In the past two weeks, a new twist on an old conspiracy theory has been making the rounds in the Russian media. It is a relic of Cold War spook stories about bloodthirsty Uncle Sam, and it posits that the U.S., in its hunger for natural resources, has come up with a cunning new plan to take over Siberia and the Russian Far East. Over the course of several generations, the U.S. supposedly wants to adopt every Russian orphan in these desolate regions, and when the population has been sufficiently depleted, Americans will simply move in and conquer the land, taking over its vast supplies of oil, gas, diamonds and metals without spilling a drop of blood. Surf around the Russian blogosphere, or meet a doomsayer in the Moscow subway, and you won’t have much trouble finding a version of this myth. What’s different this time is the source — Pavel Astakhov, the Kremlin commissar for children’s rights, has been pushing this theory on anyone willing to listen.
As the most senior official on all matters concerning Russian children, Astakhov has been working overtime lately. Dapper and well spoken, with the made-for-TV looks of a long-lost Baldwin brother, he has become the chief advocate for Russia’s decision last month to ban U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. It has not always been an easy sell. The adoption ban was conceived in the Russian parliament, with the encouragement of President Vladimir Putin, as a tit-for-tat response to a piece of U.S. human-rights legislation — the so-called Magnitsky Act — which blocks corrupt Russian officials from getting U.S. visas. As such, the ban has been widely condemned. Tens of thousands of Russians marched through Moscow last month to denounce Putin for using orphans as ammo in a diplomatic fight with Washington. And in a survey released last week by the Levada Center, an independent pollster, 40% of respondents said it is “demagoguery and cynicism” for the state to portray the adoption ban as a gift to Russian orphans.
The response from the Kremlin, long fond of exploiting Cold War prejudices, has been to stir a depth of anti-Americanism seldom seen since the Cuban missile crisis. Legislators and state-run media have been falling over themselves to bash the U.S., employing a pungent mix of nationalism, xenophobia and outright misinformation. Astakhov has been leading the charge. Last Tuesday, he was the guest star on a state-TV talk show called Mama America, which argued that all foreign adoptions amount to “child dealing.” The show depicted Americans who seek to adopt abroad as closet pedophiles or buyers in the orphan trade, while a long segment of the show focused on “totalitarian sects” — referring, primarily, to Pentecostal Christians — that were accused of trying to convert, sequester and abuse helpless Russian orphans. On a typical week, millions of Russians watch the show.
The day the program aired, Astakhov invited me to his office to walk me through the Kremlin’s arguments, which he watered down slightly for the benefit of an American reporter. “I am grateful to the Americans who in good faith adopted gravely ill children,” he began. “But right now we are deciding an essential question for ourselves. What are we? A nation of John Does with no roots and traditions? Or are we people who answer for future generations? Are we heartless men who cannot help children in orphanages, who count on the Americans to take our children away? Or can we do it ourselves?”
He then offered me a version of the “depopulating Siberia” theory, which I had heard him argue at a press conference a week earlier in Moscow. Why is it, he asked me, that Americans adopt more children from the Far East than they do from the western parts of Russia? My first thought was that Siberian orphans are perhaps in more dire need of adoption than those in Moscow, but this was met with a condescending smirk. “Madeleine Albright said it herself,” Astakhov retorted. “It is terribly unfair for Russia to have so much of the world’s natural resources.” This statement, which the former U.S. Secretary of State has denied ever making or even thinking, is a staple of Russian conspiracy theories involving the U.S.
Astakhov might have known as much. Before being nominated to the post of Kremlin commissar (his preferred translation of his title) in 2008, he was a respected lawyer in both Moscow and Washington. His appearance on the global stage came in 2000, the year Putin became President, when Astakhov agreed to work as an attorney for Edmond Pope, the first U.S. citizen in four decades to be arrested and charged with espionage in Russia. With his typically theatrical style, Astakhov delivered the final arguments of Pope’s defense in 12 pages of verse he had written in iambic pentameter, and outside the courtroom he railed against the spy mania driving the judicial system. It didn’t help. Pope was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but a week later, Putin agreed to grant Pope a pardon and sent him home to Pennsylvania.
That trial, as well as the negotiations for a Kremlin pardon, won Astakhov some powerful friends in Washington. He was invited two months later to address members of Congress about the troubles facing the Russian justice system, and he made a glowing impression. Congressman John Peterson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, secured Astakhov a place that same year at the law school of Pittsburgh University. Professor Ronald Brand, who was in charge of the school’s international department, recalls the Congressman explaining that Astakhov had “helped us out” in the Pope case, which was a factor in the school’s decision to grant Astakhov financial aid. The young lawyer spent the next year studying in Pittsburgh with his wife and two teenage sons.
In that time, he says he gained an admiration for the U.S. and sought to transplant parts of the U.S. legal system to Russia when he returned. He served as a lawyer in numerous political trials, often finding himself at odds with the Kremlin. From 2004 to 2009, he was host of the television show Hour of Judgment, a Russian version of Judge Judy, that helped to demystify Russia’s gauntlet of a legal system. He wrote a dozen novels and law books, and in 2003, soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he again made headlines by appealing for the right to defend Saddam Hussein at the International Criminal Court. Brand received a copy of that appeal, which was addressed to the U.S. embassy in Moscow and to President George W. Bush. “Pavel seems to have a nose for politics,” Brand says of the letter. “He’s probably one of the best self-promoters I’ve ever met in my life.”
Astakhov, who refers to Brand as a mentor and a “professor from God,” denies that the letter was a publicity stunt. “Even the Nuremberg trials had lawyers,” he says. Then, in 2007, he founded a “national movement” called Za Putina (For Putin), a sort of fan club for the Russian President. The following year, he was appointed Kremlin commissar for children’s rights, even though his only apparent qualifications were his three sons and the gift of gab. His tenure in that post has been marked by near constant scandals involving Russian children abused by their adoptive parents in the West. Each time such a case surfaced, Astakhov has fumed in all available media at the practice of foreign adoptions.
In the past 20 years, there have been 19 cases of Russian orphans killed through neglect or abuse in the custody of American parents, far fewer than the number who died of similar causes in Russian orphanages, according to Russian government statistics. But in his recent spate of TV appearances, Astakhov has played up horror stories of child-pornography rings and torture chambers across the U.S. He admits that these do not give an accurate picture of the history of U.S. adoptions, but even one case of such abuse, he says, is enough to ban all foreign adoptions outright. That is his current mission. “All adoptions, American, French, Italian, whatever, will go into the past,” he tells me. “We must deal with it ourselves. That is the essential point. We are built this way in Russia. We will burn the only bridge to safety before we consent to retreat.”
And as for the fact that the adoption ban was a direct response to the Magnitsky Act, he leaves that to the diplomats. “As I was taught by my professors in Pittsburgh,” he says, “every state’s unfriendly act must be met with another unfriendly act. Period. What kind of act is less important? Economic, political, social, I don’t know.” So for now he is trying to decouple the Magnitsky Act from the ban on U.S. adoptions. The theory of Siberian depopulation has proved a useful tool for distraction, if nothing else. On Monday, he gave an interview to the state-run paper of record, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, expounding on this theory in more detail than ever. “I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. But nevertheless, a fact is a fact,” he began. “There are some theories that say depopulation leads eventually to the occupation of that territory by those who seek expansion.” Then he quoted (or misquoted) Albright again.
In his office a week before, he seemed to revel in the publicity, both good and bad, that his position in the adoption debate had brought him. A camera crew had left his office just before I arrived, and another one was going up the elevator as I went out. He looked to have an inexhaustible supply of talking points, and as we parted, he gave an idea of their source. “What is a commissar?” he asked. “It is the man who answers for the ideology, for the spirit of a military regiment. He leads the attack. He screams out, ‘For the motherland! Never retreat! Moscow is behind us!’ That’s just me.”