When an American couple adopted Sasha at age 5, the St. Petersburg orphanage informed them she was mildly retarded. Nearly 18 years later, she's back in Russia, an articulate young woman teaching English on a coveted Fulbright grant.
Julia Sasha Custer's story embraces all the anguish and joy that come with any adoption. But hers is a narrative that spans 5,700 miles, momentous events and now a nasty foreign-policy dispute, making her a remarkable witness to the chronicle of U.S. adoptions here.
She has memories: a tiny girl, hungrily eating from trash cans. Then the orphanage; sent there with her older sister. Finally, the smiling American parents taking both girls on an airplane to Los Angeles. A week later she was in Disneyland, wearing a little hat with mouse ears.
Today, nearly 23, having grown up wrestling with her own identity -- American, or Russian? Julia or Sasha? -- she watches uncomfortably as officials from both countries joust over adoptions. "It's like two parents arguing in the living room," she said, "while the children sit in the corner."
Family of five Russian kids
Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian orphans since 1992, and Custer grew up in a family of five of them.
"We went from a quiet household of two to one humming with activity," said the mother, Jean Custer, who called the adoption of five children from Russia a blessing and a privilege.
"Not many people know what saints they are," Sasha said of her parents.
When Russia banned further U.S. adoptions in December, the rhetoric was harsh, with official after official accusing Americans of abusing Russian adoptees, turning them into indentured servants and even killing them -- 19 reportedly have died.
The oratory was wrenching for families like Custer's and appeared to disregard the realities of orphanages here, where children usually get decent physical care but little in the way of quality medical treatment or good educational opportunities.
"I think it would be a tragedy to ban American adoptions of Russian children," said Jean Custer. "I know that Russians love their children, but if they don't have the means or desire to adopt the orphans themselves, it would be selfish to deprive those children of loving parents and homes."
Those who grow up in orphanages, she said, too often face bleak futures.
"It's painful for my family," said Julia Custer, a warm, animated young woman. "They adopted Russian children, but now Russians don't accept it. It makes me angry that Russians paint Americans as demons."
Soviet Union falls apart
Custer was born Alexandra (Sasha) Alexandrovna Tanina in 1990, as the Soviet empire was crashing apart, leaving many Russians impoverished. She was a "social orphan" -- her mother was alive, but abusive and neglectful. She went to the orphanage at 4 with her 9-year-old sister.
At 5, she weighed only 30 pounds -- about the size of an American 2-year-old -- and was considered retarded because she was half deaf and had astigmatism. In Los Angeles, she had eye treatment and speech therapy to compensate for problems caused by her deafness. She grew up skiing, camping and hiking with her family. She played soccer, ran, danced and swam. They lived near the beach.
"I couldn't ask for a better family," she said.
Not all adoptees have done as well, Custer concedes, and her own life was not free of conflict and anxiety, especially during her teenage years. She felt a pull between the child born in a faraway country and the American girl she had become. It took her years to understand she was both. When she entered the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., she decided to study Russian, a language she had mostly lost.
"My idea was to go back and save orphans," she said. Friends and siblings told her to let the past be the past. "For me, it wasn't enough," she said. "I have a Russian soul."
In 2011, she returned to St. Petersburg to study Russian. She visited her orphanage, became involved with the kids, got to know the director.
On a recent visit to Moscow for a Fulbright conference, she said she hopes to adopt a Russian child herself someday. She wants to start a program to encourage Americans to make connections with orphans here, by letter and online. She wants to encourage Russians, who adopt in small numbers, to do more.
"I can give what I got from my American side," she said, "back to my Russian side."