Extended family: Rescued twins honor brother and meet siblings in Russia
BY LARA BRENCKLE
Of The Patriot-News
For the first seven years of their lives, James and Jeziah Johnson's lives were measured by what they'd lost.
Now, more than six years after being adopted from a Russian orphanage and then rescued from an abusive American home, the boys, 13, and their adoptive mother, Phyllis Matthey-Johnson, are reclaiming some of what was taken from them all those years ago.
In October, Matthey-Johnson, James and Jeziah spent 14 days traveling through Siberia and Moscow. Russian airline Aeroflot paid for their round-trip flight.
The trip wasn't only about helping the twins find their roots.
It was also about honoring a promise Matthey-Johnson and the twins made after the death of the boys' brother Viktor, who was killed by their first adoptive family: They would return to Russia, honor Viktor's memory there and care for the children who remain at the orphanage where he had happy memories.
Using $3,500 collected from Viktor's Promise, the family's charity, and $1,200 of her own money, Matthey-Johnson filled six suitcases with essentials, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, vitamins, bandages and clothing.
They distributed the items among Viktor's orphanage in Svobodny, the baby home in Blagoveshchensk where the twins lived and the orphanage in a town nearby where their older siblings lived. The Russian government had deemed the siblings' parents neglectful and removed the children from their home.
The family also presented Viktor's orphanage with a plaque bearing his picture and a message in Russian.
"In loving memory of Vitcha Tulimov," it reads, using Viktor's nickname. Beneath the dates of his birth and death, the plaque says, "He was happy here."
Hailed in the local press and honored by a Russian victims' rights group for her efforts in protecting James and Jeziah, Matthey-Johnson appeared with the twins on Russian versions of CNN and Time magazine, the front pages of newspapers and a TV talk show in Moscow.
They drew so much attention because it was one of the first times Russian children adopted by American families returned to visit, Matthey-Johnson was told by her hosts.
"I got a little tired of the TV [camera] in my face," James said with a sigh.
But all of the lights and attention melted away when James and Jeziah got the chance, over several days, to meet their older sister, Lena, their older brothers, Sasha and Vanya, and their mother, Olga Tulimova.
Their father, Sergi Tulimov, died several years ago.
James said meeting his biological family was "super." Jeziah said he couldn't believe it when Sasha and Vanya walked into the room where the Johnsons were taking part in a news conference.
"I was like, they can't be my brothers," Jeziah said. "I was thinking they were too old."
But with one look at the four of them, it's easy to tell it's true, Matthey-Johnson said.
James is the spitting image of Sasha, and Jeziah and Vanya look alike, she said.
The four warmed up to each other immediately, though it wasn't until all the Tulimovs and Johnsons traveled to Moscow for the TV show that they got to spend quality time together.
The visit to the twins' hometown of Busse, where Olga Tulimova lives, was sobering.
The town, really just a collection of houses populated by mostly older women on the Russian frontier, is just across the Amur River from China.
Olga Tulimova greeted her sons and their adoptive mother with hugs and some surprising news.
She looked at James and said, through a translator, that he was older by five minutes.
For years, the Johnsons had been told Jeziah was older by 14 minutes.
While in Busse, they were also able to get the twins' medical histories and see pictures of the twins' father, aunts and grandparents.
"I feel like I have a much bigger family now," James said with a smile.
The trip also included visits to an English-speaking school, where the boys were peppered with questions about life in America, a tour of Red Square, picnics and a visit with the Sea Scouts, a group for boys similar to Boy Scouts.
"When I was a kid, I used to go in the hallway and tuck my head and wait for the inevitable," Matthey-Johnson said, referring to escalation of the Cold War. "And now here we are crawling around a Russian ship with photographers."
It was a breathtaking adventure that at once brought the family some closure on the past and opened doors to improved relationships in the future, she said. "Everybody couldn't have been more gracious," Matthey-Johnson said. "They were so happy we'd come."
LARA BRENCKLE: 255-8154 or firstname.lastname@example.org