Marchers flooded tree-lined boulevards for many blocks on a bitterly cold day. The police estimated the turnout for the march, which was sanctioned by city authorities, at 9,500; a group of activists who made a count told Interfax that there were about 24,000 participants.
The sight gags and clever slogans of last year’s anti-government rallies were gone Sunday, and many participants had emotional answers for why they came to march. Many questioned the moral principles of a ban on adoptions by Americans in a country with so many children in foster care or orphanages.
“Even I can’t afford to adopt, and I’m supposedly middle class,” Yekaterina Komissarova, 31, said, adding that perhaps the issue angered her so deeply because she was the mother of two children.
Another marcher, Tamara Nikolayeva, 62, raised her voice to a near-shout as she accused Russian leaders of using orphans as pawns.
“They have decided to settle a score by using children, and it’s shameful,” Ms. Nikolayeva said, as her friends gathered around, nodding their encouragement. “O.K., maybe at some point, it will be better not to give our children away; we should take care of them ourselves. But first you have to make life better for them here. Give them a chance to study. Give them a chance to get medical treatment.”
The adoption ban has underlined a growing division in Russian society, as the government has embraced conservative rhetoric tailored to voters in the heartland, and turned away from prosperous city-dwellers who have mobilized over the Internet. State-controlled television has regaled Russians with reports of American parents who abuse or neglect Russian children, and a top official derided the marchers as “child-sellers.”
“I am especially surprised to see people gather at such a large action in support of American business — because for them, our children, Russian children, are factually, let’s put it this way, an object of trade,” said Yekaterina Lakhova, the United Russia lawmaker who sponsored the ban, in an interview with Kommersant FM radio station shortly after Sunday’s march began.
“Economically developed countries – and we do not consider ourselves a third-world country, we are in the top 20 – do not give up their children to foreign adoption as much as we do,” she said. “Excuse me, but in the past years, we have given the United States a small city with a population of up to 100,000, that is how many children we have given up to foreign adoptions.”
President Vladimir V. Putin approved the adoption ban in late December, as part of a broader law retaliating against the United States for the so-called Magnitsky Act, an effort to punish Russian officials accused of human rights violations.
Russian leaders have complained bitterly for years about light sentences handed down in cases where American adoptive parents abused or neglected children adopted from Russia, and named the ban after Dmitri Yakovlev, a toddler who died of heatstroke in Virginia in 2008 after his adoptive father left him in a parked car for nine hours.
But the decision has proven divisive in Russia, even within government circles. More than 650,000 children live in foster care or orphanages in Russia, of whom about 120,000 are eligible for adoption. Many children in orphanages are sick or disabled, and most have little hope of finding permanent homes.
“We hope that these people, who came out to express their opinion, are aware of the plans of our nation’s leaders to bring order to the adoption process, and the implementation of a range of measures aimed to improve the lives of orphans,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary, said.
The protesters on Sunday, however, were not likely to be convinced. One woman carried a sign that read, “Stop the repressions, you’re making revolutionaries out of us.” Many said they support the Magnitsky Act, which was passed by the American Congress late last year, as a way to hold Russian officials accountable for crimes that would otherwise never be punished.
“I truly think they have lost touch with society, and they use these laws to divert society’s anger toward ‘our enemies,’ the Americans,” said Boris Komberg, a physicist who was distributing a poem he had written about the adoption issue.
Yelena Rostova, 61, said anger over the ban had crystallized in the two weeks that followed its passage and caught the authorities by surprised.
“They expected that, as usual, we would swallow it, keep quiet,” Ms. Rostova said. “We have had two weeks to think about this law, and not everyone understood right away, but as time passed, people realized what it means to leave invalids, sick children, in Russia, where there is no help. Everyone knows what kind of medicine we have here.”
A poll released in December by the Public Opinion Foundation showed that 56 percent of Russians approved of the adoption ban.