MOSCOW -- Thousands of Russians marched Sunday to condemn the Parliament's move to ban the adoption of Russian children by American families, an event called a "March Against Scoundrels." The protesters chanted, "Take your hands off children," and carried posters showing the faces of lawmakers stamped with the word "shame."
Marchers flooded blocks of tree-lined boulevards on a bitterly cold day. The police estimated the turnout for the march, which was approved by the city's authorities, at 9,500, but a group of activists told the Interfax news agency that about 24,000 people had shown up.
The sight gags and clever slogans of last year's antigovernment rallies were absent on Sunday, and many of the marchers became emotional in talking about why they took part. Some questioned the morality of a ban on adoptions by Americans in a country where so many children are in foster care or orphanages.
"Even I can't afford to adopt, and I'm supposedly middle class," said Yekaterina Komissarova, 31, adding that perhaps the issue angered her so deeply because she is the mother of two children.
Another marcher, Tamara Nikolayeva, 62, nearly shouted 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 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 language tailored to voters in the heartland and has turned away from more 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," Yekaterina Lakhova, the United Russia lawmaker who sponsored the ban, said in an interview with Kommersant FM radio shortly after the 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 what they consider light sentences in cases where American 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 proved to be controversial 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," said Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin press secretary.
The protesters on Sunday, however, were not likely to be convinced. One woman carried a sign that said, "Stop the repressions, you're making revolutionaries out of us." Many said they supported the Magnitsky Act, which American lawmakers passed 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 that anger over the ban had crystallized in the two weeks after its passage and that the opposition had caught the authorities by surprise.
"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."
Because of the long winter holidays, there is little fresh data about the public's opinion, but in a survey released in December by the Public Opinion Foundation, 56 percent of Russians said they approved of banning adoptions by Americans.
Leonid Perlov, 58, a geography professor, cast an appraising eye at the long line of marchers that filled the boulevard behind him. He then turned back and said it would be foolish to expect political change anytime soon.
"This is not the country," he said. "This is Moscow. Believe me, there is a very big difference."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.