This January, I’ll be taking my 17-year-old son, Alex, on his last round of college tours. Sixteen Januarys ago, my husband and I took Alex from his orphanage in Moscow to the American Medical Center. It was a journey we made in a broken-down Lada that had no seat belts or windshield wipers. When the snow piled up too high to see the road, our driver would reach out his window and pour water from an old bleach bottle over the windshield.
We’d brought clothes for Alex to wear—overalls, a snowsuit—because the orphanage authorities would let us take him, but not their clothing, out of the orphanage. We’d gone to Baby Gap and bought things sized for a 10-month-old, but everything was too big for Alex.
The doctor at the American Medical Center told us that Alex was malnourished. Knowing we’d have to leave him at the orphanage when we returned home to complete our adoption paperwork, we asked if we should give the orphanage formula for Alex. “Formula’s like gold here,” the doctor said shaking his head. “They’ll just sell it.”
My husband and I spent the next months trying to hurry our paperwork. We brought flowers to the sole employee at the immigration office who handled foreign adoptions, a woman who made us wait in the hallway for hours and misplaced our papers. We fought with notaries who refused to notarize our signatures on Russian documents, because the documents were in Russian, and re-sent our fingerprints to the Justice Department because they lost them—twice. Several times a month, we wired large sums of money into our Russian adoption coordinator’s New York bank account to cover what no one bothered to call anything except bribes.
When we returned to Moscow, we had 26 of the 27 signatures required from the Russian government. We imagined it would take less than a week to get that final signature. It took a month.
For every day of that month, we visited Alex at his orphanage, spending as much time as his caretaker—a big-boned woman in charge of a dozen children under the age of 2—would allow. The children were kept in a large playpen with the radio tuned to a news station for company. There was a girl with crossed eyes and a boy whose cleft palate was so severe, it looked as if someone had taken a thumb and run it across his features while they were wet. Then there was the boy—a baby still—of whom our translator said, “This one, he has something missing,” opening his mouth with the nipple of a bottle.
I looked into his mouth and saw only blackness. “He has no palate,” I told her.
“Da,” she nodded. “Maybe some Americans will fix him.”
In the nearly 16 years since I stood in that orphanage and looked into that boy’s dark mouth, Americans have adopted more than 50,000 Russian children. On Friday, Vladimir Putin signed a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens.
There are those in Russia who claim this bill is not about politics or a reaction to the Magnitsky Act. Russian adoption expert Lyudmila Petranovskaya says that Russia’s overcrowded orphanages will disappear if there is a 1.5 percent decrease in the country’s child-abandonment and a similar increase in its domestic adoption. But like many of the 105,000 children living in Russia’s orphanages, my son wasn’t an orphan. His birth mother delivered him in a Moscow hospital, and three days later disappeared, leaving behind a made-up name and a nonexistent address.
The medical records we were given say that Alex was her third pregnancy. It is likely that she disappeared from that hospital because she couldn’t afford a third child.
“How else can we strike [the Americans] where it hurts?” a Russian politician was quoted in the Moscow News shortly after the bill was passed in the Russian legislature. Strike the Americans? Or all those malnourished 10 month olds? Those boys with something missing?
My husband and I weren’t planning on adopting. We were going to try fertility treatments. We’d only gone to that adoption meeting as an insurance policy, the way you take an umbrella on a cloudy day thinking that if you do, it won’t rain. Alex was the last child on a videotape of orphanage children. A too-thin baby on a metal changing table.
But if then was now, we’d make a different choice. We wouldn’t let ourselves fall in love with that too-thin baby. We wouldn’t let ourselves risk becoming like the American families who are waiting for one of the 46 Russian children who have already been approved for U.S. adoption. We wouldn’t let ourselves be subject to the political whims of a country where the child rights commissioner’s answer to them is, “They will not be able to go to America, to those who wanted to see them as their adopted children. There is no need to go out and make a tragedy out of it.”