For years, St. Petersburg photographer Aleksandr Belenky has taken on a singular project -- helping American families who have adopted Russian children make contact with their children's birth parents. In total, he's helped more than 60 American families connect with their children's blood relatives, usually by hand-delivering letters and photographs to the Russian families himself. He recently recorded some of his recollections on Facebook:
A Mother's Despair Lifted
I went to Moscow to look for the relatives of a little girl, N., who had been adopted and taken to the United States. I was carrying a letter from her American parents that they hoped would find its way to her birth mother. "I hope it will be nice for you to know about her life in the United States," it read. "N. is a wonderful 13-year-old young lady. We were so happy to adopt her. She's a bright, lively girl, a typical teenager. She loves cats, movies, and sports. She's a member of the school softball team."
A nice letter and photographs of a girl with braces on her teeth. I find the address I'm looking for, I enter the building and walk up to the top floor. A small, thin, older woman meets me on the stairwell. She looks as if she knows what I'm there to tell her. I give her the letter and the photographs, and I read the translation out loud. I say that it's clear that thing aren't at all bad in America. She begins to cry, and says that a weight has been lifted from her heart. Slowly, her hand to her chest, she slides down the wall until she's sitting on the stairs.
N. was her fourth pregnancy. She was already fairly old at the time and had adult children. An absolutely normal family of modest engineers. During her final pregnancy, she came down with the flu. Doctors at the birthing house told her the little girl was born deaf, with a cleft lip. They urged her to give the child up for a adoption. Over there, they said, they can do all sorts of things to help her. It was only that that persuaded the woman to give up her baby girl. For the next 13 years, she constantly reproached herself, breaking down in tears, not knowing what had happened to her baby.
In the U.S., the little girl received several operations. Her cleft lip was fixed, and she was given a hearing aid. She can listen to music, although her hearing isn't perfect.
After a year I called the woman to find out how she was doing. She and her daughter now write to each other on the Internet. What would have happened to that baby if she had stayed in Russia?
Siblings Divided, Then Reunited
Once upon a time, there were two brothers and a sister. The parents, it seemed, were good-for-nothings, and the children ended up in an orphanage. The children, however, were separated from each other. The little girl was placed in one orphanage, and the boys in another. It seems they always do it this way -- it's better for the kids, right? But I didn't even know the story when I called from Petersburg to talk to the director of the orphanage where the two boys were living. She met me at the train station in Moscow and I went to look for the brothers, who had, it turned out, been adopted. It took me a while to find the right building. I rang at one apartment, and then another. Finally, a young woman opened a door. "Do C. and L. live here?" I asked. "They have another family now," she said. "What do you want?"
"I can't say," I answered. "It's a private matter."
"Let's go," she said. "I'm their aunt." Together we went to a neighboring entryway. The brothers had been taken in by relatives, good people who didn't let them vanish into the system. Neither of the brothers drank or smoked. Both worked.
A nice-looking boy approached. "I'm L., and you are?"
"I have a letter for you from America, from E."
"Hooray! They found E.!"
Jumping up, he ran to call his brother. "Come home quickly," he said. "They found E.!" In 10 minutes, his 18-year-old brother, also nice-looking, ran in.
The brothers had searched for their sister for years. They phoned different orphanages and talked to social workers. Each time, they had been turned away. Information about adoptions is kept strictly secret in Russia, even for siblings.
Together, the brothers looked at the photographs, their faces beaming with happiness. "She's beautiful!" they said. "What a nice girl she's grown up to be."
They began to recollect their few experiences as a family, when they were all small children.
"Do you remember how we went to the lake to take a walk, and she fell into that hole? We pulled her out and didn't say anything to anyone."
"And remember how we used to feed the cat?"
I read the letter from E., translating it into Russian.
"Hello, dear brothers C. and L., this is your sister E. writing from America. I have a good life. I go to school, and I have a dog, a cat, and a little bird. My adoptive father died not long ago."
At that moment the older brother, sitting at the table, quietly started to cry. (I had a lump in my throat myself.)
Now the siblings write back and forth, and E. has already been to Moscow. They sent me a photo of the three of them on Red Square.
'Raising Such A Child Is Hard Labor'
In Moscow there lived a woman, K., who was raising a year-old daughter. It was the early 1990s, the time of perestroika. The woman was normal and everything in her family, too, was normal: the husband drank, the father drank, the mother was out of work, and K. once again found herself pregnant. An ordinary thing. In the birthing house they said, "Why do you need another girl, especially one with cerebral palsy? Raising such a child isn't life, it's hard labor."
She agreed, and gave the little girl away. Half a year later, life had changed. The mother found work, the drunken father had died, and the drunken husband had left her for another woman. K. went back to the people who had advised her to give her daughter away and said, "Give her back. I want to raise her myself."
"And who are you?" they answered. "Get out of here." They refused, and that was it.
"Can you at least tell me how she is? Where she is?"
"That's none of your business, and by law you have no right to know that!"
I found K., and gave her the letter and photographs. The cerebral palsy, it turned out, was very mild, and the little girl had received good treatment. She was almost completely healthy, and loved music and dancing. Now K.'s two daughters write to each other. They're very much alike, both in their looks and their hobbies.
What would have happened to that child if she had stayed here?