Russian orphan's tragedy starts with poverty and alcohol
Before his death in a Texas town at the age of three stoked a row between Moscow and Washington, Maxim Kuzmin had lived in a small, dilapidated house in western Russia, fed by concerned neighbours who say they "never saw his mother sober."
Maxim was found unconscious in the backyard by his adoptive American mother Laura Shatto in January, in what Russian officials initially alleged was a case of murder.
The case reignited Russian fury over what officials say is a non-transparent system of adoption and TV channels blame on Americans who pay to adopt children from Russia only to torture them.
But behind the politicking lies a drama of two little boys whose original misfortune was being born into a family of drunks, say people who witnessed the early months in the life of Maxim and his little brother Kirill.
Following quick accusations of murder by the Kremlin's child rights envoy Pavel Astakhov, the Russian Duma put together an appeal to the US Congress saying it would be "unacceptable" for the US couple to retain custody of Maxim's younger brother and the boy must be returned to Russia.
The boys' biological mother, 23-year-old Yulia Kuzmina, has since appeared on a string of popular talk shows, vowing to "fight" for Kirill and claiming she was now ready to raise him.
But her brief time in the spotlight has shocked their quiet hometown of Gdov of 7,000 inhabitants, 700 kilometres northwest of Moscow on the border with Estonia.
"Return her child to her? She can't even be trusted with a dog!" exclaimed Kuzmina's neighbour Zoya Prokhorova.
"We have never seen Yulia sober," said another, Nina Serova. "But what would you expect, her mother was exactly the same."
Yulia's mother Svetlana Kuzmina has been missing for several years.
Since being launched into the public eye, Yulia and her boyfriend have been kicked off a train on their way home for drunken and unruly behaviour, according to Russian media, quoting officials.
Nobody has heard from them for about a week.
"She probably received some money from the television and is drinking somewhere as usual," ventured a Gdov resident.
Yulia's family home is a small house behind a crooked fence. The front door doesn't shut due to a long-broken lock, and dirty dishes and clothing are strewn around the kitchen and living room.
In one corner of the living room stands a wooden child's bed. An old stroller stands in the yard, as well as several toys covered with snow.
"The house was a real dive with near daily drunken ruckus and scandals. Neighbours were the ones bringing food to these kids, who were always hungry," Serova remembered.
Maxim lived in the house for one year and Kirill for six months before they were placed in an orphanage. A short while later they were adopted by the Shatto couple and taken to America.
"It hurts to think about these poor children. Their lives were horrible from the start," Serova said with tears in her eyes. "I don't know what happened in the United States, but here, with such a mother, Maxim could have died even earlier."
"We don't take children out of families for no reason," a social worker in Gdov Nina Volkova told AFP. "It's a long process and we examine all of the little details.
"If children are taken from families, it means there is a threat to their life and health," she said. "And that was the case with the Kuzmin brothers."
The death of Maxim revived the debate regarding the fate of Russian children following their American adoptions.
Since this year, Russia has banned adoptions to Americans in a controversial retaliation to the US Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials deemed responsible to the prison death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.
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