This article reprinted from The Moscow Times, Saturday, November 2, 1996.
Every sixth couple in Russia is being treated for infertility, while some half a million children sit unwanted in the nation's orphanages. But, as Juliet Butler reports, adoption is not the obvious answer when there is a stigma attached to bringing up a stranger's baby.
Yelena Myerkushina seems to have everything. She is a beautiful 32-year-old with wealthy, loving husband and comfortable home. But she cannot have the one thing she wants more than anything else - a child. She says, "I have a wonderful husband, and we're well off, but there's no joy in my life. I go to the houses of friends who have children and feel so happy, but my own house is empty. Sergei is a businessman and is glad to be able to support me in luxury, but for the last three years I've been sitting at home going crazy trying to get pregnant. I live from one period to the next."
Life millions of other infertile women in Russia, Yelena is willing to spend endless time, effort and, in her case, money, on having a baby. She has tried in-vitro fertilization and paid high fees to virologists, immunologists, acupuncturists and even witches in futile attempts to get pregnant. But after 10 years of mental anguish, she will not even consider the most obvious solution - to adopt one of Russia's half-million unwanted children.
Every sixth couple in Russia is being treated for infertility, but 70 percent of them fail to conceive. yet only a tiny percentage of these couples will choose to adopt, despite the fact that in 1994 alone, more than 100,000 children were put up for adoption. That year, only 36,000 couples - including 2,163 foreigners - adopted a child. The others preferred to battle on with treatment or resign themselves to childlessness. If the level of infertility remains the same, and those who do conceive continue to want only one child, Russia's population will drop by 20 million by the year 2010. But why do most Russians refuse to tap into this vast reservoir of healthy, unwanted children? The answer lies partly in their deep-rooted belief that blood is thicker than water. They will throw up their hands in horror at the prospect of adopting a chuzhoi - someone else's baby - especially when that someone else is a total stranger.
Tamara Tamarovno, for example, has a daughter who is married to a rich businessman. Despite expensive treatment, her daughter, who had an abortion when she was younger, has only conceived once in the last 10 years, and that pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Yet Tamara shudders at the thought of having an adopted grandchild. "Perish the thought," she says. "I wouldn't want them to adopt - it would give me the shivers to know it was someone else's baby. They might bring it up well, but the genes will come out, and they'll end up with a disaster on their hands."
The fear that the child will in some way be "damaged goods" stems from the knowledge that mothers of mentally and physically handicapped children are routinely advised by doctors to put their baby in an orphanage and "try again." Consequently, healthy babies who are given up for financial or domestic reasons are unfairly branded "defective." In Moscow's Baby Home No. 12, half a dozen newborns lie wriggling and gurgling in one vast cot while the nurse fills out forms at her desk. The baby home's lawyer, Anna Orlova, who deals with admissions and adoptions, points to a snub-nosed baby girl with dark, curly hair chuckling toothlessly at us. The mother, Milla, met and married a soldier who was on military service near her home in Chechnya, but when she returned with him to Moscow, heavily pregnant, her furious mother-in-law insisted that she put the baby in a home. Blond, blue-eyed Anya wails as the doctor tugs on her flannel shirt to listen to her chest. She was found abandoned in a locked flat.
"We have newborns left in woods, on doorsteps and on park benches," says Anna Orlova. "We even found one in a plastic bag in our courtyard. We spend six months trying to find the mother, and if we can't , then the baby becomes available for adoption." But because would-be adoptive parents insist on knowing the parents' details, such foundlings are rarely adopted. Mothers who want to give up their babies must submit to the baby home three written denials of their parental rights, but these refusals are often incorrectly worded, which means the child cannot be adopted. "There was one lovely woman, Anshela, who lives with her grandmother. She got pregnant and wanted the baby, but he babushka said she must give it away or not come home. She had nowhere else to live, so she had to give the baby up, but she didn't word the refusal properly, so I had to call her in. She spent two hours in my office weeping, but in the end she did it. Not one family ever came to see her child with a view to adoption."
The concept of adoption has never occurred to 16-year-old Anyuta of Moscow's Children Home No. 62, because in her world, adoptions simply never happen. Anyuta's mother placed her in a baby home when she was a newborn, in the hope that an infertile couple might take her. But no one ever did.
"There were never any adoptions in our baby home or this children's home," she says. "We sometimes thought our parents might come back for us, but no one ever thought someone else would, even though we were perfectly healthy."
Her mother was only 18 when she had Anyuta, and with the baby's father away on military service and not likely to come back, she decided to put her up for adoption. Three times she wrote the required refusal, and each time she expressed the hope that her baby might be adopted.
"I would like to have had a mother," says Anyuta. "When someone is being kind to me and hugs me, I push them away because I never had anyone who would stroke me and say nice things when I was little.
"I don't understand why people without children don't want to take us home. We always do what we're told straight away. I suppose people think mothers should bring up their own children. I try not to think about why I wasn't adopted. I'm used to being here."
The male ego also has a lot to do with why thousands of healthy babies are condemned to life in an orphanage. The average Russian male would do almost anything but admit to his inability to sire a child.
For 44-year old Irina Tsarapkina, this stalemate has reached the point where she has decided to leave her husband of 20 years and adopt a baby on her own. (Women of any age can adopt, whether or not they are married.) Following an abortion and a miscarriage, she was told she could never have a child, so she began thinking of adoption. "My husband flatly refused to consider it. Perhaps I could have resigned myself to life without children, but I work as a pediatrician and see them every day, which rubs salt into the wound. As a doctor, I have contacts who can make sure I get a good baby, but when I told him I was going to adopt he said he'd leave me. So that's that."
Lyudmila Viktorovna, 38, also holds out little hope of talking her husband into an adoption. She first grew anxious in her mid-20s when she was unable to conceive with her first husband. Repeated examinations showed nothing wrong with her, but he refused to be subjected to similar tests. so, when she married her present husband, a rich businessman, four year ago, she hoped to get pregnant. "Still nothing's happened." she says.
Lyudmila's husband even suggested that they ask their neighbor, Sasha - who has two young children - to be a surrogate mother. "I said I might consider it," says Sasha, a cleaning lady, "because we could do with the money, but my husband wouldn't hear of my having another man's child." Finally Lyudmila broached the subject of adoption. "I thought to myself, 'What about going to a baby home for one?' But when I suggested it to my husband, he yelled me out of the room."
Dr. Tamara Ovsyannikova of Moscow's Research Center for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology confirms that the most common causes of infertility are inflammation, adhesions and scarring of the reproductive organs, as a result of venereal disease and d-and-c abortions. "Lots of people come to me after having had two or three abortions within wedlock and then find that, lo and behold, they can't have a baby," she says.
Yelena is a typical case. She was 17 when she conceived the first time she slept with her lover. he insisted that she have an abortion. Over the next 10 years, she conceived twice but miscarried both times. In the past five years Yelena has spent thousands of dollars - the average annual wage in Russia is $1,700 - on fertility treatments, mostly in the hospital where Dr. Ovsyannikova has her clinic. "Ive also been to old country women who are supposed to know folk methods of getting you pregnant, and to witches who tell me Ive had a spell cast on me. Ive been to three witches who have told me the same thing and tried to lift the spell, but with no result.
"It did occur to me to adopt, but Sergei refused pointblank. He wont even talk about it. Maybe hes right. if we adopted, whatever the child was like, Sergei would know it wasnt his sperm but another mans. Im sure Id feel close to the child and feel it was mine, but Im afraid of spoiling my relationship with Sergei. he very much wants a child, but he says that if we cant have our own, we must just live for each other."
Ironically, when Yelena was 20 she was asked by a male colleague if she would agree to be a surrogate mother for him and his infertile wife. "I was astounded. I didnt even try to understand him, though of course I do now."
Surrogate motherhood, unlike adoption, is not considered shameful in Russia. In fact, would-be surrogate mothers advertise their services in newspapers, and one entrepreneurial woman even set up an agency to bring together surrogate mothers and rich infertile couples. Russias state adoption centers and baby homes, on the other hand, stay determinedly in the shadows. Few people even know if they have a baby home on their own street, and would certainly not think of visiting or helping out with the babies there.
"If theres a stigma attached to infertility, the stigma attached to adoption is even worse," says Viktor Parshutkin, press secretary of the Russian parliaments Committee on International Affairs, which helps Westerners adopt Russian babies. "So if you do adopt, it has to be a great secret - thats the sort of climate that holds sway in Russia."
In the past, foreigners were only permitted to adopt disabled Russian children, but since a new law was passed in 1995, they can adopt any child that has been seen and not wanted by at least three Russian couples. The catch is that many lovely babies are never seen at all.
Children who are adopted by Russians are rarely aware of their background. "Theyre never told theyre adopted," says Parshutkin. "If word got out that they were, theyd be teased mercilessly. The word dyetdomovskii, or orphanage kid, is pejorative, like Yid or nigger. The parents want to protect the child from such trauma - and to protect themselves as well, because they become victims of aggression from neighbors and work colleagues. Youd be surprised. Adoption may be fine in (the West), but its a terrible cross to bear here. The whole attitude to children is different."
After failing to become pregnant after 10 years of fertility treatment, 36-year-old Svetlana Samuelova decided to adopt the child of a friends colleague. "She lived in a dormitory with one small child and didnt want the second one, so we asked her to have the baby in a hospital where we have a doctor acquaintance, who would make sure we got the child," says Svetlana. "It was all legal, but we had to pay a year and a halfs wages in bribes to the adoption center and baby home before we got our little girl. The other didnt want any money; she was just happy her baby would be brought up in a family."
Svetlana told all of her friends that she was pregnant, then left her job and moved to a different part of Moscow in order to fake a pregnancy. "I tied a cushion to my waist before going out. When I went to the adoption center to fill out last-minute forms, the other women waiting to adopt had pillows up their dresses, too. Well, what can you do? Some people dont even tell their own parents. Im lucky with my mother-in-law - I know women whose mothers-in-law get their son to divorce and marry a woman who can bear him his own children."
Adopting healthy babies is also unheard of in southern regions of the former Soviet Union. "If a couple cant have a baby, they ask a brother or sister to have one for them," says Fatima Goribyekova, from Grozny.
"A friend of ours tried unsuccessfully to have a child for 12 years. So when his younger brother married and had a daughter, he gave it to his brother. How the elder brother has this one girl and the younger brother has four more girls and three boys. Its amazing - the first girl isnt like her sisters at all. They are all dark and shes blond. None of them know they are really brothers and sisters and not cousins."
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