Leaving Russia: A mother’s love prevails over politics



Editor’s note: In November of 1994, Sen. Drue Pearce had just been re-elected to represent Anchorage, and had been chosen as president of the Alaska Senate. Caucus meetings were beginning. Yet she had one big mission to fulfill before session started in January: She had a daughter waiting for her in Yakutsk, Russia. For the first time, she tells the story of the harrowing journey bringing her daughter home to Alaska.


I flew to Moscow on business. Our jet touched down and taxied to the gate at Sheremetyevo International Airport. The aging steel and glass structure loomed ahead, filled with émigrés, guest workers, and cigarette smoke. Sheremetyevo: A world of uncertainty for families who are being separated, never knowing if they will see each other again.

Historic look at the Sheremetyevo International Airport. – Wikipedia

Sheremetyevo Airport is also a cultural icon whose “transit zone” is famously known as the area where American documents-leaker Edward Snowden lived for several weeks – not in Russia, and not in any other country.

For many Russians, Sheremetyevo is a watershed moment of their lives. Weary from travel and focused on my work ahead, I was not thinking about Sheremetyevo as my own watershed.

It surprised me, then, this heart pounding so fiercely in my chest.

* * *


Nineteen years earlier, my husband Michael and I were here on a very different mission. We were leaving Russia — and we were smuggling our new daughter out with us.

Like many couples, we chose to adopt because we were unable to have children. Soon after our decision, I met with a friend, Valerie, who had made several trips with her Rotary Club to Yakutsk, the largest town in the Sakha Republic of Russia. On her first trip she visited the local orphanage, which led her to the adoption of her daughter.

Val said she was returning to Yakutsk soon, and if we were interested in adopting, she would speak to her friends at the Ministry of Education.

Michael and I had, in fact, decided to adopt a daughter. We knew that only babies with certain medical problems could be adopted in Russia. A few days later, I called Val and confirmed our decision and told her we knew the rules.

The voicemail arrived in early June. Valerie had visited the orphanage, where she saw an infant girl available for adoption. The child had been born April 22, the same week that Valerie and I had begun our conversation.

Val’s message let us know to be looking for a photograph she sent by FedEx. We needed to let her know by that weekend if we were interested in proceeding.


At the time, I knew nothing of this, as I was in a remote part of Venezuela, out of contact with the world. Later, Michael told me that when the FedEx van arrived, he tore open the envelope to find a photo of an adorable blonde-haired baby girl.

But what was he to do? He had once bought a car without consulting me, but to agree to adopt a baby?

Tate Hanna, awaiting adoption in Russia in 1994. The photo was all Michael Williams needed to make the decision, even though his wife, Drue Pearce, was unreachable in Venezuela at the time.

After taking a second look at the photograph, he made up his mind and placed two calls: The first was to the Caracas hotel, to which I would return, and the second was to Valerie.

The message he left for me at the hotel in Caracas was simply, “Call me ASAP.”

I returned to the hotel a few days later and read the cryptic words, fearing my terminally ill mother had taken a turn for the worse. My call home reassured me that Mom was still with us. And then there was a pause and a deep breath, before Michael told me he had committed us to a baby. I couldn’t speak.

Finally, the words came out: “Thank you. I love you.”

Without delay, we started the paperwork. There were visits from social workers, questionnaires to answer, and forms to complete, many of them in Russian. Because we live in Alaska, and trade with Russia was rapidly opening up, finding a translator was the easiest part of the saga that followed.

The first big challenge occurred when we received word from the Sakha Ministry of Education: An outbreak of hepatitis at the orphanage would delay our visit. We were concerned about our baby’s health, of course, yet there was nothing we could do.

By this time she was no longer “the baby” but Tate Hanna, and although we had never set eyes on her, in our hearts she was already our daughter. A few days later we received word that young Tate was healthy, that she had been removed from the orphanage, and was in the care of a retired nurse. However, we would not be allowed to travel until the hepatitis outbreak was over.

Summer came and went, and it was fall before we were allowed to visit. At the time, I was up for reelection as a state senator; we were relieved the Education Ministry made it possible for us to travel to Russia after the November election.

In late November, wearing our heaviest Arctic gear, we began the 10-hour flight from Anchorage to New York and then another 10 hours to Moscow. The U.S. State Department had not allowed us to fly more directly from Alaska to Siberia, so by the time we arrived in Moscow, we were exhausted.

The first stop was the U.S. Embassy. The large hall of the consular section was filled with worried adults and crying children. When our turn came to speak with the official, her first question was, “Where is your agent? When we told her we had no agent, she said we could not adopt without one.

We were stunned.

As most of the paper work from the Russian side had been completed and we had been in almost daily contact with the Sakha Ministry of Education, I asked her why we would need an agent. After much delay and furrowed brows, we found a supervisor who cut through the red tape, and we were on our way to the next leg of our epic journey: an 8-hour flight across Russia in a plane that looked every bit a converted bomber, with an inhospitable crew right out of Soviet central casting. The food was inedible, the smells overwhelming, and arrival at our destination seemed uncertain.


After a tough flight and a rough landing, a surprise awaited us in Yakutsk. In spite of the -60 F Siberian weather, a young lady with a car and driver greeted us at the airport. Irina would be our interpreter during our stay in Yakutsk, and we would come to depend on her.

We were in for an even greater surprise when we checked into the Hotel Ontario. Michael had visited Archangel in the late 1960s, and had prepared me to expect stark accommodations. “Bring your own toilet paper,” he had warned. Yet, this was a delightful place, and modern.

We badly needed sleep, having traveled almost completely around the world. We had heard that families going through adoption would often have to share tiny apartments with Russian families, and struggle to find food. Our accommodations were nothing like the stories.

Irina then announced to us that we were to attend a special dinner that evening. By now, we were totally confused. I took Irina aside and asked with whom we would be dining. She told me that it would be the minister of Education and her staff. My next question was why?

Irina laughed. The minister had recently visited the U.S. and had spent a day in Anchorage – the same day it was announced I had been chosen to be the next Senate President. That explained why we were being treated as visiting dignitaries.

Russians only need such an excuse to break out the vodka.

[Continues Monday: A geopolitical crisis develops and Drue and Michael meet their daughter, visit a shaman, and make a dash for the airport]