The Kremlin suddenly announced Thursday evening that a new law banning adoptions by Americans would not go into effect for another year, as criticism of the measure galvanizes the flagging opposition here.

The move brings hope to Americans whose efforts to adopt Russian children were cut short by the enactment of the law in late December, but it is not clear what practical effect the delay will have. A protest against the law is planned for Sunday in Moscow.

An adoption agreement between Russia and the United States reached last year remains in force, Dmitri Peskov, the main Kremlin spokesman, told the RIA Novosti news agency Thursday. He pointed out that the agreement requires 12 months’ notice for either side to withdraw. Russia, he said, delivered that notice to the U.S. Embassy on Jan. 1, although until now it has been portrayed as an immediate cancellation.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States did not know what the Kremlin announcement means for adoptions already in progress. “We are very hopeful that in the spirit of the original agreement and out of humanitarian concern that we will be able to work through those cases that had been begun,” she said.

As Russians return from their long New Year’s break, it has become clear that the adoption issue has struck a deep chord here and energized a dispirited opposition. The law was intended as a snub to the United States, but many here say its primary victims are Russian orphans.

Dianna Wallen with Maxim during a visit in summer 2009. The Wallens efforts to adopt Maxim from Russia were stopped when President Putin acted to block the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. (Family Photo)

Evidence of the nasty and manipulative nature of the debate over adoption emerged Thursday in Chelyabinsk, in Russia’s Ural Mountains, when a news Web site reported that a 14-year-old orphan, Maxim Kargapoltsev, had written President Vladimir Putin asking to be allowed to join his new family, Mil and Dianna Wallen, in Woodstock, Va.

The Web post brought stinging denunciations from supporters of the adoption ban, who called it a provocation. Lawmaker Yekaterina Lakhova, one of the sponsors of the legislation, called the report an “attack against Russia.”

As it turns out, there probably was no letter. Maxim had told a Web site reporter last month that he wished he could leave for his new home, and the site apparently decided to crank the story up a bit. That’s according to the director of the orphanage where Maxim lives and a local reporter, Inna Kumeiko, who met with the boy on Thursday morning.

Maxim couldn’t be reached from Moscow, but he made his feelings clear in a social media post Wednesday night.

“I am very sorry,” he wrote, “that the law will not let me have a very good family in the future, the family that I have known and loved and whom I have become attached to.

“I like my motherland, but I would like to have a family in the U.S.

“I really wish I could personally see VVP [Putin] and all those who adopted the law.”

Maxim didn’t see Putin on Thursday, but he did see the regional governor, Mikhail Yurevich, who swept in after news of Maxim’s plight got out. He gave the boy a new tablet computer and a laptop, dispensed phones to other orphans and promised Maxim that he could travel — to Israel — to get some medical issues resolved.

Later in the day, Sergei Vainshtein, a member of parliament from the nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party who represents Chelyabinsk, told the Interfax news agency that he is ready to take Maxim in and provide him a good education. The two have never met.

A family’s quest

The Wallens, who have two grown sons, have been visiting Orphanage 13 in Chelyabinsk for more than a decade, on missions for the United Methodist Church. They estimate that over the years they have delivered hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid, which has gone toward repairs, computers, Internet access and other features not provided by the government — or the governor. They got to know Maxim about two years ago and decided to try to adopt him.

Maxim has been in state care since being abandoned as a baby. “We just want him to have a mom and dad,” Wallen said.

“I hope I spend my next birthday here,” Maxim wrote in a post in early December, attaching a Google map of Woodstock.

No adoption agencies were working in Chelyabinsk, so the Wallens were trying to arrange the adoption independently, which required them to jump through even more hoops than usual. Their quest hit a big paperwork roadblock in November.

“I feel God has called me to Russia, and to offer hope to these children,” Wallen said. Russians, she said, her voice breaking with emotion, must surely understand that the orphans who leave institutional care to go to the United States are loved and cherished by their adoptive parents.

But of the 60,000 Russian children adopted by Americans over the past two decades, 19 have died. Some of those cases have attracted a lot of attention in Russia, where there has long been an undercurrent of uneasiness over the adoptions, but where little has been done to persuade Russian couples to take in orphaned children.

Retaliatory legislation

The bilateral agreement — now apparently back in force — allows closer Russian monitoring of the orphans who go to the United States. But it had seemingly fallen victim to the anti-American mood that swept through the Russian parliament after the passage in Washington of a bill that places financial and visa sanctions on corrupt Russian officials.

The answer to the U.S. measure was what supporters called the Dima Yakovlev law, named for a Russian toddler who died in 2008 after being left unattended in a hot car in a Virginia parking lot. Its opponents call it the “child-
eater” law because it makes life worse for Russian orphans.

Organizers of the Sunday march cast it as a citizens’ protest, not a political rally. More than 15,000 people, some of whom say they would not go to a typical political demonstration, have registered for it on Russian social media. The newspaper Novaya Gazeta said it had collected more than 100,000 signatures on a petition calling for parliament to be disbanded because of the adoption law.

Kim Summers of Freehold, N.J., said she was buoyed by Thursday’s announcement. She and her husband were just weeks away from bringing home their adopted son, Preston, from Russia when the legislation hit.

“It’s been a roller coaster, because up until three weeks ago we thought we’d be bringing our son home, and with everything that’s going on, we’re still not out of the woods,” she said.

Summers said she and her husband are ready to fly to Russia as soon as they hear more about what the ruling means.

“God willing, it means we’ll be picking up our son,” she said.

Tara Bahrampour in Washington contributed to this report.