An investigation by Russian independent news outlet Vazhnyye IstoriiImportant Stories found nearly 2,500 orphaned children who may have been forcibly deported from Ukraine and are being raised as Russians. There is no mechanism set up for their return.
MOSCOW — Russia has a state database on orphans and children left without parental care, which publishes profiles of children available for adoption. Russian independent news outlet Vazhnyye Istorii/Important Stories found that children deported from Ukraine appeared in the database.
The number of Ukrainian children openly sought for foster care by Russian authorities may be almost 2,500. The system does not facilitate searching for Ukrainian relatives of these children, nor does Russia provide the children with an opportunity to remain in Ukraine.
"Brushes, paints, an album — everything you need. I like it very much," says the boy as he examines the school kit donated by the volunteers. He has a cap on his head with "Together with Russia" written on it. He is 9-year-old Alexander Chizhkov, referred to in the TV report as a "forced migrant." Russian authorities removed him along with other orphaned children from Donetsk.
Important Stories found that the profile of Alexander and his two younger sisters, Valeria and Galina, was published in the All-Russian data bank of orphans. It indicated that they could be taken into custody. The bank does not mention that these children were taken from Ukraine.
Arriving from Donbas
In 2022, the number of children registered in the database of orphans increased dramatically in 21 Russian regions. Together, these regions added 2,450 more orphans to the bank than the average for the previous six years. Some children had been in Ukrainian orphanages before deportation, while others had parents who died at war.
"We also have orphans arriving from Donbas. They change their residence, and immediately, they are registered at the place of residence and are mandatorily included in the bank," the Ministry of Social Policy of the Nizhny Novgorod region told Important Stories.
The Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District told the same story: "We also have children from Donbas who came here. For them, we create new profiles and include them in the data bank".
Xenia Hell of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor's office in Hague tells Important Stories that the system for deporting children from Ukraine began in 2014.
The ultimate goal of this system is to acquire as many additional Russian citizens as possible.
"Taking out even two thousand children is a huge task that requires a well-coordinated and organized infrastructure. They've kidnapped more children than this system set up in 2014 can adopt. All the couples who used to take children without problems have already taken some, and there is nowhere to put them," explains Xenia Hell.
The ICC considers the forcible deportation of children from the occupied territories a crime. In March, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, commissioner for children's rights. They are considered responsible for organizing a system in which children are taken deep into the territory of the aggressor country without the possibility of returning or finding relatives, Xenia Hell says.
"Children are people too, but no one is interested in their opinion. They are treated as expendable material: torn from the environment in which they were and forcibly placed in an environment where they will dissolve. The ultimate goal of this system is to acquire as many additional Russian citizens as possible," says Hell.
Russian President Putin meets with Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova
The institutions where Ukrainian children end up in Russia regularly hold patriotic events.
Russian soldiers also come to this orphanage. "Who better than real warriors to tell children about the terrible fighting in the special operation zone? They know better than anyone how our guys show heroism and courage on the front lines! Children need to receive information from those very people, from our heroes who take part themselves, not somewhere on the Internet! And what is essential, our guys, graduates of the orphanage, also volunteered at the front!" reads the description of the military meeting with the pupils.
"We are the ones removing fascism from the Ukrainian land. Fascists, enemies, Nazis" is how the military explains why Ukrainian children ended up in Russia.
Pupils of the orphanage are also taught to weave camouflage nets for the military.
"Weaving a camouflage net is a painstaking task, and children's hands are woven into each of its cells with kindness and love, so such protection is more reliable than any armor!!!" says the photo report.
Among these children are not only those who were removed from orphanages but also the so-called "combat orphans" — children whose parents were killed during the fighting already after the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
From Ukraine to the far north
Children removed from Ukraine are sent from one region to another, returned to the occupied territories, and transferred between institutions. Because of this, it is difficult to understand their exact number. According to Ukraine, by the end of March 2023, Russia had almost 4,400 orphans and abandoned children, including children from the annexed regions.
The Russian side claims there were 1,500-2,500 at various times. This corresponds to the number of orphans discovered by Important Stories and registers in the Russian database. The mechanism for the redistribution of children also differs from region to region.
Not all children were lucky to stay in central Russia: several dozen orphans ended up in the far north, in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District. According to local officials, the children were sent to the region by agreement with the so-called Donetsk People's Republic authorities.
Officials claim that not a single orphan brought from Ukraine to Yamalo-Nenets ended up in an orphanage: district authorities have agreed to place all the children with families.
"In general, as a mother, I'm very happy that now they're going to introduce the flag raising every week and that the children will learn the anthem of Russia by heart. I'm very happy about that. And lectures on patriotism — I directly asked the administration, and I am very glad," said Olga Druzhinina, who took Ukrainian orphans into her care.
No suggestion of a return
After the arrest warrants for Putin and L'vova-Belova were issued, Russian authorities soon began to return children taken from Ukraine. However, this applies mainly to those who have parents or guardians in Ukraine. The situation with orphaned children is worse: as a rule, they do not have legal representatives to pick them up in Russia.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, stated that Ukraine is ready to pick up orphaned children at the Russian border with any European country, but Russian authorities are not talking about their return.
"This system is designed for their full integration into Russia. It does not assume that the children will be returned. Lvova-Belova is the direct architect of this system. It was in her power to create a mechanism for a possible return and restoration of the original documents if one wished to find relatives in Ukraine. From the testimonies in open sources and at the prosecutor's disposal, it follows that she is the person who decided to create this system so soulless and criminal," says Xenia Hell.