Why Russia Accused a Texan Adoptive Mother of Murder

When Max Shatto, a three-year-old adopted from Russia, collapsed dead in his backyard in Gardendale, Texas, the Kremlin’s response—to allege that he was abused and murdered—said more about Russian politics than it did about Texan mothers.

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Skeptical about the Texan autopsy on Max Shatto, thousands rallied in Moscow on Saturday, holding pictures of adopted Russian children who have died in the U.S.
AP Images | Alexander Zemlianichenko

Type “Texas” into Yandex, Russia’s largest search-engine, and you are in for a shock. In clip after clip from the evening news broadcast by the state-owned TV channel, grim-faced anchors paint a lurid picture of a “viciously abused” three-year-old named Max Shatto, “stuffed with psychotropic substances,” and covered in bruises and pronounced dead.

“Urgent! In the state of Texas, a three year old Russian child was murdered by his foster mother.” This February 18th tweet from Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, launched the opening volley in a bizarre confrontation between the two erstwhile Cold War enemies, and was followed by eleven more tweets of the same nature that very day. “In America, another cruel crime has been committed,” said Andrey Turchak, the governor of Pskov Oblast, the child’s birthplace. “No other country,” Astakhov emphasized in a press conference on February 20th, “has recorded so many cases of deaths and violence against our children [as America].”

Maxim Kuzmin, a.k.a. Max Shatto, collapsed on January 21st in the backyard of his adoptive parents, Laura and Alan Shatto, in rural Gardendale, Texas, just outside Midland. His mother, Laura Shatto, formerly an economics teacher at Midland High School who had left on good terms, was allegedly in the bathroom. Max was rushed to Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, where he was pronounced dead.

The Chief medical examiner for the Ector County Medical Examiner’s office confirmed bruises on Max’s body, and Astakhov demanded that Russian officials be a part of the investigation. But Mark Donaldson, Ector County’s sheriff, said “It ain’t gonna happen. . . . This kid’s a Texas kid.” On March 1st, Donaldson and District Attorney Bobby Bland ruled the death an accident, based on the judgment of four doctors. As for the bruises? Max was being treated for a behavioural disorder that caused him to injure himself.

However, District Attorney Bobby Bland confirmed Friday that negligence charges still could be filed in the future, and the Department of Family and Protective Services continues to investigate whether the agency that handled the adoption properly checked out the Shattos. The possibility that Max Shatto suffered wrongdoing is not entirely closed.

Yet, although the investigation continues, the absence, so far, of any evidence that a crime was committed has left the Russian government forced to dial back its campaign, with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson calling for “restraint.” Still, the matter was near the top of the agenda at last Tuesday’s talks between secretary of state John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov. Not satisfied with the Texan conclusions, the Russian government is demanding that the US turn over all the evidence relating to Shatto’s death. And while Astakhov has softened his original accusations, he continues to cast doubt on the coroner’s report. “Fast-tracked investigation in Texas—Maxim Kuzmin killed himself. The autopsy promised in eight weeks will no longer be needed. A triumph of justice?” he tweeted on March 2nd, adding: “A 3 year old boy has fallen victim to Big Politics.”

How did the tragedy of one family who lived down a tumbleweed-strewn road in small-town Texas manage to cause such a diplomatic row? And why did an adopted toddler’s death on Texas soil touch such a nerve within the highest echelons of Russian power? The answer is both convoluted and brutally simple: the story of Max Shatto and the transatlantic storm it unleashed is an age-old story of money, power, and populism.

It begins nearly three years before Laura Shatto called for an ambulance to attend to her unconscious adopted son. On November 16th 2009, a Russian tax lawyer named Sergey Magnitsky was found dead in a Moscow jail cell. He had been held without trial, savagely beaten by the authorities. His alleged crime? In the course of representing an investment company, Magnitsky uncovered a massive tax scam worth hundreds of millions of dollars in which some of the country’s highest ranking officials may have been implicated. When Magnitsky blew the whistle, he was instead locked away in Moscow’s most notorious prison on suspicion of being involved in the scheme.

The lawyer’s death in custody provoked widespread international condemnation, and in June 2012, the US Congress passed the Sergey Magnitsky Act. The law forbids a number of Russian officials believed by the US authorities to have participated in Magnitsky’s death and cover-up, as well as other human rights abuses, from obtaining US visas or opening American bank accounts.

While the restrictions apply only to a select group of high-ranking officials, the state-controlled media in Russia painted them as an attack on the entire nation. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov called them an “odious” and “demonstratively anti-Russian” move. (Some Russian officials have been charged with keeping multi-million dollar homes in the US, and leaving them off of the official parliamentary disclosure forms.).

Yet the Russian people as a whole did not seem to share the official fear of the Magnitsky Law. An independent poll showed that less than ten percent of Russians thought the law was aimed against the country in general, and more than 50 percent believed it was aimed at corrupt officials.

Itching to retaliate but realizing that the public would not rally to defend the US banking rights of those charged with corruption, the Kremlin looked for a more resonant cause. In December 2012, Putin found it in the Dima Yakovley Law. Named after a Russian child who grew up in the same orphanage as Max Shatto and died in 2008 when his adoptive American father accidentally left him locked inside a car on a hot summer day, the new law prohibits all American adoptions of Russian children.

It was an inspired move. Only 30 percent of polled Russians opposed the Yakovlev Act. In calling for a ban on American adoptions, the government shrewdly banked on the endurance of a longstanding conspiracy theory: that the Russian demographic crisis is an American design. After the Cold War, not only did Russia lose its political system, its superpower status, and its national pride, but amidst the subsequent economic hardship, Russian birth rates plummeted, and the country, some argued, was literally dying out. What’s more, not content with merely carting off Russia’s scarce children, America seemed to now be killing them too!

According to Russian officials, Max Shatto is the twentieth adopted Russian child to have died in the US since 1993. While the exact number is fiercely debated, a handful of high profile cases have become seared into the national consciousness. In 2009, Virginian Miles Harrison was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter despite admitting to having left adopted Dima Yakovlev to die in a sweltering parked car. Two years later, Iowan Bryan Dykstra was likewise acquitted of killing his adopted Russian son Isaac, who died of severe head trauma in November 2011. And in April 2010, Torre Hansen of Tennessee caused international furore for bundling her adopted, seven-year-old son, Justin, onto a Moscow-bound flight with a note saying she did not want him anymore. After all of these incidents, Russian authorities understandably expressed outrage and launched investigations.

However this time the government overplayed its hand. American citizens remain innocent until proven guilty. And some of Russia’s over-the-top rhetoric created a backlash. “I am so fed up of the Duma deputies’ hysteria on the subject,” wrote one commenter in response to a story about the matter on Russia’s liberal-leaning online newspaper Gazeta.ru. “It seems that for them, the more tragedies involving children occur in America, the better. They are willing to do whatever it takes to distract Russians from the real problems and justify their irresponsible decision to ban adoptions.”

Secondly, certain revelations called into question the responsibility of the official line that Max Shatto’s surviving 2-year-old brother, also adopted by the Shattos, be returned to his biological mother. The 23-year-old Yulia Kuzmina had been stripped of parental rights in 2011 on the grounds of alcoholism, and her on-off boyfriend, Vladimir, allegedly served seven years in jail for rape. One newsreader quipped: “our lawmakers seem to think that it’s fine for a child to be killed by his parents, as long as it happens in Russia.”

Some journalists suggested that the young mother was being exploited by the government. A woman who gave her name only as Natalya told the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda that Kuzmina is rumoured to have been promised a brand new apartment by the local authorities: “We have been in line for social housing for years, with no end in sight. And now it turns out Yulia [Kuzmina] is about to get a free flat and even $7,000 dollars to furnish it.”

A government spokesman denied those claims, but there is growing suspicion that Kuzmina was paid to appear on television and to give interviews to state-owned news programs. Returning home from Moscow after giving an emotional televised plea for the restitution of Max Shatto’s brother, she was ordered off the train, reportedly for “drunken debauchery” and threatening other passengers. One journalist reported that she tried to bribe a fellow passenger with around $160 worth of roubles to avoid being removed, and other media accounts claimed she covered the remaining one hundred miles home in a taxi ride that would have cost over $200—more than Kuzmina allegedly earned each month. Later, a local newspaper reported that Vladimir immediately quit his job as a cleaner in a spa saying that he was now a “movie star” and could live off the TV royalties.

Now, even members of Russia’s ruling party have begun to speak out. On March 24th, Elena Mizulina, head of the Russian parliamentary committee on family, women’s and children’s matters, admitted on a popular talk show that she voted for the Dima Yakovkev law for “political reasons.” Under the Putin government, lawmakers almost never break rank.

Between 1991 and 2011, over 11,000 of the nearly 234,000 foreign children adopted in the US were taken in by Texans, according to statistics compiled by the Office of Children’s Issues at the State Department. Last year, Texans adopted 617 foreign children, more than any other state. And in Texas and America, as a whole, Russian children are some of the most popular. According to the Russian newspaper Argumenty I Facty, nearly a thousand Russian children were adopted by Americans in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Adoption is a sensitive issue: it’s demeaning to think of one’s country as an international orphanage, a charity-case whose children need saving by benevolent Westerners. As Astakhov once declared, “no self-respecting country gives away its children for export.” Yet this politicized scandal obscures the bitter truth that, were it not for Americans, few others were likely to have adopted a child like Max Shatto.

In Russia, adoption remains relatively rare, partly a residue of Soviet times when orphans were placed into a sprawling web of state-run institutions and private adoption was largely discouraged. In addition, depressed wages and cramped living conditions (particularly outside the wealthy oases of Moscow and St Petersburg) mean that many families who would otherwise like to adopt simply lack the resources. In 2010, the Times noted that there were 750,000 children in Russia in need of guardians. And even before the passage of the Yakovlev Law, Russia’s adoption rules stipulated that only children who have been passed over by domestic foster parents can be adopted by foreigners. According to news reports, Max Shatto had previously been rejected by a number of potential local families.

From Max to his surviving brother, to the Texan foster parents who lost their son and the young alcoholic mother who lost her child, this has been a tragedy for all concerned. That includes the thousands of orphans who are likely to continue to be denied the chance to be adopted by an American family as well as the millions of ordinary Russian citizens who remain hostage to cynical political manipulations. 

The Putin government used the Shatto case to both retroactively justify and obscure the folly of banning American adoptions. And that legislation, the Dima Yakovley Law, was in turn an attempt to obscure the fact that the US was right to punish those who colluded in the torture and death of Magnitsky, whose murder was itself designed to obscure the plunder of millions of dollars from the Russian people.  At the story’s matrioshka heart lies a dark, cruel transference: the way in which Russian authorities alleged Max was killed by his American foster parents—abused, viciously beaten and left for dead—is the precise description of Magnitsky’s death in his Moscow cell.

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