03 January 2013

"Don't sign this bill"

Last week I mentioned the impending legislation that would ban Americans from adopting Russian children. Although the Russian president stated his support for the bill during its consideration in the legislature, I thought for some reason he was being coy about whether he would actually sign it. To the last minute I naively believed that wisdom would prevail. In the words of Russian Orthodox Bishop Panteleimon, eight days before the fateful Friday,
It is unacceptable to take decisions relating to the children on the basis of political considerations.

... We need the kind of law that will in each case decide what is more important for the child. And such a law must proceed not from some scandalous stories, not from rules of diplomacy, symmetrical or asymmetrical responses, but from children's interests. Of course, everyone knows there are dangers in international adoptions, there are certain problems, but these must be solved through normal processes, without resorting to hasty decisions.
In the Moscow Times, the reliably incendiary columnist Yulia Latynina looked at some of the pro-ban arguments (including one from another Orthodox leader, Vsevolod Chaplin):
The Magnitsky Act has drawn attention to crimes Russian authorities had hoped they could conceal. Russian lawmakers have resorted to blatant lies to support their position. State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov had the temerity to say that adopted Russian children are "slaves who are not even protected by U.S. law."

State Duma Deputy Svetlana Goryacheva went even further, saying,"60,000 children have been taken to the U.S. from Russia. And if even one-tenth of these orphans were used for organ transplants or sexual pleasure, there will remain 50,000 who can be recruited for war against Russia."

But the best comment yet in this charade came from archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who said Russian children adopted by U.S. parents "do not go to heaven." What he failed to mention is that children who are not adopted and remain in Russia get to heaven much faster than they should--many before they reach 18.
"I'd help you, son, but my hands are busy."
(Sign: "We'll save our own children!!!") 
Alexei Merinov, Moskovskii Komsomolets.
The journalist Alexander Minkin wrote a passionate open letter to the president, published in Moskovskii Komsomolets on the same day as the bishop's comment was issued. After savaging several of the arguments in favor of the ban, he closed by saying, in part:
Every child, at the very moment of birth, is a citizen of the Russian Federation. That child has the immediate good fortune of coming under the protection of the Russian Constitution--including its Article 27: "Every person is free to leave the Russian Federation."

Well, why should these legislators, in violation of the Constitution, prevent Russian citizens from traveling anywhere freely? If a citizen is a minor, only the parents can decide; if an orphan, only the legal guardian.

By law, guardianship must be based solely on the child's own interests. Neither patriotism nor malicious American laws against our crooked officials and murderers, nor UN sanctions, nor the whole of our State Duma and Federation Council, have a say in this issue.

The guardian should decide where the child will be better off--where the best care will be, the best treatment, prostheses, medications. Up to this point, the best of these things are found in the West. No wonder your own entourage goes to the West for treatment, for drugs....

And what happens here when a child is dying from a serious illness? Pleas for help are posted in the newspapers and on the radio: Please contribute for an operation abroad, please contribute toward expensive drugs! Sometimes the red tape is overcome and a bit of money is scraped together from the state budget--but sometimes it's all too late; the child dies before the Russian Federation's assistance arrives.

But if the United States adopts that sick child, we won't have to spend any of our public money on that child, thank God--all the more money to spend on the World Cup.


The final decision is in your hands, Mr. President. Don't sign this bill.
But last Friday, he did.

The ban on adoptions, along with new provisions allowing summary liquidation of organizations with U.S. funding involved in activities deemed harmful to Russian interests, was a bizarrely asymmetrical reaction to the Magnitsky Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress to deny visas to officials (PDF file) linked to the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

It's not surprising that the Russian leadership reacted negatively. On one level it's sadly comical that certain Russian officials should protest about being excluded from a country they describe with such venom. But on the other hand, much of the world is understandably losing patience with the USA's oblivious arrogance. We Americans comment on everyone else's human rights records, religious freedom, elections, etc., etc., but we won't support the International Criminal Court, we rig United Nations votes, threaten everyone (except Israel) with reduced aid, maintain military bases in 38 countries (and some form of military presence in roughly 120 other countries!), launch lethal drone strikes in countries without their permission, operate a notorious prison in deliberate legal limbo at Guantanamo, and continue to avoid a final accounting for Bush-era torture. We habitually compare our best ideals (due process, equal justice under law) with others' worst performance.

But the Magnitsky Act is in a somewhat different category. While its adoption by the U.S. Congress might also reflect some of that same imperial arrogance, the bill itself is sheer revenge. It's payback, pure and simple. I don't feel much sympathy for the high-flying financiers and corrupt politicians in any aspect of this Hermitage Capital case, but the persecution, torture, and murder of Magnitsky under the color of official power crossed some kind of hellish line. If I were an important businessman and my colleague were murdered to conceal official wrongdoing, and moreover nobody in power was held accountable for his murder, you can believe that I would move heaven and earth to obtain some kind of redress. This is what Hermitage Capital's Bill Browder has done. Blocked at every turn within Russia, he doggedly used his influence over a period of years to lobby for this Magnitsky Act, and I don't blame him for one minute.

I see a parallel with the Wikileaks scandal over secret documents revealing awkward realities about the war in Iraq and other imperial misdeeds. We can regret the theft of documents, and certainly it's true that not everyone involved in those revelations is a blessed angel. But when powerful people kill others with apparent impunity, thank God there are finally consequences. Now it is truly tragic that children have been caught up in the aftermath of Magnitsky, but it lays bare what kind of people we're dealing with. And judging by what I'm hearing here in Russia, many people are utterly without illusion on that count.

Andrei Zubov on Dozhd television.

Just as I was working myself into a real depression about the chill in Russia-US relations and the agony of families with adoptions frozen in mid-process, a friend of mine sent me an open letter from a former colleague of his. This New Year's greeting was written by Andrei Zubov, a historian at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, and director of its Center for Church and International Relations. He also teaches comparative religion at the Russian Orthodox Institute of St. John the Divine. [UPDATE: He was removed from these posts owing to his opposition to Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory starting in 2014, and since 2022 has been teaching at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. In 2023, according to Meduza, the Russian government designated him as a foreign agent.]

You can find his New Year's greeting for 2013 in Russian here. Here's my translation:
A heartfelt Happy New Year to you--and, in addition, Christmas greetings to those who've just celebrated Christmas by the Western calendar. I hope to send out my Christmas greetings [for Orthodox Christmas, January 7] very soon.

Dear friends, to say simply that this year was difficult would be reducing things to a cliche. The past year was full of expectations and hopes. As always, we had expected more than we gained, but what we gained was significant. The year will go down in Russian history for more than just its anniversaries [perhaps specifically the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino]. I think it will be studied as a year when Russian society was able to wake up, or at least begin to wake up. Our terrible totalitarian past no longer constrains our souls, especially the souls of young people. In principle, it's sad--but it's also healing--that society became more detached from government, more disillusioned with the authorities, and less inclined to hope that the problems of simple people will be decided by guardians in high places. People realized that these guardians have always, and will always, put the priority on solving their own problems--and at our expense. This is our bitter but useful experience.

During this year, the credibility of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Primate suffered a tragic decline. On the other hand, the level of cynicism in society also fell. More and more people became involved in volunteer activities, in social programs. Again this particularly involved young people. Also, faith in God did not decline, but for very many people (almost a third of our citizens) whose background was a lukewarm and nominal orthodoxy, their faith became non-denominational. I think this is generally better and more honest, although it demands an accounting from those who continue to consider themselves members of the Church. For them--for us--the time has come to take on some very serious work.

Our society no longer believes in words but looks all the more attentively at deeds and the actual lives of people in the public eye--including their private lives.... In this past year, many reputations were shaken and destroyed. Is it possible that this new year will be a year not for the destruction of old things, but the creation of new things?--perhaps the creation, the crystallization of a new, more kind, self-sacrificing and honest public life? All the prerequisites are in place; the realization depends on us.

Every morning we wake up, all of us, young and old; we feel that we have been given a new day and a new playing field, on which we can distinguish ourselves or discredit ourselves to the benefit or detriment of ourselves and others. As the new year dawns, a whole year's playing field opens up; symbolically, the world is created anew. In this new world, which comes to us and into which we enter, it's my wish that you will find happiness unblemished by shame, and you will find meaning that does not pass away like morning dew. Time is something that is given to us, but the future is something we ourselves build. May we find joy in this work during this New Year 2013.

Cordially yours,
Andrei Zubov

Susanne's Quaker Musings: "Moderating as clerking."

"Growing Up and Realizing that Criticism Won't Kill Me."

"Why Is the Pentagon Off the Table?" "The Pentagon now spends more money than it did confronting the Soviets under Reagan or at the peak of fighting in Vietnam."

Lynn Gazis-Sax comments on a fascinating dialogue about guns, self-defense, and St. Augustine: "Scattered Thoughts on a Dialogue Between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg on Guns."

Readers in Tokyo: Pamela MacCarthy's birthday concert is coming up on January 9.

This sample comes from a performance last month:

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