On January 1, 2013, the Dima Yakovlev Law came into force in Russia, prohibiting US citizens from adopting Russian children. This legislation was backed by a massive propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting American adoptive families and the United States at large. IMR analyst Olga Khvostunova tried to get to the bottom of the problem and see how Americans really treat their adopted Russian children.



Forgiveness for Dima

Last fall, Pavel Astakhov, Children’s Rights Ombudsman for the president of the Russian Federation, announced that the number of children left without parental custody exceeded 660,000, while the official number of children (defined as younger than 17 years old) in the country was 26 million. In 2011, more than 520,000 children were reportedly in the care of Russian families. Only 7,400 of them have been adopted by Russian citizens, while 3,400 have been adopted internationally. About 100,000 children remained in orphanages. In 2012, Russian families adopted 6,500 Russian children, while foreigners adopted 2,600.

The three countries that adopt the majority of Russian children are the United States (962 children in 2011), Italy (798), and Spain (685). With a substantial lag, they are followed by France (283) and Germany (215). The United States also leads the group in terms of adopting children with special needs: 89 were adopted in 2011 by American families, 30 by Italian families, and 28 by Spanish families.

Overall, in the last 20 years, Americans adopted about 60,000 Russian children. In 2004, that number reached a peak, with 5,862 Russian children being adopted by US families. But from that moment on, the number has been decreasing drastically, dropping to 4,631 in 2005; 2,303 in 2007; and 1,586 in 2009. According to recent data published by the US State Department, in 2012, the number dropped down to 748 children.

During these 20 years, 20 adopted Russian children have died in the US. According to other data, up to 40 deaths may have occurred, including deaths by accident. Without diminishing these tragedies, it is worth saying that objectively, this is a small number. In 2006, Galina Semiya, an advisor to the Moscow Children’s Rights Ombudsman, said that over a period of 15 years, starting from 1991, “1,220 adopted children died; 12 of them were killed by the adoptive parents.” And in April 2010, Pavel Astakhov himself reported at a press conference: “If we compare statistics on the adopted children who died in Russian families and in the US, the bloody countdown will not be in our favor. Every year nine to 15 children die in our adoptive families.” Later, he also said that in 2011, about 8,000 children were removed from their adoptive families because of threats to their lives and health. And Novaya Gazeta has recently compiled and published even more horrifying statistics.

Within the framework of the Russian government propaganda, the tragic deaths of Russian children in the US are presented as a result of the way American parents treat their adopted children.

Still, when at the end of 2012, United Russia lawmakers Yekaterina Lakhova and Olga Batalina initiated the legislation to prohibit the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens, not only did the Russian children’s ombudsman not object, but he actually became an active promoter of the idea. The law hastily passed by the State Duma was viewed as an “asymmetrical response” to the US Congress’s passage of the Magnitsky Act. It was named after Dima Yakovlev, an adopted Russian child who died as a result of a tragic accident in 2008.

It is important to mention a few key aspects of Dima’s story, since his name was, by a twist of fate, included in the title of the controversial law. His adoptive father, Miles Harrison, left him in the backseat of a car on a day when the outside temperature reached 90°F. The father was sure he had already dropped Dima off at daycare—but he didn’t, and the child died of hyperthermia. Unfortunately, even the most caring parents commit such tragic mistakes, and they are not unheard of in countries with a hot climate. Up to 15 similar cases are reported every year in the United States. The court in these cases often finds the parents not guilty, as happened with Miles Harrison.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Harrison said: “I hurt my wife so much, and by the grace of whatever wonderful quality is within her, she has forgiven me. And that makes me feel even worse. Because I can't forgive me. . . . I pray for forgiveness from the Russian people. There are good people in this country who deserve children, and there are children in Russia who need parents. Please don't punish everyone for my mistake.”


Propaganda Using Kids

Within the framework of the anti-American propaganda that has been circulated by the Russian government, the tragic deaths of Russian children in the United States are presented as a result of the way American parents treat their adopted children. During this campaign, there have been allegations that all adopted children are viewed as human commodities for the United States; that American parents receive substantial financial benefits for taking care of an adopted child; that Americans sedate children using tranquilizers; and that they don’t care about adopted children, beat them, and even kill them.

Considering the sensitivity of the issue, few people are indifferent toward these reports, and therefore, the orphan issue has become an easy but effective tool of political propaganda. The indignation expressed by Kremlin-backed politicians, officials, policy experts, and journalists who make a career out of public criticism of the United States is heard by the Russian public and has an impact on the public mood.


On January 13, more than 50,000 people marched through downtown Moscow in protest against the adoption ban.


For example, in mid-January, the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported that 76 percent of Russians supported the Dima Yakovlev Law. Still, polls by the independent Levada Center produce a more complicated picture. According to the published data, only 20 percent of the respondents completely approved of the Dima Yakovlev Law, while 30 percent approved of it partially, and 31 percent either disapproved of it or were “rather against it.” Answering a question about American parents’ motivations, 33 percent responded that they believed that US families adopt children from Russia for humanitarian reasons (because there are more opportunities for development and medical treatment in the United States). The same percentage of respondents were convinced that there are lucrative motivations for American parents to adopt Russian children—that is, they allegedly adopt children to get a variety of benefits that the American government offers to adopting families.


“Adoption Is a Norm”

As Alyona Senkevich, Russian adoption coordinator for the US Hand in Hand agency, said in an interview with the BBC, a large number of US adoptions of Russian children are not caused by the fact that Americans cannot have their own children. Many parents who already have their own children adopt because it’s a norm of American life, a part of the US national culture. Another reason is their religious faith: raising an adopted child is one of the good deeds that Americans think they need to do in life.

Leonid Merzon, an employee of another American agency, Adoptions Together, is of the same opinion. In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, he said: “About a half [of the Americans who adopt Russian children] cannot have their own children; the other half are those who want to adopt a second or a third child. Oftentimes, they are religious people who are trying to do a good deed. But they can also be nonreligious. The majority of Americans have a standard rooted in their minds: family means having two or three children. Hence, they give birth to one or two of their own kids and adopt another one or two. Nowadays, I often read on the Internet: ‘Adopting parents deserve a monument!’ But no one in America sees it that way; adoption there is a norm.”

Both agencies have programs for adopting children with special needs, such as those who lack limbs or have been diagnosed with conditions such as Down syndrome, myelocele (a more serious form of spina bifida), cerebral palsy, brittle bones, and so on. “The majority of children with such diagnoses have no chance to be adopted by Russian parents,” Alyona Senkevich says. “Moreover, if they stay in the system, they end up in special institutions for children with deviations in physical or intellectual development. These institutions have a very tough regimen that to a certain extent reminds me of a prison.”

“In terms of implications, every extra month in an orphanage equals a month spent, say, in Chernobyl.”

“As the world experience has shown, every human being needs an incentive to live,” she continues. “Earlier in life, a mother’s touch can be such an incentive, but later, more complicated psychological incentives appear as well, such as love. Institutionalized children get very little personal communication and thus have very few incentives for physical, emotional, or intellectual development.”

Merzon confirms: “There are no healthy children in orphanages. Their medical charts look frightful. But over the years, I realized that diagnoses . . . usually mean nothing; they are indicated just in case. But 99 percent of the orphans have delays in speech and psychomotor development by the age of three or four. After that, they develop ‘evident delays’ or sometimes oligophrenia. If a child is adopted before he or she is four years old, these development delays can be quickly overcome. At the age of four to eight, it will be more difficult, but still doable. But if a child lived in an orphanage from birth to school age, in 90 percent of cases, the ship has sailed. . . . So kids need to be saved from orphanages as early as possible! In terms of implications, every extra month there equals a month spent . . . say, in Chernobyl.”

Still, Senkevich’s and Merzon’s views on Russian adoption legislation differ. According to Merzon, the search for a new niche where corruption can flourish has been the only motive behind the legislative changes of the last 20 years. “The law-making process started in 1993, when a war between the ministry of education and the regional custodianship agencies broke off. They tried to decide who is to make money on adoptions,” he notes. “For 20 years, various amendments to the regulating laws have been passed at least ten times, and every time in a caddish manner. First, they would announce a moratorium on adoption ‘until the new law is passed,’ then a behind-the scenes struggle would start off, and it could go on for a month, three or six months. . . . Meanwhile, children would suffer in orphanages, adoptive parents would wait and pray, and politicians would deal with the law-making without any rush, until the next law was passed.”

As Alyona Senkevich points out, until recently (when the Dima Yakovlev Law was passed), there had been positive shifts in adoption law. “Today, Russian law has two important provisions,” she says. “First: the prioritized form of children’s arrangement is said to be adoption, not guardianship or foster family, but adoption. Our government has finally realized and formulated this principle as a law: if there is an opportunity for the child to be adopted, it should be done. Second: Russian citizens have a priority right to adopt.” But assessing the adoption ban for US citizens, Senkevich is puzzled: “The moment when the need for international adoption no longer exists is when there are no more Russian orphans who are not adopted by Russian families, [and then] international adoptions will fade away on its own. I just don’t understand why the swords are crossed now.”

“All the Best—to the Children”

In early March of this year, Russian State Duma Deputy Dmitri Gudkov attended an IMR conference in Washington DC. He is one of eight lawmakers who voted in the Duma against the adoption ban. Prior to the conference, Gudkov visited a few American families who had adopted Russian orphans. We visited one of these families together.

Rob and Mitzi Whittenburg live in a typical American town with the common American name of Andover (New Jersey). They have a beautiful two-floor house with a wooden porch and a vast lawn. In 2000 and 2001, the Whittenburgs adopted two girls from Russia: first Savannah (Galina) from Magadan, and then Victoria (Natalia) from Revda, near Yekaterinburg.

Rob, the man of the household, meets us at the door and welcomes us to a vast, light-filled living room, where we are introduced to his wife Mitzi and both adopted daughters. Savannah is 13, and she looks like an average American teenager: jeans, sneakers, and a hoodie. She is slightly shy and is sitting in the corner of the couch, throwing glances around. Victoria is 12, but she is so tiny that she looks eight or nine. She has been diagnosed with autism. She is also completely deaf, but despite all her disabilities, she sits through the whole conversation without showing any fear.


The Whittenburg family


“Thank you for having us here,” Gudkov says. “And thank you for taking care of our kids. We are very grateful to you.”

The Whittenburgs shyly smile, pleased.

I ask them how they arrived at their decision to adopt children from Russia.

“When we realized that we cannot have our own children, we contacted an international adoption agency,” recounts Rob. “They showed us a few programs, but at the time Russia had the best program. It was in 2000. We did all the paperwork, and in May of the same year we went to Magadan. And at that time they still had snow in Magadan! We come from southern states, and it was something that we’d never seen before.”

“On our first trip to Russia, we spent two months there,” continues Mitzi. “We stayed at a Russian family’s apartment in Magadan; they shared their food with us, and we had time to visit all the museums. When we first saw Savannah, we knew immediately that this was our daughter. She was the happiest child in the orphanage; everyone just loved her. We brought all the clothes for her and some gifts. And we also met the director of the orphanage and the doctors. It was a good orphanage, and the children were well taken care of. There was nothing wrong with them—they just needed Mom and Dad. . . . At the time, we were afraid that if we left the country, they were going to give Savannah to someone else. While we were waiting for the court decision, we had to fly from Magadan to Moscow three times. But we made up our minds: I said then that I’m not going anywhere without our baby.”

By the end of summer 2000, the Whittenburgs came back home with their daughter Savannah. As Rob notes, when the family came back home (at the time they lived in Minnesota), he called his mother in Texas to let her know that everything was okay. His mother was very ill then, and Rob told her that he and the family would be coming to Texas soon. As he was later told, his mom passed away the moment his plane touched the Texas ground. “She might have felt that we came and that everything was alright,” Rob says, “and she left.”

A year later, the Whittenburgs decided that they wanted to adopt another girl so Savannah could have a sister. The story of Victoria’s adoption turned out to be quite different. By 2001, Russian adoption laws had changed, and the couple had to travel to Russia twice.


Savannah Whittenburg


“When we went to Russia for the second time, it was right after 9/11, and we didn’t know what was going on in the world, what we had to expect, and we were very worried,” recollects Mitzi.

Carrying on with her story, she takes out two large scrapbooks—one is about Savannah’s adoption from Magadan, and the other one is about Victoria’s adoption from Revda. Photographs are interspersed with postcards and memorable trinkets like bus tickets and Russian candy wrappers.

“Savannah knows her story. So if at some point she wants to go to Russia, we’ve kept all this information for her.”

“Initially we thought we were going to adopt another girl,” says Rob, “but when we came to Revda, we found out that she had already been adopted by a Russian family. We were upset at first, but then we were shown Victoria. Something happened, and we decided to adopt her.”

While we are talking, Victoria is pulling at her parents. She leans in, turns to Rob and Mitzi, claps their hands lightly, and gets kisses and hugs in return. This intimate family ritual continues during the whole conversation. At times Victoria cries out, but her anxiety is quickly relieved by the calm and kind attention of her parents.

“When we were adopting Victoria, they told us a whole list of her medical conditions,” remembers Mitzi. “But we were speaking with doctors through the interpreter and couldn’t understand half of those terms. When we returned home, we realized that she had serious health issues. But it didn’t matter, because she was our baby and we had to deal with what she had.”

According to the rules of international adoption, after an adopted Russian child leaves the country with his or her adoptive family, all records are sealed, and no one can obtain access to that information. In the case of Victoria’s illness, the Whittenburgs would really like to get such information: they need her medical records, family history, or anything that could help to treat her. Since Victoria came to the United States, she has undergone about 20 surgical procedures, but the doctors have still not been able to make a full diagnosis.

“We don’t know why she went deaf,” Mitzi says. “At first, we knew she could hear, but after a while she just stopped. And our doctors couldn’t say why it happened.”

The Whittenburgs brought a lot of memorable things from Russia as reminders of their trips: a Gzelian dinner set, a children’s table and chairs painted in the style of Khohloma, folk costumes for the kids, photographs, and other souvenirs.

“We don’t try to hide the girls’ past,” says Rob. “Savannah knows her story. By the way, she has two older sisters who were also adopted by American families. We keep in touch, send them photos and Christmas cards. So if at some point she wants to go to Russia, we’ve kept all this information for her. It’s more difficult with Victoria, because she can’t hear. . . . We try to teach her sign language so she can communicate.”


Russian State Duma Member Dmitri Gudkov with Mitzi and Savannah Whittenburg.


“Do you speak Russian?” Gudkov asks Savannah.

“No,” she replies.

Mitzi throws her a quizzical look: “But you know that one word?”

“No.” Savanna remains firm.

“Typical teenager,“ Mitzi smiles.

“we love these children as our own, we take care of them as our own, and we want to give them every opportunity here.”

Meanwhile, Gudkov continues: “You know, I met one girl in Tambov, who was also adopted by an American family when she was two or three. She grew up in the US, went to college, learned Russian there, and then returned back to Russia. Now she teaches English.”

“Awesome story,” says Rob.

“Savannah?” Mitzi turns to her older daughter.

“No,” the latter replies with a sly smile.

“Our girls are very different, but we try to do all the best for them, so that they have everything. Savannah, for example, is a big fan of animals—she has two dogs, a cat, and a couple of jerboas. For now, we decided to stop expanding the zoo,” Mitzi laughs.

“I’d like to point out two things,” says Rob, switching to a serious note. “One is that we love these children as our own, we take care of them as our own, and we want to give them every opportunity here. The other is that we are proud that they are Russian and try to preserve their legacy. I hope the Russian government will repeal this law and will let US families take care of the Russian kids.”

“We’ll try,” Gudkov promises.

When we are saying goodbye at the door, Savannah has already gone to play with her dogs on the porch. Rob is holding Victoria, and they clap hands and Rob kisses her. Then she wants Mitzi to hold her, and they repeat the same ritual as the girl squeaks with joy.

It is impossible not to see that these children are happy and loved.

“We Are Grateful to Fate”

Another family who adopted a girl from Russia lives in Providence, Rhode Island. I managed to visit them later this March. They are Kevin and Joan Tullie, and their daughter is named Emily. Joan is a professional nurse who now teaches at a college, and her husband is a cardiologist.

Joan meets me at the station and while she drives me to her home, she starts telling me the story of Emily’s adoption.

“When we decided to adopt, we researched all the opportunities and decided on a small local agency—their office is in our neighborhood,” Joan says. “Here everyone knows everyone, and we heard only the best things about this agency. They’ve been in the business for 15 years. We didn’t have any particular preferences in terms of the country, but they suggested that we consider Russia, and we thought we could try. I remember that I started doing the paperwork in January 2008. There were lots of forms, they wanted to check all our backgrounds. And quite soon—I remember it was March 19, St. Joseph’s Day—the agency called and said: ‘Happy St. Joseph’s Day!’ And they got me confused at first: Why would they congratulate me on that day? But then they said: ‘Joan, St. Joseph’s Day is a very important day for you, because you’ve got a little girl in Russia!’”

We arrive at the Tullies’ house, which is smaller than the Whittenburgs’ house but is very cozy inside. Joan’s father built this house in the late 1950s with his own hands. He is 93 now and still lives there under the care of Joan and Kevin.


Joan and Emily Tullie


“Hi Olga!” announces five-year-old Emily, who has been waiting for me at the door. “Look at the pretty kitties on my dress,” she says and stretches the hem of her dress toward me.

“Very pretty kitties,” I agree, and then Joan tries to introduce me to her husband Kevin.

“Olga, Olga,” Emily interrupts them. “You are my best friend! I love you!”—and she gives me a big hug.


In May 2008, the Tullies went to Cheboksary, where their future adopted daughter Svetlana was waiting for them. Later, when she came to America, she was given the name Emily, after Joan’s mother.

“Emily was born on August 14, 2007, and when we first met her she was only nine months,” remembers Joan. “They put three pajamas on her and she appeared much bigger than she actually was. But in reality she was very small and skinny. When we came in, she stretched her arms to us, and it took our breath away, because we knew then, here is our daughter.”

In the orphanage, the Tullies received warm treatment, especially after the nurse saw how well prepared Joan was: the American had brought every possible medicine with her, from antibiotics to cotton swabs and a thermometer. The nurse even told them that the girl should be all right with them and suggested that they return for another baby.

The couple’s next trip to Russia was in July 2008, when the Tullies’ adoption request was to be heard in court. As Kevin says, at the court they were grilled for an hour, and he sweated a lot while he answered the tricky questions.

“When we came in, she stretched her arms to us, and it took our breath away, because we knew then, here is our daughter.”

“At some point the prosecutor, who was a strict, tough woman, turned to me and asked why we didn’t have children while we were young,” Joan continues. “I wanted to lose my temper, but I realized that they were testing us, and I explained that medical education is very expensive in the US and that Kevin and I had to study a lot and to work hard at the same time. We couldn’t afford to have a baby financially and psychologically. When I told her all that, the prosecutor turned to me and looked from the corner of her eyes, and I saw that she understood.”

After the court approved of the adoption, the Tullies tried to solicit permission to take Emily home straight away. But their reason—that Joan’s elderly father (who was 89 at the time) needed constant care and that the Tullies had to hire a nurse for him while they were in Russia—was not good enough for local authorities to advance the procedure.


“Do you like pasta?” Kevin asks me. “Joan made a killer sauce, and we would like you to join us for dinner.”

Obviously, I agree.

“We are Italian,” Joan smiles. “We like pasta.”

“Before I married Joan, I used to be thin, but my wife cooks so well—look at me right now,”—and Kevin claps his stomach to show proof.

Emily runs back from her room, jumps on my lap without any hesitation, and shows me a game on the iPad. Her parents move her to a chair, and she quickly eats her pasta, only to jump onto Joan’s lap to supervise the salad sharing.

“Before we had to embark on our third trip to Russia, there was this war between Russia and Georgia,” Kevin continues the story. “We were afraid that America would stop diplomatic relations with Russia and we wouldn’t be able to take our baby. But everything went very well—by far, it was the easiest and the smoothest trip. We came to Cheboksary, somebody picked us up at the station, brought us to the orphanage, and they gave us Emily. We didn’t even realize what happened—it was instant parenthood. And we were so happy.”


Kevin and Emily Tullie


“We came back home on August 29,” says Joan. “Emily had already turned one, but since that time, every year, beside her birthday, we also celebrate this day—the day when she came to America. It’s our family’s special day. We usually go somewhere, just the three of us, and retell the story of how Emily was born, how we found her and brought her to America. She knows she is from Russia. Emily, tell us where you were born,” Joan asks the girl.

“Cheboksary!” says Emily enthusiastically, with an American accent.

As we are talking, I learn that Kevin is a big fan of Russian classical music. His favorite composer is Igor Stravinsky, but to relax, he prefers listening to Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Musorgsky. This makes me think that even in Russia, such music is hardly a popular interest.

“We keep in touch with our translator Tanya,” Kevin adds. “If Emily wants, when she grows up, to go back to Russia, we would like to have a friend there who could show her around.”


“When we came home,” Joan remembers, “I put Emily in the crib, and she fell asleep immediately. By the way that she was only sleeping on one side of the crib, I knew that she had got used to it, because apparently in the orphanage, she was not the only child in the crib.”

As Joan and Kevin explain, there were about 60 children in the orphanage, some of whom were sick. With her professional eye, Joan noticed that some of the kids had Down syndrome and others had fetal alcohol syndrome or other disorders. “When we first came to the orphanage, one girl with Down syndrome saw me and started following me. My heart was hurting,” Joan recollects.

Emily, too, had some medical issues: she had two small hemangiomas on her head that were later successfully treated by her adoptive parents.

“Given a chance to help children without parents, we are ready to help. And this law helps no one.”

Despite her difficult start to life, Emily is incredibly sociable and active. She constantly wants to hug people (as Joan notes, Emily has already become known as a “hugger” at her preschool) and communicate or play with them. All people are her best friends. But her parents have already been warning her to be careful with strangers.

I ask what they think about the adoption ban, and both Joan and Kevin say that they are very worried about Russian orphans and hope that this situation can be resolved.

“You know, we were thinking about adopting another child, a boy, from the same orphanage in Cheboksary, but two years ago, our adoption agency went out of business. And now it’s impossible anyway,” says Joan. “But we are very grateful that we have Emily. Who knows, maybe it was meant to be that way.”

In the course of our conversation, I suddenly realize that my train leaves in 20 minutes. After considering the situation for a second, Joan says with confidence that we can make it—she’ll drive me. And I believe her. In the car, she tells me: “Please, write in your article that we don’t want anything bad for Russia or Russian children—no one here is thinking that way. We just want to be parents. And given a chance to help children without parents, we are ready to help. And this law helps no one.”

I promise that I’ll write it down.