The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption

by Janis Cooke Newman

Published by St. Martin's Press

232 pages, 2001

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Beyond Smilla

Reviewed by Pamela C. Patterson


In June of 1998, when my husband and I were just starting to fill out paperwork to adopt a child from Russia, there was an article on Salon by a mother who had recently brought her son home from a Moscow orphanage. The article talked about what life had been like for her son there and how he had grown and changed by leaps and bounds in the few short months since his adoption. The author's note said that she was working on a memoir of her son's adoption.

The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption is that very memoir. As a first-time parent who has recently completed a similar process, I can vouch for it as a blunt yet heartfelt portrayal of what it's like to thread your way through the labyrinth of Russian adoption laws and bureaucracy.

Janis Cooke Newman had never wanted to have children. Watching a family climbing out of a minivan, the mother "lumpy from pockets filled with goldfish crackers and Cheerios .... unaware of the small chocolate handprint on the seat of her pants," she would shudder. There but for the grace of God go I, she'd think.

And then her mother died of cancer. At dinner the night she got the news, Newman tells her husband Ken, "I've been thinking of having a baby." He is cautiously thrilled; he's always wanted kids and hoped someday his wife would change her mind. She warns him that she might not get pregnant right away: "I have only one fallopian tube, and I'm almost forty." He wants to start that night. She says to wait a bit: "I didn't want to start a baby in all that sadness."

Soon after the funeral, they embark on their quest. Newman begins to measure her life in two-week increments: two weeks until she ovulates, two more weeks to find out if she's pregnant. Of course, everyone offers advice: a crystal-wielding friend who wants to align her uterus for her, a pregnant woman in Newman's yoga class, a checker at the drugstore, her dental hygienist. On a trip to Mexico she consults a man selling potions at an outdoor market and he proffers a dirt-covered black root, advising her to eat it with some chocolate.

After 16 months, she decides to call a fertility clinic. At their first meeting, after hearing an overview of the procedures that will be performed, the in vitro counselor brings out "the financials" -- a three-page document with the grand total listed at the bottom: $10,000 per cycle, which they must pay to the clinic regardless of whether they actually achieve a pregnancy. Newman has nearly $100,000 from the sale of her mother's house and is prepared to use these funds in pursuit of a baby (although when Ken asks, she says she is planning on trying the in vitro only two or three times).

Before their first appointment rolls around, however, the Newmans attend an international adoption seminar presented by a woman named Maggie. After the seminar, they are about to leave when Maggie persuades them to stay and look at a videotape of some children from a Russian orphanage. The very last child featured on that videotape is the little boy who will eventually become their son.

Grisha -- the boy on the video -- has enormous eyes and wispy brown hair that stands up of its own accord. His last name is the Russian word for snow, given to him by his caregivers because he was abandoned by his birth mother in the winter time, three days after he was born. His new parents decide to name him Alex, in honor of Ken's late father.

The chronicle of the Newmans' bumpy journey to parenthood forms the bulk of the memoir. Any parent who has adopted from Russia in the last decade will certainly identify with many of the details: the confusing and frightening medical reports which include such diagnoses as "perinatal encephalopathy;" the sometimes-less-than-helpful American adoption coordinator (the author paints Maggie in a rather unflattering light); the inscrutable, chain-smoking Russian facilitator who keeps telling the adoptive parents they will have to wait just a few more days for a particular piece of paperwork to be signed by the proper authorities, and who bristles at being asked too many questions about what could possibly be taking so long.

Throughout the process, Newman tries to make the best of things and keep her eyes on the prize:

Ken and I had tried to love Russia for Alex's sake. Each afternoon, we headed out with the pages of our guidebook folded over to mark the sights we thought we should see. Every night, I planned the outing for the next day.

"Let's walk along the Boulevard Ring," I'd suggest. "The guidebook calls it leafy and pleasant. It says that people go there to play musical instruments."

And the next afternoon, we walked the entire curved length of the Boulevard Ring.

"How nice and shady it is here," we told each other. "Isn't the man with the violin wonderful?" Never once did we mention that the Boulevard Ring was nothing more than a narrow strip of weeds and dirt squeezed between two automobile-choked highways, or that the man with the violin was accompanied by six filthy children with unwashed palms.

We'd made it a point to go out every day, telling each other that we needed to see Russia. And we prided ourselves on not being like the other families we'd heard about -- families who hid in their translators' apartments, coming out only to eat at Pizza Hut or the McDonald's at Pushkinskaya Plaza.

But eventually, with things going wrong at every turn, she loses it, screaming at Ken in their room at the Intourist Hotel:

"I hate this place!"

"It was your idea to leave the Radisson, I didn't --"

"No. I hate this country! I hate this country, and I hate these people!" Ken looked at me as if saying I hated these people was the same as saying I hated Alex.

I knew I should stop, but it was like the burst of breath you can't hold back after staying underwater too long. "All we want to do is take one of their children out of an orphanage that's only going to dump him on the street at sixteen, and instead of helping us, they ignore us in restaurants and charge us too much for things and refuse to sign our papers so we can get the hell out of here!"

Of course, the Newmans do eventually get the hell out of there with Alex in tow, and begin their new life as a family back in California. But their journey -- both physical and emotional -- is fraught with frustration, aggravation and countless bittersweet moments.

The Russian Word for Snow: A True Story of Adoption is an engrossing read, even if you haven't actually "been there" as an adoptive parent. Although the Newmans completed their adoption several years ago, before Russian adoption laws required American agencies to be accredited and adhere to certain guidelines with an aim to making the process more predictable, their story nevertheless rings very true even in today's Russian adoption climate. It will certainly strike a chord with anyone who is willing to go literally to the ends of the earth for their child. | May 2001


Pamela C. Patterson is the proud mom of Ian (formerly known as Ivan The Not So Terrible), adopted from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia. She thinks he is all that and a bag of chips.