The Russian Word for Snow
The Russian Word for Snow is one woman’s true account of her Russian adoption. It’s the story of how she persevered through bureaucracy and corruption, fear and anxiety, to get her son out of a Russian orphanage and make a family of three out of herself, her husband and little Alex. The book’s title refers to the name the orphanage called Alex by. He arrived there in the middle of winter and they gave him a surname that meant “snow.”
Janis Newman didn’t want to be a mother until her own mother was diagnosed with cancer. Watching her mother dying made her crave new life. But she was almost forty and had other physical complications. After trying to get pregnant and failing and researching in vitro fertilization as an option, she accidentally met up with an international adoption facilitator who was beginning to do adoptions out of Moscow orphanages. On one of the facilitator’s videos was a little boy who sucked his fingers and smiled wistfully. It was love at first sight, and she and her husband determined to find him and adopt him.
What follows their emotional commitment to this little boy is the longest, most complicated paper chase you can imagine followed by the most horrific in-country adoption experience you can think up – about 200 pages of sheer panic and nerves. And at the end of all that misery, a perfect little boy came home to his forever family.
I have slightly mixed feelings about this book. There aren’t many international adoption narratives out there, actual stories about this complicated process and the families who go through it. Since there are so few, I would prefer that the ones out there more accurately reflect what happens in most cases. The Newmans had a particularly traumatic experience, and their story is believable. As someone who lived in Russia in the early- to-mid 90s, I know how chaotic it was and how particularly incomprehensible to foreigners. However, the Newmans’ problems stemmed primarily from the one “decision” they made. By falling in love with a particular baby, they had to deal with the people who were representing him, and those facilitators were a bad combination of flaky and dishonest. To adopt the baby they already considered their son they had to basically do whatever was asked of them and spend whatever money was demanded of them. Complicating matters was the fact that Russia was in a huge state of flux at that time and any regulation of international adoption had yet to occur. Parents adopting today still have to deal with heaps of paperwork and bureaucracy and incomprehensible delays, but by doing their research on the agency they choose to represent them, they can avoid a lot of the hassle and the unexpected “fees” the Newmans had to pay.
Another problem I had with this book is how the Russians are portrayed. Almost all of them are shady characters who take bribes, skim off the top, dislike Americans, or funnel money meant for orphans to themselves. They are shifty looking, dirty, rigid, and uncommunicative. The only exceptions are little Alex’s nurse in the baby home and a couple of friendly strangers who offer them chocolate. Everyone else is scary or untrustworthy. Again, I wouldn’t dispute that the Newmans had a terrible time of it or that they were the victims of shady practices. And it is difficult to maneuver in a place where you don’t know the rules so their frustrations with the Russians are understandable. But most of the parents I’ve know who have adopted from Russia would describe the people there are far more hardworking and generous than Newman does. And my own experiences living there would bear those positive experiences out.
But the above two caveats do not take away from the fact that this is an amazing story of courage and faith, fascinating in every word. I knew from the prologue that there was a happy ending, but Newman’s narrative is tense and exciting. Newman and her husband are willing to literally put their lives on hold to get their son home with them. And every step of the international adoption process is described, from the initial paperwork to searching out an international doctor who will examine the baby’s development from a video. We see the Newmans dealing with the INS and the FBI, having to be fingerprinted and get a character reference from their local police department. The reader sees their anxiety about their son’s health and development and experiences the agonizing months’ long wait between meeting their son and bringing him home.
All of it – the infertility grieving, the worrying about what they might be facing in terms of Alex’s health issues, the frustrations with the government, both foreign and abroad – rings absolutely true. Newman describes the other orphans in Alex’s baby home, and I grieved for their poor broken bodies, for their grasping hands and needy stares. I pored over the black and white photos of Alex, looking for details of orphanage life, watching him grow and get healthier and happier as he got bigger and bigger.
I read The Russian Word for Snow on a rainy Sunday afternoon in an attempt to distract myself from thinking and worrying about the little Russian baby my husband and I are in the process of adopting. I found Newman’s narrative to be well-written and interesting, and the subject is near to my heart, so I wanted to share my reactions. International adoption is becoming more and more popular a choice for Americans. If you’ve ever wondered what this process is like, do read Newman’s story. I think you will also cheer when Alex and the Newmans are finally united as a family.