complete disgrace."

"Foreign citizens, including Americans, take our worst-affected children, and 98 percent of them receive a wonderful life. Here, they would have received absolutely nothing, if they even manage to live to adulthood," Smirnova says. "There, they take some of the most difficult children, not the best ones -- those with serious illnesses and really big problems -- and help them become people with full-fledged lives."

Fare Far Worse In Russia

The bill's defenders say the cutoff is in response to cases where Russian children died under the care of their American adoptive parents.

The legislation is named after one such child, 21-month-old Dima Yakovlev, who died of heatstroke in 2008 after his adoptive father left him in a hot car for nine hours.

PHOTO GALLERY: A View Inside Russia's Orphanages

VIEW PHOTO GALLERY IN LARGE FORMAT HERE

A total of 19 adopted Russian children have died in the United States in the past decade.

But child-welfare advocates say children adopted within Russia fare far worse. The RIA Novosti news agency reports that 1,220 adopted children have died in Russia in the past 15 years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a wide-ranging news conference on December 20, described the Duma legislation as "emotional but adequate." Putin added, however, that he must see the exact language of the legislation before he reaches a final conclusion -- stressing that a bilateral adoption agreement with the United States has been in force since last month.

Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have also called for Russia to improve its own domestic adoption infrastructure, to make it easier and more appealing for Russians to adopt Russian children.

Russian citizens currently account for nearly 70 percent of all adoptions of Russian children. But experts say Russian families are still extremely reluctant to take in children with special needs.

Take It To Next Level

Yulia Kurchanova of the Rostok children's organization says the Russian government has done almost nothing to improve support and infrastructure for disabled children and families who might adopt them.

To be sure, conditions have improved in Russian orphanages over the past decade, with basic issues of adequate food and clothing no longer an issue. But now, with those problems solved, Kurchanova said it's time to take it to the next level.

"Now that they're fed and clothed, how do we help these children realize their potential? So far, there's no answer to that question," Kurchanova says. "They have no prospects. When they turn 18, they're transferred to a psychiatric institution for adults, where the situation is far more complicated because they're living in conditions that are close to criminal. Many of them don't even live to be 25."

Anger over the proposed ban has reignited a flare of social discord after a season in which the Kremlin steadily chipped away at the resolve of many opposition activists.

A petition drive organized by the opposition "Novaya gazeta" newspaper has already collected 100,000 signatures from ordinary Russians calling on the Duma to revise the bill. And more than 30 child-welfare organizations are preparing to publish an open letter on December 21 demanding the ban be dropped.

'Childish Response'

Criticism of the bill, which includes an unrelated fresh round of restrictions on civil society activities, has been heard from further afield as well.

Amnesty International on December 20 called the Dima Yakovlev bill a "childish response" to the Magnitsky Act, and the U.S. State Department said coolly that it remains committed to upholding the newly minted bilateral adoption agreement with Russia.

Lost in the debate, says Kurchanova, is the fact that the effects of growing up without parents are devastating and permanent.

She says children are vastly better protected when they're in the care of a family -- regardless of where the family is.

"To a child, it makes absolutely no difference what language his mother speaks, as long as she gives him warmth, love, and kindness," Kurchanova says. "English, Russian, Italian...what difference does it make, if she's able to help give him the most important thing -- the feeling that somebody needs him?"

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