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Adopted from Russia, raised in America, now watching a war in Ukraine

Dmitri and Nicholas Lawrence. (Kary Lawrence)
7 min

In a Minnesota classroom, two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, a high school teacher asked the class where they would travel if they could go anywhere in the world. Barrett Buck, 16, who was adopted from Moscow at 15 months old, began replying, “Russia, because —” A scoff cut her off before she could finish the sentence.

Buck continued, saying she’d like to experience more of the country of her birth. Then she added, “I don’t support Russia and what’s going on.”

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated the lives of kids like Buck, one of tens of thousands of children adopted from Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s, and their families, as they navigate layers of feelings about their Russian identity amid the backdrop of an unprovoked war.

Mara Kamen, chair of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA), a volunteer-run organization shepherding a network of about 7,000 member families who have adopted children from the former Soviet bloc, says kids and teens adopted from Russia have felt intense hurt these past few weeks.

“As much as we can talk about, ‘This is about governments and not the Russian people,’ some of the kids have been accused of being, like, Russian spies by their friends at school,” Kamen says. “Now, whether that's teasing, or they mean it, our kids are taking it pretty hard. They're taking it very personally.”

Buck says the invasion by Putin has shifted her willingness to talk about her Russian identity in certain spaces.

“I used to be really open about being adopted from Russia,” says Buck, of Orono, Minn. “Most of my friends know, and we would talk about it and just have conversations, jokes about me being into ballet because I'm Russian. And since this [invasion] happened, I have felt like, ‘Oh, I don't want to say this in public.’ That people will think I am for this invasion. That it will ruin my reputation, or just ruin who I am.”

How parents can help kids understand the war in Ukraine

More than 60,000 Russian children were adopted by American families between 1992 and 2012, according to figures from the U.S. State Department. The Dima Yakovlev Law, signed by Putin in December 2012, took effect in 2013 and banned the adoption of Russian children by U.S. citizens, meaning most children adopted from Russia and living in the United States are now teens and young adults.

Janice Goldwater, founder and CEO of Adoptions Together, a nonprofit organization that supports adoptive families through educational programs and counseling services, says the best thing parents of children adopted from Russia can do is to “stay curious” and give their kids space to talk about how they’re feeling.

“The feelings that kids are having are hard,” says Goldwater, a licensed social worker whose adopted daughter was born in Russia. “They’re complicated. They are traumatic. For many of them, it brings up the profound instability and trauma of their past. I think that many feel scared and feel mad. My own child is furious. She just can’t believe that anybody, that Putin would act in this way, and that so many people would be hurt. She feels almost a sense of violation, of ‘How could their country do such a thing?’ I think it’s embarrassing to come from a place that would be so aggressive in their actions, and there’s a feeling of disappointment.”

Ryan Sumwalt, 12, was adopted from Balashikha, Russia, in 2010 and now lives in Matthews, N.C. He had just started getting to know his biological sister — who sent him a video last year introducing herself, sharing her love for Disney and drawing — and has tried working with his mom and an interpreter to call his birth family in Russia after the invasion.

“I was kind of worried because they lost all their money,” he said, referring to the fall of the ruble. “I was kind of disappointed because we were really hoping to get them to answer the phone and finally talk to them for once. But since the invasion happened, we couldn't contact them.”

Ryan’s mom, Christa Sumwalt, 49, says the invasion has caused a significant amount of disruption in her son’s life, especially because he has dreamed of going back to Russia to meet his biological family; after covid-19 and the invasion, they’re unsure if and when that may happen. Sumwalt, whose 14-year-old son, Andrew, is also adopted from Russia, says she’s especially torn over economic sanctions she feels are necessary to stop Putin and their impact over the well-being of Ryan’s birth family.

“The narrative I tried to keep with the children is that the Russian people, the ones that we’ve met, are good people,” says Sumwalt, 49. “It’s just that their leader is an autocrat who is making some very bad decisions right now that’s impacting people in a terrible way.”

Cade Schuetter,15, who lives in suburban Annapolis and was adopted from Kirov, Russia, in 2007, says feelings of uncertainty have dominated since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I'm confused on why everything is going on and why, and exactly why the country where I'm from is invading another country and what their intentions are,” he says. “I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel because of how being Russian and how my own blood is, like, contributing toward war.”

His dad, Scott Schuetter, says Cade’s friends used to joke about his being Russian in mildly positive ways. His baseball friends, for instance, would say things like, “Everybody’s cold, but Cade’s not cold because he’s Russian.”

“He's more hesitant now to openly admit that he's from Russia with new interactions because of what's going on,” says Schuetter, 46.

As Kary Lawrence of Rockville, Md., speaks of seeing photos of young Russian soldiers in Ukraine, she begins to cry. Several of the soldiers appeared to be about the same age as her own sons, Nicholas Lawrence,19, and Dmitri Lawrence,18, whom she and her husband adopted from Russia.

“They’re very young. They’re like my boys,” says Lawrence, 58. “To me, thinking they could’ve been there, it makes me sad that there are other kids born around the same time being thrown into this.”

She says Dmitri, who was adopted at age 3 in 2007, was so interested in the war in Ukraine that Lawrence, who is home-schooling him, will pivot next month to a current events unit tracing what led to Putin’s invasion, followed by an exploration of Russian and Soviet history.

At their house in Maryland, a pair of red matryoshka dolls, or nesting dolls, stand alongside a framed photo of her boys on their fireplace mantel. She and her husband, Barney Lawrence, bought several each time they traveled to Russia to adopt their sons.

Lawrence says that as the war in Ukraine continues, “I hope my sons know they should still be proud of their heritage. I want them to know they can still be proud of being Russian.”

Buck has felt so horrified by what has happened to people in Ukraine that she boarded a plane to Romania last week with her father, Jim Buck, the CEO of a medical device company, to assist Ukrainian refugee families who were streaming into the country. (According to the United Nations, more than 555,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Romania.)

Jim Buck says he is working with attorneys to set up a special interest vehicle to fund the leasing of apartments in Bucharest for Ukrainians, who would live in them rent-free. The Bucks have since returned home.

Barrett Buck says her priority is to do something tangible for Ukrainian refugees but also “to help me personally feel like I’m doing what I can when the country that is my heritage is causing this. I feel like it’s a way to stand up against Putin, and to show everybody, ‘Hey, I’m Russian. I’m against this. And I’m doing stuff to fight against this.’ ”

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