“I came here not as a Russian citizen, but primarily as a parent” said Elena Parshina, a 50-year-old teacher on her way to last week’s March Against Scoundrels in Moscow. “I am fed up with the State Duma’s cynicism!” She was not alone. In fact, more than 30,000 people flooded the boulevards of downtown Moscow on January 13, making it the largest opposition protest since President Putin’s inauguration last May.
This was particularly surprising since recent protest turnouts had been dwindling. But President Putin swept away that apathy with the stroke of a pen on December 28, when he signed a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by American parents. The anti-Magnitsky Act, as it’s known, is ostensibly aimed at protecting the rights of Russian citizens, but in actuality it is a politically targeted response to a U.S. bill signed into law by President Obama two weeks earlier. That law imposes visa and financial sanctions on all Russian officials guilty of “gross violations of human rights.” Specifically, though, it seeks to punish those responsible for the 2009 prison death of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed massive fraud involving Russian tax officials.
While the State Duma views its actions as an adequate response to the U.S., critics of the government point out that that anti-Magnitsky Act does far more than punish corrupt politicians. Many are already calling it the “Cannibalistic Law” — since they see it as depriving orphans of their right to life.
“I seriously doubt that orphans should pay for corrupted politicians’ mistakes and crimes,” said opposition leader Alexey Navalny on the night of the protest. “This is an immoral act, an evil and inhumane law, which every human being has to oppose.”
In many ways, that’s just what happened. People of all ages, professions, political views, religious beliefs and financial statuses joined with one another in a collective outburst of indignation. Some protesters came out in the streets with posters saying: “Hands off children,” “Shame!” and “Terrorists at State Duma!” Others carried posters with the word “Shame” written across photographs of politicians who supported the U.S. adoption ban. Meanwhile, a large banner urged the dismissal of the State Duma.
“The law is ridiculous,” said one of the activists, while pointing at his huge banner with Putin’s face crossed out. “It’s a shame for Russia as a state, that Putin, or should I say Herod, is president!”
As the march started, it became obvious that it would overshadow previous protest actions not only in size, but also its peaceful and nonviolent nature — with no clashes among demonstrators or between activists and the police. As one of the opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov noted, “While organizing the March Against Scoundrels, we could hardly imagine how powerful the unifying idea might be. The public reacted rapidly and without argument, which is the way everybody should respond when orphans — the most insecure part of the population —are under attack.”
Not a single case of violence was registered, despite the presence of differing political parties and social views. Activists, children and elderly people carried toys, white ribbons, Russian flags and banners to show their commitment to defend and support those children who have lost their parents and, probably, hope.
“There is no place for conflicts, violent clashes or force among us,” opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov said shortly after the protest. “We’ve come here to express our solidarity against a bizarre policy that deprives thousands of orphans of their natural right for a better life!” The only controversial moment was when Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of the Left Front opposition party, burned an illustration depicting Putin. However, nobody seemed to follow his example, and it was widely perceived as a lame provocation.
Meanwhile, state officials bitterly and fiercely condemned the opposition leaders, activists and regular people who participated in the march. Andrei Isayev, the Deputy Secretary of the United Russia general council called the rally “March of the Child-Sellers” and claimed in an article on the party’s website that “All enemies of Russian sovereignty came out as passionate supporters of American adoption.”
According to the ruling party members, “Russia’s enemies” remain deaf to the government’s voice and would eagerly support American business rather than children’s rights. “We have our own Russian families and potential Russian parents to adopt Russian children,” claimed Ekaterina Lakhova, Deputy Head of the State Duma’s social and religious organizations committee. “We won’t sell them abroad.”
Such arguments have not swayed opposition activists. They say that people like Lakhova are misinterpreting the situation. Nobody has ever sold children away. Adoption agencies are simply providing equal opportunities for international adoption. The real issue, oppositionists argue, is that a state, which claims to be democratic, is limiting opportunities and violating basic human rights — of children, no less — simply to prevent foreigners from adopting children.
No plans for any future events or rallies have yet been announced, as opposition activists wait to see how the government will respond. They remain optimistic, however, that the movement has found new energy since the March Against Scoundrels, which revealed a simple truth about organizing: Movements often-times find success when people are brought together by a striking event rather than an overly elaborate and coordinated plan. As Boris Nemtsov pointed out, “The movement took a new mature step forward with the natural expression of people’s discontent. Each of us was deeply touched.”
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