Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks Friday at the Kremlin in… (Alexei Nikolsky / AFP/Getty…)
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. families, the Kremlin announced Friday.
The measure was widely seen as a retaliation for the Sergei Magnitsky Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama this month, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials involved in the death of an imprisoned lawyer in 2009 after he blew the whistle on a multimillion-dollar tax refund scam allegedly orchestrated by tax inspectors and police officers.
An adoption agreement signed and ratified by the two countries in June will be annulled after Jan. 1, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the television news network Russia-24.
Over the last two decades, Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian children. About 1,500 such adoption cases are in Russian courts, 52 of them in the final approval stage. The Kremlin's envoy for children's rights, Pavel Astakhov, told radio station Echo of Moscow that these children will not go to the United States but will be among the first to be adopted by Russian families.
Along with the controversial law, Putin also signed a decree providing financial perks, privileges and other measures to encourage adoptions in Russia, which have never run higher than 7,000 annually in recent years. There are more than 600,000 orphans in Russia.
Russian lawmaker Andrei Makarov, who voted for the measure, said the effect of the law shouldn't be over-dramatized, saying American adoptions account for less that 1% of orphans eligible for adoption each year.
"As head of the budget committee of the State Duma [the parliament's lower house] I can say that we are already working on measures to boost financing of Russian orphanages," he said in an interview Friday. "The bill signed today will create new opportunities to make the lives life of orphans better inside the country."
Lawmaker Leonid Kalashnikov, who missed the vote, said that if Russia wanted to retaliate, it could cut the U.S. transportation route to Afghanistan or shut down the NATO transit base in the Russian city of Ulyanovsky, "but it chose to speculate on children's lives instead."
"The Kremlin didn't really want to spoil relations with the United States but couldn't leave an unfriendly act unanswered," Kalashnikov said in an interview. "So they let off steam by using the fate of thousands of orphans as a lever of political pressure."
Two people with firsthand experience with the adoption process in Russia were quick to criticize the new law.
At California's Mammoth Lakes ski resort, Alex Zimakov blew out 14 candles on his birthday cake Wednesday, surrounded by his mother, father and older brother, all Russian-born U.S. citizens. His mother said the fair-haired boy can hardly remember the day nearly nine years ago when he left a drab orphanage in a Moscow suburb to join his new family across the ocean.
His first years in the U.S. were difficult for the whole family, said his mother, Tatiana Zimakova. Sasha, as he is known in the family, had been born to an alcoholic and had known no home other than his orphanage and a tuberculosis clinic. He arrived in the U.S. with various ailments, constant fears, aggression, hysteria, a torn ear and a habit of eating raw spaghetti. He would randomly steal and hide things and always had a backpack ready for an escape.
He reminded her of the lead character in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book."
"Socially, Sasha was a real Mowgli and I then realized that all the kids in his orphanage who looked like angels were Mowglis too," Zimakova, the Russian language chair at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in a phone interview. "For a whole year he couldn't go to sleep … without holding my hand all night through."
A year later, Vladimir, the older brother, brought home a kitten that became a form of therapy for Sasha, replacing Zimakova's hand at night, the mother recalled.
"Sasha was helped not only by us but by other relatives, doctors, psychologists, teachers and trainers, and we have overcome many of his problems, except dyslexia and serious reading and writing disorders, which still persist," she said of Sasha, who attends a regular school and speaks English and Russian fluently.
"By signing this outrageous law, Putin deprived thousands of Russian orphans of a chance to find an American family and get the treatment and care they can't get in Russia, which I am sure most of them need," Zimakova said.
Yuri Kuznetsov, 47, disabled by cerebral palsy, wasn't lucky enough to be adopted. He said he was the only one in his orphanage "who made it" in life rather than languishing in institutions. Kuznetsov is a journalist and editor at a cable TV channel in St. Petersburg and a trustee of one of the city's orphanages.
"I was lucky to make a life I am proud of, but there is this huge hole in my heart, the hole of never knowing a family — that doesn't heal — and every night I look into it and see nothing but darkness," he said in a phone interview.
"Because of this horrible law Putin signed today, thousands of little orphans will for the rest of their lives live with these gaping holes in their hearts like myself, and will never know how nice it is to have a mother, to have a family, to have this warmth you can only get in a family."