Jul 5, 2010

Update on Artym

(July 2) -- Torry-Ann Hansen, the Tennessee nurse who adopted 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev and then returned him because she said he wanted to kill her, apparently never bonded with the Russian boy. But she did give him a new name (Justin), a new language (English) and comfort food (burgers and fries, with ketchup).

For now, Artyom, once again under the care of the Russian state, is not being fed hamburgers, said Pavel Astakhov, the point man on all things Artyom -- though there is talk of ordering out for the boy's second-favorite dish, pizza. The Russians have also junked the American name ("He's Artyom in Russian Federation," one official said), but they're making sure he doesn't lose his English. "It's very important for his future," Astakhov explained.
In an image taken from Rossia 1 television channel, 7-year-old adopted Russian boy Artyom Savelyev gets into a minivan outside a police department office in Moscow, April 8.
Rossia 1 Television Channel / AP
In an image taken from Russian television, 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev gets into a minivan outside a police department in Moscow on April 8. Torry-Ann Hansen, the Tennessee woman who adopted Artyom, created a firestorm when she sent him back to his home country of Russia.

It is not exactly true that Artyom Savelyev has been transformed into the Russian Elian Gonzalez. While many Russians pity Artyom, no one is throwing any parades for him. Still, the analogy is not totally off base.

Less than a year ago, Artyom was living in an orphanage in the town of Partizansk, nine time zones east of Moscow and a few stops from the end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. He had been consigned to a remote corner of a vast country that doesn't think much of orphans -- had he never left the Russian Far East, odds are that Artyom would have faced prison, homelessness, venereal disease and/or premature death. And then, he was magically airlifted to America.

But for Hansen, it turned out that parenting a boy who may have been a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome and definitely had been subjected to violence and hunger was, well, trying. So on April 7, seven months after he arrived in his new hometown of Shelbyville, Tenn., Artyom's new grandmother took him to Dulles International Airport outside Washington. There, Nancy Hansen turned him over to the custody of United Airlines, and he was put on Flight 964 to Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. The flight would be just shy of 10 hours.

Landing in Moscow, he was met by Artur Lukyanov, who had been paid $200 by Nancy Hansen to take him to the Ministry of Education and Science, which has jurisdiction over adoptions. At the ministry, in Moscow's center, Lukyanov gave officials a letter from Torry-Ann Hansen claiming that Artyom had "severe psychopathic issues" and wanted to burn her house down.

Artyom's story soon became a Russian story -- about suffering, fortitude and a child's innocence. Because Artyom was no longer just Artyom but a metaphor for something much bigger, his story had to end triumphantly. America, in the guise of Torry-Ann Hansen, had rejected Russia, and then Russia, in the guise of Artyom, was saved by the Russian state.

And so it was that on April 8, when the twice-abandoned Elian Gonzalez of Siberia -- having zigzagged from post-Soviet backwater to Dixieland nightmare to the loving embrace of the Kremlin -- stepped off an airplane outside Moscow, his journey, Russia's journey, finally began to look up. That was the day everything turned around.

Into the Arms of the State

Artyom's story, naturally, requires an expert storyteller. That Pavel Astakhov has been assigned to that role suggests the Kremlin knows as much.

Astakhov, the 43-year-old, permanently tanned, coiffed and manicured superlawyer whom President Dmitry Medvedev late last year named children's rights commissioner, is the Judge Judy of Russia. Besides running a bustling practice -- according to his website, former clients include Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and accused American spy Edmond Pope -- Astakhov hosts the television program "Chas Suda," or "Hour of the Court."
Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, Pavel Astakhov, shows a copy of Artyom Savelyev's US passport to journalists near a children's hospital in Moscow on April 16.
EPA / ZUMA Press
Pavel Astakhov, the Russian presidential commissioner for children's rights, shows a copy of Artyom Savelyev's U.S. passport to journalists near a children's hospital in Moscow on April 16.

The program, which airs daily on state-run Ren TV, amounts to a propaganda organ meant to convince Russians that the Russian Federation is ruled by laws, not men (which is not true). In Judge Astakhov's courtroom, justice is all that counts, not bribes or boyars or even Vladimir Putin. As Astakhov's site notes, "Chas Suda" "creates respect for the law" and "contributes to a positive image of the court in the minds of the people."

Like celebrities everywhere, but especially in Russia, it is important to Astakhov that other people know he is always busy. The first time I called him, on his cell, he didn't answer; nor did he pick up the second, third or fourth time. Eventually, I sent him a text message, and a minute later Astakhov wrote back, saying I should call his assistant. After several scheduled phone interviews that never materialized, I caught the judge in his car going somewhere that, he said, was very important.

On the phone, he was guarded -- not the way lawyers can be guarded, choosing their words carefully to avoid being accused of something they didn't mean; rather, the way celebrities are guarded, shielding from public view the gilded utopia they inhabit.

Artyom, Astakhov said, had been removed to an "undisclosed location" -- an orphanage -- in central Moscow. "It's a special house for orphans," he said. "There are many specialists around him -- pedagogues, psychologists, teachers -- and only five children in this house right now. He is living in one room with a boy of his age." He said Artyom had been put on a special diet for children in his age group (he wouldn't specify what this consisted of) and that doctors had run a battery of tests on him.

Implying not so subtly that Torry-Ann Hansen must be crazy or blind, he added, "He is absolutely normal. I spoke with Artyom many, many times. I saw all the medical exams about his conditions, I mean, mentally and physically, and Artyom is very well."

Lukyanov, the driver, agreed with Astakhov. He said Artyom seemed like a regular little boy when he stepped off the plane. He was wearing a yellow jacket and had a Spider-Man backpack with a Spider-Man doll, a miniature car and pencils inside. But he was confused about where -- and who -- he was. While they were in Lukyanov's Ford heading into Moscow, Artyom began to cry and ask for his "Grandma Nancy." "The boy could not calm down for a few minutes," Lukyanov wrote on his website.

(Lukyanov posted a lengthy dispatch on the site after being accused, in Russia, of abandoning Artyom at the ministry. He insists he stayed with Artyom all day, until he deposited him at Hospital 21, a state children's hospital on the northeastern fringe of the city.)

"When I met him, I didn't know that he is Russian," Lukyanov told me. "After, in the office of the ministry, we recognized that within six months [in the United States] he had forgot his native language ... or pretended that he forgot. At the end of the day, he remembered Russian words and began to understand us better and better."

Astakhov said Artyom was not ready to meet journalists. Nor would he reveal any details about the orphanage where he's staying except to say it has had remarkable success placing orphans with foster and adoptive families. (In the past year, Astakhov said, the orphanage has placed 150 children. He did not say if these children had been placed with foreigners or Russians, who are generally resistant to taking in parentless children.)

That said, photographs of a smiling Artyom at the orphanage have popped up on the website of the state news agency RIA Novosti. In one picture, Artyom, in a short-sleeve, blue-and-white striped shirt, plays with the iconic wooden toy known as a matryoshka doll. Behind the little boy, with his tousled blond hair and toothy grin, is a bright orange stuffed bear and a freshly made twin-sized bed.

"The most traumatic months were in Torry's family, when she pulled his hair and she punished him for everything," Astakhov said. " 'Don't cry, don't yell, don't play, don't go out from this house.' Everything was prohibited for Artyom. I think it's over, and now we are doing all the best for Artyom's future, for Artyom's present."

America and the Scandale d'Artyom

One reason English could be important for Artyom's future is that he may opt to go back to America. That would be easy enough since he is now a dual citizen of Russia and the United States, which granted him citizenship when Hansen adopted him. As one former diplomat put it, "Your mother may give you back, but your motherland never will."

Astakhov said Julie Stufft, a U.S. Embassy official, had visited with Artyom at the orphanage. Stufft referred questions about the boy to embassy spokesman Kevin Kabumoto, who refused to discuss the case, citing the Privacy Act. Tom Armbruster, the U.S. consul general in Vladivostok, cited a May 13 statement issued by the State Department on U.S.-Russian talks on adoption and, presumably, how to make sure that people like Torry-Ann Hansen (or, worse yet, Peggy Sue Hilt, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to killing the Russian girl she'd adopted) don't wind up with future Artyoms.
Artyom Savelyev plays in a children's hospital in Moscow, Russia on April 9.
EPA / ZUMA Press
Artyom Savelyev is all smiles as he plays in a children's hospital in Moscow on April 9.

"Both teams are committed to reach an agreement to increase safeguards for intercountry adoption," Mary Ellen Hickey, head of the U.S. delegation, said in the statement. Furthermore, whatever agreements are hammered out will be "legally binding" and "each country will define its competent bodies responsible for coordinating bilateral cooperation in adoption."

That is exactly what the United States has resisted and Russia has sought for years. What brought an end to the impasse was the scandale d'Artyom. The Americans were embarrassed. The Russians were livid. Finally, the political alignment had shifted, and the Americans -- who have sought to make nice with the Russians ever since Barack Obama reset relations with the Kremlin -- signed off on a slew of new regulations and identity checks.

The final agreement, details of which have yet to be made public, is expected to be signed in a few months. This makes Russia happy (victory over America!) and comes at a low cost to the Obama administration: Many, if not most, of the people who adopt Russian children are churchgoing -- many got the idea to adopt a Russian child while doing missionary work in the former Soviet Union -- and white. (Adoption officials say Russia is a popular destination for adoptive U.S. parents because it has a huge cache of parentless kids with the "correct" skin color, unlike, say, China.) This is a constituency that did not vote for Obama in 2008 and is unlikely to do so in 2012.

Too Many Children, Not Enough Homes

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, American families have adopted more than 50,000 Russian children. The pace of adoptions held steady in the 1990s but began to drop in 2003. Although no one at the Kremlin ever articulated a change in policy -- the Kremlin rarely, if ever, articulates changes in policy -- that decline parallels a shift in attitudes at the very top toward foreigners and especially Americans.

Now, a mere 1,700 to 1,800 Russian children are adopted by Americans yearly, despite ongoing demand. "It's all about saving the children," said Michelle Helton Jayroe, who traveled in December 2008 from her Alabama home to Samara, about 550 miles southeast of Moscow, with a friend who was adopting a little boy. "She would adopt 25 if her husband would allow. ... She's hoping for two more, at least."

That is likely to get tougher. Russia has permitted foreigners to adopt its children because there are not enough Russians to take them in. That's because most Russians are poor: In 2008, Russia ranked No. 75 in per capita income, with the average Russian grossing the equivalent of $9,660, between No. 74 Mexico and No. 76 Chile, according to a World Bank report this year.

And it's because, since Soviet times, there has been a stigma attached to orphans. "For many years, if a Russian family decided to adopt a child, they would fake a pregnancy," said Ekaterina Bridge, head of the Russian branch of the World Association for Children and Parents, the Renton, Wash., agency that facilitated Artyom's adoption. "They didn't want that someone would later tell their child. They'd prefer not to tell the child that he had been adopted."

Moscow has never been happy about the need for foreigners to pick up the slack. Like capitalism and world peace, the Russian leadership tends to view adoption as an instrument that may or may not serve its interests; the fact that these interests often diverge from those of Russia's roughly 700,000 orphans, most of whom remain in orphanages, is irrelevant.

This is especially troubling to parentless teenagers on the verge of "graduation." Every year about 20,000 kids, having recently turned 17, leave Russian orphanages, according to Anna Sergeeva, director of the New York office of the Russian Children's Welfare Society. "A majority of them fall into a high-risk category (crime, homelessness, prostitution)," she wrote in an e-mail. "Ten percent commit suicide, and only 4 percent are admitted to colleges or universities."

These figures would seem to suggest that Russia should push for more, not fewer, adoptions. Not so: Sergeeva predicted the number of adoptions would drop again this year.

A Country's Outrage -- and Ambivalence

Artyom's story, like that of the Iraq War and the Bush administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina, has provided the Russian state with a prophylactic that safeguards it against external criticism -- We're all rotten, aren't we? But more important, it reaffirms Russia's idea of Russia, that of a battered and impoverished people that fights and perseveres and defies the many forces arrayed against it: fascists, imperialists, CIA agents and, of course, soulless would-be mothers from Tennessee.

Alexandra Ochirova, an adoption specialist who sits on the 126-member Public Chamber, a government panel that is meant to serve as the nation's public conscience, was reflecting on the nature of motherhood. We were at the Winter Garden Cafe, at the National Hotel, across the street from Red Square, and Ochirova was sipping an espresso. She said she was deeply troubled -- pained -- by the case of Artyom Savelyev. "The only motivation to adopt a child is love," Ochirova declared. "This is all that must be there."

(Pavel Astakhov agreed when we spoke. "You really need only love and attention and, of course, patience. For example, Torry Hansen didn't have patience, love or attention.")

What about medical records? I asked Ochirova. Hansen had claimed that orphanage officials in Partizansk withheld information about Artyom that would have alerted her to his behavioral problems. "What information?" Ochirova said. "Was he a terrorist? A killer? Perhaps she was unaware that he didn't enjoy a king's upbringing."

When she was at Moscow State University, Ochirova studied philosophy (Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel and, of course, Karl Marx) and the greatest of all Russian prophets, Fyodor Dostoevsky. The world would be a better place, she said, if its leaders, beginning with Barack Obama, read more Russian literature and especially more Dostoevsky, whose most famous novel, "The Brothers Karamazov," ends with a little boy's funeral.

She asked if Obama had been following the story of Artyom. I said that I had no idea but that he probably had other things to worry about: the oil spill, the economy, the war in Afghanistan. Ochirova became livid. "What can possibly be more serious than this problem? This is the first problem. What we really need is a new moral order."

No doubt. There's something strange about a country that is teeming with unwanted children and has no one to take them in and can't decide if it should let other people, in other countries, fill that niche. That ambivalence inhibits action, which spawns backlog and, ultimately, a permanent subset of parentless children.

Exhibit A: Artyom Savelyev, Russia's most famous parentless child. Adoption officials, Astakhov said, are reviewing the applications of three families hoping to adopt Artyom. Astakhov stressed that all of the families are Russian, but then he said that that is not important. "A little boy, a little girl, are very flexible. It does not matter to them."

In two to three months, Artyom will be placed in a new home, and then his life will begin. Astakhov wouldn't say much about the candidate families -- for instance, where they were before Torry-Ann Hansen showed up -- except that they live in Moscow and that they are all "promising."

"One of these families," Astakhov said, "is the family of former diplomats who have good experience with adopted children because they raised a boy who was adopted many years before. This family will be the best family for Artyom. Both mother and father speak English very well."

Peter Savodnik is a writer based in New York. His book about Lee Harvey Oswald's time in the Soviet Union, provisionally titled "The Interloper," will be published by Basic Books next year.

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