WASHINGTON -- On the surface, the story of Russia and its woebegone orphans is a sad but clear one, ending only in more anti-Americanism from Minsk to Pinsk and from the Volga to the Lena to the Ob.
Somewhere along those byways, in post-Soviet Russia, Moscow decided that many of the massive number of Russian orphans who are in state-run institutions would be put up for adoption in the United States. Over the last 20 years, some 60,000 have been sent to America. But now the Russian state has raised a barrier against adoptions to the U.S. Several cases in here raised their hackles, causing the Duma, always ready to distrust "the foreigner," to shut down adoptions last fall.
The reasons? One disgruntled or possibly irresponsible mother put her Russian son on a plane back to Moscow with a note saying she couldn't deal with him, go home; and another child, a 21-month-old in the care of a Virginia couple, tragically died of heat stroke after being left in a car for nine hours. In short, the government of hard-line president Vladimir Putin started accusing Americans of massively mistreating Russian babes, thus deliberately awakening every atom of natural Russian paranoia toward the West.
But if you look beneath that superficial government handout of a story, the case is not so clear, or simple, or believable. Indeed, the truth goes more like this.
Since the adoptions began some years ago, even hard-line Russians approved them, if only because 654,000 Russian children are "not in parental custody," and at least 128,000 of those are eligible for adoption. Some 18,000 Russians are on the waiting list to adopt a child, The Associated Press reported from Moscow in January, but the tricky part lies in the fact that many of those available for American adoption are children who are ill or severely disabled. They are not likely to be adopted by Russians, records show.
More directly, Putin is using the adoption confusion to show his disdain for passage of the Magnitsky Act this winter by a huge bipartisan majority in Congress to punish certain Russians for human rights abuses. The act was part of a means to memorialize the death of a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, who had discovered a $230 million embezzlement from the Russian treasury by "public servants." After he was falsely arrested, he died in prison.
When asked at a press conference how he could justify using Russian law and presidential power to doom tens of thousands of Russian children to life without the medical care they could get in the U.S., President Putin asked first: How could the journalists stand idly by while the U.S. "humiliated" Russia? "You think that's normal," he demanded. "What's normal about being humiliated? You like that? What are you, a sadomasochist? The country will not be humiliated."
That old favorite Russian word: "humiliation." You can trace it back through the post-Soviet attitudes of the 20th century and, of course, the Russian Revolution of 1917; through the cruel and autocratic rule of the czars in centuries before that, and indeed to the decades when the savage Mongols rolled over Russia in the 12th and 13th centuries, humiliating them by grinding the budding Russian culture into the ground and giving them a terror of everything "outside." (In "Christian Kiev," the Mongols left only mountains of skulls.)
In the Duma, or parliament, which Putin controls, one nationalist member, Vladimir Ovsyannikov, called the entire Magnitsky affair an example of the old Russian "zhlobstvo," which is a heady mixture of "rudeness, pigheadedness and spleen," reported Time magazine.
If the story ended there, it would be depressing, indeed, but it does not. In fact, one soon finds the intent of all this attention being expressed in far more evocative and thrilling language.
On the Russian New Year's Eve, which occurs later in January according to the old-style Julian calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church, tens of thousands of Muscovites poured into the center of the city to protest AGAINST the law banning the American adoptions. They carried posters with that wonderful old word "SHAME" written on them -- in red! Others were carrying signs calling the law the "scoundrels' law," or, more incredibly, "Herod's law." (Remember that it was Herod who decreed that all newborn Jewish boys must be killed.)
The Russians of today are struggling to emerge from the past, and the orphan story has become the symbol of this deeper conflict. No one can convince me that the struggle will not eventually end positively.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)