MOSCOW — Thousands of people swept through snowy central Moscow on Sunday to express their anger with President Vladimir Putin's approval of a ban on American families' adoptions of Russian children.
"Leave the children alone," protesters chanted as they filled tree-lined boulevards a short distance from the Kremlin while a police helicopter buzzed above. Some protesters carried placards depicting Mr. Putin as a child killer.
Organizers said about 50,000 people attended the rally, while police said the figure was fewer than 10,000. Bloggers and independent media later cast scorn on the police estimate. Nine people were arrested on public-disorder offenses, police said.
"This ban disgraces us in the eyes of the world," said protester Andrei Titov, a businessman. "The authorities are playing politics with the lives of the most vulnerable people in our society."
Protesters also called for the dissolution of parliament, which voted almost unanimously for the ban last month. Scores of demonstrators hurled placards with images of lawmakers into a waiting garbage bin at the end of the rally.
"The people who voted for and approved of this ban are not human," said homemaker Tamara Goluba, 23.
Orphans at risk
Opponents of the ban say it means thousands of Russian children — many with serious illnesses — will languish in underfunded and often dangerous state orphanages. Some 130,000 children were eligible for adoption last year and less than 10 percent found homes with Russian families, according to government figures.
More than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by American families in the past 20 years, including about 1,000 in 2011, according to U.S. State Department figures.
Russian lawmakers justified the ban by citing the deaths of 19 of those children at the hands of their adoptive parents in the U.S. since 1999. The ban was first proposed in earnest in April 2010 after an American woman put her 7-year-old adopted son alone on a plane back to Russia with a note saying she could not control him.
The adoption ban, which came into force on Jan. 1, is part of Russia's broader response to the U.S. Magnitsky law, which introduces sanctions against Russian officials suspected of human rights abuses. The Kremlin called the law a "purely political, unfriendly act."
The law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing lawyer allegedly beaten to death in a Moscow pretrial detention center in 2009. Russian courts have not punished anyone in the case.
Mr. Putin called the adoption ban an "adequate" response to the Magnitsky law before signing the Russian bill into law late last year. The United States said it deeply regretted Russia's move, calling it "politically motivated."
Famous Russian actors and writers slammed the ban in the week leading up to Sunday's protest and called on people to take to the streets.
"[This] petty vengefulness cannot go unanswered by society," poet Lev Rubinstein said in a video address uploaded to social networks.
"If we remain indifferent to this crime we are accomplices. It's as simple as that," writer Viktor Shenderovich said.
The ban has sparked a fierce debate in Russia, and it even has been criticized by government figures such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Mr. Putin's approval of the measure also widened the divide between the Kremlin and the urban, educated class that has been at the forefront of protests against his 13-year rule.
The opposition-minded Novaya Gazeta newspaper gathered about 135,000 signatures in just a few days after Mr. Putin signed the bill. About 100,000 people also have signed a petition calling for the dissolution of parliament. The vast majority of the key figures in the anti-Putin protest movement kept a low profile Sunday, leaving the organization to civil activists.
Majority supports ban
A poll published by the Moscow-based Public Opinion Fund in late December indicated that 56 percent of Russians supported the adoption ban. The powerful Russian Orthodox Church also has backed the law. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a church spokesman, said last month that Russian children adopted by foreigners "won't get a truly Christian upbringing."
In a bid to consolidate public support for the ban, state media have run regular reports in recent weeks on U.S. parents who have abused their Russian children. On the eve of Sunday's march, a top official in the ruling United Russia party launched a furious attack on protesters, calling them "child sellers."
"Let's look attentively and remember the faces of the organizers and active participants of this march," Andrei Isayev wrote in a post on the United Russia website. "Our mission in the years ahead is to drive them to the farthest corners of political and public life."
Some critics of the adoption ban say they oppose the ban because it puts Russian children at risk while doing nothing to harm U.S. interests.
Sunday's rally even attracted nationalist and leftist groups that are frequent critics of the United States.
"I am against capitalism and U.S. foreign policies, but we are all united here against this terrible law," Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front political movement, said of the adoption ban.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Sunday evening that he respects the protesters' concerns, but he also defended the ban. He said the law will help create the necessary conditions to improve conditions in state institutions for orphans and allow more Russian families to adopt.