The politics of Russian adoption

My daughter’s first moments as an American, arriving at Logan Airport in 2004

I suppose what I’m about to write counts as a comment on foreign policy, but it’s also something with a lot of personal meaning to me. I am an adoptive parent of a Russian child: my daughter was born in Moscow and I brought her home in 2004. More about that later.

The issue that moved me to write on this subject is the constant attempt by opportunistic Russian politicians, aided by sensationalistic journalists, to create hysteria about whether Russian children adopted and brought to the United States are being abused. Even by the low, cynical standards of Russian politics, this is really bottom-feeding stuff. And as someone who knows something about Russia, about adoption, and about Russian children, I’m appalled.

Let’s just stipulate right at the start that there are lousy parents out there, adoptive or otherwise. Like any set of parents, there are people who abuse, molest, exploit, and even kill their own children. The world is full of them.

Adoptive parents, of course, draw a lot of attention because they choose to be parents.  Society and the media, here or in Russia, don’t bat an eye at the abuse inflicted (except in truly horrific cases) on children who only exist because their “parents” can’t seem to stop having irresponsible sex.

But people who adopt kids, bring them to another country, and then abuse them again, are objects of special disgust, and for good reason: they had the option not to parent in the first place.

The creepy mom who sent her son back. She was ordered to pay child support. I would have opted for something a little more meaningful — like, say, flogging.

The most infamous of these stories in the past year involved the woman who decided her 7-year-0ld adopted Russian son was just too much trouble, and put him on a plane back to Russia. Let’s not even ask why a single woman with no income and no real source of support wanted to adopt a kid; people in this country too often think of having children as something like buying puppies or bunnies. (This is one reason why kids have such ridiculous names: we’re awash in Tiffies, Brandis, BrayJaydens, and on and on, because people don’t think the cute little moppets will grow up one day. But that’s a different subject.)

Creepy. But better than most places in Russia.

Likewise, the ranch in Montana that the Russians are investigating looks to be some sort of kid farm; it’s run by a church group, and has been in a running battle with the state about building standards. It’s still light-years better than the average group home in Russia, especially when you get out to the Russian boonies, where the orphanages can make U.S. prison farms seem luxe by comparison. But okay, no one wants to see kids go from the frying pan in to the fire, or at least into another frying pan, even if it’s non-stick and prettier. (I am penalizing myself for Metaphor Abuse here, but you get the idea.)

Other adopted kids, just like those with their biological parents, have been killed and abused, even in Russia. So again, let’s agree up front: some monstrous people have had children, and some have adopted children, and all of them have a particularly warm circle of Hell waiting for them.

Russian TV. Because, you know, nothing bad happens in Russia.

But Russia’s complaints about the treatment of its children in the United States are so hypocritical they are beyond comprehension. Once again, the word we’re looking for here in Russian is “naglost” — which means “chutzpah,” or “sheer brass balls.”

Let’s start with the major reason there are so many Russian children in America: Because the Russians themselves won’t adopt them.

Russian culture has a strong bias against adoption, a stigma that’s something like the kind of social taboo the United States had perhaps 60 or 70 years ago, when people whispered the word “adopted.” It is a far stronger stigma than anyone there wants to admit: Russian women who cannot conceive will actually fake nine months of a pregnancy, and then wait at a hospital during another woman’s birth, to adopt a baby. This is not only to deceive the neighbors, but in some cases to deceive their lovers or even their husbands.

At this point, some of you are throwing the Bullshit Flag questioning whether this can be true. I did too, until I spoke with many Russian adoption coordinators in Moscow who said that women who cannot conceive will avoid sex with their husbands, or stay with relatives, or resort to any number of dodges to hide their adoption.

Why is this? One reason is that Russian social culture still has strong traces of peasant culture left in it. The idea that your family “is the group of people who love you” rather than “the group to which you are tied by strands of DNA” is a pretty modern idea, and has stronger roots in the enlightened West than in the traditional East (of Europe, I mean).

The concept that who you are is predicated on who provided your genetic structure, rather than who raised you, is a powerful notion that goes to our very sense of our identity, and is rooted more strongly in our culture than we sometimes realize.

For example, think about it from a literary and religious perspective for a moment: human legends are full of heroes and divine figures, from King Arthur, to Moses, to Jesus Christ, and even to modern myths like Superman, who are all adopted and come only later in life to find their “true” nature. Their adoptive parents in these examples are always loving, positive models — and many of us adoptive fathers have a special devotion to St. Joseph, for obvious reasons — but there is still the underlying sense in more traditional cultures that nature trumps nurture.

He’s not from around here, Martha.

My own father’s story here is a good example. He was adopted by a Greek family in America after being conceived in, ah, unfortunate circumstances in rural Greece during the closing months of World War I. His mother, in shame, was shipped off to Boston, where she gave birth, and the baby was sent to another family.

Dad was a grown man before anyone admitted to him that he was adopted — which was pointless, because his adoptive parents, as far as he was concerned, were his parents. He finally learned of his birth history during the 1930s, but even then, he didn’t realize how the stigmas around his origins extended to another child as well: During World War II, a young Marine knocked on his door. My father, who until then had been deferred from service, assumed he was being drafted. Instead, the young Marine asked if he had the right Mr. Nichols, and then said: “I think I’m your brother.”

No one had told either of them, and one didn’t know the other existed, because the word “adopted” or “half-brother” were words simply forbidden among Greeks of the time. They found each other and became family by sheer luck (and by the tenacity of that young Marine, my now-deceased and much beloved Uncle Steve).

I couldn’t make up a story that touching. But the point is that some cultures, particularly in the Orthodox world (as in Greece and Russia) still cannot accept adoption as the miracle it is, and are still locked in the mores that nearly prevented two men from finding each other as brothers in 1942.

Pavel Astakhov

Moreover, life in Russia is no picnic for kids, even kids from reasonably middle-class backgrounds. Their health, nutrition, education, and general circumstances (like pollution, crime and other dangers) are generally inferior to American levels. A recent report from Voice of Russia had the audacity to try to compare these numbers, with Russian adoption ombudsman Pavel Astakhov claiming:

[A] myth is that that Russian orphans feel better abroad is not confirmed by official reports in the USA, Astakhov says.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, early this year the number of children who were subjected to violence in the USA reached 3 million 600,000, and out of them 360,000 children, that is 10 per cent, were subjected to sexual violence. And as regards Russia, the figure is 9,500 children, which means less than in America. 1,560 children in America have died from violence, and the majority of them were under 4.

To anyone who has studied Russia, this is one of those spit-take statistics, where you splutter your coffee all over your computer screen at the sheer stupidity of the comparison. Anyone who thinks Russia has anything like a competent system for reporting abuse of children is either an idiot or a propagandist. Surprisingly, Astakhov, a smart and competent guy, is neither, so surely he knows better.

And let’s not be ridiculous: to report “abuse” of any kind among children or women, Russia would first have to recognize the concept of “abuse of children and women” in the first place. The Russians claiming lower rates of child abuse is like Saudi Arabia comparing domestic violence statistics with us.

A Russian child begging. (The sign says: “Help me, I want to eat.”)

The Russians know all of this, and they know it better than we do. The reason the Russian legislature is baying at the moon about this is that the real shame of the Russian nation is that it does not take care of its own children, underfunds its orphanages and schools, and ghettoizes the caregivers as a profession.

The first liberal out there who says “so does America” had better be on a plane to Russia in the morning to test that theory out with their own kids, because America’s funding of everything in the social and human sphere is lavish compared to Russia, particularly where kids are concerned. And Americans are so pro-adoption that they’ve had to scour the world to find children to bring home, because the wait times — and the legal tangles, including the heartbreaking collapse of confidentiality rules — here in the United States are so tortuous.

Americans adopt a lot of kids. Some of those Americans, like a lot of rotten parents, are true sons of bitches who should be horsewhipped and jailed. But for Pavel Astakhov or any other Russian to make hay out of how Russian children are treated in the United States is disgusting and unconscionable, when Russia itself has turned its back on those kids. The Russian legislature isn’t raising hell about its children: it’s trying to turn attention away from its own failures and the prejudices of a society that doesn’t yet accept adoption as readily as the West.  They’re ashamed, and should be.

Now, having said all this, can we all stop pissing on each other, and find homes for all of these children?

I think Mr. Astakhov might be reassured if he concentrated on cases like me and my daughter (and the commenters who have posted below), whose have made wonderful lives for, and with, their Russian children. We brought my daughter home at 15 months old, after making the requisite visits, and disclosing more information to the Russian government than the U.S. government required for my security clearance. (I never had to take an AIDS test for my own government, but the Russians wanted one.)

Florida last year. Yes, she’s wearing sunscreen.

Like any American kid, her life is taken up by things like dance lessons, regular attendance at church — an Orthodox church, I would add — visits to first-rate dentists and pediatricians, and trips to Disney. I’m sure she would tell Mr. Astakhov that she, like most Russian kids, is proud of her heritage, fascinated by her Russian roots, and happy to be with her Mom and Dad, her dog, and her cats in Rhode Island. We’re not perfect parents, but we’re trying.

Fortunately, as of last month, the war between Russia and America over adoption seems to be over, for now. But there’s no getting rid of opportunists — just like there’s no way to prevent bad parenting. Hopefully, Russians and Americans who care about their children can continue to work together, regardless of the political cynicism of the Russians who want to avert their eyes from the fact that the Kremlin would rather send arms to Syria than healthy food to orphanages.

And now back to our regular programming: butchery in Syria, Iranian nukes, Chinese tunnels, and all that other fun stuff.


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  1. Cogently and articulately done! I completely agree with you.

    I adopted my daughter at 24 months of age from Saratov, Russia, and she’s now almost 11 and entering 5th grade. I know many other adoptive parents in the US as well, and every single one of them is a committed, dedicated, loving parent who would never abuse their child.

    I wish everybody could see first-hand what a Russian orphanage is actually like.

    Thanks for writing this.

  2. As the parent of a Russian born boy (Volsk, Saratov, Russia) DOB 2003 adopted 2004 I applaud your blog. Well written and so accurate!

  3. Thank you all. I don’t usually write about things so close to home, but I got fed up, as you can tell 🙂

  4. I can’t tell you how much my wife and I needed this article. We have been trying to adopt from Russia for a year now, have lost a referral, had our agency’s license suspended and basically spent the last six months being tortured by the vagaries of the information we’ve been getting out of Russia. While we are aware that the treaty had been ratified we don’t know enough about Russian politics to know if it’s really the end. Will the judges and apparatchiks really let up?

  5. tom –
    as a hopeful parent going through the arduous process of Russian adoption after years of struggling to have a family…thank you for having the courage to say what my husband and I only say to each other.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the Russians should be upset about abuse, but not only in our country, but their own and others around the world as well.

    I’m not a super religious person, but god bless you for giving us something to hold on to during a difficult time.
    Meg & Jon

  6. Meg, Jon, and Jon:

    Don’t give up hope! (Easy for me to say now, I know.) The best thing you can do is to make sure you’re working with a good agency — there’s a lot of shady operators out there — so check them thoroughly, including asking about their accreditation in Russia. And yeah, prayer works too.

    It’s hard to just have faith that your child is out there, but he or she might get to you in ways you didn’t expect, or on the timetable you thought. I’ll stop now before I sound like I’m just issuing platitudes, but I can only say that if you had told me as a young man that parenthood would happen to me via adoption in Russia when I was almost 43, I would never have believed you.

    Jon, I just don’t know if the logjam is broken. I know that there are lot of people in Russia who recognize how crucial it is for those kids to find their “forever families,” but the one thing Russia excels at is bureaucracy. So never lose your cool, fill out the papers, and make sure everything is in order.

    Did I mention the part about prayer? 🙂

  7. An important post and very fine, heartfelt comments. However, I can’t help but raise an issue that nuances your statement about the obligation of adoptive parents.

    That issue is the violent, uncontrollable, and sociopathic behavior exhibited by some older Russian adoptees, thanks to the horrific conditions (which you’ve described) in the orphanages where they were raised. Although some adoptive parents may have grossly overestimated their ability to “cure” such children with love and attention, in other cases the adoptee may not have exhibited these behaviors before the adoption was finalized. This, reportedly, was the situation faced by the single mother to whom you refer. Whatever the truth of this one case, I can’t help empathizing with adoptive parents who find themselves in a similar situation.

    Still, I can’t condone efforts to return the adoptee to Russia like defective merchandise to a store. As with a domestic adoptee, the child now “belongs” to the adoptive parents and it’s become their responsibility to deal with the situation exactly as if the troubled child were born to them. For reasons we still don’t understand (but likely due to physical/genetic factors we can’t yet diagnose), a few natural children of caring parents behave like the “bad seed.” In these instances, as with those of severely psychologically crippled adoptees, even the best parents face an agonizing decision as to how far to continue with medication and/or therapy and when institutionalization may be the only viable option.

    Adopting a child whose provenance and early upbringing are suspect or unknown is, as you well know, always a risk. For you the outcome couldn’t possibly have been better: your lovely daughter is a “winner” in every sense. Moreover, I’m certain you would have coped valiantly and lovingly if she hadn’t turned out so well. The lesson, I think, is that foreign adoptions should always be approached with great caution; an understanding that things could go horribly wrong; and a realistic determination to act as any good parent would do for a natural child who suffers from such a condition.

  8. David- My heart breaks for the parents whose kids are troubled, or suffer from undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (which the Russians will sometimes try to cover up), or any number of things. But all children come with risk; as our pediatrician (herself an adoptive mother of a girl from Ukraine) said, “Children come with both gifts and challenges, no matter how you get them.”

    I also think that adoption carries a stigma, and the behavior of adopted kids becomes an issue, because people have the utterly mistaken belief that their biological child will get only the good DNA in their family. I used to joke with my late mother about this; she used to say “you’re a professor because you’re Irish, and we’re a race of poets and writers.” And I’d say: “Mom, that may be true of some of the Irish, but last I checked, our family was a bunch of horse thieves and hooligans.”

    It’s sort of like the people who look up their family tree and always find that they were related to Charlemagne or Robert the Bruce or something. No one ever considers that they were also probably descended from the guy who raked the stables 🙂

    I, too, empathize with the parents of the kids who have a lot of “orphanage issues,” but there’s a simple solution for those people: Don’t adopt. The Russians are less than candid in many cases about the history of the children. I’d like to see Mr. Astakhov investigate that, and make the process easier and more transparent for everyone.