20 years under Putin: a timeline

“We Are Grateful to Fate”

Another family who adopted a girl from Russia lives in Providence, Rhode Island. I managed to visit them later this March. They are Kevin and Joan Tullie, and their daughter is named Emily. Joan is a professional nurse who now teaches at a college, and her husband is a cardiologist.

Joan meets me at the station and while she drives me to her home, she starts telling me the story of Emily’s adoption.

“When we decided to adopt, we researched all the opportunities and decided on a small local agency—their office is in our neighborhood,” Joan says. “Here everyone knows everyone, and we heard only the best things about this agency. They’ve been in the business for 15 years. We didn’t have any particular preferences in terms of the country, but they suggested that we consider Russia, and we thought we could try. I remember that I started doing the paperwork in January 2008. There were lots of forms, they wanted to check all our backgrounds. And quite soon—I remember it was March 19, St. Joseph’s Day—the agency called and said: ‘Happy St. Joseph’s Day!’ And they got me confused at first: Why would they congratulate me on that day? But then they said: ‘Joan, St. Joseph’s Day is a very important day for you, because you’ve got a little girl in Russia!’”

We arrive at the Tullies’ house, which is smaller than the Whittenburgs’ house but is very cozy inside. Joan’s father built this house in the late 1950s with his own hands. He is 93 now and still lives there under the care of Joan and Kevin.


Joan and Emily Tullie


“Hi Olga!” announces five-year-old Emily, who has been waiting for me at the door. “Look at the pretty kitties on my dress,” she says and stretches the hem of her dress toward me.

“Very pretty kitties,” I agree, and then Joan tries to introduce me to her husband Kevin.

“Olga, Olga,” Emily interrupts them. “You are my best friend! I love you!”—and she gives me a big hug.


In May 2008, the Tullies went to Cheboksary, where their future adopted daughter Svetlana was waiting for them. Later, when she came to America, she was given the name Emily, after Joan’s mother.

“Emily was born on August 14, 2007, and when we first met her she was only nine months,” remembers Joan. “They put three pajamas on her and she appeared much bigger than she actually was. But in reality she was very small and skinny. When we came in, she stretched her arms to us, and it took our breath away, because we knew then, here is our daughter.”

In the orphanage, the Tullies received warm treatment, especially after the nurse saw how well prepared Joan was: the American had brought every possible medicine with her, from antibiotics to cotton swabs and a thermometer. The nurse even told them that the girl should be all right with them and suggested that they return for another baby.

The couple’s next trip to Russia was in July 2008, when the Tullies’ adoption request was to be heard in court. As Kevin says, at the court they were grilled for an hour, and he sweated a lot while he answered the tricky questions.

“When we came in, she stretched her arms to us, and it took our breath away, because we knew then, here is our daughter.”

“At some point the prosecutor, who was a strict, tough woman, turned to me and asked why we didn’t have children while we were young,” Joan continues. “I wanted to lose my temper, but I realized that they were testing us, and I explained that medical education is very expensive in the US and that Kevin and I had to study a lot and to work hard at the same time. We couldn’t afford to have a baby financially and psychologically. When I told her all that, the prosecutor turned to me and looked from the corner of her eyes, and I saw that she understood.”

After the court approved of the adoption, the Tullies tried to solicit permission to take Emily home straight away. But their reason—that Joan’s elderly father (who was 89 at the time) needed constant care and that the Tullies had to hire a nurse for him while they were in Russia—was not good enough for local authorities to advance the procedure.


“Do you like pasta?” Kevin asks me. “Joan made a killer sauce, and we would like you to join us for dinner.”

Obviously, I agree.

“We are Italian,” Joan smiles. “We like pasta.”

“Before I married Joan, I used to be thin, but my wife cooks so well—look at me right now,”—and Kevin claps his stomach to show proof.

Emily runs back from her room, jumps on my lap without any hesitation, and shows me a game on the iPad. Her parents move her to a chair, and she quickly eats her pasta, only to jump onto Joan’s lap to supervise the salad sharing.

“Before we had to embark on our third trip to Russia, there was this war between Russia and Georgia,” Kevin continues the story. “We were afraid that America would stop diplomatic relations with Russia and we wouldn’t be able to take our baby. But everything went very well—by far, it was the easiest and the smoothest trip. We came to Cheboksary, somebody picked us up at the station, brought us to the orphanage, and they gave us Emily. We didn’t even realize what happened—it was instant parenthood. And we were so happy.”


Kevin and Emily Tullie


“We came back home on August 29,” says Joan. “Emily had already turned one, but since that time, every year, beside her birthday, we also celebrate this day—the day when she came to America. It’s our family’s special day. We usually go somewhere, just the three of us, and retell the story of how Emily was born, how we found her and brought her to America. She knows she is from Russia. Emily, tell us where you were born,” Joan asks the girl.

“Cheboksary!” says Emily enthusiastically, with an American accent.

As we are talking, I learn that Kevin is a big fan of Russian classical music. His favorite composer is Igor Stravinsky, but to relax, he prefers listening to Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Musorgsky. This makes me think that even in Russia, such music is hardly a popular interest.

“We keep in touch with our translator Tanya,” Kevin adds. “If Emily wants, when she grows up, to go back to Russia, we would like to have a friend there who could show her around.”


“When we came home,” Joan remembers, “I put Emily in the crib, and she fell asleep immediately. By the way that she was only sleeping on one side of the crib, I knew that she had got used to it, because apparently in the orphanage, she was not the only child in the crib.”

As Joan and Kevin explain, there were about 60 children in the orphanage, some of whom were sick. With her professional eye, Joan noticed that some of the kids had Down syndrome and others had fetal alcohol syndrome or other disorders. “When we first came to the orphanage, one girl with Down syndrome saw me and started following me. My heart was hurting,” Joan recollects.

Emily, too, had some medical issues: she had two small hemangiomas on her head that were later successfully treated by her adoptive parents.

“Given a chance to help children without parents, we are ready to help. And this law helps no one.”

Despite her difficult start to life, Emily is incredibly sociable and active. She constantly wants to hug people (as Joan notes, Emily has already become known as a “hugger” at her preschool) and communicate or play with them. All people are her best friends. But her parents have already been warning her to be careful with strangers.

I ask what they think about the adoption ban, and both Joan and Kevin say that they are very worried about Russian orphans and hope that this situation can be resolved.

“You know, we were thinking about adopting another child, a boy, from the same orphanage in Cheboksary, but two years ago, our adoption agency went out of business. And now it’s impossible anyway,” says Joan. “But we are very grateful that we have Emily. Who knows, maybe it was meant to be that way.”

In the course of our conversation, I suddenly realize that my train leaves in 20 minutes. After considering the situation for a second, Joan says with confidence that we can make it—she’ll drive me. And I believe her. In the car, she tells me: “Please, write in your article that we don’t want anything bad for Russia or Russian children—no one here is thinking that way. We just want to be parents. And given a chance to help children without parents, we are ready to help. And this law helps no one.”

I promise that I’ll write it down.