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My 1999 article on Russian children

Here is an article I published back in 1999 on the international adoption issue…The Children of Russia: Victims of Crisis, Beneficiaries of International Law
Bill Bowring
Published as: Bill Bowring “The Children of Russia: Victims of Crisis, Beneficiaries of International Law” (1999) Vol 11 Child and Family Law Quarterly pp. 125-135 ISSN 1358 8414
Russia is suffering an unprecedented economic and demographic crisis. The dismantling of the Soviet Union in December 1991, carried out by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, did not open the way to a democratic and prosperous “normality”. Instead, the most memorable events since then have included the shelling and storming of Russia’s parliament in the autumn of 1993; the war in Chechnya, one of the Russian Federation’s 89 subjects, in 1994-95; and the collapse of both the rouble and the reforming government of Kiryenko in August 1998. The boomtown prosperity of Moscow is the facade behind which there are countless horrors, especially the thousands of homeless and destitute children.
Russia’s children are among the most numerous and most vulnerable victims of change, and their plight has been increasingly and authoritatively documented. Russian policy-makers and legislators are acutely aware of the problems, and there has been much new legislation, especially since 1995. The centrepiece of this is the Russian Constitution adopted in December 1993, which provides (Article 38) that “Motherhood and childhood, and the family are under the protection of the state”. As Marat Baglai, Chairman of the Constitutional Court, explains, this signifies constitutional recognition of the fact that childbirth and marriage are not only private affairs, but have great social significance and demand state support. A new Family Code of the Russian Federation, drawing on international obligations and experience, was adopted on 29 December 1995 and came into force on 1 March 1996, as part of a comprehensive set of new legislation. This is explored below.
To what extent, however, does this legislative change seriously address the problems of children in contemporary Russia? Or is it simply window-dressing? This article seeks to analyse and explore the present plight of Russian children, the legislative and organisational attempts to address their problems, and some of the most controversial issues, especially the nightmare of abandoned children, the so-called “social orphans”, as well as the related and highly politicised issue of international adoption. In both these issues, the recently founded non-governmental organisations have played a key role, as has the mass media. Indeed, there are some positive features of the present Russian social and legal landscape, and this article seeks to give a more balanced account of a complex and dynamic situation.
Russia’s demographic crisis
It is hard to comprehend the scale of the demographic catastrophe facing Russia. According to the Russian government’s own State Committee for Statistics, the population of the Russian Federation is likely to fall by one half by the middle of the next century, and has already declined by over 1.5 million people since 1992 (from 148.7 million to 147.2 million). The average life expectancy fell by six years from 1990 to 1996, and is currently 59.6 years for men and 72.7 years for women, placing Russia somewhere between Egypt and Brazil in terms of its average. This is part of the reason why the population is falling so fast, and also why Russia is on the whole, compared with many Western European states a country of young people.
The major factor, however, and the most disturbing, is the reluctance of Russians to have children at all. From 1989 to 1997, while the death rate grew by 3.5%, as high a rate, it is said, as a country engaged in war, the Russian birth-rate fell by 6%. Seven out of ten pregnancies in Russia are still terminated by abortion, and 2.5 million abortions were performed in 1997, although this represented a decline of 25% since 1992. On the first official Mothers Day, on 28 November 1998, the Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for social affairs, Valentina Matvienko, announced that the government was seriously concerned that in recent years the status of motherhood, and the numbers of women wanting children, had diminished. She said that she wants to see a 10% drop in the abortion rate by the year 2000.
How many children are there in Russia altogether? No-one is quite sure, but according to Russia’s 1992 First Report to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child , the population of the Russian Federation was then 148.7 million people. Of these, 26.9%, 40 million, were young people of 17 years or less. The scale of what has happened to the birth-rate is demonstrated by the fact that an authoritative 1997 publication put the number of children as about 37 million . This was probably the case, given that between 1987 and 1991 the birth rate in Russia declined by 30% to 12.1 live births per 1,000 population .
Those children who are born suffer very much higher mortality than would be acceptable in Western Europe. The infant mortality rate (death before first birthday) in 1992 was 17.8 per thousand live births, according to the government figures presented to the United Nations, primarily the result of the social and economic crisis . Since November 1991 the mortality rate has been higher than the birth rate. Although infant mortality has begun to diminish in the last few years, there is rising teenage mortality, especially suicides – 2,000 in 1997. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Development the suicide rate among Russian children doubled in ten years.
Children’s health
Another product of Russia’s stormy transition from Communism, and its current crisis, is the fact that the children who survive birth and early childhood are not at all healthy. For example, according to the Scientific Research Centre for the Health of Children and Adolescents, Russian children are shorter than they were in the 1970s, chest measurements have shrunk by 5-6 centimetres, and an ever greater number of children suffer from weight deficit. Recent government surveys show that rickets, hypotrophy and diathesis are found in 60% of young children, and anaemia in more than 10%. It is believed that 15-20% of school-age children suffer from chronic ailments. Only 11-14% of schoolchildren are in really good health. Alevtina Aparina, the (Communist) Chair of the State Duma Committee on the affairs of Women, Families and Youth told a Duma hearing in 1997 that 600,000 children were under health clinic supervision, and that the number of disabled children had doubled in the five years to 1997, to around 500,000.
The weakening of social and family control since the collapse of Communism has also led to the rapid spread of diseases that were much less known in previous years. Infectious, especially venereal, diseases are rampant. In the five years to 1994 the rate of diphtheria among children rose 25-fold in Russia, and in big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg the rate is even higher, being 2.5 times the average. According to the same reliable source, there was in 1993 alone a 12.7% increase in the number of children suffering from active tuberculosis . The problem of sexual promiscuity and the rise in venereal disease is even more startling. It is reported that during the five years to 1998 the number of young people suffering from syphilis in Russia as a whole rose by 20 times. In 1993 alone, the rate of gonorrhoea among children increased by 45% from the previous year, as opposed to a twofold rise for the general population. There are also significant rates of HIV-infection, primarily associated with drug abuse. This crisis in children’s health has not been matched by state spending. In fact, from 1995 to 1997, 50 children’s hospitals were closed, and the number of paediatric doctors declined by 7,000. In 1997, of 214 milliard roubles assigned by law to child health, the government paid only 19 milliard.
The decline in the health of young people, not simply those born since 1991, is most graphically demonstrated by the crisis of conscription to the Russian army. One third of the young men called up for national service in 1996 were released from their obligation on the ground of their health – they were underweight, and had a variety of medical and psychological problems. This compares with 5% in 1985, and 20% in 1991. The numbers rejected because they had syphilis grew by 11% in the last ten years, while the numbers of young alcoholics and drugs addicts doubled. The situation had worsened by 1997, when 407,000 of those called up were released by reason of ill-health, while only 403,000 were accepted for service. This is a not only a health problem, but a geo-political nightmare for Russia. How can it defend itself?
The decline in children’s health is matched by the rapidly rising crime rate, that is, crimes committed both by and against children. The evidence presented to the State Duma Committee in 1997 showed that around 920,000 children a year are committing crimes. During the period 1992 to 1997, crimes committed by adolescents rose by 1.5 times, having already risen by 50% during the five years to 1992. Delinquency among girls doubled during the same period, from 6,000 offences to 12,000. According to government statistics, every third juvenile offender lives in a family where the parents abuse alcohol, and do not attempt to supervise their children. Valerii Romanov, Head of the Department for Preventing Delinquency among Adolescents in the Ministry of the Interior, giving evidence to the Committee, said that half of all thefts committed by young people were of the basic necessities of life. One quarter were committed by adolescents who do not study or work, and a quarter were committed under the influence of alcohol.
The overall condition of children in Russia is even more dismal. In Rybinsky’s view, around 18 million children, of the 37 million in Russia, were to be found in the “zone of social risk”, that is, about half the child population in the country . This proportion has, without doubt, increased. Aparina informed her committee that in the 5 years to 1997 the number of crimes connected with abuse of adolescents rose by 165%. During the same period crimes connected with child pornography rose by 12 times, while in 1996 alone some 1,500 crimes against minors were committed for sexual reasons mostly concerning children aged between 8 and 12. According to researchers in St Petersburg, she said, 80% of prostitutes are aged under 18.
Russia and international children’s rights
The Soviet Union prided itself on the care and concern lavished upon children. As Judith Harwin points out, “in many respects the Revolution was in the name of, and for, children.” But it cannot be denied that the prime purpose of this attention was the socialisation of children into Soviet society, to take their place as unquestioning model citizens. The emphasis was on the participation of children, including those living within families, in mass organisations and activities. For the majority of orphans and displaced children generated by the civil war which followed the 1917 Revolution (at the peak of this besprizornye, in 1922, there were estimated to be some 7 million homeless children wandering Russia ), by the liquidation of the peasantry, and by the Second World War, there seemed to be no alternative to very large state institutions.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, of the tutelage of the Party, and of the ideology of collective upbringing, have been accompanied by a revolution in attitudes towards children and childhood. The discourse of this revolution has been the discourse of international obligations, of international human rights. The Russian Federation is a state which, on paper at least, takes its international obligations concerning the rights of the child seriously. Some of these it inherited from its Communist predecessor state. On 13 July 1990 the USSR ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force for it on 15 September 1990. Following the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, the Russian Federation as its successor, became a party to the Convention. Russia is also a state party to the 1966 International Covenants on Civil and Political as well as Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.
On 22 October 1992 Russia submitted its Initial Report under the Convention. The Report was considered by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (the UN body of experts set up under the Convention to review the periodic reports submitted by states) on 21 and 22 January 1993, and it adopted concluding observations which were published on 18 February 1993 . The Committee praised Russia’s timely submission of this Report, and the “frank, self-critical and comprehensive manner in which it was prepared.” It is indeed an invaluable source of objective information. However, the Committee was gravely concerned at a number of matters, including “the practice of the institutionalisation in boarding schools of children who are deprived of a family environment, particularly in cases of abandonment or where children are orphaned” as well as “the occurrence of maltreatment and cruelty towards children in and outside the family.” It was also concerned “about the practice of the institutionalisation in boarding schools of children who are deprived of a family environment, particularly in cases of abandonment or where children are orphaned.” One response of the Russian Government was that by Decree of 23 August 1993 , it resolved that there should be an annual state report concerning the position of children, and such a report has subsequently been prepared each year.
The Russian Government has now prepared its First Periodic Report for the Committee on the Rights of the Child, on realisation of its obligations under the Convention. This was submitted on 12 January 1998, and is due to be considered by the Committee on the Rights of the Child at its 22nd Session in September to October 1999. This time, however, there will be an Alternative Report, prepared by a number of Russian Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) – the rapidly growing sector of campaigns and organisations which are wholly independent of the State, if perhaps over-dependent on Western funding. This Report was presented at a press conference held in February 1999 by State Duma Deputy Valerii Borshchov, a leading human rights activist.
The official and alternative reports throw into sharp relief the difference between two wholly incompatible accounts of the cause of the tragedy of Russia’s children. The Government’s report blames the rapid transformation of the social system combined with economic crisis, together with new social and economic phenomena associated with greater openness and the shift from authoritarian to democratic methods of administration.
The alternative report, on the contrary, names three culprits. These are first, the division of responsibility for the future of children among various ministries and departments, none of which can co-operate with the others; second, the monopolisation by State institutions of the care and rehabilitation of orphans, especially the “social orphans” discussed below; and third, the absence of effective mechanisms of control with the ability to ensure that the staff at all levels fulfil their clear obligation to protect children’s rights. The government insists that no “social control” is necessary. But the NGOs call for the UN to intervene to urge Russia to create an Ombudsman for Children’s Rights, as exists in some 30 countries already, and independent social inspectors with power of access to institutions, documents, and the children themselves.
There is complete agreement, however, as to the scale of the problem. Alevtina Aparina told the State Duma in February 1999 that the condition of Russia’s children means that at least 13 of Russia’s obligations under the Convention are violated.
Russian domestic legislation
Nevertheless, it is only fair to point out that ratification of the Convention was not the only step taken by the new Russia on behalf of children. Children were given, at least on paper, special priority by President Yeltsin. In 1992 a new federal programme, “Children of Russia”, was launched, taking effect in 1993. It is a programme with a number of components , seeking to increase the extent and effectiveness of state action at the central and regional levels. This has been followed by the “Fundamental Directions of State Social Policy for Improving the Position of Children in the Russian Federation to the Year 2000”, launched in 1995. It stresses the contradiction between the necessity of guaranteeing the normal life and development of each child, and the inadequate economic possibilities of most families.
Most important, there is to be a comprehensive strategy for individualised, social, approaches to children’s needs. This is a break not only from Soviet traditions. As Judith Harwin stresses, “large scale foundling homes were part of Russia’s landscape from the early eighteenth century, modelled wholly on French experience. In this way, social attitudes today towards state care, and in particular to large scale institutions, can be seen as a continuation of a long standing historical tradition.” This was how the Soviet Union coped with the aftermath of Civil War and Great Patriotic War, both of which left millions of orphaned children. At the same time, a very comprehensive set of benefits and subsidies brought the state into the life of every child at home
This new orientation was concretised when, on 1 March 1996, a new Family Code of the Russian Federation came into force. The new code is expressly intended to implement Russia’s obligations under the Convention, and many of its provisions are modelled on the Convention . Article 6 of the Code states that “If the international treaties of the Russian Federation contain rules other than those contained in family legislation, then the rules of the international treaty are to be applied.” An authoritative commentary to the Code points out that these treaties include the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1959 Declaration of Rights of the Child, the two International Covenants of 1966, and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. This formulation follows point 4 of Article 15 of the 1993 Russian Constitution, to the effect that international treaties and generally recognised principles of international law are part of the legal system of the Russian Federation, and there are already many decisions of the Russian Constitutional Court striking down legislation and executive decisions because of non-compliance with international standards.
It is regrettable that the Family Code does not contain the key principle of the Convention, namely that “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” (Article 3.1). Nevertheless, the primacy and direct effect of international law in Russian law means that the “best interests” principle must be a key aid to interpretation and decision. The Code is in many ways genuinely progressive and contemporary. Its drafters made extensive studies of international experience, including and especially the UK’s 1989 Children Act, as the most up to date codification of private and public law relating to children then available. The provisions on fostering and adoption are very much in line with British and other international practice.
The scandal of “social orphans”
The most pressing and disturbing contemporary problem of Russian children, and the greatest challenge to the new legislation and orientation to international standards, is demonstrated by another set of shocking statistics, which are also reminiscent of war-time conditions. According to the official Report on the situation of children in Russia in 1996, produced by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development, there are now more than 600,000 children defined as being “without parental care” (beznadzorni a word usually translated as “neglected”). During each of 1995 and 1996, more than 113,000 children were abandoned by their parents, an extraordinary rise from the total of 67,286 in 1992. It is widely reported that at least another 30,000 children run away from home each year.
Other authors suggest that the total numbers of children in Russia who are described as homeless (besprizorni), that is beyond parental influence and social control, is 2.5 million, or as many as 8% of the total numbers of children. Alevtina Aparina, reporting to the State Duma in February 1999, put the total at two to three million, while 343,000 young Russian citizens are sufficiently in trouble to be on the register of the State Commission for Adolescent Affairs (soon to become the “Commission for the Affairs of Adolescents and Defence of their Rights”). Moreover, each year, more than 600,000 children are left without one of their parents, about 300,000 infants are born out of wedlock. It has even been said that 2 million Russian children lack families, two thirds of whom live on the streets, a number exceeding the total in World War II.
None of these figures are wholly reliable, and there is at least as much wild exaggeration in the Russian press as in its Western counterparts. However, a UNICEF report published in 1997 put the number of Russian children “without parental care” at 611,034, of whom 337,527 were housed in a variety of institutions: baby houses, children’s homes, and homes for children with disabilities. Another expert considers that the last figure includes children living part-time at home, and that the number of children in full-time institutions is about 200,000, some 30,000 of whom are locked away in psychoneurological internaty (boarding establishments) for “ineducable” children.
The most devastating blow to Russian pride in the treatment of children fell in December 1998, when the leading international human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) Human Rights Watch published a special report, “Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages”. This thorough research, which contains many heart-rending individual cases, identifies two main problems. The first is the veritable “archipelago of closed institutions” through which Russian orphans are herded, a maze of state structures operated by a number of ministries. Thus, the Ministry of Health is responsible for the care of some 18-20,000 children aged between birth and four years, in some 252 “baby houses”. Then the Ministry of Education looks after children with no disability or light disability (debil) , while the Ministry of Labour and Social Development takes charge of those who have been diagnosed as severely disabled – “imbetsil” or “idiot”. All these institutions are severely underfunded, and have little or no facilities for rehabilitation or socialisation. There are few possibilities for children or their parents, if they have any, to complain or ever to leave the system.
The second problem is a feature and product of the first. Children are effectively stigmatised at an early age. The label “debil” or “idiot” is practically impossible to lose, and ruins the life chances of the person to whom it is attached. This process of stigmatisation has immensely worsened since Soviet times. The consequences of this segregation on the individual are appalling, wrecking the life chances of the individuals concerned. According to the Russian Procuracy (the institution in Russia which acts both as public prosecutor and ombudsman), some 15,000 children leave state children’s homes every year. Within several years 5,000 of these will be unemployed; 6,000 will be homeless; 3,000 will have acquired criminal records; and 1,500 will attempt suicide.
The conclusion reached by Human Rights Watch is that there is a “cycle of discrimination, violence and impunity that endangers children in Russia”.
I have already pointed to the role of Russian NGOs in highlighting Russia’s non-compliance with its obligations. They have been especially active in tackling the issue of “social orphans”. For example, the Moscow-based NGO “Rights of the Child”, founded in 1997 by the veteran dissident and human rights activist Boris Altshuler, the teacher Lyubov Kushnir, and others, has opened an advice centre for victims of ill-treatment in state institutions, and on the basis of the information gained and its own research, it has campaigned for the system of “social control” of children’s homes and hostels at all levels – independent inspection with full investigative powers – which is one of the main demands of the Alternative Report. This campaign commenced with an appeal to President Yeltsin on 30 September 1997, and has continued with seminars and coordinated activity with human rights organisations throughout Russia. The aim is the enactment of new legislation. At the very least, public awareness has been raised. Their research was primarily responsible for the prosecution, in September 1995, of the Director of the Alpha orphanage in Moscow, for the rape of at least five girls aged between 12 and 13 in his care, and the beating of at least three boys with iron rods.
Inter-country adoption in Russia
In the context of the disaster of state institutions, it might reasonably be thought that fostering and adoption would be preferable by far to abandonment to the state. The statistics show, however, that only a small proportion of children are adopted by Russians. Thus, in 1997 30,000 children were adopted by Russians, of whom 18,000 were adopted by relatives, and 12,000 by other citizens. It is readily apparent that the number of children available for adoption are only a proportion of those living in institutions. Today in Russia there are at least 533,000 inmates of various priyutskikh (hostel-type) institutions. About one third of them could be adopted. The central register of children needing new families, however, contains only 40,000 names. The remaining “social orphans” have not yet found their way onto the register .
The Russian press reports that even fewer children are now being adopted by Russians, principally because most of the children are disabled, have chronic illnesses, or are children of alcoholics and mentally ill parents. It is therefore not surprising that the number of children adopted by foreigners, while still tiny in absolute terms, has risen steadily, from 678 in 1992, to 3197 in 1996 .
Despite its insignificance in comparison to the size of the problem, inter-country adoption has become a dominant issue in present-day discussion. It is itself of recent origin. The first international adoption of a Russian child took place in 1991 through the participation of the Lenin Childrens Fund, and the personal intervention of Raisa Gorbacheva, wife of the then President of the USSR. By the end of 1991, 576 Russian children had found new homes in America, Canada, Sweden and France. However, as Harwin points out , policy formulation and preparation of legislation did not begin until 1992, following the collapse of the USSR, and for three reasons. First, instructions issued by the new government had failed to enable children with disabilities to be adopted. Second, both the Ministries of Education and Health were anxious to find new possibilities for apparently unadoptable children. Third, Russia was by then receiving many requests from international adoption agencies. In January 1992 the two Ministries issued instructions, setting out four categories of children who could be adopted abroad. These included children with disabilities; those with developmental delays and abnormalities; those from mentally ill, alcoholic, or drug abusing parents; and those with venereal disease.
These instructions came under heavy criticism, and towards the end of 1992, a new Decree “On Urgent Measures Regarding Adoption by Citizens of Other Countries” was issued by the Supreme Soviet. This was known as the “Khasbulatov Verdict”, and remained in force until 1995 . It simply stated that international adoption was only possible in “exceptional, urgent situations in the interests of the child’s health.” This vague formulation left the way open to profiteering by unregulated agencies.
National pride
Very quickly a conflict emerged between Russian pride, and Russia’s international obligations, a conflict in which issues of children’s welfare did not predominate until late in the day. By the end of 1994 it appeared that there might be a moratorium on all international adoptions, and this was a serious obstacle to enactment of the Family Code, with its progressive provisions for adoption. As Harwin states, the Ministries had “failed to appreciate that a well intentioned child care policy symbolised for many the humiliation of a former super power. Whereas before Russia had prided itself in the belief that children were its only privileged class, now it was becoming a mere donor of children to the wealthy West, depleting Russia’s “genetic pool”. The Procurator-General spoke for many in opposing signature of the Hague Convention :
“The project is orientated to the third world. Europe and America don’t give away their sons beyond their borders. They prefer to take children from other countries which are trying to cope with problems of survival.”
A Duma member, who had previously run children’s programmes in St Petersburg said, in debate:
“It’s better for them (the children) to stay here and die in Russia and eat cockroaches with us than go and live abroad.”
Nevertheless, as already pointed out, the State Duma enacted the Family Code towards the end of 1995. This was not accomplished without difficulties. The President three times refused to sign the Code following approval by both Houses of Parliament, and returned it for reworking.
The present legal requirement relating to international adoption is contained in Article 124 point 3 of the Code.
“The adoption of children by foreign citizens or persons without citizenship is permitted only in cases where there is no possibility of placing such children to live with families who are citizens of the Russian Federation, permanently resident on the territory of the Russian federation, or for adoption by relatives of the child irrespective of citizenship and place of residence of those relatives.
Children may be transferred for adoption by citizens of the Russian Federation, permanently resident outside the territory of the Russian Federation, or by foreign citizens or persons without citizenship, who are not relatives of the child, on the completion of three months from the day the child was placed on the central register in accordance with point 3 of Article 122 of this Code.”
The Court has the final decision in cases of adoption, under procedures which are similar to those operating in the UK and other western states. The above provision of the Code is fully in accordance with Article 21 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This provides that “inter-country adoption may be considered as an alternative means of a child’s care, if the child cannot be placed in a foster or an adoptive family or cannot in any suitable manner be cared for in the child’s country of origin.” The procedure for adoption by foreigners is designed to safeguard children’s welfare. In addition to the usual information required from prospective adopters, the Russian local child welfare representatives must submit the following items to the judge :
1. Documents affirming the child has been registered with the central register of orphans at the Federal Ministry of Education for the requisite period of time (three months) and that no Russian citizens have shown interest in adopting the child;
2. A statement concluding that adoption is in the child’s best interests;
3. The child’s birth certificate;
4. A medical assessment of the child’s health and development;
5. If the child is over the age of 10, a statement of his/her consent to the adoption;
6. If the child is younger than 10, a statement from his/her biological parents agreeing to the adoption, or a document explaining why parental consent is not required;
7. A statement of consent from the director of the institution in which the child lives.
A primary source of adoptive parents for Russian children has been the United States. In 1996 families in the US adopted 11,340 children from various countries. 32% of them came from Russia and Eastern Europe. Recent U.S. immigrant visa statistics show a steady rise in the issuing of visas for orphans. According to the US State Department: “Adoptions of children from the Russian Federation by American citizens have steadily increased over the past three years and have become increasingly routine. Orphans from nearly every region of Russia are available for adoption by Russian or foreign parents.” The journal Ogonyok has carried a number of accounts of sick and disturbed children who have made quite remarkable progress with their American adoptive parents. In September 1997 in Washington the first all-American meeting of families with children adopted from Russia took place. More than two hundred families took part with their adopted children. Americans adopted more than 3,800 babies from Russia in 1997, according to the US State Department.
The latest reforms
Russia’s compliance with international law was seriously threatened by the sinister return of nationalist sentiment referred to above. The State Duma for a long period considered a new normative act: the Postanovleniye (Decree) “On Urgent Measures for Raising State Control of Adoption”. This perceived in international adoption “negative tendencies creating a threat to the national security of Russia.”
More positively, the State Duma’s Committee on Women, Families and Youth (chaired by Aparina), also discussed a number of amendments to the Family Code. One such amendment proposed to forbid the involvement of any intermediaries, without regard to the problem of prospective adopters who have no knowledge of the Russian language or Russian law. The existing position, according to the State Department, is that a number of U.S. adoption agencies operate in Russia. Most have local co-ordinators who assist in negotiating with local officials, interpret and prepare translations and offer other general services to prospective parents. Other agencies send their own U.S.-based Russian speaking representatives to assist the visiting U.S. citizens.
A further draft amendment provides that representation of prospective adopters and indeed the adoption itself will only be permitted following the conclusion of a bilateral international treaty. As Izvestiya’s commentator Ella Maksimova pointed out, this was a potential new iron curtain . It also contradicted provisions both of the Constitution and of the Civil Code permitting anyone, citizen or foreigner, to be represented by a third party. A person could act in accordance with these instruments, only to find themselves in the dock for violation of the Family Code.
The nationalists’ arguments were based on scare-mongering, on fear as to the future of the children adopted by foreigners. One case acquired mythic status, at least with the nationalists. In summer 1997 in the state of Colorado 42 year old Renee Paulrays beat her adopted son David-Aleksandr (2 years and 9 months old) to death. All rational commentators recognise that these are isolated cases, in any event much more likely to occur in Russia. This has not deterred the nationalists. The “Liberal Democrat” leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky told Ogonyok, for example, that under the present law he could not be certain that children were really adopted, or what their conditions were. When it was put to him that the Russian courts required stringent proof of suitability, he replied that it was well-known that children, particularly adolescents, were used for prostitution – sixteen year old girls “were exported”. He was not sure that children were really going to a family. A Communist deputy, Mikhail Tarantsov, said that, in his view, the lives of Russian children were being placed in danger abroad, and that they were being subjected to aggression. His evidence was once more – the US case already referred to, even though reporters from Ogonyok put it to him that every year in Russia at least 10 to 15 children are murdered by their own parents . Another Deputy, Sergei Yushenkov, who voted against the draft amendment, deprecated his colleagues whose discourse focused on the “export of the nation’s genetic inheritance”; this was part of general paranoia concerning conspiracies against the nation. It was also a manifestation of the old communist tendency to hide Russia’s internal affairs from the world. “The logic of the communist is simple: if you were born here, then you must die here too.”
The leading Russian NGOs came out strongly against these proposals. At a press-conference held in early 1998 in the Andrei Sakharov Centre (named after the foremost dissident of Soviet times), a number of leading figures – Anatolii Severniy (Independent Association of Child Psychiatrists and Psychologists), Boris Altshuler (Rights of the Child), Galina Rybchinskaya (Editor of the children’s journal “Protect Me!”), and Galina Krasnitskaya (Institute of Childhood) – declared that the proposed changes violate the fundamental principle of the Family Code, the protection of the interests of the child. The most vulnerable children will lose their foremost right – to live and be brought up in a family. On 30 January 1998 they addressed an open letter to two of the leading progressive deputies in the Duma, Ella Pamfilova (a former Minister of Social Protection) and Valerii Borshchev, proposing detailed amendments.
It would appear that the combined efforts of journalists and NGOs had the desired effect on the legislators. The conclusion of Izvestiya’s Ella Maksimova and Bris Sinyavskii, who had covered the issue throughout, was that the Family Code had been improved, and that the deputies had chosen the correct path: they had decided to bring Russia closer to the norms set out in the 1993 Hague Convention. There is to be a strengthening of state control over adoption. The Deputy Minister of Education, Yelena Chepurnikh, wrote to Izvestiya that Russia must ratify the Hague Convention, which would permit legislative regulation of the question of intermediaries, by way of accreditation and licensing of all foreign agencies operating on Russian territory. Foreign citizens who adopt Russian children must now give an undertaking to the Russian adoption court that they will, within a month of arriving home, register with the Russian consul, who is to check the conditions of the adopted child with the same frequency as would be the case for a child adopted in Russia. The amendments proposed by Aparina’s Committee were passed by the State Duma on 5 June 1998, and approved by the Federation Council on 10 June. The process of international adoption is now in full swing, and the most recent reports indicate that the amended Family Code has not hampered the adoption process.
Russian children are among the most vulnerable victims of Russia’s questionable transition to democracy and the market economy. The statistics cited above paint a truly desperate picture, and in many respects the majority of children are now much worse off than they were under the previous regime. Nevertheless, there are some extremely positive signs, not least as the result of Russia’s accession to international treaties, and mostly whole-hearted endeavour to implement them. The creditable work of NGOs and of the mass media has been strengthened and legitimated, and the story of international adoption shows that even the nationalist dominated State Duma is open to pressure, and is capable of progressive change. Whether Russia will become a country in which couples wish to have children is another matter, beyond the scope of this article. Meanwhile, a Russia shrunk to only 75 millions would indeed represent a disaster of unprecedented magnitude.The article with footnotes is at

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