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

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.

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.

Presented by

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

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