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From Russia with love

By Hannah Norton

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PUBLISHED: Alex Gilbert's book of his journey from his Russian roots.
PUBLISHED: Alex Gilbert's book of his journey from his Russian roots.

Alex Gilbert was rescued from a Russian orphanage as a blonde-haired and chubby-cheeked 2-year-old. Nearly 20 years later, the former Whangarei Boys' High School student travelled across the world in search of his birth parents. Now 22, Alex, has written a book about his journey. He talked to Hannah Norton.

IT WAS 1994 when Whangarei couple Janice and Mark Gilbert travelled to an orphanage in Archangelsk in Russia with the hope of adopting children.

There they met Alex, and another 2-year old, Andrei, and took both boys back to Whangarei for their new life.

"Janice saw Alex and immediately said, 'our little prince'," Mark said.

"We really wanted to give them a chance of life, because I don't know what sort of life they would have had in Russia.

"I remember when we were leaving, looking up, and there were all these little faces. I would have loved to have taken the whole lot with us because I just felt for the poor little souls."

Alex and Andrei grew up in Whangarei, attending Boys' High. Alex went on to study at South Seas Film and Television School, before getting a job as a cameraman at Choice TV in Auckland. His brother now lives in Wellington.

Alex said his parents, who still live in Whangarei, had always been honest with him about his birthplace.

"To me and my brother, they've always said, 'you two are adopted' -- since I remember, and they always had Russian things."

Alex, unlike Andrei, has always wanted to know more about his birth parents.

"It was wanting to know what was behind closed doors. I've always been curious to know who they are and what they do."

So after turning 21, he set out to find them. Armed only with his birth mother's name -- which appeared on his adoption papers -- he joined a social media group of people in Russia with the same last name.

Eventually, his searching paid off. He tracked his mother down to an area called Rybinsk, 300km from Moscow.

"It was opening a door of mystery, that's finally been opened after all these years."

Alex contacted TVNZ's Sunday programme and then, armed with a Russian-based camera crew, set out to meet his birth parents.

Janice and Mark, although supportive on their son's journey, were worried at the same time.

"The anxiety I have is of him being hurt by rejection," Mark told current affairs TV programme Sunday.

They were also worried Alex might never come back.

"He might want to live there and, if he chooses to do that, I've got to respect his choices," he said. "We'd really hate for that to happen ... he's a huge part of our lives."

Alex himself was slightly worried he might be drafted into the army on arrival, as he is a passport holder of the old Soviet Union. But it was a risk he was willing to take.

When he arrived, Alex found Russia to be "a different world". He knew little Russian and could only communicate through a translator.

"It was a bit of a culture shock. I saw a lot of poor people," he said.

His birth mother, Tatiana, lives in a 20sq m apartment in Rybinsk with her husband. Initially, the meeting was "quite awkward".

"She was really quiet. She didn't know what to say -- she denied having me at first."

Now 42, Tatiana told Alex she fell pregnant with him when she was 18, after a fling with a soldier. She also said that the name she'd written down for his father on his birth certificate was a fake one.

The name of his father was actually Mikhail, who now lives in St Petersburg with his wife and new baby girl.

So off Alex flew to St Petersburg and was delighted to find the reception from Mikhail much warmer than that of Tatiana.

"We bonded right away. He said he would have raised me if he had known about me.

"We've been in touch since then using Google translate and Skype -- I talk to him every day.

"Whereas my birth-mum doesn't use a phone or the internet."

After only four days in Russia, Alex headed back to New Zealand with a lot of questions answered. "Finding out this information was really good for me."

But for him, New Zealand is still home. "It's a better lifestyle. I said to Dad, 'I'm so glad you guys adopted us'.

"Mum was so pleased to have me home. When I landed in Auckland I said, 'I'm back', and she said, 'thank God you're back'."

Alex decided to write down the emotional journey he'd had.

"I thought putting it into a book was a really good idea, so I can read it later in life as well."

The 45-page book, which he finished in February this year, was no easy feat for Alex.

"It was very hard. I have no idea how many times I had to proof read it, and it was quite hard to finish.

"I have never written anything apart from doing stuff in high school."

Despite this, his book -- titled My Russian Side -- had more than 500 downloads in 24 hours of it being loaded online.

Hard copies have also been printed, with editions in libraries across the country, including at his old school, Boys' High.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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