The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The real reason Russia wants to ban adoptions by ‘dangerous’ American families

A protester holds a poster of an orphan outside the Russian Duma in Moscow. (Geny  Feldman/AFP/Getty Images)
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When President Vladimir Putin signed a law this week banning U.S. families from adopting Russian children, it's hard to imagine, as an American, that he was thinking of the 46 pending adoptions he canceled. The nearly four dozen Russians orphans were within sight of a home and family, only to have them taken away as part of the ban that is widely seen as political retaliation against a U.S. law targeting Russian human rights abusers. It's also hard to imagine that he was thinking of the on-average 1,000 Russians adopted annually into American homes, a reprieve both for the children and for Russia's notoriously harsh and over-burdened orphanages.

Putin is many things, but he does not appear to be a crazy person. Despite his anti-American leanings, he has seemed shrewd enough to cooperate with the United States  when it suits him and to avoid unnecessarily alienating the world's richest and most powerful country. The move is widely seen as political retaliation against the U.S. “How else can we strike [the Americans] where it hurts?” Russian political analyst Alexei Makarkin told the Moscow News. “If they found our soft spot with the Magnitsky Act, we found theirs.” Still, why sign a law that seems so clearly balance-negative for Russia, a law that, as The Post's Will Englund paraphrased internal Russian opposition, "punishes orphans more than it does American politicians and that it looks like a defense of corruption while unavoidably drawing attention to the sorry state of Russian orphanages." Is there something more to the ban than childish foreign policy? Could there be domestic considerations as well?

As it turns out, the ban on American adoptions is remarkably popular in Russia. A new Russian survey finds that 56 percent support the ban and 21 percent oppose, a ratio of almost three-to-one. The support seems to stem from a belief that American families are dangerous, cruel, and at times violent to their adoptive Russian children. More than half of respondents who want to ban American adoptions cite either hostile American families or the fact that some adopted Russians have died in the U.S. A much smaller number say that Russian children would be best served by keeping them in their home country. A still-smaller minority, about 10 percent of those who support the ban, say that U.S. families want to adopt Russian children for free labor or to sell their organs. A number of Russians also say that Americans like to adopt from Russia because the Russian adoption system is cheaper and less cumbersome, although in fact the Russian adoption process is both expensive (about $50,000 per child, maybe twice the rate in China) and burdened by new regulations imposed in 2006.

The Russians who support the ban are more likely to be older, rural and lower-income. Their answers are consistent with a version of Russian nationalism that sees the United States as a violent, dangerous place. That view has been popularized in films such as 2000's "Brother 2," in which a vigilante Russian man must rescue fellow nationals from decaying American cities ridden by crime and corruption.

Despite the popular Russian view that adoptive children will be mistreated in the United States, actual cases have been rare. But they are also widely reported in Russia. In the U.S., those of us who have heard of Chase Harrison know him as one of the victims of a tragic but extremely rare phenomenon of parents mistakenly leaving their children in parked cars. In Russia, Harrison is known first as a Russian orphan, born to the name Dima Yakovlev, who was killed by his stereotypically negligent American adoptive parents. His death sparked such outrage that, years later, the Russian legislature named its  adoption-banning bill the Dima Yakovlev Act.

These perceptions of the United States are out of sync with the facts. In truth, a child is far likelier to die of abuse or neglect in Russia than he or she is in the United States. Since 1998, tens of thousands of Russian children have been adopted into the U.S.; a total of 19 adoptive Russians have died. In Russia, 1,220 adoptive children died during a period of the same length. And that's assuming that the child gets out of the foster system in the first place, which still holds more than 100,000 Russian orphans. Of those orphans, 80 percent are "social orphans," whose parents have turned them over to state care because they were unable to care for them.

There's no way to really know whether or not Putin shares the belief of so many Russians that American families are likely to be dangerous and violent, and that Russian children are better off in packed orphanages. This view of the world, in which Russia is portrayed as safe and prosperous while life in the U.S. is seen as dangerous and undesirable, just happens to be good for both Putin's approval and the national self-esteem of millions of Russians, a sort of psychological escape hatch from two decades of stalled development and national humiliation. (Update: Miriam Elder, the Guardian's great Moscow correspondent, points out that Russian state media is also pushing the narrative that American homes are dangerous places.) Once again, Putin has shown a style of rule that seeks to harness Russian nationalism, even if that comes at the cost of the well-being of a few thousands orphans.