These days, the daily flight from Moscow to New York City carries a few American families with Russian children—all with pasty complexions and brand new, ill fitting American clothing. Russian law allows foreign nationals to adopt Russian orphans. But there is a catch: in 1994, only children with birth defects and incurable medical conditions could be adopted. In some cases, the problems were minor and readily treatable, but some children are diagnosed with vague ailments, developmental delays” that are hard to quantify, though they do make the children available for adoption. Does the child truly have a problem, or are such developmental delays usual for a child raised in an orphanage? Perhaps the diagnosis a well-intentioned lie, in hopes that the child will have a far better life in the US than an orphan’s fate in today’s Russia. Or maybe it is a callous device used by local officials to keep the lucrative adoption business going.
Four-year-old Olya has lived in a Children's Home all her life. We learn that she was an “unplanned” child, and that she was placed in the Home at birth. Born prematurely, Olya has been diagnosed with a vague developmental disability. We watch her playing with the other children and meet her favorite caregiver, whom she calls “Grandma.” Though little Olya has no idea of the changes ahead, the adults around her are both happy and fearful. “We’ve never had a child go so far away,” says one caregiver. She turns to a group of children, tears streaming down her cheeks, “I’m crying from joy, children, I’m glad, really.”
Olya’s new parents Sam and Meredith arrive, excited and exhausted. Chelyabinsk is a remote place, and the two Californians stand out in their bright T-shirts and shorts. Olya is shy of these strange adults, and even a pretty new dress can’t quite draw her out. The adoption goes as planned, and we learn about the process: the donation made to the orphanage seems to end up in the pockets of local officials, and Sam and Meredith are sternly told that Olya’s original birth certificate will be destroyed. A new birth certificate is issued, and Sam and Meredith laugh: according to the document, they had a baby in Chelyabinsk four years ago.
The day comes for Olya to leave with her new family, and Sam, all but crying himself, carries a tearful Olya out to a waiting car. Her playmates and caregivers wave good-bye from the windows of the Children’s Home. A year later, we visit Olya’s birthday party in California. Does she have a developmental disability? Her mom thinks not: “Most of the time these kids are given labels just to get them out of the country.” Olya's dad agrees: “She was just a shy, quiet child. And I thought, ‘Gee, we'd love to have a quiet child.’ So we got another one that loves to talk!”