Deciding the Fate of Russia’s Orphans: a Religious Perspective

Orphanage Play Area

Orphanage Play Area (Photo credit: maticulous)

On December 28, 2012, Vladimir Putin signed a new Russian law, which, among other things, prohibits Russian orphans from being adopted by American citizens. Variously referred to as the “anti-Magnitsky” law or the “law of Dima Yakovlev” (named for the very unfortunate Russian orphan whose American adoptive parents left him in an overheated car), this new policy has drawn sharp criticism as being politically motivated. However, some in the Russian Orthodox Church have defended the law as a measure to protect the religious interests of the orphans. Personally, I am baffled by a religious attitude that would consider so many orphans who have no ties whatsoever to Christianity (other than their general physical proximity to a Russian Orthodox parish) as better off spiritually than children raised in America, with or without a Christian upbringing. I can only attribute the Russian church’s defense of this law to the spirit of nationalism which can so easily become interwoven into the religious beliefs of a nation.

Let’s put this in perspective. The impulse to keep Russian orphans at home is in line with a number of other moves to combat an ongoing demographics crisis. Russia’s population has been in decline since the break up of the Soviet Union.  During the last ten years, the number of Russian children has decreased by 4 million, even while the number of orphans has steadily increased. Addressing Russia’s orphan crisis is critical not only from a humanitarian point of view, but also in terms of very pragmatic concerns about the political and economic stability of Russia.

Nevertheless, policy in this case should not be decided for political reasons, but based on whether a particular child is better off growing up in a Russian orphanage or as an adopted child with American parents. Poverty, AIDS, homelessness, and poor medical care for children with disabilities are a few of the problems that face the ever increasing number of Russian orphans. Their prognosis is grim: as adults, 40% become involved in crime, 10% commit suicide, 20% become homeless, 33% remain unemployed, but only 4% attend a university. (For more statistics, see The Russian Children’s Welfare Society website: Some of these results are not so very different from the dismal outcomes for kids in foster care in the US. For example, 25% of kids in the US foster care system will become homeless once emancipated. Regardless of the country, adoption can be the key to giving orphaned children a brighter future. But this new Russian law makes adoption even less likely for its 700,000+ orphans.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also gotten involved in the controversy over the anti-Magnitsky law. The priest acting as spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church on this matter, the head of the Holy Synod’s Department of Church and Society Interrelations, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, has spoken in support of it. In an article published by Pravmir, he explains his concern that children who have been baptized as Russian Orthodox Christians may be raised by American families outside the Orthodox Church. He fears that they will be “unable to get a truly Christian education, and thus fall away from the Church and from the road to eternal life in the Kingdom of God.” Archpriest Chaplin is expressing a common assumption in the Orthodox Church that baptized Orthodox Christians who leave the church, regardless of the reason, will jeopardize their salvation.

However, not all Russian clergy support the new law. Bishop Panteleimon (Shatov) has spoken in favor of a more nuanced policy that takes into consideration the individual needs of each child and the situation of the prospective adoptive family.

Just over a decade ago, I had the opportunity of getting to know two of Russia’s many orphans when I was studying in Siberia as an exchange student. Their story is particularly relevant to a discussion of the spiritual needs of Russian orphans. I met “Borya” and “Tanya” through my connections with the local church I attended with my host mother. They, like many in Russian orphanages, were orphans of circumstance: their parents were alive but unable to care for them. Borya was old enough to work and live on his own, but he struggled to make a living wage. His education had been patchy. He was embarrassed that I, the American exchange student, could locate his home city on a map of Russia, but he could not. He had served for a while as an altar server in our local church, and at one point he stayed with us in my host mother’s extra room.

His younger sister Tanya still lived in an orphanage. During my time there, their mother died of tuberculosis. TB was a common cause of death among women who lived on the streets and used alcohol and drugs. Our church, in a special act of kindness to Borya and Tanya, arranged a funeral for the mother, including the details of casket, clothes to be buried in, and a memorial meal after the ceremony. I spent some time talking to Tanya as we were all making preparations. Tanya was one of the baptized Orthodox Christians that the anti-Magnitsky law purports to protect. Because her older brother had some connections to the church, she had more exposure to religion than many other baptized children at her orphanage. I was young and aspired to teaching Sunday school, so I took it upon myself to try to comfort Tanya by educating her about prayers for the departed, about God’s love, and about heaven. I was very surprised to discover that, at an age of perhaps 10 years old, Tanya had never even heard of heaven. I offered her an Orthodox booklet that I had with me which taught some of the basics of our faith. Tanya refused it, not because she was uninterested, but because she had been taught to be wary of American missionaries who might poison her mind with sectarian beliefs. “I am Russian Orthodox,” she told me. “I don’t want that.”

Tanya’s religious education so far had merely reinforced her religious identity, but it had not yet provided her with any substance. She did not know a single prayer. She had never heard of heaven. She had only visited a church once that she could remember. Policy makers in the Russian Orthodox Church need to ask themselves some hard questions about the lives of children in Tanya’s position. Even if she were adopted by a non-religious family in America, it would not be possible to know less about God than she did in Russia as a nominal member of the Orthodox Church. But if she were to be adopted by an American Christian family with even a token commitment to their faith, she would at least have heard of Jesus Christ, heaven, and prayer.

Tanya is only one child in a country with nearly a million orphans, but her story demonstrates the complexity of the issue. A one-size-fits-all policy like the current anti-Magnitsky law cannot possibly address the needs of every orphan. It does not even make an exception for Russian-Americans who want to adopt a child from their native country and raise them in the Orthodox Church. Bishop Panteleimon’s position would have made allowances for individual considerations such as these, as well as the differences in the availability of medical care and other quality of life issues.

I sincerely regret that now, with Putin’s new law, Russian orphans will have even fewer opportunities for adoption. It is particularly unfortunate that the exclusion of these orphans from the chance of adoption by a loving American family is being justified by anyone as a spiritual necessity. I hope that Russia will somehow find the resources and the will to take better care of her orphans, but it is such an enormous task that I fear many more children will slip through the cracks. From here in America, what can we do now but commend them to the mercy and love of God? “The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow.” (Ps. 146:9)

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One Response to Deciding the Fate of Russia’s Orphans: a Religious Perspective

  1. Beth says:

    God takes the part of the little ones: the poor, the orphans, the widows – the hungry, those in prison (or those in nursing homes or orphanages): “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”

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