IStories or Important Stories (an independent Russian website specialising in investigative journalism) stated that nearly 2,500 orphans who could have been forcibly deported from Ukraine have been discovered. We reveal how Russian authorities kidnap Ukrainian children and attempt to raise them as Russians.
In Russia, there is a state database of orphaned children and children who are left without parental care. Profiles of children available for guardianship or adoption are published there. Important Stories has discovered that children deported from Ukraine have appeared in the database. The number of Ukrainian children openly sought for adoption by Russian authorities can reach nearly two and a half thousand individuals. The system does not involve searching for Ukrainian relatives of these children who could take them under their care. Essentially, Russia does not provide the opportunity for these children to remain in Ukraine.
Together with Russia
“Paintbrushes, paints, an album — everything I need. I really like it,” says the boy, examining the school set given to him by volunteers.
He wears a cap with the inscription “Together with Russia.” This is 9-year-old Alexander Chyzhkov, referred to as a “forced refugee” in the television report. Russian authorities transported him, along with other orphaned children, from Donetsk.
Important Stories has discovered that the profiles of Alexander and his two younger sisters, Valeria and Galyna, are published in the all-Russian database of orphaned children. It indicates that they can be taken under guardianship. The fact that these children were transported from Ukraine is not mentioned in the database. The profiles appeared in the database, presumably at the end of November 2022 when their photographs were added to the profiles (according to the law, authorities are required to regularly update the photographs of orphaned children, so the date of adding the child’s profile to the database and the date of publishing their photo may differ).
The number of children from Ukraine officially being sought for guardianship or adoption in Russia can reach nearly two and a half thousand individuals. Important Stories discovered this by examining the data from the Ministry of Education: in 2022, the number of children registered in the database of orphaned children sharply increased in 21 regions. Together, these regions added 2,450 more orphans to the database than the average for the previous six years. The highest number of such children appeared in the Rostov region (573 children), Moscow (460), and the Nizhny Novgorod region (388).
It cannot be definitively stated that each of the 2,400 “excess” children was specifically deported from Ukraine. However, Important Stories has discovered that children transported from Ukraine are being registered in the database of orphans in at least two Russian regions. This could be the reason for the increase in the number of orphaned children in the database compared to pre-war figures. Some of these children were residing in Ukrainian orphanages before deportation, while others lost their parents during the hostilities.
“Children from Ukraine certainly have an impact. We also receive orphaned children from self-proclaimed DPR and LPR. When they change their place of residence, they are immediately registered at their new address, which automatically puts them into the database,” the Ministry of Social Policy of the Nizhny Novgorod region informed Important Stories.
The same information was shared by the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug: “We also have children coming from Donbas. They have their profiles created anew, they are included in our database, and they are registered for housing.”
The system of deporting children from Ukraine began operating as early as 2014, as described by Ksenia Khell to Important Stories. Ksenia Khell is involved in researching the activities of the International Criminal Court in The Hague at the University of Vienna. (Previously, it was stated in the text that Ksenia Khell works at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, but according to the ICC, she is not an active employee of the court and is not associated with the ICC in any way. We apologize to the readers and the International Criminal Court). Typically, the Russian authorities used to manually search for suitable guardians for orphans from Ukraine, without the need to input the children’s data into the database.
“Families are carefully selected based on their experience; they are professional foster parents. And the children have the opportunity to get to know them through video communication,” claimed Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia.
With the onset of full-scale war in Ukraine, this system experienced a malfunction.
“Transporting even two thousand children is a tremendous task that requires a well-coordinated and organized infrastructure. They have abducted more children than this system, created in 2014 with guardians, is capable of accommodating. All the couples who used to readily accept children have already taken someone, and there is nowhere to place them. Adding children to the database is one way to address this problem,” explains Ksenia Khell.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) considers the forcible deportation of children from the occupied territories as a crime. In March, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights. They are held responsible for organizing such a system in which children are taken deep into the territory of the aggressor country without providing opportunities for their return or the search for their relatives.
“Children are also human beings, but no one cares about their opinion. Even if it’s an extreme situation and they are evacuated from the bombings, it is regulated by international conventions: they are taken out within a certain distance and decisions are made about what to do with them under relatively safe conditions. Children are treated as expendable material: they are forcibly removed from the environment they were in and placed in an environment where they will be assimilated. The ultimate goal of this system is to acquire as many additional citizens of Russia as possible,” explains Ksenia Khell.
In the institutions where unattended children from Ukraine were taken, patriotic events are regularly organized.
“And only we, adults, are obligated to instill a sense of pride for our great country!!! The future of our Russia lies in the patriotism of our youth!” — says the description of one of the events held for the wards of the First Sanatorium Children’s Home in Nizhny Novgorod. There, 9-year-old Sasha Chyzhkov from Donetsk and his two sisters are located, and their profiles are published in the database of orphaned children.
Russian military personnel also visit this children’s home.
“Who else but real soldiers can tell children about the terrible hostilities taking place in the self-proclaimed republics? They, more than anyone, know how our guys demonstrate heroism and courage on the front lines!!! It is crucial for children to draw information directly from those mouths, from those people, from our heroes who are personally involved, rather than from some internet pages!! And importantly, our guys who graduated from the children’s home have also volunteered and gone to the front lines in the self-proclaimed republics!” says the description of the meeting between the military and the wards.
“We are eradicating fascism from Ukrainian soil. Fascists, enemies, Nazis,” this is how soldiers themselves explain why the children ended up in Russia.
The children of the children’s home are being taught to weave camouflage nets for the military.
“Weaving a camouflage net is a meticulous task, and in each of its meshes, kindness and love are woven by children’s hands, making this protection stronger than any armor!” says the photo report.
Graduates of the institution, where the deported children from the Donetsk region are housed, are themselves involved in the war against Ukraine. The management of the children’s home uses their photographs to promote military service by contract: “Looking into the eyes of our boys, listening to them, you proudly realize that they are no longer mischievous little boys, but serious and mature men, true sons of our Motherland! And if you are also willing to defend your homeland like our boys, then familiarize yourself with the information about military service by contract in the armed forces,” they write on the social media accounts of the children’s home.
When asked about how 9-year-old Sasha and his sisters, who were evacuated from Donetsk, are feeling, Larisa Grishanova, the deputy director of the children’s home, responds that they are “fine,” but immediately adds, “Of course, the children have psychological disturbances. The boy, while he was in Lastochka (a social rehabilitation center for minors in Nizhny Novgorod), was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital multiple times. He has daily sessions with a psychologist because his nervous system is disturbed,” she explains.
The child’s profile indicates that he is an active, sociable boy.
“You know, neither Donetsk nor Donbas have anything to do with it, Grishanova continues, implying that the war in Ukraine has not affected the children’s condition. It’s just such a dysfunctional, neglected family.”
Among these children are not only those who were evacuated from orphanages but also the so-called “war orphans” — children whose parents died during the hostilities after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“Among all the children who came to us, I think only one was actually an orphan, the rest had their parents killed there. Some of them had worked with pedagogical psychologists because they told such horrifying things. They were brought to a weapons exhibition, and the children were asked to hold a rifle. We asked them, ‘Why do you want to hold a rifle?’ They said, ‘I only loaded the bullets, I never held a rifle, can you imagine?’ The child came from there, from the combat zone, and he loaded the bullets into the magazine, real bullets,” the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug told Important Stories.
Children’s transfer from Ukraine to the Far North
The unaccompanied children moved out from Ukraine are actively relocated: they are sent from one region to another, returned to the occupied territories, and moved between institutions. Because of this, it is difficult to determine their exact number. According to Ukraine’s data, by the end of March 2023, there were nearly 4,400 orphans and unattended children in Russia, including children from the annexed regions. The Russian side claims that “at different times, there were 1,500-2,500 children from the dangerous areas of Donbas on the territory of Russia.” This corresponds to the number of “excess” orphaned children identified by Important Stories and registered in the Russian database. The mechanism for redistributing children in different regions also varies.
9-year-old Alexander and his sisters, whose profiles were discovered by Important Stories in the database of bank of orphaned children, initially ended up in the Lastochka social rehabilitation center for minors in Nizhny Novgorod. According to the head of the center, Ekaterina Pergaleva, the children stayed there for over a year, and in early May 2023, they were transferred to the First Sanatorium Children’s Home in the same city. Larisa Grishanova, the deputy director of the children’s home, told Important Stories that the children come from a troubled family: “The mother is not involved [in their upbringing – ed.] — she drinks alcohol both in her Donetsk and here. The father is around 70 or 72 years old.”
According to Grishanova, they have no other relatives who could take the children in. When asked if they are looking for a foster family or guardians for the children, she stated that “it’s difficult to say” and claimed that the situation with the mother is still unresolved. However, the children have already been included in the database of orphaned children. The children’s profiles indicate that both the mother and father have limited parental rights according to a court decision. Such a decision is made if it is deemed unsafe for the child to remain with the parents due to circumstances beyond their control (such as chronic illness or mental disorder). If the parents’ behavior does not change, they may be deprived of parental rights in six months.
A total of 14 children, who were deported from Ukraine, ended up in the Nizhny Novgorod center Lastochka. According to the center’s director, by May 2023, there were no deported children left there: they were either transferred to other institutions or taken by parents and other relatives in the occupied territories. The official claims that none of them were placed in foster families.
“Only blood relatives took them in. We didn’t have any foster parents to take them,” she says.
Not all children were “fortunate” enough to stay in central Russia: several dozen orphans ended up in the Far North, specifically in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (the exact number of those deported there is unknown, but in 2022, the region registered 71 more children in the database than usual). According to local officials, the children were sent to the region with the authorities’ approval from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
“They were temporarily in the Rostov Oblast. Initially, it was decided that they should come here, but the children categorically refused. You can’t force them to come here. They were scared to go somewhere to the Far North, where we live. One group arrived, and then a couple of weeks after the first children arrived, they constantly communicated with [other children – ed.] on Skype, showing them everything that was happening here, and the rest willingly came,” shared the officials of the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
The officials claim that not a single orphan transported from Ukraine to Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug ended up in an orphanage: the authorities of the district and the annexed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) agreed that all the children would be placed in families.
For example, the Druzhinin family from Salekhard, who already had 13 children, took several Ukrainian orphans under their care last year. The children were enrolled in the local school.
“As a mother, I am very happy that now they will raise the flag every week, and the children will learn the Russian anthem by heart. I am very pleased with that. And lectures on patriotism — I directly asked the administration for them, and I am very happy,” said Olga Druzhinina, who took Ukrainian orphans under her guardianship.
One of the children who joined the Druzhinin family was featured in a propagandistic story. It told how Nikita Dyachenko, a first-year student at a college in Yamal, used his first scholarship to buy medicine for mobilized individuals.
“He came from Donbas, so he knows what’s needed,” explains Olga Druzhinina.
By December 2022, there were 21 children in families in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to a department employee, children continue to arrive in the region.
The system does not provide for the return
After the issuance of an arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova, the Russian authorities have gradually started returning the children who were taken out of Ukraine, according to Ksenia Khell. However, this mainly applies to those who have parents or guardians in Ukraine. The situation is worse for orphaned children: typically, they do not have legal representatives who could come to Russia to retrieve them. Irina Vereshchuk, the Minister for Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, stated that Ukraine is ready to receive the deported orphaned children at the Russian border with any European country, but the Russian authorities do not mention their return.
“This system is designed for their [Ukrainian children – ed.] full integration into Russia. It does not envision the return of children. Lvova-Belova is the direct architect of this system. It was within her power to create a mechanism for possible return, to restore the original documents and, if desired, to find relatives in Ukraine. From the testimonies available in open sources and at the disposal of the prosecutor, it can be inferred that she is the person who made the decision to create this heartless and criminal system,” says Ksenia Khell.
When asked whether the authorities plan to return the children to Ukraine, the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug responds: “They have the right to return. However, like all orphaned children in our region, they benefit from all the privileges and allowances. For example, when 17-year-olds arrive, funds are immediately allocated for these children so that they can be provided with housing upon reaching adulthood. It was gratifying to see that the child had already received an apartment, and moreover, in the location they desired. We have cooperation with Tyumen, which means that they can obtain an apartment not only in our region but also in Tyumen, wherever they wish.”
The Important Stories publication has access to profiles of over 37,000 children published in the all-Russian database of orphaned children.
Originally posted by Katerina Bonch-Osmolovskaya on Important Stories, translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website