Sasha Custer, adopted by an American couple when she was 5, has returned to Russia 17 years later for study and work. (Will Englund/WASHINGTON POST)

When an American couple adopted Sasha at age 51 / 2, the St. Petersburg orphanage informed them that the girl had mild disabilities. Almost 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, the joy, the what-ifs that come with any adoption. But hers is a narrative that spans 5,700 miles, momentous historical events and now a nasty foreign policy dispute, making her a remarkable witness to the chronicle of American adoptions here.

She has memories: A tiny girl, out on the street, 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 at Disneyland, wearing a little hat with mouse ears.

Today, nearly 23 and having grown up wrestling with her own identity — American or Russian? Julia or Sasha? — she watches uncomfortably as officials from both countries spar over adoptions.

“It’s like two parents arguing in the living room,” she said, “while the children sit in the corner.”

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Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian orphans since 1992, and Custer grew up in a family of five of them. In March 1995, her parents, Jean and Clark Custer, adopted a 13-year-old Russian boy. That July, they adopted Sasha and her sister, who was 10. In 2001, with Sasha pleading for a younger sibling, they adopted two boys, ages 13 and 5. Later, they hosted a Russian girl who was adopted by others but remains like a member of the family.

“We went from a quiet household of two to one humming with activity,” said 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 American 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. Russia named the law banning adoptions after a Virginia toddler who died in a hot car when his father forgot he was there.

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 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.”

‘I couldn’t ask for a better family’

Custer was born Alexandra “Sasha” Alexandrovna Tanina in 1990, as the Soviet empire was coming apart, leaving many Russians dislocated and impoverished. She was a “social orphan” — her mother was alive, but abusive and neglectful. She went to the orphanage at age 4, with her 9-year-old sister.

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.”