The Short Life of Viktor Matthey

Finally, the adoption agency said they had been approved to adopt the twins. The Mattheys spent a month packing, unpacking, repacking, trying to figure out how best to get in everything they would need - cold-weather gear for themselves and the twins that would be good to at least 40 below, medical supplies to give to the orphanage, gifts for the various functionaries involved in the adoption - without exceeding the airlines' 44 pounds-per-person luggage limit.

Brenda talked Bob out of wearing his leather coat, fearing he would stick out as a rich American. He took his teal ski parka instead, and stood out among a sea of Russian men in black leather coats.

The Mattheys arrived in Moscow on a flight from JFK on Dec. 3, 1999, and checked into the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel on Tverskaya Street, which offered special rates and services for people coming to adopt.

They wandered down to Red Square, took walks around the city in the evening, bought souvenirs and traded tales with other adoptive couples. "Some with good stories, some with horrible stories," Bob would say later.

Legally, there is a 10-day waiting period before the adoptive parents can leave the country with their new children. The Mattheys said they'd heard of older children getting adopted, then changing their minds about leaving on the ninth day.

"We met a lot of heartbroken parents the week before Christmas, going home without a kid," Bob said in an interview with Brenda at his side.

On their third night in Moscow, a Sunday, they were at dinner with two AMREX agents, Russians providing them with translation and legal services, when they learned twins Vladimir and Yevgeniy had three brothers and a sister. They were told the girl and two of the boys were with a grandparent in another region. But the third boy was in an orphanage near where they were going to adopt the twins.

The idea that the twins had a brother available for adoption was startling. There was no ready explanation for why no one had told the Mattheys. Their adoption agency apparently hadn't known, although the Russian government said it should have.

"Brenda and I were sitting across the table from each other, and when we heard it we were just .?.?. It was upsetting," Bob recounted later. "We felt like he was lost."

Using a laptop borrowed from another American couple at the hotel, Bob sent an e-mail back to the United States to tell his family the news and seek advice from his minister.

To the Rev. K.M. Szierer, whose family had fled Russian occupation in Hungary, the answer was easy. "Yeah, bring him over, give him a chance for life," he said he told the Mattheys.

The news of an additional sibling was not a shock to the Mattheys' oldest boy, Robert. He had told his parents before they left that they would be returning home with three children, not two, because, he said, he had prayed on it and God had told him so.

They would embark on the next part of their journey with even more anticipation.

On Dec. 8, Bob and Brenda Matthey took off from Moscow in a KrasAir TU-154 - a noisy old Russian jet they described as "a flying hay cart" - for Blagoveshchensk, the city 4,800 miles east of Moscow where the twins were living in an orphanage. The plane stopped after four hours, roughly halfway there, to pick up and drop off passengers and take on fuel before the final four-hour leg.

Once in Blagoveshchensk, a city of about 250,000 on the Amur River separating Russia from China, the Mattheys spent the next 10 days in a 12th-floor furnished apartment for which they paid $20 a day.

They settled in and went to see Yevgeniy and Vladimir.

"When we met the twins, they ran across the room and hugged us and we almost lost our dinner, they smelled so bad," Bob said.

They spent their days getting to know the boys, who were able to stay with them in the apartment. The Mattheys and the twins learned how to communicate with each other, went shopping and cooked meals. All the while, say the Mattheys, they never forgot about the other brother.

Soon they were able to make arrangements to meet Viktor.

On Saturday, Dec. 11, they got a car and driver to make the 90-mile trip to Svobodniy, a former nuclear missile launch site whose name means "freedom." They arrived at Viktor's orphanage shortly before lunch.

They described their first meeting as a mixture of shock and jubilation.

"We went to the class, and I guess these orphans are taught that someday momma and poppa - and that's the Russian words - will come and get you," Bob said. "And it's their dream. So we walk in and mom and pop are here for Viktor, and all the kids, of course, want us to be mom and pop."

Bob and Brenda said they fell in love with Viktor the first time they saw him. Bob had borrowed a digital camera with a preview screen on the back, and he used it to make contact with Viktor.

"So I would take the kid's picture and turn it around and show it to him, and it was such an icebreaker," he said. "Then I'd take a picture of her (Brenda) and then I'd show him the picture and say, 'Momma?' We were taught a few things. We learned to say 'Poppa zees' and 'Momma zees.' It means 'Momma's here.'"

They spent about an hour with Viktor before they had to leave for the return trip to Blagoveshchensk.

"As we were saying goodbye to him, he was crying - he thought we didn't like him, basically is what they were explaining to us," Bob said. "He thought that we interviewed him and we didn't like him. But we left him with some pictures of us and convinced him that we would be back for him. Of course, we thought we'd be back in several months."

New applications to the INS would have to be filed, their home study would have to be updated, their agency would have to decide whether they could handle an additional child. They might even have to return to the United States without him and make a second trip to Russia.

But the Mattheys and Viktor would be together again, and for some reason - the Mattheys believe it was a miracle - it was a matter of days, not months.

After that initial meeting, the Mattheys say they never spoke to anyone about adopting Viktor. The boy was simply brought from the orphanage in Svobodniy, unannounced, to the courtroom in Blagoveshchensk where the Mattheys were to adopt the twins. When they walked in, they found him sitting there, wearing a girl's winter coat.

"We were amazed because we had never signed a document," Bob said. "We said we'd take him when they asked us if we wanted him, but we never signed anything, didn't pay anybody."

On Dec. 16, 1999, the adoption of all three boys was final. Members of the court and the Ministry of Education signed documents swearing never to discuss the adoption. To ensure privacy, children were given new birth certificates with their new names and with their place of birth listed as Blagoveshchensk, not Busse, where they were actually born.

The Mattheys let the children keep their first names but changed their middle names as well as their surnames: Vladimir Jeziah Matthey, Yevgeniy James Matthey, Viktor Alexander Matthey.

Three days later, they flew back to Moscow, where they joined scores of other adoptive families trying to get their immigration paperwork completed so they could get out of Russia before the arrival of Y2K and dreaded computer glitches.

"That was kind of a whirlwind deal," Bob Matthey said. "We left Sunday morning, got there (to Moscow) Sunday night, late. Been up 20 hours, 22 hours, the kids are miserable, cranky, airsick, carsick."

The next day, when the Mattheys went to the American Embassy, more than 80 families were there, trying to leave.

"There was a big rush to get out because the rumor was they were shutting down for Y2K," Bob Matthey said. "This was the last week, and there was some really good propaganda going on there, that they're going to abandon the embassy for months. So if we didn't get done and get back by the 23rd, we might have had to wait until February to leave."

On Dec. 23, 1999, the Mattheys and their three adopted sons arrived in the United States. Although their original immigration paperwork was filled out for two children, it was changed to read "one or more" at the American Embassy in Moscow. How did it happen?

"I can't answer that, except to say ...," Bob said, and Brenda completed the thought for him: "We believe in miracles."

They rolled through JFK Airport and headed for home, exhausted and exhilarated, eager to see their other children, enjoy the holidays and start their new lives together.