Will Russian orphans suffer for officials' sins?

If Russian lawmakers have their way, the best intentions of a U.S. investor could soon result in tragedy for thousands of Russian orphans and the U.S. families who would adopt them.

In recent weeks, Russia's parliament has been grasping for a response to the Magnitsky Act, a bill lobbied for heavily by U.S. investor Bill Browder and signed into law last week by President Barack Obama. The law replaces Cold War-era trade restrictions with a mechanism denying entry to the United States for Russian officials involved in human-rights violations — and specifically in the 2009 jail death of 37-year-old Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who had been defending the interests of the Hermitage Fund, an investment fund run by Browder.

Now, to the horror of many Russians, parliamentary deputy Yekaterina Lakhova believes she has found the answer: a total ban on the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. The relevant bill gained preliminary approval Dec. 19, and awaits a final parliamentary vote.

“The response to the Magnitsky bill is a disgrace,” art gallery owner Marat Guelman wrote on Twitter. “The Americans have punished our officials; in retaliation, the parliament punishes orphans — also our own.”

Browder, now banned from Russia, claims that Magnitsky exposed a fraudulent scheme against Hermitage run by a number of corrupt Russian tax and law enforcement officials. The investment fund was accused of large-scale tax evasion, and Magnitsky was jailed in 2008. He died in Moscow's Butyrka pre- trial detention center after being denied medical help for a stomach illness.

Browder, whose fund was once one of the largest private investors in the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom, refused to take his losses silently. For three years, he has run a relentless public relations campaign to expose the people who chased him out of Russia and whom he accused of torturing and killing Magnitsky. A series of videos called “Russian Untouchables,” made as part of the campaign, has attracted millions of viewers on the Internet. Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a long-standing foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, picked up the cause and introduced the legislation.

Initially, Russia's parliament sought a symmetrical response. On Dec. 10, a large group of pro-Putin legislators introduced a bill called “On measures against persons involved in violating the rights of Russian citizens.” Like the U.S. legislation, the bill called on the Foreign Ministry to compile a list of people who have “committed crimes against Russian citizens abroad,” passed “groundless” sentences against them or otherwise persecuted them. The transgressors would be denied entry to Russia, and their assets in Russia would be frozen.

The drafters named their handiwork the “Dima Yakovlev” bill, for a 21-month-old Russian boy who died in 2008 after his U.S. foster father, Miles Harrison, left him in a locked car on a hot day. Dima's was one of 19 deaths of Russian orphans adopted by U.S. families since 1996. According to the Russian prosecutor general's office, in the same 16 years 1,500 adopted children have died in Russian foster families.

The symmetry of the Russian legislative response proved to be a weakness. While many wealthy and influential Russians travel frequently to the U.S., buy property there and send children to top U.S. schools, Russia is not yet a preferred destination for the American elite. To bolster Russia's side of the tit-for-tat equation, Lakhova — who has long opposed U.S. adoptions — proposed the total ban.

If passed, the legislation could have a big impact. According to the State Department, the U.S. is the world leader in adopting Russian children. U.S. families have adopted 45,112 Russian orphans since 1999. In 2011, 956 of the 3,400 orphans adopted by foreigners in Russia went to the U.S.

“We must do everything to promote adoptions by Russian citizens,” Lakhova told the state-controlled RIA Novosti agency.

Outside the pro-Putin parliament, formed in a notoriously rigged election in December 2011, many people did not see the logic of holding orphaned children hostage to international politics. “The logic is ‘an eye for an eye,'” tweeted Education Minister Dmitry Livanov. “But this logic is flawed, because children for whom adoptive parents cannot be found in Russia could suffer.”

The minister's reaction was mild compared with the collective outrage on social networks. On Facebook, journalist and children's rights activist Valery Panyushkin published a list of gravely ill Russian children, many with Down syndrome, awaiting adoption by U.S. families. “I know of only two organizations that kill their own children to scare their enemies: Hamas and United Russia,” Panyushkin wrote, referring to the Kremlin-loyal political party.

Blogger Alexei Navalny, a leader of the anti-Putin opposition movement, has suggested that the Russian president will now speak out against the adoption ban, “and everyone will praise his wisdom.” This is possible, but perhaps overly optimistic, given that Putin's camp is on an anti-American roll.

The TV channel Dozhd asked Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, until recently Putin's chief political aide, what he would feel if placed on the “Magnitsky list.” “It would be a great honor for me,” Surkov said, adding that Russia's reaction to the bill was adequate.

When a siege mentality combines with their herd instincts, politicians don't care who gets hurt. The symbolism of revenge is more important.

Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for Bloomberg View's World View.