MOSCOW – For the children of a Moscow orphanage, it was a glimpse of a life of plenty. For their visitors, 18-year-old twin sisters from California, it was an emotional return to a place where they once struggled to survive.
More than 16 years after an American couple traveled here to collect two malnourished 2-year-old girls named Galina and Svetlana, the identical twins — now Jessica and Jennifer Allen — have made their first trip back to Children's Home No. 13.
As Russia and the United States work out an ugly dispute over abuse of Russian adopted children, the sisters' story brings home how international adoptions can have a happy ending, and carries a message of hope to former Cold War foes still struggling to break down barriers of distrust.
The twins celebrated their Russian heritage as their journey came full circle last week.
"It's like, wow, we're from here," said Jennifer, formerly Svetlana. Her sister chimed in: "We're definitely Russian." The twins have high Slavic cheekbones but sound like typical California teenagers.
Russia has for years been the second biggest source nation, after China, of adopted children for Americans. But such adoptions have fallen steadily in the wake of a string of abuse scandals that outraged Russia, prompting officials to demand tighter control over adoptions or that they be suspended altogether.
This month the two countries hope to sign a binding agreement obliging the U.S. to investigate any reports of trouble and to increase oversight of adopting families. Russia demanded such an agreement after an adoptive mother from Tennessee put her 7-year-old boy on a plane back to Moscow last year, unaccompanied. At least 17 adopted Russian children have died in domestic violence in American families, according Russian officials.
According to the U.S. State Department's Bureau for Consular Affairs, there were 1,079 adoptions of Russian children by Americans in 2010, down from 1,586 in 2009 and 5,826 in 2004.
Many fear that tighter regulations may cause potential adoptive parents to look to other countries and leave more Russian children at the mercy of underfunded and overcrowded orphanages.
"We're so lucky that we got adopted," Jessica said. "In the pictures we didn't even have clothes that fit. I had to wear boys clothes."
The story of their 1994 adoption, which made the front page of The Washington Post, involved an emotionally draining trip to Russia for adoptive parents Pam and Mike Allen. The couple had two biological sons and were eager to adopt a girl to "fill out" their family. When offered twin girls, they quickly agreed.
In late August of 1994, Pam, a nurse, and Mike, a former Top Gun pilot, arrived at Children's Home No. 13 armed with a trove of toys and medicine as gifts. To their alarm, they found the 25-month-old girls had just been discharged from two weeks in the hospital with suspected whooping cough.
Pam remarked that the twins, with puffy cheeks and a raspy rattle when they breathed, looked barely half their age. But the couple bonded with them quickly, seeing how they were otherwise as bouncy and playful as other kids their age.
Their hopes of whisking away their new children hit a snag the next day when Svetlana's condition deteriorated and she had to be hospitalized again, setting up an agonizing few days as Pam and Mike were refused hospital visits.
A few days later, the twins were deemed well enough to leave. In America, they recovered fully under Western medical care.
"I hope more people saw our story and adopted kids from Russia at that time, because kids really needed to get adopted. There was a lot of sick kids besides us," Jessica said.
There are roughly 250,000 children in state orphanages. As many as 80 percent of Russian orphans end up in jail, become drug abusers or turn to prostitution or other crime.
Little is known about the Allen twins' biological parents other than that their mother gave them up due to poverty.
The trip to Russia was a graduation present. The twins soon leave the family home in Escondido, California, for college. Jessica, who won a hockey scholarship at St. Louis University, will major in nursing, while Jennifer will major in communications at the University of California.
Although they now have a better appreciation of their Russian heritage, they remain all-American girls.
"I feel more American because I laugh, and like to have a good time," Jessica said. "Everyone here's really serious."