Pavel Astakhov, star of courtroom and TV, is Russia's ombudsman for children

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 6, 2010

MOSCOW -- Pavel Astakhov, the slim, smooth-talking lawyer known as Russia's version of Judge Judy, was on television again. But instead of presiding over his mock courtroom, he was holding up the note that a Tennessee nurse had sent with her adopted son when she returned him to Russia, the one explaining that she no longer wanted the boy.

"You can't throw a child on a plane, excuse me, like a kitten," Astakhov said indignantly as the cameras rolled, gesturing as if he were tossing trash to the ground. "An unaccompanied 7-year-old child shipped back across the ocean to Russia -- that's cruelty, at the very least."

It was a bravura performance in a drama that has provoked outrage across Russia, one that Astakhov has repeated again and again with slight variations. But the Kremlin official now leading talks with Washington on the future of U.S. adoptions of Russian children isn't your typical Vladimir Putin-loving, America-bashing Russian politician. For much of his career, in fact, he has been almost the opposite.

Astakhov, 43, was appointed state ombudsman for children's rights in December, but he gained fame a decade earlier as a young lawyer who battled the authorities on behalf of high-profile, politically sensitive clients. He is also one of the very few top officials in Moscow with a degree from an American university.

For the 3,000 or so U.S. families waiting anxiously to adopt a Russian child, Astakhov has a reassuring message. "Don't worry," he said in a recent interview. "We'll continue this work. We'll give our children a chance to see another reality."

But he also warned that Russia would outlaw foreign adoptions if Washington refused to sign a pact regulating the process. "If you want to sell me a truck of potatoes, you can't do it without a bilateral treaty between our countries," he said. "But if I want to send you a baby, it's okay without any agreement. That's horrible."

Legal entrepreneur

Such bluntness has served Astakhov well since he joined the bar in the early 1990s after graduating from a KGB institute in the Soviet Union's final months. He soon emerged as one of the most prominent members of that first generation of lawyers operating independently of the state, with a reputation for presenting his case as aggressively in the media as in the courtroom.

"Our mission is to defend, to defend your right to work, to property, to life and to justice," he says in a video on his Web site, which resembles an ad you might see on late-night television, but slicker.

His most well-known clients included Vladimir Gusinsky, the billionaire Putin critic who was forced to give up Russia's most independent television station, and Edmond Pope, an American businessman convicted of espionage but later pardoned. With the world watching in the latter case, Astakhov delivered part of his closing argument in verse.

Now Astakhov appears on television daily as the star of three legal education programs, including "Hour of Judgment," a popular show in which he adjudicates cases similar to those on "The People's Court" in the United States. (The cases are based on real ones, but actors play the characters because defendants in Russia rarely agree to go on air, he said.)

He also runs a legal aid center linked to the show, serves as a university dean and is the author of more than 35 books about law, including a children's series and at least five novels, one of which portrayed Russian police so negatively that a top official tried to charge him with defamation. The hero of his story? A fearless lawyer.

"Pavel is the ultimate legal entrepreneur," said Ronald Brand, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's law school, where Astakhov earned a master's degree in 2002. Brand said students from Russia often tell him that Astakhov "probably has done more to help ordinary people in Russia understand the rule of law than anybody else."

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