Born prematurely, with a twin who soon died, she was in poor health. At 51
2, she weighed 30 pounds — about the size of an American 2-year-old — and was considered disabled because she had a hearing impairment and an astigmatism.
In Los Angeles, she had eye treatment and speech therapy to compensate for hearing problems. She grew up skiing, camping and hiking with her family. She played soccer, ran, danced and swam. They lived near the beach. “It was an ideal place to grow up,” she said, and her health was good.
“All my siblings are thriving,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better family.”
Recently, Dmitri Gudkov, one of the few legislators who opposed the adoption ban, met Custer. “She was lucky the scoundrels passed the law much later,” he wrote on his blog.
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 that she was both.
“I have two identities,” she said, “Julia and Sasha. Until high school, I was Julia. Then, I was Sasha. Before, I was confused. Now, I’m not.”
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, which at first concerned her Russian professor, Elena Savelieva-Thompson, one of the influential adults in her life. “She was worried I was too much of a dreamer.”
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.”
Return to Russia
In 2011, she returned to St. Petersburg to study Russian, and her first breath of the city stirred visceral memories. “The smell floored me,” she said. “I almost had to sit down. It brought back memories I couldn’t pinpoint. What was I thinking, coming back? I thought I wasn’t strong enough to come back to this city that let me go.”
She visited her orphanage, became involved with the children, got to know the director. “I was not ready to find my birth mom,” she said. “I was afraid of answers I didn’t want to face.”
Back in California, she won a Fulbright scholarship and returned to Russia in September to teach English at a technical college in Tambov, a city of 280,000 about 300 miles southeast of Moscow.
On a recent visit to Moscow for a Fulbright conference, she said she hopes to adopt a Russian child herself some day. 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.”