Tanya Neiman knows how fortunate she is, having grown up in New Paltz, attending the local private and public schools and benefiting from all culture and experience that this college town can offer. While that’s not a whole lot different than what any other child reared here might experience, her life could have been quite different, because she was born in an obscure Russian village where she would have had none of the same opportunities that were available to her growing up. Now in her 20s, she’s embarking on a journey back to the place of her birth. Even getting to this point, however, has been an adventure characterized by moments of extraordinary timing and opportunities narrowly missed.
Neiman was born in 1993 in the farming village of Zaykovo, about 100 miles from Ural and roughly halfway between St. Petersburg and Moscow. This was just two years after the first Russian presidential election, as the ramifications of the breakup of the Soviet Union were just taking hold.
About three years later, her future adoptive mother was contemplating adoption. “She wasn’t married, but always wanted a kid,” Neiman said, and one of her friends suggested the Frank Adoption Center, where there’s a lot of expertise in international adoptions. She’d decided on adopting a child from China, but something stayed her hand. “She’s a spiritual person,” Neiman said of the woman who eventually took her in, and “she got a strong feeling that she should change her trip to Russia.” Although it can be difficult to reach those personnel directly because they kept extremely limited phone hours, it took just one call to make the switch. If not, Neiman said, “I’d probably still be in Russia.”
Her name was and is actually Tatyana, although most people call her Tanya, and because she was three-and-a-half, Neiman always knew that she was adopted. She’d been living in an orphanage and never knew her birth parents. Upon arrival stateside, she gradually picked up English at home, and when she was ready, her new mother enrolled her in the Mountain Laurel Waldorf school. She grew up like many other kids her age in New Paltz, eventually attending the public high school and then SUNY Purchase before returning to graduate from SUNY New Paltz, but she never lost sight of the fact that she was born far away.
In her teens, Neiman started feeling a stronger pull to learn about her own history; her mother supported that notion, but Russia was quite chaotic. It was only last year that she made up her mind to seek her birth mother. By then, she knew that the orphanage she’d been in was no more, and that any search for records should be done by a Russian with experience. “It’s dangerous to just take a trip to Russia,” she said, both because of the instability there and because dual citizenship isn’t recognized. That would mean that Neiman would be deemed a Russian citizen only while in that country, and not be afforded the protection and support of the American embassy.
The first steps were to find such a specialist, and to raise the money needed for the trip. Neiman organized a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for the travel, visas and other expenses; she also retained the services of a man named Igor to turn up what he could about her birth parents. Because this was a closed adoption, Igor urged her not to have high expectations prior to his investigation, which he scheduled to do in November, some two months later. The time in between Neiman described as a “waiting game,” raising money but not being able to make any specific plans until she heard back.
“The search usually takes three days, but he was gone about a week or more. All of my friends and family kept asking if I’d heard from Igor.” When she finally did, “The results were quite profound.” Igor identified Neiman’s birth mother on November 7, but she had died on October 31. “At first I didn’t feel anything, but then I was shocked. It might have felt different if she’d died years before.”
What made Igor’s search complicated was the fact that after the mother died — of bilateral pneumonia, a condition which would have been treatable but for the extreme poverty of the area — two women from her church had collected the death certificate, and he’d gone to some lengths to track them down. The woman had worked in a shoe factory and lived in a small room in company housing. Neiman was now faced with the option, as next of kin, to decide what to do with her birth mother’s remains. She could be buried with other poor people there, or her daughter could claim the body and arrange for a funeral.
“I’m 23, working and living in midtown Manhattan and trying to deal with this,” Neiman said. She did decide to take responsibility for this woman she’d never known, and because she was in the midst of a job transition she was able to make the time to travel up to Kingston and Albany to get all the necessary documents notarized before shipping them off to Russia.
The two women who’d known Neiman’s mother, Larissa and Rosa, were located and helped with the documentation. They arranged for a cremation so Neiman could arrange a final disposition when she arrived, and also held onto personal effects. There was an apartment to dispose of as well, since Neiman knew she would never live in it. From what Igor discovered, the mother had no siblings, and Neiman’s birth father “was not in the picture.” From what she’s learned, the woman who gave her life likely gave her up not so much because of her poverty, but because she had issues that made even taking care of herself difficult.
When Neiman flies to Russia — a trip scheduled for June 13 — she will meet these two women who knew her mother, who have agreed to accompany her to the mortuary to collect the cremains. “I don’t even know what I will do with them when I collect them,” she said; air travel has regulations about transporting such remains.
This kind of trip isn’t entirely safe, and Neiman has taken precautions. Upon the advice of the professionals she’s working with, her mother will accompany her so she’s not alone; they will also have both a driver and a translator with them. She also obtained a migration voucher, so that she will be recognized as American for the duration of the trip. “It’s actually much safer,” she said. “As Americans, we have a lot of privileges other people don’t. It’s not necessarily a great thing, but we are fortunate.” For Neiman, those advantages include an understanding employer that allowed a relatively new employee to take two weeks for this trip. She’d taken another week from her prior job to obtain the necessary documents, which also gave her the opportunity to realize she needed to make a career shift as well.
One thing that strikes Neiman about this adventure is how many other people have approached her about being adopted since her fundraising efforts made her own story quite public. “Everywhere I turned, people would say, I’m adopted too. When I get back, maybe I want to start an adoption group. It’s what we lack, a sense of belonging. People are supportive, but not understanding of our situation; we’re outsiders when it comes to identity.”
This Russian trip will not be the end of the journey for Neiman. She expects she may return to her birth land again in the future, and she’d like to continue raising funds to donate towards programs in Zaykovo or related to these adoptions; likely in her birth mother’s name. She encourages interested adoptees to reach out to her via firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s also contemplating writing a book about her journey to a land of plenty from a place where opportunities are as rare as hen’s teeth.