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.
Sun March 3, 2013 5:45 pm
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 18 th 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 20 th, “has recorded so many cases of deaths and violence against our children [as America].”

Maxim Kuzmin, a.k.a. Max Shatto, collapsed on January 21 st 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 1 st, 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 2 nd, 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 16 th 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

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