Yaroslavl was more attractive than Moscow and full of the look of things ancient – over 1000 years old. Yasik has very old blood in his veins. Where Yasik was actually born, Ermakovo village, is in the northwest part of Yaroslavl, near that lake on the map. It is farther north than where I once lived in northern Saskatchewan so I know with certainty that it was an area which would have had more than 7 months of snow in a year.
We were taken to a hotel on the Volga River when we arrived and had caviar for lunch. But it was not all grand old hotel and extravagant foods. On the drive into Moscow Dave was fishing in his underwear to prepare to pay our driver, at the airport I feared frisking and now we assumed we must pay for our hotel which would again necessitate getting-the-money-out-of-the-secret-pockets-in-the-underwear. This time the assumption was the expectation. In the hotel lobby, our driver, without being able to speak English, managed to convey to us we needed to pay for our stay. Dave had to get money out of his shorts in the lobby of a hotel, with scarcely a pillar to hide behind, and surrounded by people curious about obvious tourists. He was successful. He paid for a room with two single beds and a TV offering programs only in the evening. Though two single beds in a L arrangement did not seduce us to sex, in a fanciful kind of way, we were pregnant with the reality of having our own child in the next 48 hours.
At lunch we finally met a translator, a school teacher who said the lunch we shared with her was more than her monthly salary. It became an uncomfortably extravagant lunch as we took in that piece of information. The translator answered questions no one so far had been able to because of the language barrier. She told us Yasik was “a gifted boy”, musical and helpful with others. His interest in music was immediately evident and over the years we have caught him in the act of helpfulness. After the meal, we went to a few offices to take his name off Russian records and give each official a small gift to help with the process-bribery to us, but courtesy to them. If you google tourist tips for Russia you will find these sites to be quite specific about the need to bring a gift and which gifts are appropriate and which are not. The sites suggest foreigners “dress sharply, arrive on time, be patient while waiting for the notoriously late Russians – and bring a gift”. Did we dress sharply? I doubt it for on the afternoons we played tourist I noticed a few women looking down (‘down’ is to be taken both literally and figuratively) on my sandals and casual attire, attire I felt to be comfortably trendy. I don’t know if we arrived on time as the timetable was in the hands of our driver and translator. No one seemed to be upset, only gracious and accepting. To participate in the custom of gift–giving, we had been carefully instructed pre-trip by Julia, our adoption facilitator, and were prepared to hand a gift over each time the translator raised her eyebrow in the direction of our bag. It felt shifty to us which only points to our narrow understanding of cultural differences. As I said, the people we dealt with in the process of adoption were unfailingly gracious.
In one office where we waited in the outer office on wooden benches while the interpreter talked to the staff in an inner office, we watched an inch worm work its way across the floor. Dave tried to help the little thing and it freaked in terror.
Once we had stopped at all the registries to remove Yasik’s Russian footprint, our driver turned the van in the direction of the orphanage for our introduction to our son-to-be. Perhaps knowing her time with us was limited, the interpreter suggested we use this short drive to write down questions we might have for the orphanage staff but that turned out to be a bit useless. When I pulled out my questions later, translator or no translator, I got blank but respectful stares. I would have loved to know why.
While I was naively writing down some questions, the translator, a school teacher possibly conversant in several different languages, came up with an even better way to use five or ten minutes. She began to teach us some phrases she thought would be helpful in communicating with Yasik. Monolingual Dave started mimicking her without hesitation. I have worked in a couple of foreign languages and know what a nightmare language learning can be so just wanted to throw up — I was going to one of the truly important moments of my life and being pushed on the way there into doing something which has given me some of the most stressful experiences of my life. I get it if books written to guide people though the adoption process are merely suggesting adoptors primed to prove how perfect they will be as parents learn a few tourist level phrases, but some of these books sound like they are suggesting adopters learn their child-to-be-‘s language by ordering an app from Amazon. Do they have any idea what that means? It is doubtful though even they would dare to suggest language learning be all wrapped in a few minutes. I thank Yasik for learning English so quickly.
The amazing expectations of those few minutes did not end there. The translator also managed to tuck in further information about Yasik’s history. Yasik’s mother visited him in the hospital where he lived for the first two years but “she moved around a lot”, whatever that meant. I did not question the comment at the time. Now I wonder if my blasé reaction was because my mind was pre-set to a bias against this mother’s care of her children. I have since learned much more about how many Russians see adoption. Somewhere I cannot currently validate, I was either told or read parents will leave their children at a state-run orphanage or what is also called a boarding school (often a more literal label than the boarding school as private school) while they attend to commitments like education or work away from home. One source I did manage to secure is Russian Babies, Russian Babes: Economic and Demographic Implications of International Adoption and International Trafficking for Russia written by J.R. McKinney (2009). She writes of the how the Soviets in the early years of their regime felt the raising of children would best be done by the state. In time the costs to the state measured against desired results of the ideal Soviet citizen led to backtracking to the tradition of the family-raised child. The children being raised by the state were generally weaker intellectually, physically and socially than family-raised children. Moving away from the Soviet aspiration to the tried and true was likely done with as little fanfare as possible, leaving Russian society with a stronger acceptance of placing a child in state care than would have been true in other cultures. If Yasik’s mother “moved around a lot” then state care may have been an obvious choice not only for someone struggling with drugs or alcohol but perhaps someone struggling with other pressures of poverty. Yasik was, after all, born in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Added to this, I have no journal entries referring to the role of the father in Yasik’s life because it appears no one told us anything about him. J.R. McKinney in Lone mothers in Russia: Soviet and Post-Soviet policy (2008) notes in Post-Soviet Russia, 70% of Russian children lived in households where needs exceeded income. The article points to the demographic called ‘Lone Mothers’ as very specifically mothers who never married and therefore could look to no one else for support of any kind. Added to the difficulties Russian parents faced in those years is the negative attitude in Russian society, seemingly prevalent but now being more actively countered, toward domestic adoption. Add together these considerations and all that remains of this information is to understand we cannot simply assume a child in state care arrived there because someone else was willfully negligent.
Then again, adoption is not always possible if Russians have just dropped kids off at the boarding school cum orphanage while other issues are being worked out. Numbers from 70% to 90% are offered when accounting for those (social orphans) in the state system with living biological parents who have the right to return for their children. But there were four Gurin children in four different orphanages so while Yasik remained in the orphanage for several years, at some point the state must have decided or come to the conclusion his biological mother’s rights had been relinquished, hopefully in consultation with Yasik’s biological mother. Clarification was never offered, at least not clearly to us, and raises another question suggested from time to time. Did she get a say, and if not, why not? LUMOS makes the contention that orphanages can be big business. As we are daily watching with the Covid-19 crisis, the desire to help solve a problem can so easily be turned by others into something hurtful to society. It is an aspect of adoption I only want to turn away from as too sickening to contemplate.
Yasik didn’t become available for adoption until just before we applied so someone up until then was still open to coming for him. Added to this, as was suggested to us, some families in Russia were considering adopting him; we were, therefore, encouraged even before we left for Russia to lay down some more money to ensure our adoption. We did so immediately. And whiff of a money grab aside, it may well be some Russian families were interested for the UN publication Child Adoption: Trends and Policies provides a graph showing 75% of adoptions were domestic in the early 2000s, and somewhere I cannot locate at this writing, I saw the same breakdown for the year 1997. As noted above, Russians, for all the writing about their antipathy to domestic adoption because they do not want a child not of family blood, did process far more domestic adoptions than international at that time.
Yasik was moved to the orphanage before his second birthday the translator told us. We were given to understand the orphanage did not know when he was taken to the hospital but I continue to believe a small window is opened on to the care Yasik’s mother had for him for the translator told us his mother came to visit him at the hospital a number of times. But then again, this little bit of information into his first two years includes a comment on the care and attention he got during his time at the hospital. He had rickets and he could not walk until the orphanage took over his care. Did his mother not notice? Did she not care? Did she feel too cowed by authority and her own inability to care for him? Yasik caught up physically in the orphanage to the extent he was barely ever sick as a child. When our doctor gave him a medical just after we brought him to Canada, he surmised Yasik had built up a strong immune system in the orphanage. We adopted a child who simply weathered every illness common to kids with barely a sneeze. Even when it was his turn to get chicken pox, he and his little buddies spent their “sick” week playing in the park across from their school.