Our son Victor was born thousands of miles from us, near the Finnish-Russian border, and placed in a baby home immediately after birth. His mother signed away all her rights, claiming she did not have the money to raise him. He was healthy—a blond with blue eyes. Unlike other countries, in Russia newborn babies are not available for international adoption: A seven-month waiting period gives would-be Russian parents the opportunity to adopt. But in the seven months our son was in the orphanage, official documents stated that no one had come to visit him; no one had inquired after him; and no one had expressed interest in adopting him.
I had always known that my husband and I would have to adopt if we wanted to become parents. My husband was 26 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent a year of life-saving, but infertility-inducing, chemotherapy. We lived a few miles from a Pittsburgh adoption agency whose owners were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Familiar with the system, they worked primarily with Russian orphanages; they were encouraging and supportive throughout the process, and we always felt fortunate to be working with them. I dove in, taking lessons three times a week from a severe Russian tutor in the neighborhood to prepare for Victor’s arrival, not realizing that my son, a baby, wouldn’t yet know how to speak in either language.
Victor is one of more than 60,000 Russian children who have been adopted by Americans since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. No longer. Last week, Vladimir Putin signed a law banning parents like me from adopting children like mine.
We had been told there were 100 children between the ages of 1 and 3 living in the orphanage north of St. Petersburg where we were going to meet our 13-month-old son. We expected to hear their voices. Instead we were greeted by a silence that overwhelmed all other impressions.
It was early April of 1999, and the temperatures were unseasonably warm in the low 70s. Our driver parked near a small gated playground where there was a wooden slide, a seesaw, and an unpainted miniature merry-go-round. It was abandoned. We would later learn that the children were not taken outside because they did not have winter clothing. They played outdoors only in the summer months.
We were assured several times by our agency and by the social workers handling our case that the children were all getting the best care in this facility, though judging by the number of caretakers we saw we couldn’t imagine how this was possible.
On our limited tour of the orphanage, we saw two rooms where the children sat on the floor. There were no toys, no games, no music—nothing for the kids to do. They looked up at us but did not engage. They did not play with each other. These were children who had learned early that crying got them nothing, so they didn’t waste the energy. They were docile and obviously bored. On his first car ride our son stared at the trees outside the window, apparently fascinated because they appeared to be moving.
We were given our son’s daily schedule at the orphanage and noticed that he had a 15-minute massage every other day. “That’s when he’s touched,” the translator explained. His back was rubbed and his leg muscles stretched. This was to help his bones grow, the staff explained.
My husband and I were asked if we would like to feed our son and then chastised for our pace: One worker fed 15 children onion soup in a matter of minutes. She shoveled it into their mouths with such haste we were afraid they would choke. They ate the non-nutritious, watery soup twice a day.
We were taking our son away, but there would be no reprieve for the others. Our gut reaction was to forget our fears—about fetal alcohol syndrome and deprivation, about developmental delay and emotional scarring—and take as many children home with us as we could. Anything, we felt, was better than this misery.
Back in the United States, our pediatrician would warn us that every month spent in an orphanage could mean one month of developmental delay and one month of physical delay for a child. The emotional-development delay is impossible to measure. Nonetheless, our son blossomed over the ensuing 12 months, and two years later we returned to Russia to adopt our daughter, Alex, from an orphanage in Moscow.
We were new parents and didn’t realize how different our babies were from children born in the United States. They seemed happy; they loved to eat; they were not afraid of strangers. But we could put them in their cribs for nap time, and unlike our friends’ kids who would protest and cry, Victor and Alex would sit quietly until they fell asleep. We never suffered a sleepless night and didn’t realize how strange this was until we talked to other parents. Quickly our children learned that we responded to their demands and their tears. And they got louder and louder.
At first, we imagined that our kids would always be identified by the place where they were born. But that association quickly fades. Children don’t belong to countries; they belong to the people who raise them.
We have raised our children in the same Jewish community where my husband was raised. Our children will attend the same high school as their grandmother, a great number of their cousins, and most of their aunts and uncles. They attend a Jewish Day School where some of their classmates are the children of Russian emigrants who came to the United States from the Soviet Union in the early 1970s. The parents find it amusing that my son and daughter who were born in Russia don’t speak Russian while their children born in Pittsburgh are bilingual.
Our children are learning Hebrew and struggling with Torah portions for their bar/bat mitzvahs. The house is filled with the sounds of their squabbling, their singing, and their steadfast belief that, no matter what happens, they will be heard.
Our daughter was 4 years old when we were in the car and out of nowhere she announced to us that her mother in Russia had to send her away because she was too poor to take care of her. She knew she was adopted, but we had never discussed the economic reason for her being in the orphanage. We pulled over, primed to have “the talk” with her. But in a matter of seconds, she had moved on and told us with much glee: “A cute boy kissed me on the lips yesterday.” And that was that.
Both of our children are curious about their birth country and talk about Russia with a sense of pride. We are very good friends with two families who also have children adopted from Russia, and Victor once asked, in all seriousness, if that was where all kids came from.
Victor, now 14, loves musical theater and relishes being the center of attention. Next year, he will attend the Performing Arts High School. My 12-year-old daughter Alex, madly in love with Justin Bieber and addicted to Facebook, will now brag to her friends; “I am too adopted! Ask my mom.”
Apparently all this has been too much for Putin. The American families who had hoped to adopt children—and especially those who were in the process of adopting them—are suffering. They will have to search for other options, and I don’t dismiss their misery. But the greater loss is the thousands of Russian orphans who have no other options and are being used as political pawns by the Kremlin. These are children who most likely will never become a member of anyone’s family, Russian or otherwise.
We fear that these children living in this misery will simply be forgotten. The children from the baby homes will be moved to the toddler homes, and then to adolescent homes and eventually, when they are 18, they will be released as orphans into the world. The heartbreaking pall that hangs over Russia’s orphanages will grow and ultimately be forgotten, because the problem with silence is that no one can hear it.
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Sharon Dilworth is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the author, most recently, of Year of the Ginkgo.
Sharon Dilworth is an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the author, most recently, ofYear of the Ginkgo.