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'Switzerland would fit into Tyumen region in Siberia seven times. But it doesnt't want to. '

The American girl caught between two worlds

By Anna Liesowska
27 October 2013

Neglected by her parents as well as a 'stepfather from hell': Will no-one help this teenager stranded 6,000 miles from home?

Sofia overstepped the mark, stealing more than $1000 from the home of her mother and lawyer stepfather James 'Jim' Roberts. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

One day Hollywood may make a movie about the case of Sofia Petrova, who pleads in a new and emotional video for her mother - an academically brilliant Soviet-born US citizen - to allow her to return to the family home in Virginia. 

For now Sofia's pain remains raw. For more than two years, as we revealed last week, this 17 year old girl has been banished to Siberia, and all her appeals to mother Natalia Roberts, 36, an assistant professor evidently widely respected in the US, have gone unheeded. 

Now more details have emerged of this case. No-one - least of all Sofia - is pretending she was an angel in the period before she was sent to Siberia.

In our video, she apologises once again. But it seems this is not enough for her stepfather who lately has stopped the girl from communicating with her mother, or so it seems from his step-parenting-by-Facebook. 

Sofia overstepped the mark, stealing more than $1000 from the home of her mother and lawyer stepfather James 'Jim' Roberts. She was accused of being into drugs, something she vehemently denies. Apparently, she invited boys home, breaching the rigid rules of her home as set down by the man her mother married. Arguably, Sofia would be tough to handle for many parents, as are lots of adolescents: but did her punishment fit the crime? Was there no other way to deal with her supposed sins? 

Long ago she admitted her wrong-doing and promised to mend her ways. 

Sofia Petrova

No-one - least of all Sofia - is pretending she was an angel in the period before she was sent to Siberia. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

As we disclosed in our first story, she was sent a few days after her 15th birthday to Russia to meet her blood father Igor Petrov, a man who she hasn't seen since she was two. Sofia's mother had raised her from when she was a toddler as an American: so she spoke no Russian. In every meaningful sense, she was an American girl, though unlike her mother, she did not have a US passport. 

She was sent to Russia for a three week 'holiday', only later understanding that her mother was in no rush to have her back. 

Her father - who lives in the town of Berdsk and works coupling trains - seemed to be singularly ill-suited to take over parenting of a high maintenance teenager, and Sofia said he was violent towards her. Russian psychologists and teachers have expressed their concern about the girl being placed with him.

In the economically difficult mid-1990s, Sofia's mother Natalia found a way out of Siberia where she had received a high class education, leaving for the US. A year or so later she came back for her baby Sofia who she had left with Igor and his mother. She got together with another man who Sofia grew up believing to be her father.

Only much later did she discover the truth. She was fleetingly introduced to Igor via Skype before being sent to him by Natalia. She was passed back to a world her mother had long since rejected for her new existence in the US, and which she had no way of understanding.

Not that Sofia has not received genuine kindness and help in Siberia, from people deeply concerned over her plight. 

The Siberian Times has spoken to those who have done their best to help the girl - and Sofia's father Igor, who said he was given eight hours notice to fly to Moscow and collect his daughter. 

Zoya Rodina is director of lyceum No. 6 in Berdsk, where Sofia studied after being told she could not return to America. 

'When it became clear that Sofia will not return home in September, we called her father to come and discuss the question of girl's education,' she said. 'He came to school with Sofia and it was the first and the last time when he came here by himself. After that we just asked him to come and speak about their problems with Sofia.

'I saw a terrified and shy child. When we told her that her stay in Russia was prolonged and obviously she would not return before the beginning of school year, and she should think seriously about her Russian education... she just began to cry. Her eyes were full of tears. But we persuaded her and she began her study'. 

'She was a diligent girl. And you know, we work with different children, and we certainly see troubled teens. They can miss lessons without any reason, we see them smoking or drinking or something like this. A troubled teen is always visible. But for two years there was no single reason to think that Sofia was such a child. If the girl was reckless, she would not prepare for lessons the way she did.'

Of the decision to send her back to Siberia, she is unequivocal: 'I believe that this is a very harsh punishment for the child. It looks to me like a betrayal. I am also a mother, and my child is everything for me.'

School number 6 director Zoya Rodnina

Zoya Rodina, Berdsk No.6 lyceum. Picture: The Siberian Times

Of her relationship with Sofia's father, school director said: 'He seemed closed, aloof and yet a stranger for the girl. And Sofia was a stranger for him.'

Olga Kabanova, an English language teacher at the same school, and also an Honoгred Teacher of the Russian Federation, said: 'I remember Sofia from when she began studying in our school. The first things I noticed about her - after, naturally, very poor Russian and excellent English - were that she was quite malnourished and didn't have proper clothes. 

'Sofia's Russian is much better now - though it is still not on the level that would allow her to pass the unified state exam at the end of the school. One good thing her father did was that he signed her for the so-called 'individual programme', which means that a child studies away from the class and face to face with teachers. 

'Sofia is a smart girl, talented in subjects like maths and physics, but even with her dedication for studies she struggled with quite a number of subjects, like Russian history, Russian language, Russian literature, naturally because of the language. Still she is very interested in literature, she reads Shakespeare and other English language classic literature, I gave her also Russian classic masterpieces. She likes poetry, Pushkin and Lermontov, and even writes poetry by herself. And also make some notes which are well written.'

The teacher help Sofia by personally translating materials into English so she could understand better.

'I think Sofia takes a lot after her mother in that she likes subjects like maths,' she said. 'Her mother is a very smart young woman. She studied at Novosibirsk's famous School of Physics and Mathematics, which is known for selecting the most talented teenagers around former Soviet union, and she later graduated from Novosibirsk State University. I know she is now an assistant university professor in America'.

Teacher Olga Kabanova

Olga Kabanova, an English language teacher from Berdsk No.6 lyceum. Picture: The Siberian Times 

This dedicated teacher took it upon herself to telephone Natalia and warn her of the harm her daughter faced. 

'I expected to have a good dialogue with her when I called her to discuss what I believed were a number of alarming situations around Sofia, like a lack of food in her father's house, and his alcohol habit. I realised it was a personal family affair, but since I was taking quite a part in Sofia's life then, I thought it was a good idea to share my concerns with her mother. 

'Our conversation was quite brief and intense. Basically, I was shouted at for intruding into her family life. 'You are disturbing me, and I am pregnant now!', she shouted at me. Of course that was the last thing I wanted... I apologised and stopped the chat. 

'But watching Sofia so lonely here, and being so American with everything she was doing - she was just too American, too open, too soft, too different to the local mentality, and however hard she tried she didn't fit in, she remained an alien, it made me feel very uneasy about letting this situation to drag on. 

'I decided to try calling her mother again. By then Sofia's little half brother was born, and I thought perhaps her mother would have a bit more time for a chat. But she didn't. It was another uneasy conversation, with Natalia blaming Sofia for being unable to find a common language with her Russian family here in Siberia, unable to blend in, unable to get better Russian language, guilty, wrong, and bad. 

'Interestingly our chat began in English - which was fine for me since I am teaching it - but talking about blending into a Russian culture  from which Sofia had been taken out aged two and not using a single word of Russian seemed strange to me, and I asked Natalia to switch back to our native tongue. It was a very disappointing chat, which left me feel helpless and angry, since I saw a completely different picture here.

'I also went to see Sofia's father who works hard, but drinks also quite hard, who had no experience coping with a child and suddenly was given a 15 years old teenager, who allowed himself to enter Sofia's room being drunk and sat there for two hours speaking nonsense and using all kinds of derogatory words about Sofia's mother. How being a teenager was she supposed to suddenly blend in was beyond me. 

'I am not trying to deny nor justify what Sofia did in the past, but I think her punishment went way too far, and I feel truly upset and disturbed by her family in America remaining deaf and blind to what is happening to her.'

Number 6 school Berdsk Siberia

Number 6 school Berdsk Siberia

Lyceum No. 6  No. 6 in Berdsk, where Sofia studied after being told she could not return to America. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

Sofia's father's behaviour led to her leaving his flat - and almost ending up in an orphanage. 

'Her father's flat was not so big, with two living rooms in a nine storey building. It was a typical bachelor apartment, without latches on the doors of the bathroom, so he could rush into in any time when Sofia was taking shower. And he even did so a few times. We insisted that in her room repairs were made and bolts were put on the door to the bathroom and toilet', Olga Kabanova said. 'But do you know what he did after that? He punched through the wall in the toilet so that he can monitor what she was doing there. We came with the police to fix it'.

The Siberian Times has been shown Sofia's official complaint to the director of her school about her father, ten months after she was sent to Russia. 

'I refuse to live with Igor, because I think his mental state is not quite adequate, and the house where I live is not safe for me,' she said. 

'He can be aggressive and put pressure on me. During my living with him (since March 2011), he has three times actually attacked me and physically impacted. He grabbed me and pushed me with the force, and when I tried to call for help, he covered my mouth with his hand. He is constantly watching me in the house that increases the tension, I always have nothing to eat or drink. 

'I'm scared to live with him. His state can change dramatically, even when he is relatively calm. Sometimes he comes close enough to me and touches my face, so I feel uneasy. He needs treatment and I refuse to live with a man who can fall into unexpected aggression and to maintain such a lifestyle. 

'The main thing that disappointed me is that there are pornographic pictures, images of naked girls hanging on the wall in his room - and then there is a  picture of me attached among them. Also there is nowhere at home where I could lock'. 

Sofia Petrova

'Sofia's mother Natalia blamed her for being unable to find a common language with her Russian family here in Siberia, unable to blend in, unable to get better Russian language, guilty, wrong, bad'. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

Though she left his home, Sofia was persuaded to go back to live with him apparently under the impression that her mother would then permit her back to America, which would be more difficult had she been placed in an orphanage. Faced with such a situation, the school psychologist Tatiana Krasnoshchekova wrote to Sofia's mother Natalia last year, making claims which are her personal judgement as a professional, but which are not independently verified. 

'I am the psychologist of the lyceum, where Sofia studies,' she explained. 'Facts that I have learned about the girl's fate triggered in me a sense of bewilderment about the social responsibility of her family. Among the relatives in Russia, not one person is interested in her psychological comfort. Her father cannot and does not know how to create such conditions because of his inadequate mental state. 

'I met with him and made my professional opinion about him. He is not quite a full-fledged person mentally; for this reason, he has lived alone all his life. He was constantly cared for by his own family: they bought an apartment for him so that he lived separetely, and helped him financially from time to time.

'Over the years, his psychological health apparently worsened, and Sofia's appearance put an extra stress on him. He does not know how to keep the house, he is not well trained to look after himself. He is not used to cook or buy products on time, or keep the apartment clean. Sofia's arrival landed him with a number of new and unusual responsibilities. He wasted the money (you) sent (to pay for Sofia) by buying two expensive laptops.

'Sofia had to earn to pay for her own clothes. She worked at school during summer and gave private lessons. That allowed her to buy a warm winter coat. Her father does not give her money not only for school lunches, but also for basic hygiene supplies that are essential for every girl.

'Numerous conversations with Sofia's father gave no result. He would listen to teachers appeals, but few days afterwards he would start oppressing her again. 

'Sofia's relatives do not show any interest in her fate. (You) took the girl to give her permanent residence (in America), so no-one was ready for her re-appearance (in Russia). Although Sofia is a very smart, sensible girl, the continuous social stress in which she is living does not allow her to adapt to the full. 

'Having grown up in an environment of your country and formed as a person in America, with all the American socio-cultural skills, Sofia has no desire to adapt to the Russian environment. Therefore, to my professional opinion, she will not be able to successfully settle down here'.

Sofia Petrova

'She was just too American, too open, too soft, too different to the local mentality, and however hard she tried she didn't fit in, she remained an alien, it made me feel very uneasy about letting this situation to drag on'. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

One Russian professional familiar with the case has described James Roberts as a 'stepfather from hell', and there are concerns that the mother is unable to make rational judgements about her daughter because of pressure from him.

In a recent Facebook conversation with her, he told Sofia:

'There are no riddles. Be nice. Be respectful. Don't do drugs. Don't steal. Follow the rules of the parents and the house. You could comply with none of these rules here, so it we thought you could learn them with your father, at least you could not here. Sofia, I am speaking instead of your mother because you cannot have a conversation without yelling at her, threatening her and telling her what an awful person she is. She does not like this. This is not a riddle. It is clear. You do not have to quit, Sofia. All you have to do is change tacks. You continue trying to come back by threatening us. How will this make us think that you have become more respectful ? How about befriending your father. How about befriending your grandparents ? How about being respectful to them ? These are simple, easy things to do. They are not riddles.'

Sofia told him: 'Excuse me, but should we go look back at the phone recordings? Because I believe it wasn't me yelling, but rather it was her. And I never said that she was an awful person, because she isn't. Let's not put words into my mouth. And once again, I repeat. Igor is an ALCOHOLIC. Try to live with an alcoholic and tell me how you like it.'

Step-father wrote back: 'From my side Sofia, nothing has changed. You were told you have a way back when you arrived, and you are being told you have a way back now. Nothing has changed. Nothing new added or retracted. I am merely repeating now something I discussed at length with you once you arrived. The situation remains the same and your path back remains the same. There is no dialogue, only the repeating of path back given to you so long ago. The only difference is that you wanted it public, so I am publicly putting it on Facebook. It is publicly acknowledged. Your path back is simple, and it remains present today.

'You can come back based upon your actions. You can come back if your mother believes you are ready. Your friend Anastasiya, your friend Robert, your school counsellor, the embassy, the FBI, the reporters, none of them can bring you back. If you are one of the listed people, and if you care about Sofia, I would suggest that you can help her come back. You know the way. It is listed above. It is true and real. If you want to help her, then help her. What you are doing is not helping her.'

She tells him: 'Jim you are a lawyer, your job is to convince people that your client is innocent. It doesn't even matter if they are or not. You know very well how to persuade people. But remember, this isn't a courtroom.'

Sofia Petrova

'You can come back based upon your actions. You can come back if your mother believes you are ready. Your friend Anastasiya, your friend Robert, your school counsellor, the embassy, the FBI, the reporters, none of them can bring you back'. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

Igor Petrov declined to meet The Siberian Times, but he spoke on the telephone. He said that in March 2011 - 'two days before Sofia was due to get American citizenship' he heard from his ex-wife.

'Suddenly in the middle of the night there was a call saying: 'Meet your daughter, this is the number of the flight. I had no time to think. I had only eight hours to buy tickets and reach Moscow.'

He claimed that Sofia was sent to Siberia to avoid her 'deportation' from America possibly after a prosecution. The reasons are unclear.

'The child could have been deported. To prevent this, they found a way out. This was one of the key points.'

We could not verify this claim. When she arrived, he said, she was cold towards her Russian family. These were people she did not know, he acknowledged. 

'Do you know all the problems we had with her? She did not want to communicate neither with her cousin Ksenia, nor her other relatives. She simply did not want to. Her cousin is just one year older than her. She brought Sofia to Russian school, showed her everything, tried to talk to her, but it was useless. The child refused to contact with her relatives. It was her choice'.

He strongly denied claims he was aggressive to Sofia, did not properly care for her or exposed her to pornographic images. He also denied any mental issues. Her complaints about him had been probed by Russian investigators, he insisted, resulting in no legal action.

'There was an examination,' he said. 'They've been checking everything for three months, the specialists could find nothing illegal'.

Sofia Petrova

'She started smiling again and became more normal. With the help of God everything will be all right with her'. Picture: Sofia Petrova's facebook

Igor's explanation included a claim that Sofia could not return to the US because 'her mother is scared' and they only way to get round this would be for his daughter to legally reject her mother.

'She also could write a statement, like: 'I want to reject my mother and so on... And she will be immediately taken away by the Americans as an adopted daughter. But she doesn't want to. She knows about this way, but she loves her mother and will not do her any harm. And I will not write such statement and will not sign it'.

Igor Petrov said he had helped Sofia. 'She started smiling again and became more normal. With the help of God everything will be all right with her. And of course I had warm feelings towards her - why would I be solving all these problems otherwise? I could have let her live here and then send her back to America. I could have lied to Natalya that I could do nothing to help her with Sofia. Or else I could have just sent her to some international school, but I tried to help'. 

Igor also painted his daughter as manipulative and alleged her complaints had been rejected already by both the US embassy and the Russian children's ombudsman Pavel Astakhov. We could not verify this claim.

'One year ago and two years ago, she reached the embassy, she reached Astakhov, she sent all her complaints to them,' he said. 'She manipulates you; earlier on she got rejected everywhere she tried to complain, and now she is trying to manipulate you and is reaching to TV. If this doesn't help her, she would go and try somewhere else'. 

It is now more than two and a half years since Sofia was sent to another world of which she knew almost nothing. Given she is to all intents and purposes American, it is hard for the Russian authorities to provide for her and meet her cultural needs even if they are willing to help. The US authorities perhaps feel no obligations to her because she is not a US citizen (though we wonder why she is not, given her mother's status as an American citizen).

Sofia's parents and step-father seem ill-suited to the task of helping her. She seems to be completely lost between two worlds, a Russian-born American-bred teenager, who keeps calling for her mother's forgiveness.

Comments (22)

Elizabeth, she's a citizen of Russia. Now there's almost no way for a russian to become a resident of the USA unless he's very rich. Russian can also become a very good specialist in something (so good that such expertise is lacking in the U.S.) and try to get a job there (as Sofia's mother did). Sofia has this chance but it would be almost impossible for her to get such education here: she can hardly speak Russian, and she's alone and has to work all time, she has no time to learn. And even if she would cope with this she will hardly get a visa - there are another obstacles in your law. In short, probably Sofia will never come back.
Vyacheslav, Siberia
07/11/2013 05:28
how very sad that two manipulative parents can abuse a child like this and get away with it. She should emancipate herself from her parents and get back to the usa and sue them for child endangerment, and abandonment. Clearly they do not have the tools to be parents, and I believe they should be punished by a court of law for their deeds. My heart goes out to this child.
elizabeth, united states
06/11/2013 13:32
Why couldn't she apply for a student visa like her mother did?
Ally, USA
06/11/2013 06:24
Very poor article, Alexey. Dont think any conclusions made without talking to the girl and the father are representative especially when they are based on blaming a child for not accepting Russian reality. It's up to her to decide who does she want to be a friend with and what to eat and I totally take her side here because it was not her choice to come to Russia.
Kate, Russia
29/10/2013 00:46
Alexey, Novosibirsk
28/10/2013 17:31
Lost between two worlds is right. Whatever she's done, Sofia doesn't deserve what happened to her, not in a million years....
Tamara, New York City
28/10/2013 10:02
This is quite a remarkable story. Her mother has basically banished her and done so in a very smart way lThis is quite a remarkable and unfortunate story. Legally the girl has nothing, she's not a US citizen however she is born in Russia and does have a Russian passport, so as far as the US is concerned, she's Russian. Which means if her parents won't let her return before she turns 18, she'll be stuck. The only way she can go back after she turns 18 is through applying for residency and getting a permit. The latter is next to impossible without a boatload of cash or an employer in the US.
Jack, Europe
28/10/2013 08:28

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