One thing you can always count on regarding Vladimir Putin’s Russia: no matter how bad things are today, tomorrow they will be worse.
Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s so-called “child rights ombudsman,” is the new poster child for this truism. On February 18, Astakhov issued a breathless flurry of tweets (Russian-language link) to his more than 100,000 followers about the alleged fate of a Russian adoptee in Texas. He wrote in part:
Urgent! An adoptive mother has killed a three-year-old Russian child in the state of Texas. The murder occurred at the end of January. The boy died before an ambulance called by his mother arrived. According to a report by medical examiners, the boy had numerous injuries.
It was a sensational allegation, and soon it was burning up international newswires. Outraged Russians, convinced they had smoking-gun proof that recent ban on adoptions by American parents had been justified, began calling for a round of crackdowns on evil Americans who murder innocent Russian children in cold blood. Russian parliament even demanded that the U.S. ambassador appear before them to answer for his nation’s misdeeds. Some Russians even demanded that the boy’s brother — who had been adopted by the same family — be returned to Russia.
The New York Times reported:
Andrei Turchak, the governor of the region where the boys were born as Maksim and Kirill, told the news agency Interfax that “a savage crime” had been committed.
The Wall Street Journal reported:
Legislators from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party lambasted U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul for declining their invitation to participate in hearings on the adoption issue. “Apparently, it’s not democratic from his point of view to admit the inaction of U.S. authorities in cases of violence and abuse of little children,” committee chairwoman Irina Yarovaya said in comments posted on the party’s website, acidly referring to Mr. McFaul’s academic background in democracy promotion. Mr. McFaul insisted he was open to discussion but said protocol prevented a U.S. ambassador from participating in parliamentary hearings.
There was just one problem: the allegation was false. There was no murder and no violence. Nor had there ever been any confusion: the report provided no basis for believing a crime had taken place.
The child had collapsed while on the playground just outside of his home, and could not be revived after being discovered. Medical examiners concluded that the “injuries” on the boy’s body were likely nothing more than play scrapes.
In less than a week, Astakhov scrubbed his personal Twitter account of all his frantic messages, though they remained on his official account. The Russian government apologized (Russian-language link) to Texas officials both for “overly emotional” statements falsely accusing the boy’s mother of murder, and for falsely claiming that U.S. officials had been stonewalling the investigation.
Like a good neo-Soviet man, Astakhov quickly pivoted.