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Post Russian Orphanages
Created by John Eipper on 01/14/13 5:33 PM

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Russian Orphanages (Cameron Sawyer, Russia, 01/14/13 5:33 pm)

Gilbert Doctorow wrote on 13 January:

"Let me use the occasion also to address a falsehood about Russian orphanages which has slipped into our discussion unnoticed. It is widely assumed that Russian orphanages are terrible places staffed by terrible people. Once again, drawing on the experience of my friend heading a St Petersburg NGO which has been administering adoptions to the US for more than a decade, at least some of the orphanages and some of the staff are outstanding people who are very devoted to kids. So let's avoid the cheap shots."

I don't know if Gilbert has ever been in a Russian orphanage. I have been in a number of them. Our company, like many other foreign-owned companies in Russia at the time, spent some time in the 1990s trying to help orphanages in Moscow and St. Petersburg which had been virtually abandoned by the state. Part of that work was to identify those orphanages with really devoted staff, where some help would be well used.

Of course there are some heroic people involved with Russian orphanages, doing everything possible and impossible to help the orphans under their care to find a place in the world. I don't think anyone said anything different. But it is an uphill battle--adequate resources are not allocated to orphanages which are, without any exception that I am aware of, overcrowded, understaffed, and dilapidated. I don't know whether Randy Black's statistics are accurate or not (they sound like an exaggeration to me), but it is a well-known fact that Russian orphans can generally expect a hard life, with drugs, prostitution and crime figuring in the lives of a much greater proportion of orphans than the general population. Cases of abuse in Russian orphanages are so common that hardly anyone even pays attention.

The root problems are twofold: Russian families do not adopt enough, especially children with any kind of health or developmental problems; and not enough resources are made available to provide a decent life for orphans in orphanages. It becomes a vicious cycle--orphans deteriorate in orphanages, and so families become even less likely to adopt what seems to them to be damaged goods. Cutting off foreign adoptions is shockingly cruel--even if it's only 900 kids, what is it worth, their only chance to have a decent life? There is quite a bit of outrage about it in Russia--when I'm back in Moscow later this week I'll try to translate a couple of articles.


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  • Russian Orphanages and Politics (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 01/15/13 7:17 AM)
    In response to Cameron Sawyer (14 January), I have no doubt that there are articles in Russian expressing outrage over the ban on adoptions to Americans. The pro-democracy opposition will seize upon any chance to drive a wedge between the West and Russia, to discredit Russia as a country, its demented and besotted people, etc., etc. And obviously Cameron sees a lot of these "democrats," many of whom have done very well for themselves in the past decade.

    Cameron seems to base his remarks on Russian orphanages from his charitable work in the 1990s. Excuse me, but that period, which other WAISers also cite a lot in their postings, is largely irrelevant to today's Russia. The country under Yeltsin was bankrupt and everything went to hell, including orphanages.


    Both Cameron and I are drawing upon anecdotal evidence. Mine is from the information shared by my friend in St P, who has been responsible for facilitating adoptions for over 10 years. He just happens to be a senior professor of mathematics, a very responsible and serious individual who, like many other Russian intellectuals generally holds very negative views on his country and its leadership. I suppose he votes Yabloko every time. We very often cross swords on political issues and the Putin "regime." And it is he who has repeatedly expressed his admiration for the orphanage personnel he deals with regularly. That carries a lot of weight with me.


    However, I cannot let go Cameron's remarks on the outrage some people in Russia (meaning the Opposition) are expressing over the Dima Yakovlev act.


    There are a number of problems with this "opposition" which make suspect everything it tells us.


    First, the pro-democracy activists claim and are received in the west as being The Opposition, as if the United Russia Party were not merely the governing party, but the only legal party in what is therefore a dictatorship. That proposition is pure propaganda, which readers of the Western press swallow gullibly every day.


    There were 5 main parties in the presidential race, of which 4 were fighting against the Kremlin: the Communists, the Just Russia (SR) and the LDRP (Zhirinovsky), and the old standard bearer of 1990s "liberals," Yabloko.


    We all know who are the Communists, right? Wrong. They are today a loyal opposition, but there legislative and presidential race was for real and in both they did very, very well compared to 4 years ago.


    Then we have 2 parties which may be viewed as artificial, Kremlin-tolerated, and which have as their basic idea to drain votes from the left and right of the Communist electorate.


    Just Russia is a Social Democratic party in the European tradition, aimed at taking the left arm away from the Communists.


    Zhirinovsky's party of ultra-nationalists is aimed at taking the right arm away from traditional Communist voters.


    When you add the votes of the Communists, the Just Russia and the LDRP together in the legislative balloting, you get just over 50%. This means that the real opposition to the Kremlin's right of center, pro-market policies, the population with a Communist mindset on questions of the social welfare state, is still, despite all the adverse demographic developments for them (early death of their male cohorts beginning in the depressing 1990s) around half the population.


    Meanwhile the claimants of the "liberal," pro-democracy mantle that the US and its Western European allies in the "international community" insist is the Opposition, garnered...3% of the vote.


    Therefore when Cameron deals quotes of outrage over the anti-Magnitsky act from his friends and acquaintances in the pro-democracy camp, I stop listening.


    JE comments: It strikes me that both sides of anti-adoption law accuse the other camp of politicizing the issue. Is Gilbert Doctorow suggesting that the Russian "democrats," in their outrage over Dima Yakovlev, are really only interested in worsening Putin's reputation?  In the meantime, I'll have to take the prevailing view in the "West": if even 900 Russian kids are denied loving families, the law is cruel. This is not just a question of nationality, but also of social class: only comfortable families in the US can bankroll an international adoption. This means that the children will overwhelmingly have access to the best healthcare and education as well.


    (It just so happens that I have a 1990s-era Russian adoptee in one of my classes this semester.  She is a model student.)

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    • Russian Orphanages and Politics, Continued (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 01/16/13 2:06 AM)
      In response to JE's comments to my post of 15 January, I am not "suggesting," but rather saying directly that everything the liberal opposition says has only one purpose, to discredit Putin, the Russian leadership, and, en passant, the vast majority of their own fellow citizens for whom they only have contempt.

      For all the malicious put-downs of Gerard Depardieu in the French mainstream press, the newly minted muzhik has 20-20 vision. When interviewed on Russian television two days ago, he pointed out that the Russian Opposition has no ideas, and that the Pussy Riot gang would have been torn to shreds had they tried their antics in a French mosque.


      JE comments: I'd like to hear Gilbert Doctorow's thoughts on what a healthy political opposition in Russia might look like. Gerard Depardieu is not a spokesperson for the government, but isn't a claim that political dissenters "have no ideas" one of the oldest tricks in the book? If the opposition truly has no ideas, then why see it as a threat?


      And finally, a curiosity: how is ol' Cyrano de Bergerac making out with his Russian language studies?



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      • Who Is the "Russian Leadership"? (Boris Volodarsky, Austria 01/16/13 6:25 AM)
        In addition to JE's questions to Gilbert Doctorow (16 January), I would also like to ask Gilbert to whom he personally is referring when he writes about "the Russian leadership." Are these Putin's pocket oligarchs like Abramovich and Deripaska, members of the Ozero cooperative, or maybe somebody else who "leads" Russia in whatever totalitarian direction it moves?

        In what concerns the new muzhik Depardieu--he is simply a clown, so why should one bother about what he says?


        JE comments: Ah, but if Depardieu is a clown, he is a rich and famous one. Thus (like E. F. Hutton of yore), when Gerard talks, people listen.


        Great to hear from Boris Volodarsky. I'm not sure I've wished Boris a happy 2013 yet, so allow me to do so now.

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      • What Would a "Healthy Political Opposition" in Russia Look Like? (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 01/17/13 4:36 AM)
        In answer to JE's question, "what would a healthy political opposition in Russia look like?" (16 January), I return first to my basic point of the day before, namely that there is a healthy opposition in the form of the three loyal opposition parties which together absorb the approximately 50% of the Russian voting population which is Communist-minded: meaning in favor of heavy state intervention in the economy, in favor of strongly defended state sovereignty, in favor of a very extensive social security net for the general population.

        However, this opposition to United Russia's right-of-center, pro-market policies receives zero attention in the media of the "international community." For purely self-serving reasons, in the hope of helping to bring to power another weak and preferably besotted Russian leader à la Yeltsin, the US Government and media focus all attention on the 3% of the Russian population that demonstrates against the Putin "regime" on behalf of self-proclaimed "democrats" (yes, in response to Istvan Simon, I use inverted commas intentionally)--people like Navalny, about whom they know nothing except that he is anti-Putin. Then there are the loudmouths whom the US backs, though they have lost what popularity they once had among these 3%, people like former deputy premier, former governor of Nizhny Novgorod Boris Nemtsov, or the former world chess champion, current member of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, Gary Kasparov. Most of these self-proclaimed "democrats" share a lack of scruples and possess personality types that suggest they would be true dictatorial monsters if power came their way.


        If I may speak of what Russia needs in terms of an opposition, it is genuine political parties built from the ground up, not the top down, because at present there are none. This is especially evident when you look at those who organized and participated in the anti-Putin demonstrations last year and this spring. They are bound together by nothing more than sedition, the will to overturn the government.


        The statement that these protest leaders, pretended opposition have no ideas is not a judgment, but a description of what is prima facia true: the many would-be leaders of the protests dare not utter a positive statement of intent, lest they lose what little support they have. They are totally unable to combine forces, because they are, as a rule, egotistical Napoleons who have no tolerance for each other. They have spent no time building parties among the people, because they do not believe in hard work, wanting instead for power to fall into their hands, with American help, by bringing down the regime and seizing the opportunity amid chaos. For all these reasons, American and West European support for the "pro-democracy" forces is totally irresponsible, but on a par with support for the forcible overthrow of Assad in Syria when there is nothing in place to pick up the pieces other than al-Qaeda.


        It is for these reasons that I find it very difficult to understand why the world's hegemon, the country which gains most from the status quo, is so busily at work acting as an agent of irresponsible change, with little or no reckoning of what comes next.


        JE comments: Why, in Gilbert Doctorow's view, is "the West" unable to see Russia's "pro-democracy" forces through a critical lens?  Can it be so simple that "we" only care about removing the strong and resolute Putin, in favor of a malleable puppet?  Put more bluntly, is there never any place for political idealism vis à vis Russia--or Syria, for that matter?


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      • Russia's Anti-Adoption Law; View from a US Diplomatic Corps Officer (Randy Black, USA 01/17/13 5:08 AM)
        After Gilbert Doctorow's spirited back-and-forth discussions with me and other WAISers regarding adoptions by Americans of Russian orphans, I wrote to a former US Diplomatic Corps friend whom I've known since 1993 (see various recent posts from Gilbert, me, Istvan Simon, Cameron Sawyer, and others). My friend arrived in Moscow straight out of college the prior year, and worked her way up in various sections of our Embassy.

        By the following year, she had a high level of responsibility and expertise at our embassy across a range of adoption issues. I shared many a lunch with her at the Embassy cafeteria, where I enjoyed the only taco salad in Moscow every other Thursday for more than a year during 1994-1995.


        After her years at the embassy, she worked additional years in the nuclear disarmament project originated by the Nunn-Lugar initiative, aka the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program.


        Her Russian is at the native-speaker level, her security clearance at the highest levels and her integrity is unquestioned. I sent her Gilbert's and my posts for review and feedback. The following is an abbreviated copy of her email:


        Dear Randy,



        It is such a pleasure to hear from you! I echo your wishes for a Happy New Year as we begin 2013.


        ...I was very interested to read both your [WAIS] post and the one from Mr. Doctorow. I have to say that I absolutely agree with you that he is off track when it comes to both "the point and the facts," as you say. Although I believe that he is correct that at some points the severity of illness or handicap was exaggerated in order to qualify some children for adoption (because at one point Russian law forbade the adoption of healthy children to foreign parents).


        However, as you point out in your response, I am sure that for every case of exaggerated hydrocephalia that was used to qualify a child for adoption, there is at least one if not more cases where supposedly healthy children had hidden maladies that came to light only later--results of physical and mental abuse, "developmental delays" in a young infant that became severe learning disabilities as they grew, severe diseases that were hidden until the "deal" was done, etc.


        Adopting a child anywhere is a game of chance, but of course everything is far more chance-y in Russia. Of course, any child that is removed from a system that turns them out onto the street at the tender age of 16 with no support network or anyone to turn to is infinitely better off if adopted--regardless of the adoptive family's nationality.


        If Russia were able to show that the numbers of adoptions of their own so-called orphans have increased so greatly that there is no reason to allow foreigners to adopt, then I would have to say that it is unnecessary to encourage international adoptions.


        However, historically and culturally the Russians are not well-disposed towards adoption--and I do not believe that there has been a renaissance of caring and civic duty of such a scale that they are adopting up all of the available needy children!


        This is yet another example of how cheap human life is to a certain breed of Russian politician--better they should die in the Motherland than live well in the West is a mindset that is nearly impossible to combat.


        These are the same people who still long for the days of Stalin. Well--I think that they are much closer to those glory days of yore than most Westerners recognize.


        And using their orphaned children as pawns in this game is just another symptom of what is deeply and un-fixably wrong with that nation!


        [...]


        All the best - XXXX


        JE comments: I thank Randy Black for soliciting this comment. Gilbert Doctorow, I suspect, would say that the note reveals nothing more than the usual US thinking vis à vis Russia, where any articulation of muscular nationalism can only be seen in terms of Stalinism.


        What, specifically, is Gilbert's response to the writer's "better [the children] should die in the Motherland than live well in the West" gloss of Russia's anti-adoption law?  Or her suggestion that there would be nothing objectionable in the law, if Russia truly took care of its neediest children?

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        • Changes in Russia's Policy towards Orphans and Adoption (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 01/18/13 2:14 AM)
          When commenting the letter sent by a US Diplomatic Corps officer to Randy Black (17 January), JE asked: "What, specifically, is Gilbert's response to the 'better [the children] should die in the Motherland than live well in the West' gloss of Russia's anti-adoption law? Or [the writer's] suggestion that there would be nothing objectionable in the law, if Russia truly took care of its neediest children?"

          My answer is "watch this space." The Duma is now receiving various bills aimed at dealing with the problem of orphans and orphanages in Russia. Wednesday's RBK online news agency reported that one objective of the legislators is to simplify adoption by Russians, which, bystanders say, is presently very bureaucratized and unnecessarily expensive. Another initiative will give children in orphanages preferential admission to all institutions of higher learning in the country.



          Previously the whole question of orphans was left in the dark. Now, thanks to the debates surrounding the anti-Magnitsky bill, the issue is getting focused attention of Russia's legislators and opinion leaders.



          This is a Russian problem which will be solved only when Russians address it.


          Exporting kids abroad is tokenism and unhealthy for the society. As I said previously, there is too much trafficking and profiteering by middlemen, about which the Western press is strangely silent.


          JE comments:  I don't think the press has been silent about the profiteering that goes on with international adoptions.  I've read many bucket-of-tears narratives on the extortion of adoptive parents in Russia--and I've heard a few stories from parents themselves.

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    • Russian Orphanages and Politics (Istvan Simon, USA 01/16/13 2:24 AM)
      Gilbert Doctorow (15 January) is usually derisive of Russians who oppose Putin's government. Why does he call them "democrats" in quotation marks? And what evidence does he have that those who write about orphanages in Russia are "democrats" or democrats, or otherwise? Why is writing about orphans a necessarily political act? It is not.

      I am afraid that Gilbert's post has no logic nor any reasonable argumentation in defense of a policy of the Russian government that harms the most vulnerable of Russia's citizens.


      It was President Putin who unnecessarily politicized this issue, not the Western parents who adopt Russian orphans, nor obviously the poor orphans who suffer because Putin is playing political games with their lives. Shame on Putin, that is all I can say.


      I have not seen a single rational argument in WAIS in favor of the anti-adoption legislation.


      Gilbert's latest post is quite interesting as an analysis of politics in Russia, but what does that have to do with orphanages? Preciously little. And if Gilbert knows an orphanage in which extremely dedicated people work, does that mean that that is the norm in Russia rather than the exception? The statistics that were cited here seem to indicate that Russians do not adopt many orphans, and therefore that orphans suffer in Russia, even if we were to assume that Russian orphanages are not bad and are staffed by extremely loving and dedicated people. Even if that were the case, it is still an uncontested fact here that many Russian orphans suffer because they are never adopted, but rather turned loose on the streets when they reach adulthood. This is a human tragedy, and Gilbert seems totally unconcerned by it. But it is this which is the issue, not what Zhirinovsky's party, or the Communists, or Putin's party, etc. stand for.


      One final point I'd like to make. Gilbert writes that many in the democratic opposition to Putin have done well in the last decade. I ask: So what? Does doing well economically preclude one from emitting political opinions critical of the Russian government?


      JE comments: One parallel point: I understand that both Gilbert Doctorow and Cameron Sawyer's visits to orphanages have been in the capital cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. One assumes that orphanages in the hinterlands have far fewer resources, and provide bleaker lives for the children residing therein.

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    • Russian Orphanages, Politics and Democracy (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 01/18/13 7:08 AM)

      I have to say that I don't much like the form of Gilbert Doctorow's argument in his post of 15 January. He says, in effect, that some people in Russia express outrage over the adoption ban, these people are "democrats," "democrats" seize upon any chance to discredit Putin etc., therefore "I stop listening."



      I think Gilbert is making a grave mistake to stop listening--which is usually a mistake in any argument; in fact, stopping listening is the classical sign of failure. This reasoning shows a cavalier dismissal of any criticism of the current regime, a cavalier lumping together of any kind of disagreement into a single pot of "democrats," peculiarly used here as a pejorative. "Oh, I don't have to listen to this criticism--the guy is just a subversive democrat." And the next stage in development of this attitude, which is even worse: "I can presume that this guy is a subversive democrat by the fact that he is criticizing the peerless Putin regime, therefore I will never listen to any criticism, since it only comes from subversive democrats." Thus Gilbert has stopped listening to an awful lot, he has in fact stopped listening to the whole country, and so he gravely misunderstands the feeling in this country, which as I have written turned sharply (and to me, unexpectedly) against Putin in December, 2011, after the large-scale falsification of parliamentary election results.



      In fact, disappointment in the regime has practically nothing to do with liberals or opposition. There is no functioning opposition in this country, and relatively few people who consider themselves liberals. The people who are disappointed in the regime include taxi drivers in Samara, military people, teachers from Kaluga, workers, policemen, students, retired air traffic controllers, doctors, municipal bureaucrats, members of Putin's own inner circle--in short, people from all over the country and from all walks of life, and I am referring to just a small sample of the kinds of people I have personally discussed it with (oddly enough, everyone wants to talk these days, which is by the way a certain proof that this is not, for all its faults, a totalitarian regime in any sense--there has never been so much political discussion in all of my years in this country, as there is now). Few to probably none of these people have anything remotely to do with any kind of opposition, liberal or otherwise. Until a year or two ago, the great majority of Russians who were not either crackpots or pensioner-Communists were quite contented supporters of Putin's Edinaya Rossiya party, including nearly all of these people I have just referred to. The change in attitudes is remarkable, and it is ridiculous to suppose that disagreement with the regime comes only from some kind of subsersive pseudo-democratic elements. Gilbert should get out and meet more people; it would open his eyes. If he thinks that the only people who could possibly be against the anti-adoption law are subversive pseudo-democratic elements, he is very much mistaken.



      My contacts with orphanages did not end in the 1990s. I have kept up with some of the contacts. I would say that the situation is actually worse now than it was in the 1990s--at that time, the whole country was bankrupt and it was somewhat understandable that orphanages were practically forgotten. Now the country is overflowing with wealth, and yet the material conditions in orphanages have hardly changed (the same is true of hospitals and schools, by the way). The good people I know involved in orphanages are in real despair now. If some concrete measures are taken now to finally help orphans, stimulated by these events (I'm referring to another of Gilbert's posts today), then that will be very good. It's about time. If Americans are willing to adopt Russian children whom Russians do not adopt, then it is the height of cynicism to prevent them from doing so. However, it is true that foreign adoptions alone cannot possibly solve the problem of orphans in this country. Much more needs to be done. It is a significant social problem which is widely understood here. The problem would be really explosive if it were not for the fact that there is practically full employment in Russia now--so unlike the case in many other countries, an orphan, upon having been "turned loose on the streets" at 16, will at least find work if he has the slightest bit of initiative.



      A couple of days ago I was sitting around the dinner party with some apolitical Russian business people, like so many others contented Edinaya Rossiya supporters until only very recently. They were discussing the big change in the tone of what the regime is saying and doing, vividly observable just in the last half year or so. Someone expressed the opinion that the regime is now attempting to build an image which appeals to a certain primitive, beer-guzzling, jingoistic element of society, some kind of Lumpenproletariat, villifying America to appeal to old Cold War fears, and distracting attention from reasoned criticism, in the process simply giving up appealing to anyone on the basis of reason; having given up also on the opinion of the international community. This person referred to it as a kind of "Chavezization" (or perhaps "Lulaization") of the Putin regime, and of course this is a well-trodden path--demagoguery aimed at the lowest levels of society. The problem is that Russia is not Venezuela, and is not Brazil--this is a highly educated, advanced country, and there really is hardly any element of society which you could call a real Lumpenproletariat. Even the bus drivers in this country read Pushkin and go to the theatre (I would have said garbage collectors, but you won't find one single Russian doing that job--it's done exclusively by immigrants). The opinion was expressed that Putin might have gone somewhat crazy, and that Russians are unlikely to tolerate him if it goes on like this*. People vote their pocketbooks--and Russians are incomparably better off now than they were 10 years ago, and are better off every year. This is a powerful force against discontent--people will put up with a lot, if they personally live their lives the way they like (and they do--this is not, I repeat, any kind of totalitarian society), and if their lives are improving all the time. So what is really dangerous for Russia--as this person reasoned--is that if there is any interruption in this ever-increasing prosperity which Russians have been experiencing, this factor will be lost and there may be a real explosion. I don't know if there's anything in that idea, but it is pretty commonly heard here these days.



      *Slightly off topic, but it was also said that the background of the anti-adoption law is that Putin had received certain personal assurances from Obama, that the Magnitsky List legislation would not be passed, and was stunned and shocked when it went through after all--Putin not realizing that Obama has much less ability to push through or stop legislation, than Putin himself does. This unpleasant surprise pushed Putin into an irrational rage, in which was born the recent spate of idiotic legislation including the anti-adoption bill. True or not, I don't know.


      JE comments:  A sage reminder from Cameron Sawyer--stop listening, and all is lost. 


      In Cameron's view, it would appear that Russians will continue to grouse, but Putin will keep a firm grip on power,  as long as prosperity continues for the majority.  Interestingly, the common historical interpretation is that Russian prosperity increased dramatically pre-1905 and even pre-1914; it was the decline in this prosperity during the Great War, not the lack of it in the first place, that brought about the downfall of the Tsar.  There's a curve with a name to refer to this historical phenomenon, but I don't remember what it's called.

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