While many adoptive parents might fear losing their children when they decide to trace their birth mothers and fathers, it was something Whanga-rei mum Janice Gilbert encouraged both her adopted sons to do, vowing to support Alex and Andrei whatever happened.
And her generosity of heart has meant hundreds of other families have been reunited too, with Alex tracing not only his own birth parents in Russia, but also helping countless other people find theirs in the vast European nation too.
Alex is the host of the new TVNZ 1 series Reunited, which follows six adoptees – including his brother Andrei – searching for their relatives in Russia.
“It’s everybody’s right to know where they come from if they’re adopted,” says retail worker Janice, 64. “There are kids who find out when they’re older and it really knocks them. My husband Mark and I have always been open about our boys’ adoption, and fully supportive of them finding out more.”
Alex and Andrei, now both 29, became siblings when Janice and insurance broker Mark, 67, found they could not conceive and so adopted the two boys from a Russian orphanage, the Regional Baby Home in Arkhangelsk, in 1994.
“We had video footage of all the children available to be adopted and we could’ve taken them all – it wasn’t an easy decision,” recalls Janice. “The orphanage was very basic, but the caregivers did care
about the children. They were quite protective.”
Both Mark and Janice fell for Andrei, who was born with cerebral palsy, but the cheekiness of Alex, only a few weeks younger, caught their attention too. Within a few months, both boys came to Whangarei as two-year-olds.
They grew up enjoying summer holidays at the family’s Northland bach, playing soccer in the winter, spending time on their grandparents’ Southland farm and having regular catch-ups with other Russian children.
Janice wasn’t surprised her sons had completely different views on their birth families. Even as toddlers, Alex was more inquisitive and outgoing than Andrei. It was in his early teens that Alex started wanting to know more.
“Alex would often say, ‘I wonder if I’ll even meet my birth mother or father.’ He was always interested in tracking them down. Andrei was never interested. He’s a deep thinker and figured, ‘Well, they didn’t want me…'”
After finally finding his birth family, Alex offered to help Andrei do the same, but he didn’t pressure his brother. Janice was also hopeful Andrei would want to know but respected his reticence.
Without giving away too much of what Alex and Andrei find on Reunited, Janice says she’s pleased she had the opportunity to thank her boys’ blood relatives for giving them a family. “We’ve been very fortunate. We’re really grateful.”
When Alex Gilbert decided it was time to find his Russian birth parents, he made a promise to his adoptive mum Janice and dad Mark: “I’m always going to come home. New Zealand is my home.”
With the help of contacts in Europe, Alex found his mother Tatiana, who was just 21, in 2013. After months of messaging, she gave him the name of his father Mihail, who was never told about Alex.
A few months later, he flew out to meet them both.
Upon his return to Aotearoa, after much interest from other Russian adoptees, Alex set up the support network I’m Adopted, which has helped hundreds of people find their families, leading to
his six-part TVNZ 1 series Reunited, screening 8.30pm on Tuesdays.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from – everyone wants to be part of a family and know where they come from,” Alex tells Woman’s Day. “My birth father lives in Saint Petersburg with his new wife and my nine-year-old half-sister Sonia, who grew up knowing she has a brother in New Zealand.”
Last year, Alex spent five months living in Moscow, searching for the parents and siblings of adoptees.
“I’d take my half-sister to school every morning and pick her up,” he says. “She’s teaching me Russian.”
He’s sad but accepting that his relationship with his birth mother isn’t as strong. “She’s very difficult to deal with and drinks a lot. She keeps telling me, ‘I’m so sorry I gave you to the orphanage.’ I say, ‘It’s fine. Don’t worry about it!’ But it really has affected her.”
While the international adoptions have caused controversy, Alex says, “The Russians were trying to do something good and helped a lot of kids stay alive. My brother wouldn’t have been able to get the cerebral palsy therapy my parents gave him over there.”
And though he’s pleased Andrei changed his mind about finding his birth parents, Alex admits, “I was more emotionally invested in his search than he was – I wanted to find the answers for my brother. I mean, I’ve talked about him being my brother throughout my childhood and now he has another side of his family. He is someone else’s brother too.”
Andrei Gilbert knows he has had a far better life in New Zealand than he ever would have had in Russia and he’s loyal to his adoptive Kiwi parents for that reason.
So it took him many years before he felt ready to find out more about his birth mother and father. Even when his brother Alex found his own family, it was still five years before Andrei decided to learn about why he was put into an orphanage.
“I was happy for Alex – I could tell something was missing for him,” says Andrei. “But if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it in my own time and he never forced me to do it.”
When Alex moved to Moscow for five months to do research for Reunited, it finally seemed the right time, tells Andrei.
“He found out about my birth dad Nikolai and then also my birth mum Galina, who had sadly passed away.”
Alex also learned Andrei had older twin sisters, Tatiana and Masha, who had been put into another children’s home. “I think for some parents who couldn’t cope, it was an easy way out,” Andrei says.
Although Alex was successful in hunting down his brother’s birth father, Andrei is cautious about taking the next step of meeting him.
“My loyalty is totally with Mum and Dad. Why would I call someone else Dad? My dad is in Whanga-rei. He and Mum were so open from day one,and that made ours a stronger relationship as a family. I’ve
had a great life. I didn’t feel like I had that missing piece. But at least now I know.”
Rather than look backward, Andrei is excited about his future, having recently married his partner Charlotte. “I’m happy for Alex, but I don’t need to embrace my Russian side like he has. Getting married three months ago was an emotional day and Charlotte supports me – that’s all I need.”