Back in the USSR

Imagine a child, an infant, lying on a sparsely covered metal cot. Her bedclothes are soiled since the orphanage she lives in is too poorly funded to provide the children with diapers. Early in the morning she and her unfortunate Dickensian housemates are woken up and stripped of their sodden nighties before being placed in a random assortment of outfits emblazoned with the number of their particular Baby House as a form of identification. She is purposely denied anything like affection, as her Russian caretakers have mistakenly perverted the principles of attachment theory, believing that it is best for orphaned children to avoid any prolonged adult connection until they are placed with a family, an event that may never happen. So, they watch our young girl in shifts, inspiring no emotion in her besides fear, because how should she learn to feel without someone to show her how?

If you ever needed a closing argument in the debate over nature versus nurture, you would be hard pressed to find a better one in support of nurture than in the orphanages of Russia and Eastern Europe. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 80s and early 90s, the Western World was exposed to a repellant infrastructure of orphanages that looked like mini gulags for small children. In some places in Romania, children had been so deprived of sensory stimulation and nourishment that they had become feral, failing to develop even the most rudimentary knowledge of language or social interaction. These feral children were not a common occurrence in Eastern European orphanages, but they serve as an example of the type of psychological and developmental toll that these inhumane institutions can take on a child. Even those that are comparatively healthy and manage to find an adoptive family early on are scarred from the experience. Without any source of parental comfort, these children are forced to find maladaptive methods of coping with their surroundings, which can create lifelong behavioral issues. Many of the orphans in Russia pick up the habit of rocking themselves to sleep, rubbing parts of their head bald over time and developing a complex that takes years to shake off.1

For thousands of Russian orphans, this is what home looks like:

For thousands of Russian orphans, this is what home looks like:

Over the 20 or so years since the fall of the USSR, there has been little substantive change in the orphanages of Eastern Europe. Many of the 120,000 orphans open for adoption in Russia today are housed in conditions that border on the medieval. Of that 120,000, around 1,000 of them were fortunate enough to be adopted by American families after they had been put through a grueling and expensive litany of bureaucratic hurdles. Since Russia began to allow American adoptions back in 1994, the process of uniting a child with his/her prospective parents has never been easy, and the Russian government’s enthusiasm for the enterprise has waxed and waned in response to the political tides. This week, Tsar Vladimir the Pathetic, along with the majority of the State Duma and Federation Council, approved of a bill banning all American adoptions of Russian children, underscoring both the fragility of contemporary Sino-American relations and the sociopathic callousness that lies in Vladimir Putin’s shriveled heart.

The origins of this disgusting power play lie in one of the few pieces of legislation that both Republicans and Democrats have been able to agree upon during this 112th Congress, The Magnitsky Act. In effect, The Magnitsky Act’s purpose was to give the United States a recourse to punish unconvicted human rights offenders from other nations by denying them access to US financial institutions. It proved to be a very popular piece of legislation on The Hill, passing the Senate with a vote of 92 to 4, with support from unusual bedfellows like Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)2. On December 14th, President Obama signed the act into law, setting off the latest hostilities from the Russian government that led to the banning of all American adoptions of Russian children.

The two things have absolutely nothing to do with one another. The banking habits of supposed Russian human rights violators have no bearing on the welfare of Russian orphans. The Russian ban is a naked and revolting attempt to get back at the US government by using neglected and abused children as political capital. Putin has proclaimed a newfound dedication to improving the child welfare system in Russia as a part of his new legislation, but the word of an egomaniacal despot doesn’t carry much weight these days. Putin has been in power for 12 years now and if he were going to enact any comprehensive child welfare reform he would have done it years ago. His support for the genocidal Assad regime in Syria has shown that Putin gives human life only the most meager currency.

Among all of the thousands of little tragedies involved in this story, perhaps the most heart-wrenching are those of the 200 to 250 sets of American parents who had already begun the adoption process and identified children that they hoped would be their sons and daughters3. Some of the parents were actually in Russia, just days away from taking their adopted children home when Putin signed the legislation, immediately nullifying the entire adoption process. These were men and women who had already purchased strollers and bassinets; they had pre-school registrations lined up and futures mapped out and it was all taken away from them in an instant. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic or unfair to compare the plights of these families to couples who have gone through the agony of a miscarriage. Whether it is biologically your child matters little where grief is concerned. These poor families had been waiting for years to have a child that they can call their own and that joy was taken from them, not by a force as awesome and incomprehensible as nature, but by the petty jealousies of men.


Categories: International Affairs, Social Justice

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. “I don’t think it’s hyperbolic or unfair,” either. Your empathy for the kids and parents is obvious, without obscuring the more policy-oriented, international relations aspects of the piece. Well done.

    One of my NC cousins and his wife adopted from Russia. Their kids are college-aged now, but I can’t help but think of them when I imagine the sense of loss those soon-to-be parents felt when the earth was suddenly yanked from under them. A part of me wishes that the children awaiting them were unaware that they were coming, so that raised hopes didn’t meet crushing disappointment. I recognise that thought as an attempt to comfort myself, though. Sigh.

    NB: Unless you intended to refer to relations with China, it should probably be Russo-American.

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