Siberian Adventure We are safely back from our journey across Russia, to pick up our new adopted son, Gregory (formerly Yegor) from his orphanage in Chita City, Siberia. Gregory is a cheerful, healthy, energetic (very!) little boy; and when I say little, I mean it, as he is undernourished and a long way behind western kids in height and weight for his age of three and a half, weighing in at a mere twenty pounds. Most of the time on the ten-day trip was spent flying, submitting and processing paperwork, and appearing in court for the custody process.
The Russian adoption process is complex, but well organized and relatively efficient, and it went very smoothly. The people were friendly and helpful, and there were no last-minute surprises. At the end of it all was a court appearance, at which the judge read out his approval, and declared the little boy was now Gregory Nikolai Millar. With that, a little orphan began a new life.
It had been implied that much of our costs for the Russian side of the adoption was for bribes, but this turned out not to be true. The fees were for the prompt expediting of the many complex documents, which different State Departments, such as Health, Education, State Statistics, Social Services, etc. had to provide and have signed and certified. These had to be synchronized into a two-day sequence to fit within our visit, and they did a very good job of it, with much politeness and grace. The Russian people, both official and private, that we met and dealt with were very warm and friendly, and we enjoyed their company. The country was fascinating and the food surprised us with its quality. We ate very well, although the menu was unusual, with breakfast as almost the biggest meal of the day, and on two occasions we had caviar with breakfast! In particular, Russian soups were wonderful, -almost a meal in themselves. Moscow was big and confusing, with a lot of traffic and noise, but fine old buildings making up for the ugly new ones. Russians do not yet have the right to own their own homes, and so they live in government apartment buildings. These buildings are cheaply built, and are as ugly as can be imagined. They are also poorly maintained, if at all, and are crumbling before your eyes. The streets are potholed and, except in Moscow, sidewalks almost always are just unsurfaced earth, with the result that it’s either dusty or muddy, depending on weather. Despite this, the cities are clean, the streets swept and free of trash, and the people almost universally well dressed and even elegant. No bulky ladies bundled up in headscarves and clutching shopping bags, like you see in the movies, but smartly dressed, tall and slim ladies bustling about. We were assured, however, that each has a string bag in their handbag, to take advantage of any unexpected shopping bargains!
There was not much time for sightseeing, but we did get to see the Kremlin and Red Square, and they were just as magnificent as imagined. What you do not see in the movies is the color, from the fine red brick of the Kremlin to the painted churches and gilded spires, -very impressive. Having said all these nice things, we have to admit that the infrastructure of Russia is in terrible condition.
We mentioned the buildings, and it’s hard to describe just how badly the typical Russian building is falling apart. Even important government buildings have worn linoleum, peeling paint, holes in the plaster, sagging ceilings, doors off hinges, glass replaced with plywood, festoons of wiring tacked everywhere and rusty heating pipes running in random directions over walls and ceiling and even, dangerously, across the middle of the corridor floor! It seems as if, when they do repair anything, the guy who does it has no experience, the wrong tools and is full of vodka. Even in the new buildings, the craftsmanship is awful. The Department of Statistics in Chita has stairways where the steps varied in height from two to eight inches! The Russians seem resigned to this. We saw one elegantly dressed woman fall on her face over a pipe running across a courtyard, and when helped up by our guide she said it was her own fault as she had seen someone break a leg on the same pipe last month! The cars, trucks and busses are in equally poor condition, and as one cab aproached, I noticed that, unusually, its windscreen was clean enough to see through. I was wrong; he did not have a windscreen!
If that sounds bad, it’s not possible to describe the conditions for flying from Moscow to Siberia and back. First there are the delays, from nine hours at best, to twenty-two hours at worst, all without explanation. And if you’re not there when the plane does suddenly turn up, you are left behind. And the planes….! Let’s just say that Joan became a good Catholic again, and prayed one entire eight-hour flight on a filthy, beat-up jet that jolted and swooped its way in crowded non-air-conditioned squalor.
Getting on and off these planes was no fun either, as folk do not form orderly lines, but push and shove, which was hard on those of us with small children, and hoping to sit together. For each bad experience, there seemed to be a compensating lighter moment, and we saw many things that will stay fixed in our memories. For example, the orphanage where we picked up Gregory was an example of Russian contrasts. Situated in the Siberian city of Chita, a dusty hot town in the middle of green rolling seemingly endless plains, the orphanage buildings were old and worn, clean but dilapidated. In the dusty yard were a few wooden play structures in various states of decay, and definitely unsafe for small children to play on. Nowhere was there any toy or plaything. The kids were either in a wooden pen with a dirt floor, raised pens with slat floor or in a sandbox with no sand, just dirt. The kids were dressed alike only in worn gray pants and were naturally dusty or downright dirty, and used small stones or twigs as toys. A few nice, cheerful older ladies tended them, and the little kids were pathetically eager to touch us and have some individual attention. We had our first meeting with Gregory, who we had only seen pictures of, and he was delighted to meet his new Mom, but very upset that he now had a tall, bald, Dad with a scary moustache! He hid behind Joan, and whimpered every time I tried to get near. Eventually, to ease the tension, we all went outside, and Gregory showed Joan the yard, all the while keeping a wary eye on his new Dad, who then went and socialized with one of the corrals of little grubby kids. Seeing the rousing Home I got, one of the ladies told Gregory that the little kids were going to steal his new dad, and that did the trick! In moments we were reconciled, and he showed his confidence by sitting on his new Dad’s lap and promptly wetting his pants and mine.
After all the legal procedures, we flew out from the nearby airport, which doubles as a Russian Air Force Base. Gregory is very energetic, and we had had the foresight to bring a kiddy harness and leash, which kept him from roaming too far. A leash on a kid is unknown in Russia, and several folk found it amazing, not the least of whom were a crisply marching group of soldiers who broke ranks and fell about laughing at the sight.
Even their officer-in-charge cracked a grin! As if that were not embarrassment enough, Gregory, armed with a stick he had picked up and refused to be parted from, ran to the limit of his leash and prodded in the rear-end a be-ribboned officer who had made the mistake of bending for his suitcase. The startled old General and his horrified escort took a long look at the tiny aggressor, and then retreated to a safer distance. For the next nine hours that we waited for the plane, we noticed that the General kept a wary eye on the constantly moving little boy. After the inevitable scrimmage to board, the General found himself sitting directly behind his assailant, who would stand and stare over his seatback, unblinkingly. Vodka was the only answer, and they had to practically carry the Hero of Stalingrad off the plane in Moscow.
An interesting point concerns Gregory’s constant jabbering in Russian. Once we reached Moscow, we were picked up by our guide and driven into town, and Gregory was pointing at things and talking. We asked the guide what he was saying, but the guide said that, with his squeaky little voice and Siberian accent, the Russian guide had no idea what he was talking about! After many adventures on the way, we are back at home, and the little fellow has met his new big brother, and the two of them are getting along fine.
Andrew finds Gregory’s constant motion and curiosity slightly un-nerving, and we find his ability to dismantle almost anything a bit of a shock, as Andrew was active, but this new kid is twice as fast and is a knob-turner, label peeler, bottle-opener, fridge rummager, closet clearer, and pool-deep-end-plunger extraordinaire. It’s like living with a Houdini crossed with a safe-cracker, nothing stands between him and his curiosity, and he seems made of rubber, never cries after a fall, just gets up and keeps on going. Life just got even more interesting!