Letter from Montana — From the October 2013 issue

Cold War Kids

The international dispute over Russia’s orphans

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Just before U.S. Route 93 crosses over into Canada, it bisects Eureka, Montana, a ranching town that sees few visitors apart from the handful of hikers and fishermen who trek to the area each summer. On a mild day in June 2012, a caravan of vehicles with tinted windows sped a few miles past the town center and turned off onto a winding road leading up into the mountains. The cars reached a cluster of modest clapboard houses in a vast green pasture, and several Russian government officials climbed out. They wore dark suits and sunglasses that shielded their eyes from the warm western sun.

The group was led by Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights. He had come to inspect the Ranch for Kids, an unlicensed care facility for children adopted from abroad. Many of the ranch’s wards had trouble adjusting to life with their new families in the United States, often because of the lasting effects of abuse, neglect, and prenatal alcohol exposure. Almost all of them are from Eastern Europe, though there are also children from other parts of the world.

Photograph from the Ranch for Kids by Misty Keasler

Photograph from the Ranch for Kids by Misty Keasler

Joyce Sterkel, the ranch’s owner, had turned down Astakhov’s request for an official visit. He came anyway, and brought along a television crew to document the expedition for the state-owned news stations Channel One and RT. Astakhov was also narrating the events of the day on Twitter: “Here live 23 Russian children, ‘returned’ by American parents who adopted them.” In another post, he tweeted, “They are basically abandoned and betrayed.”

Astakhov is a tall, fit man of forty-seven, with combed-back light-brown hair and a confident stride. In Russia he is something of a celebrity. In addition to his position within the Kremlin, he is a prominent attorney and the host of Chas Suda (“Hour of Judgment”), a mock-courtroom TV show modeled after Judge Judy. He is also the author of a series of novels whose hero is a fearless renegade lawyer who triumphs over his corrupt enemies and punishes them ruthlessly.

In Eureka, Astakhov paced energetically at the end of the ranch’s driveway, his perfectly shined shoes collecting dust — a bull eager to charge. In his hand was a red folder, embossed in gold with the Russian Federation’s coat of arms, that he claimed contained files on children who were supposed to be living in their American homes but who in fact had been deposited at the ranch. “There are so many lies in regard to the well-being of our children,” Astakhov told the cameras, “that we cannot say if our children lead a normal life, if they are in need of anything.”

He would not be allowed beyond the front gate, but that didn’t seem to trouble the commissioner. On Twitter he posted a photo of the ranch’s main house and deserted basketball court set against the gorgeous mountains. He captioned it “Wild West.” Astakhov claimed that the empty grounds were evidence that Sterkel had taken the children and fled to Canada. That it was the middle of the afternoon on a Friday and the kids were in school mattered little to the Russian newswires, which later printed the statement as fact.

In his final tweets, Astakhov called for the Ranch for Kids to be “liquidated” and the associated adoption agencies shut down. “What is it, a pretrial detention facility? A penal colony? A trash can for unwanted children?” Astakhov asked later on his website. He promised to deliver a report on the matter to President Putin.

After about an hour of standing around, Astakhov left the ranch, and judging from the photos of lakes and mountains subsequently posted to his Instagram account, he went to do a little sightseeing. In the early evening, Astakhov, heading out of Eureka, set off along Route 93. So did the children, who returned to the ranch in time for dinner, not knowing who or what had been outside their gate.

A month later, the Russian foreign ministry urged the U.S. State Department to grant Astakhov access to the ranch. At a press conference in September, a ministry spokesman made the point more forcefully: “We demand that the American side grants Pavel Astakhov access to the Ranch for Kids.” In October, Astakhov began advocating for a ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens, and by the end of the year, on December 28, 2012, Putin signed such a bill into law.

Though the adoption ban was widely seen as retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act, a U.S. effort to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations, it was Astakhov’s reports about the mistreatment of Russian children by Americans that Kremlin lawmakers cited in defense of the new law. The ban, which went into effect immediately, halted the adoption of an estimated 1,500 children.

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