The Anti-Kremlin History of the Man Behind Putin's Adoption Ban

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Children's ombudsman Pavel Astakhov is now the face of Putin's Magnitsky retaliation law, but in a past life he was an anti-FSB advocate.

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Pavel Astakhov gestures as he speaks to journalists in Moscow on Dec. 6, 2000. (Reuters)

For a man known as Russia's Judge Judy, Pavel Astakhov has had more luck causing a diplomatic crisis than any family court judge ever had. Appointed Russia's child right's commissioner in 2009 by former President Dmitry Medvedev, Astakhov's domestic and international profile has risen steadily since, culminating in his patronage of the new state law banning U.S. citizens from adopting Russian orphans and describing his critics as "pedophiles" who are either "blind or stupid."

The measure is built right into the so-called "Dima Yakovlev Law," the Duma's broad answer to the newly passed Magnitsky Act, which blacklists and sanctions Russian officials credibly accused of gross human rights violations. Dima's Law has been hysterically presented in the Russian state-controlled media as a necessary corrective to a spate of American adoptive parents mistreating or even killing their wards, with Astakhov taking center stage as a Cassandra against the "export" of the some 60,000 native sons and daughters who've found homes in the United States since 1991.

Yet Astakhov's peregrinations from post-Soviet legal eagle and intellectual celebrity into spokesman for Vladimir Putin's most frivolously nasty anti-American measure is particularly fascinating given the fact that he doesn't quite fit the prototype of Kremlin flack. He formerly defended Vladimir Gusinsky, the first billionaire oligarch and media mogul to have his empire confiscated by the state, under the direct threat of arrest or worse by a then-new-minted President Putin; he also represented Edmond Pope, an American businessman and retired naval officer, who was convicted of espionage, then pardoned.

Best known for his Court TV-style reality series (where the defendants are played by actors), a constant stream of self-help books on teaching Russians all about property rights, real estate and family law, and another constant stream of Grisham-esque legal thrillers, Astakhov has a Masters of Law from the University of Pittsburgh, making him one of the few top state officials to be partially educated in the United States. (Like most state officials, his eldest son studied in Britain and then New York City.) He was on these shores when al-Qaeda attacked on September 11, and has since taken to referring to America as his "second motherland." He certainly has favorite holiday destinations. A few months ago, Seven Days magazine (think People) ran a J. Crew ad-cum-puff piece about Astakhov and his attractive family, explaining how his wife Svetlana not only gave birth to their youngest son in Nice, but then had the child baptized in Cannes. In what would have been cosmopolitan heresy for any other Russian official, Astakhov favorably compared the French Riviera's ob-gyn and neonatal systems to those of his first motherland: "We really had the largest ward in the hospital: three rooms, a parental bedroom, a children's room and a guest room. But all this, including the medical care, cost three times less than what it would cost in an elite Moscow hospital." Even the food, he said, was better than back home.

Astakhov seemed to lurch into overt pro-regime politics in around 2007, when he headed the Kremlin-sponsored populist movement "For Putin." But since then, and prior to the adoption ban, he's played it both flamboyantly and safe. Even after assuming the role of children's ombudsman three years ago, Astakhov was still somewhat conciliatory in the face of a genuine case of child endangerment. A Tennessee nurse had adopted a young Russian boy, Artyom Savelyev, and then decided she didn't want to be a parent after all. She put the boy on a plane back to Russia with a note attached explaining her change of mind. "You can't throw a child on a plane, excuse me, like a kitten," Astakhov fulminated on television at the time. "An unaccompanied 7-year-old child shipped back across the ocean to Russia -- that's cruelty at the very least."

Still, he was cautious at the time to downplay any rumors that Russia might block U.S. adoptions altogether. This Washington Post profile of him quotes Astakhov reassuring the some 3,000 American parents awaiting their adoption licenses in 2010: "Don't worry. We'll continue this work. We'll give our children a chance to see another reality." He added that an American adoption ban would only take place if the U.S. failed to sign a treaty regulating the industry. Such a treaty took effect on November 1, 2012. Russia will now nullify that agreement, effective January 1, 2014.

The state shows no sign of letting up on its obsession with American-sought orphans. Last month, Astakhov caused a domestic furor, one that ensnared U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, when he tweeted about the case of Max Shatto (nee Maxim Kuzmin), another adoptee who died in Texas: "Urgent! In the state of Texas, an adoptive mother killed a 3-year-old Russian child." Astakhov claimed that Max's mother fed Shatto "psychotropic substances." However, Ector County investigators have found no evidence to suggest that Shatto was murdered; the bruises on his body were consistent with self-inflicted injuries, the autopsy states. And there were no psychotropics in his bloodstream. Astakhov never quite rose to the level of unequivocal accusation again, preferring instead the arched eyebrow and knowing wink. It's uncharacteristic for a lawyer to say things like: "Well, the presumption of innocence, you know how it is -- sometimes it becomes so rigid," yet Astakhov did just that at a recent news conference. He's also suggested that Americans were adopting children primarily from Russia's Far East in order to depopulate the region in advance of a Chinese invasion.

"I think he should pay more attention to protecting the rights of children in Russia and less to PR for himself," Svetlana Bocharova, head of the child rights NGO Kindness Without Borders, told the Washington Post in that earlier profile. Yet Astakhov is prickly about the condition of children in Russia, a notorious stain on the country's modernized self-presentation and the reason that so many orphans have been adopted by overseas parents. His latest foray into sensationalism had him alleging that there were "no statistics" on infant moralities in Russia. So Novaya Gazeta found some. Reviewing the data from the last fifteen years, the muckraking independent newspaper discovered that, for the Moscow region, around 70 percent of dead children's bodies were found in garbage bins; 15 percent in forests or vacant lots; 10 percent in rivers and ponds; and the final five percent were either buried or burnt by their murderous parents. Every two days, Novaya Gazeta reported, a dead baby is found in the Moscow region. In one particularly grim instance, a newborn's corpse was pulled from the Moscow River with a noose around its neck; on shore there were traces of vodka bottles and cigarettes with women's lipstick on them.

People change, but Astakhov's metamorphosis has been especially dramatic. He appears to have done something in his early career which makes his current employment in a regime growing more repressive at home and more paranoid abroad almost unfathomable. In 2000, Astakhov represented the resident of 14/16 Novoselov, an apartment building in Ryazan which most objective observers believe was a foiled terrorist plot staged by the FSB, the KGB's successor organ, in order to rally national support for the Second Chechen War and for the security services' harsh counterterrorism policies in general.

Before he became prime minister, Vladimir Putin was FSB director and secretary of the President's Security Council. It was the fulsome public response to Putin's macho posturing about rubbing out terrorists "in the outhouse" and so on that enabled him to succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russia's executive.

The history of the Ryazan affair has been told and retold many times since it took place in 1999, the year that several other bombings destroyed Moscow apartment blocs, killing and injuring hundreds. Perhaps the most detailed and persuasive recounting was published two weeks ago by John Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Stanford University-based Hoover Institution. "The Ryazan incident," Dunlop writes, "represents low-hanging fruit for those who suspect an FSB involvement in all of the September bombings." And if that suspicion is ever definitively proved true, it would retroactively destroy whatever legitimacy the Putin regime now claims for itself.

At issue is what the local Russian authorities, including the MVD bomb squad, discovered after being alerted to the presence of three large sacks of a powdery substance placed in the basement of the Ryazan apartment building. Crime-scene testing concluded that the substance was hexagon, a powerful explosive rarely obtainable in Russia except through official state channels. A "live bomb," complete with an active detonator, was placed in thus set to go off at 5:30 in the morning on September 23, 1999. Had it not been found, it would have killed the 250 residents still asleep in their beds.

The government never got its story straight on what happened. First, then-Prime Minister Putin and his Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo both claimed it was an aborted terrorist attack. But then Ryazan police arrested two of the three suspects -- both of them were not only FSB agents but elite commandos answerable to General Aleksandr Tikhonov, the head of FSB's Special Forces unit. A day and a half after the incident, faced with the humiliation of discovery, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev contradicted his superiors and claimed the whole thing had been a "training exercise" to test Ryazan's vigilance. Those sacks were full of sugar, not hexagon, which Patrushev had identified as the explosive material used in the previous bombings. Nevertheless, the government blew up the bags of "sugar" in a safe zone, destroying the evidence it insisted was harmless to begin with.

At the turn of the millennium, Russia's television networks were still privately owned and prone to actual investigative reporting and unfiltered discussion, as opposed to glossy rubber-stamps of state propaganda as they are today. In March 2000, the station NTV (then owned by Astakhov's future client Gusinsky) broadcast an open debate with everyone involved in the Ryazan affair on the program "Independent Inquiry." The participants included the angry and skeptical residents of 14/16 Novoselov, the FSB officials denying what the former were saying and, as footage from the broadcast plainly shows, one Pavel Astakhov, handing out petitions for the Ryazan residents to sign in order to bring a legal action against the FSB. I found this tidbit from a bygone age of free Russian media in the documentary "Blowing Up Russia," which was based on a book of the same name by Yuri Felshtinsky and Alexander Litvinenko, who you'll remember as the ex-FSB agent who was poisoned to death with another rare substance, polonium-210, at the highly-trafficked sushi bar at the Millennium Hotel in central London in 2006. (The suspects in that case, which is now subject to the British government's own state secrets-justified coverup of the full facts surrounding Litvinenko's murder, are widely assumed to be Russian state actors Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, both fellow FSB agents. Lugovoi is now a deputy in the Duma; the Kremlin refuses to extradite either to the U.K.)

Despite the FSB's promise that an investigation would be made into the Ryazan bombing attempt and that the agency would be subject to the Federal Prosecutor's jurisdiction, the case was closed and classified as "top secret." Never mind that this violates Article VII of the law governing state secrecy, which, as the narrator explains, "makes it illegal to classify as secret information on events which threaten the health and safety of the general public."

"Blowing Up Russia" in either book or celluloid form is banned in Russia, but is available on YouTube. That gives Russian nationals a chance to see their child ombudsman smirk his way through a short interview explaining that these classification laws remain in force for 75 years, which is how long it'll likely take for his compatriots to learn the truth about Ryazan. (Astakhov appears at 38:04 here:)

That gives Astakhov a little less than three-quarters of a century to work on behalf of a government he has implicated in a botched terrorist attack against its own people.

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Michael Weiss is the editor of The Interpreter, a journal sponsored by the Institute of Modern Russia.

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