Toddler death stirs Russian polemic over US adoption

By Daniel Sandford
BBC News, Moscow

image captionMax Shatto (l), seen here with his brother Kristopher, died barely three months after arriving in the US

Tuesday's meeting between the new US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov comes at the lowest point in the countries' relationship since President Obama first took office.

The "reset" was knocked badly off course by disagreements over the conflicts in Libya and Syria. Then, during last year's protests, Russia accused America of interfering in its domestic politics.

This ended with USAID being kicked out the country. December's Sergei Magnitsky Act that allows Russian officials to be excluded from the US on human rights grounds only made things worse, and Moscow's response was to end all adoptions of Russian children by American parents.

Then last week, just seven weeks after that controversial ban was enacted came the tragic news of the death of Max Shatto, previously known as Maksim Kuzmin.

The three-year-old boy and his two-year-old brother Kristopher Shatto (previously known as Kirill Kuzmin) had only arrived in the US in October to live with their new parents Laura and Alan Shatto.

But on 21 January, Max Shatto was rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead. How he died is not yet clear.

Sondra Woolf, an investigator at the Ector County Medical Examiner said: "There was some bruising just in various places. Whether they had anything to do with his cause of death we don't know. We won't know until we get the autopsy report back."

Media firestorm

But the Russian reaction was very different. The Children's Commissioner Pavel Astakhov broke the news on Twitter.

"An adoptive mother has killed a three-year-old Russian child in the state of Texas. The murder occurred at the end of January," he wrote.

That unleashed a firestorm in the Russian media and the parliament, the Duma. Deputies lined up to use Max Shatto's death to justify the ban on US adoptions of Russian children.

"Why should we send our children to certain death?" asked Svetlana Orlova, the deputy chair of the Russian upper chamber, the Federation Council.

But at the children's home that Maksim Kuzmin was adopted from, we found a very different reaction.

"The ban on American adoptions will mostly hit children with serious health problems," the chief doctor, Natalia Vishnevskaya, said.

"Russian adoptive parents are afraid of taking these kinds of children. And in our children's home there are practically no kids who are absolutely healthy."

The Pechory Baby Home has seen a similar tragedy before.

Dima Yakovlev - a 21-month-old toddler who had left the home only a few months earlier - died of heatstroke after being accidentally left in a car by his adoptive father in Virginia.

image captionYulia Kuzmina, a recovering alcoholic, says she wants to look after her surviving son

But still Natalia Vishnevskaya is in favour of US adoptions.

"These tragic events should not prevent our children from being adopted to any country," she said, "and let me stress any country."

'Sensational exploitations'

The most powerful moment during last week's propaganda blitz was when the natural mother of Max and Kristopher Shatto, Yulia Kuzmina, appeared on a special television programme on the Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1.

She wept as she described how her children were taken from her, and how she had no idea they had gone to America, and how she heard about Max's death by watching the news.

But it did not take long for this PR masterstroke to start falling apart.

It soon emerged that Yulia Kuzmina is a known alcoholic. She was even removed from her train on the way home after recording the live programme.

Several neighbours in her home town of Gdov, and other people who know her well, said they believed she still had a drinking problem, and they did not think she would be able to look after her surviving son.

But when we tracked her down she insisted that she could reform and take care of Kirill, who is still with Laura Shatto in America.

"He will be better off with me than with that mother," she said. "If I met her in the street, I wouldn't be able to hit her, but I would definitely scratch out her eyes."

image captionMs Kuzmina's house remains in a poor state of repair, says our correspondent

She said that she and her new boyfriend would prepare a home for Kirill.

"I will change my life completely, and do anything for Kirill. I no longer drink, I work. Although after the TV programme, we were sacked, so now we are looking for a job.

"But we received several offers, so there will be no problems with jobs. We are repairing the house. I have a large house - three large airy rooms and kitchen. All the toys are still there."

We saw the house. It is empty, in a poor state of repair, and had two rusting children's pushchairs in the snowy garden.

The US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, has had a testing time since he arrived in Russia.

The Max Shatto/ Maksim Kuzmin affair drove him to write: "It is time for sensational exploitations of human tragedy to end and for professional work between our two countries to grow, on this issue and many others."

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