For the children of a Moscow orphanage, it was a glimpse of a life of plenty. For their visitors, 18-year-old twin sisters from California, it was an emotional return to a place where they once struggled to survive.
More than 16 years after an American couple traveled here to collect two malnourished 2-year-old girls named Galina and Svetlana, the identical twins — now Jessica and Jennifer Allen — have made their first trip back to Children's Home No. 13.
As Russia and the United States work out an ugly dispute over abuse of Russian adopted children, the sisters' story brings home how international adoptions can have a happy ending, and carries a message of hope to former Cold War foes still struggling to break down barriers of distrust.
The twins celebrated their Russian heritage as their journey came full circle last week.
"It's like, wow, we're from here," said Jennifer, formerly Svetlana. Her sister chimed in: "We're definitely Russian." The twins have high Slavic cheekbones but sound like typical California teenagers.
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Little is known about the Allen twins' biological parents other than that their mother gave them up due to poverty. In the orphanage, their care was supervised by Irina, who still works at the home and greeted the girls on their return.
"It is so nice to see such girls, who were small and also pretty ill when they were taken, now turned into such beauties when they have grown up," said Irina, a stout woman with kind eyes and short, wispy hair, who only gave her first name.
"It is very nice because you feel that your work hasn't been wasted."
The trip to Russia was a graduation present. The twins soon leave the family home in Escondido, California, for college. Jessica, who won a hockey scholarship at St. Louis University, will major in nursing, while Jennifer will major in communications at the University of California.
Although they now have a better appreciation of their Russian heritage, they remain all-American girls.
"I feel more American because I laugh, and like to have a good time," Jessica said. "Everyone here's really serious."
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