Children play in an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. A law barring Americans from adopting Russian children may prevent thousands from leaving institutions where they will spend their early lives. (Reuters/Vladimir Konstantinov)
In the mid 1990s, a journalist friend was smacked in the face by one of those moral choices that jumps out at you in war zones and countries in chaos.
While she was shooting a TV doc on homeless people living in Moscow train stations, a tiny, dirt-encrusted child caught her eye, smiled winsomely, and clung to her with determination. The little girl’s mother, who appeared drugged, had drifted away after a brief interview. By nightfall the hectic shoot ended, the toddler was still there but the mother had disappeared. A frantic search yielded nothing.
My friend, an overworked single reporter who travelled constantly, swallowed hard. She took the child back to her apartment, washed and fed her. Next day she took her to a doctor, who treated her skin ailments and pronounced her basically healthy. Shortly, the reporter found a reputable Canadian adoption agency that could give the tot a new start in life.
But first the child had to be legally enrolled in a Russian orphanage. The reporter did so reluctantly, relieved that an eager Canadian couple was already waiting in the wings, and her stay there would be short. But it didn’t work out that way. After negotiating a $15,000 “adoption fee,” the Canadians heard nothing more. Then the trail went cold. Eventually, the reporter learned, the child was adopted by an American couple -- apparently because they had anted up a larger sum.
Still, it was an unusually happy ending for one of Russia’s thousands of abandoned children. According to the American-based child advocacy group MiraMed, hundreds of young girls have disappeared from orphanages into prostitution, some of the older ones lured with promises of jobs. Many of them are reportedly trafficked abroad.
The fate of more than 100,000 others – some experts say 300,000 -- who remain in Russia’s state orphanages is often sad. Most are not the children of dead parents, but abandoned because they are labelled “defective.” Those with serious disabilities are at highest risk.
Nor are many Russians eager to adopt even healthy children. Since Soviet times, when abandoned children were considered to be from “degenerate” families of drug or alcohol addicts, adoption has carried a stigma of its own. When homelessness spread after the fall of communism, children were left on the street by destitute, often addicted parents.
The fate of some who end up in state homes is dire. Last week a chilling video went viral, showing beatings and abuse of seven children at an orphanage in eastern Siberia. The abusers were former orphans, who admitted they were only doing what had been done to them. A criminal investigation of the alleged perpetrators is unlikely to change the system.
Ironically, experts say, the oil wealth that has allowed Russia’s subsidies for orphanages to rise dramatically, has harmed more than helped in some cases. If the children are shut away with little contact with the outside world, the institutions are ripe for corruption and abuse. Their funding depends on numbers -- making it lucrative to discourage fostering.
So it’s all the more galling for child advocates who say that Russia has targeted orphans in what appears to be revenge for Washington’s Magnitsky Act. The U.S. law puts financial and visa restrictions on those suspected of involvement in the death of a Russian tax lawyer who blew the whistle on an alleged tax fraud that reached into Russia’s circles of power.
Though Moscow denies any link, it swiftly passed its own law banning adoptions by Americans on grounds of alleged abuse of adoptees in the U.S. Other countries that are considering Magnitsky sanctions worry that they might also end up on a “no adoptions” list.
In spite of the difficulties, a number of Russian charities are struggling to improve the lives of orphans, and some have tried to run their own unofficial group homes. But they get little help or attention. Still less do the orphanage children whose voices are seldom heard.
FURTHER READING: A mother fears for Russia's Abandoned Kids.
Olivia Ward covered the former Soviet Union from 1992-2002. She has written on conflicts, politics and human rights from Russia to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.