To Kidnap and Russify

IStories found almost 2.5 thousand orphans who may have been forcibly deported from Ukraine to Russia. Here’s how the authorities kidnap Ukrainian children and try to raise them as Russians

31 May 2023
(Updated 22 Jun 2023)
To Kidnap and Russify
Illustration: IStories

Russia has a state database on orphans and children left without parental care. It publishes profiles of children who can be taken into foster care or adopted. Important Stories found that children deported from Ukraine appeared in the base. The number of Ukrainian children openly sought for foster care by Russian authorities may be almost 2.5 thousand. The system doesn’t provide for finding Ukrainian relatives of these children who may take them into custody. In fact, Russia doesn’t provide an opportunity for the children to stay in Ukraine.


Together with Russia

“Brushes, paints, sketchbook — everything I need. I like it very much,” says the boy as he looks at the school kit presented by the volunteers. He’s wearing a cap that says “Together with Russia”. His name is Alexander Chizhkov, he is 9 years old, and according to the TV report he is a “forced migrant”. Russian authorities moved him along with other orphaned children from Donetsk.

IStories found that the profiles of Alexander and his two younger sisters, Valeria and Galina, were published in the Russian database of orphans. The base indicates that these children could be taken into custody but doesn’t mention that they are from Ukraine. The profiles appeared in the base presumably at the end of November 2022 — at that time their photos were added to the children's profiles (by Russian law the authorities are obliged to regularly update the photos of orphans, so the date of adding a child's profile to the base and the date of publication of his or her photo may be different. Editor's note).

The number of children from Ukraine who are officially sought for guardians or foster parents in Russia could be almost 2.5 thousand. IStories discovered this by analyzing data from the Ministry of Education: in 2022, 21 regions at once saw a dramatic increase in the number of children listed in the orphan database. Together, these regions added 2,450 more orphans to the base than the average for the previous six years. Most of these children were in Rostov Oblast (573), Moscow (460), and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast (388).

It’s not possible to state unequivocally that each of the 2.5 thousand “excess” orphans is originally from Ukraine. But IStories discovered that in at least two Russian regions children moved from Ukraine are registered in the orphan database. This is what may have increased the number of orphans in the base compared to pre-war numbers. Some of the children had been in Ukrainian orphanages before deportation, while others had parents who had been killed in the war.

“[Children from Ukraine] definitely have an impact. We also have orphans coming from the DPR and LPR. They change their place of residence and, accordingly, are immediately registered at their [new] place of residence and are obligatorily included in the base,” the Ministry of Social Policy of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast told us. The Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District told the same story: “We also have children who arrived from Donbass. They get new [orphan] profiles, then they get into our database, and they are put on the housing eligibility registry.”

System failure

Earlier in the text were presented comments by Ksenia Hell who called herself as a worker for the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, but according to the ICC, she has no association with the Court in any professional (or any other) capacity. We apologize to readers and to the ICC.

Previously, Russian authorities used to manually search for suitable guardians for orphans from Ukraine — there was no need to register the children in the database. “Families are carefully selected based on their experience, these are professional foster parents. And the children have the opportunity to get to know them in advance through video contact,” claimed Maria Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children's Rights in Russia. With the start of a full-scale war in Ukraine, this system failed.

Maria Lvova-Belova takes orphans from the so-called DPR to Russia to be fostered by Russian families. September 16, 2022.
Maria Lvova-Belova takes orphans from the so-called DPR to Russia to be fostered by Russian families. September 16, 2022.

The International Criminal Court (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.

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Institutions that have taken Ukrainian children regularly hold patriotic events. “And it’s only up to us adults to plant the seedlings of pride in our great country!!! The patriotism of our youth is the future of our Russia!!!” — says in the description of one of the events for May 9, which was held for the residents of the First Sanatorium Orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod. Alexander Chizhkov, 9, from Donetsk, and his two sisters are there, and their profiles are published in the orphan database.

Russian soldiers also visit this orphanage. “Who better than real warriors to tell the children about the terrible fighting going on now in the SMO [special military operation — Russian state euphemism using by the authorities instead of ‘war'] zone. They, like no one else, know how our guys show heroism and courage on the front lines!!! It is very important for children to get information from those very lips, from those very people, from our heroes who take part [in war] themselves, and not somewhere on the pages of the Internet!!! And what is important, our guys, graduates of the orphanage, also volunteered at the front in the SMO zone!!!” — the description of the meeting between the military and the children says.

“We are the ones who remove fascism from Ukrainian land. Fascists, enemies, nazis,” is how the military themselves explain why the children ended up in Russia.

Children from the orphanage at a meeting with the military
Children from the orphanage at a meeting with the military
Photo: First Sanatorium Orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod
Children are taught to weave a camouflage net
Children are taught to weave a camouflage net
Photo: First Sanatorium Orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod

Children from the orphanage are also taught to weave camouflage nets for the military. “Weaving a camouflage net is a laborious task, and children's hands weave kindness and love into each of its cells, so such protection is more reliable than any armor!!” — says the photo report.

Graduates of the orphanage, which houses children deported from the Donetsk region, are themselves involved in the war against Ukraine. The administration of the orphanage uses their photos to advertise the contract service: “Looking into the eyes of our boys, listening to them, with pride you realize that they are no longer those naughty and mischievous boys, but serious grown men, real sons of our Fatherland!!!! And if you, like our boys, are ready to stand up for the defense of the Motherland, read information about contract service in the armed forces.”

When asked how the 9-year-old Aleksander and his sisters who were taken from Donetsk are feeling, the deputy director of the orphanage, Larisa Grishanova, answers that they are “fine,” but then adds: “The children, of course, have a mental disorder. While he was in ‘Lastochka’ [social-rehabilitation center for minors in Nizhny Novgorod], the boy was repeatedly in the psychiatric hospital. He works with a psychologist every day because his nervous system is damaged,” she says. The child's profile says he is ‘an active, outgoing boy.’ — You know, neither Donetsk nor Donbass is completely unrelated here,” Grishanova said, referring to the fact that the war in Ukraine did not affect the children. — This is just such a family, a broken-down, dysfunctional family.”

Among these children are not only those who were removed from orphanages, but also the so-called “combat orphans” — children whose parents were killed in action after the full-scale invasion to Ukraine began. “Of all the children who arrived, I think only one was a real orphan, the rest had parents who died,” the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District told IStories. — Educational psychologists worked with some of them, because they were telling such horrible stories. They were brought to the gun show, and the children asked to hold a machine gun. We asked them, ‘Why do you need to hold a gun?’ They said, ‘I only used to load cartridges, but never held a machine gun’, can you imagine? The child came from there, from the combat operations, he was loading live ammunition into the weapons”.

From Ukraine to the Far North

Neglected children taken from Ukraine are actively being moved: they 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, there were almost 4,400 orphans and neglected children in Russia, including children from the annexed regions. The Russian side claims that “at various times there were 1.5-2.5 thousand children from dangerous areas of Donbass on Russian territory”. This corresponds to the number of “excess” orphans discovered by IStories and registered in the Russian database. The mechanism for redistributing children also differs from region to region.

9-year-old Alexander and his sisters, whose profiles IStories found in the database of orphans, were originally placed in the “Lastochka” social-rehabilitation center for juveniles in Nizhny Novgorod. According to Yekaterina Pergalova, head of the center, the children had been there for over a year, and in early May of 2023 they were transferred to the First Sanatorium Orphanage in the same city. The deputy director of the orphanage, Larisa Grishanova, told IStories that the children come from a dysfunctional family: “The mother does not participate [in their upbringing] — she was drinking in Donetsk and still does. The father is, I think, 70 or 72 years old.”

Alexander, 9, who was taken from Donetsk to Nizhny Novgorod
Alexander, 9, who was taken from Donetsk to Nizhny Novgorod
Photo: Ministry of Social Policy of Nizhny Novgorod Region

According to Grishanova, they have no other relatives who could take the children with them. When asked if they were looking for a foster family or guardians, she said that “it’s hard to talk about that”: allegedly, “everything hasn’t been solved yet” with the mother. Despite this, they have already been entered into the database of orphans. The children's profiles indicate that the mother and father are restricted in their rights by court order — such a decision is made if it is dangerous to leave the child with the parents due to circumstances beyond their control (for example, chronic illness or mental disorder). If the parents' behavior doesn’t change, they may be deprived of their parental rights after six months.

A total of 14 children taken from Ukraine were admitted to the Lastochka Center in Nizhny Novgorod. According to the director of the center, by May 2023 not a single deported child remained there: they were either transferred to other institutions or taken away by parents and other relatives in the occupied territories. The official claims that none of them ended up in foster care. “We have only gone to blood families. To get someone taken in by foster parents, we didn't have any,” she says.

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 [the exact number of deportees there is unknown, but in 2022, 71 more children than usual were registered in the region's database. — Editor's note]. According to local officials, the children were sent to the region by agreement with the authorities of the so-called DPR.

The children categorically refused to come here. You can't take them by force. They were afraid to go somewhere to the Far North, where we live.
an employee of the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District

“They were temporarily in the Rostov region. Initially it was decided that they had to come here, but the children categorically refused. You can't take them by force. They were afraid to go somewhere to the Far North where we live. One part came, then two weeks after the first children arrived, they kept calling [the other children] on Skype, showed them everything that was going on here, and the rest were happy to come,” the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District says.

Officials claim that not a single orphan taken from Ukraine to the region ended up in an orphanage: the district authorities and the annexed DPR have agreed that all the children will be settled in families.

For example, last year the Druzhinins family from Salekhard, which already had 13 children, took several orphans from Ukraine into their care. The children were sent to study at the local school. “In general, as a mother, I'm very happy that now school’s going to introduce the flag raising ceremonies 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 for them, and I am very happy,” said Olga Druzhinina, who took Ukrainian orphans into her care.

One of the children who came into the Druzhinins family was filmed in a propaganda piece. It told how Nikita Dyachenko, who entered his first year at college, spent his first scholarship on medicine for the mobilized. “He came from Donbass, so he knows it’s a must,” explains Olga Druzhinina.

By December 2022, there were 21 children in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District families. According to a department official, children continue to arrive in the district.

“System doesn’t provide that children will be returned”

After the arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova were issued, Russian authorities began to return children taken from Ukraine little by little. However, this applies mainly to those who have parents or guardians in Ukraine. The situation with orphaned children is worse: as a rule, they don't have legal representatives who could come to Russia to pick them up. The Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, Iryna Vereshchuk, stated that Ukraine is ready to pick up departed orphaned children at the Russian border with any European country, but Russian authorities don’t discuss their return.

Meeting with the Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova on February 16, 2023
Meeting with the Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova on February 16, 2023

When asked if the authorities plan to return the children to Ukraine, the Department of Education of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District answers: “They have the right to return. But they, like all orphans in our country, enjoy all the benefits and payments. <...> Look, 17-year-olds came here and there were immediately allocated money for this child, so that when he came of age he would be given a place to live. It was nice to see that the child already got an apartment, and where he wanted it.”

Editor: Alesya Marokhovskaya