July 18, 2021

Finding Her Russian Roots

Finding Her Russian Roots
Behind her catatonic face, "Olga" hides many versions of herself. Pixabay user didssph

When I was teaching Advanced Placement high school history in New York City, I was baffled by a female student who sat at her desk in a seeming catatonic state, like some Romanian orphan from the 1990s news headlines.

The school was in Queens, and the student was blond, with very Greek first and last names. She had made it into the Advanced Placement course in a school with a lot of great students, but her face was perpetually blank. Even when I gave my students a few minutes to talk and joke around at the end of class, her entire body seemed as immovable as a rock.

One day after class in 2013, she came up to me with a copy of a baby's Russian passport in her hand. She said, "Can you read this for me and tell me what it says?" I think I was the only person she knew who could read any Russian. My noisy, chaotic classroom suddenly felt like the wrong place for such a sacred conversation.

I read her first name to her: Olga. It may have been the first time that the current version of herself had ever heard that name.

Russian passports
Russian "zagran" passport, for travel abroad. | Wikimedia Commons user MediaPhoto.Org

"Olga" was born in Chelyabinsk and adopted by a Greek-American couple from New York. She had spent the first 11 months of her life in an orphanage – where she probably picked up her catatonic expression. Her adoptive mother had died before "Olga" started high school, and her dad did not know as many details of her adoption as his wife had.

I took home copies of "Olga's" documents and photographs, showing a partial orphanage name. The next day I brought her a bunch of printed information about her orphanage, including the director's name, the number of children who lived there, and a Google Earth image of what it looked like from the outside. I got most of my information from NearYouRU, a site that does not seem to exist anymore.

I was an American who had accidentally become an obsessive Russophile, translating Russian for an actual Russian person far removed from her native language. The look on "Olga's" face when I handed her the information in English was the bright and curious look of someone putting together the puzzle pieces of her own infancy for the first time.

Adoption from Russia by Americans is no longer allowed. But from 1992 to 2012, the United States welcomed a sizeable cohort – some 60,000 adopted Russian children in all.

The girl who was named Olga in Chelyabinsk was probably born around 1996 and adopted in 1997 or so.

Anecdotally, white American couples – who often could not conceive or bring a baby to term themselves – were looking for white babies who would not bring a birthmother into the adoptive family with them. When the Soviet Union ended, the newly opened Russia seemed to meet all of those criteria.

Children playing on the beach
A total of 60,000 Russian children found American families before the adoptions stopped. | Wikimedia Commons user Barelyhere

By the fiscal year that ended in September 1997, the United States had become the biggest receiving country for Russian overseas adoptions. "Olga" was probably among those 3,816 children placed in the United States by that time.

In 1998, Russian Life reported on negative press surrounding the small percentage of adoptions to the US that had unfortunately turned out negatively. The children involved in such cases tended to have been through early trauma, including long-term institutionalization. A Duma deputy proposed new procedures that would have required Russian authorities to visit American adoptive homes and check up on how the child was doing; meetings with the birth government may have been even more destabilizing than having a birthmother or birthfather in the family's life. Ultimately, it was decided that Russian adoptees would remain Russian citizens until age 18 but would not be visited at home. However, American adoptive parents did have to file reports for the first three years after the adoption.

That intercountry adoptions were facilitated by private organizations based in the United States seemed exceedingly suspicious to concerned Russians, who could not imagine any institution but the state handling such important matters. It conjured visions of child-selling by unregulated for-profit businesses.

The Russian law putting an end to U.S. adoptions – the Dima Yakovlev law – was named for (the Russian name of) an adopted toddler who died after being accidentally left in a car while his Virginian father was at work all day. The law ended U.S. adoptions from Russia on January 1, 2013.

To get a better sense of what these adoptions were like while they still existed, read Russian Life's 1998 article by Corin Cummings, "Adopting from Russia: A War of Perceptions."

When she was my student in 2013, "Olga" said that someday she wants to go to Chelyabinsk and see where she came from. I wish her the best, and if she ever makes it back to Russia, she can swing by St. Petersburg and see me again. I can introduce her to my husband and stepson – her countrymen.

Nesting doll
Russian adoptees with little or no memory of their Russian past may feel like stereotyped Russian souvenirs with many versions of their past and present selves. | Pixabay user didssph


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