Americans are adopting a fraction of the number of Russian children they used to

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Image: AP Photo/Misha Japaridze
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Russian officials are threatening to ban Americans from adopting their orphans, a tit-for-tat political campaign after President Barack Obama signed a law blacklisting US travel for Russian officials linked to the prison torture and death of a lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky.

But Americans are already adopting many fewer Russian children—less than one-fifth the number they did at the height of adoption between the countries a few years ago.

Until now, the dropoff in American adoptions has been the result of the tragic deaths of Russian children in the US and traditional prickliness between the two countries. In 2011, Americans adopted 962 Russian children, according to State Department figures. That was a steep decline from the 11,058 in 2010, and the 2004 peak of 22,991. There are no official figures as yet for 2012, but Americans adopted a total of 45,112 Russian children from 1999 to 2011.

But Obama’s enactment of the Magnitsky law on Oct. 14 particularly roiled Russian politics, leading the Duma to approve a bill barring American adoptions. The upper house of parliament must now approve it before it goes to President Vladimir Putin. In a Dec. 20 news conference, Putin would not be pinned down on whether he would sign the bill, but lashed out at Americans, along with a Russian reporter who was critical of the ban idea. “This is about the attitude of American officials in situations involving the violation of children’s rights,” Putin said. “Do you consider this normal? You like this? What are you, a sadomasochist? There is no need to humiliate the country.”

As Americans have waited longer to have children, only to learn they are too late, they have sought to adopt abroad. Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Ethiopia have been primary places. Apart from Russia, Americans adopted 66,630 Chinese children, 6,641 Kazakhs and 11,524 Ethiopians from 1999 to 2011.

In Russia, however, a massive public outcry occurred in 2008 when a Virginia man, Miles Harrison, accidentally left a 21-month old Russian boy he had adopted, Dmitri Yakovlev, in his vehicle with the windows rolled up for an entire work day. The boy died. Harrison was later acquitted of involuntary manslaughter. The boy is one of 14 adopted Russian children to die in the US since 1996, according to private Russian figures.

In his news conference, Putin criticized the US more broadly, saying that it has yet to reconcile with egregious remnants of the George W. Bush era such as the torture of prisoners and the imprisonment of US citizens and foreigners without charge, a violation of the centuries-old standard of habeus corpus.

US experts on Russia attributed the move to ban American adoptions of Russians to politics, but there was no indication whether that meant that the bill would go unsigned. “The goal is to express anger to tap into the anti-Americanism that Putin has so assiduously cultivated this past year or so and to check the box that they have responded to Magnitsky Act as they promised they would,” said Andrew Kuchins, who runs the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Affairs.