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“I Want to Go Home”

Hundreds of children who were taken from Donbas to Russia are stuck in the Russian orphan system. An investigation by IStories and Verstka

3 Apr 2024
“I Want to Go Home”
Illustration by IStories

The Russian authorities have ceased providing updates on their status, and Ukraine has been without information about them since 2014. Journalists from Verstka and Important Stories found 285 profiles from the removed children in Russia's federal orphan database, confirmed the identity of each child, and talked to them.

Names of minors and some geographical names in this text have been changed for security purposes.

Translated by Verstka.

Evacuation. "We're leaving for three days"

"Everything was happening fast, and no one realized what was wrong. We were told to pack our essentials because we were leaving for three days. The teachers helped to pack small bags, and the next day everyone was already seated in buses," - this is how 17-year-old Marina Kramorova recalls February 18, 2022.

On that day, all of the 234 children at boarding school No. 4 were evacuated from the town of Amvrosiyivka to the Kursk region. Marina was fleeing the place where she and her older brothers had lived for seven years - since the second grade. Their foster mother divorced her husband, and, was unable to support the children on her own, and they ended up in a boarding facility. Marina does not remember her biological parents who were residents of Mariupol. On February 18 and 19, another large group of orphans from Donetsk went to the Rostov region.

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"We were told to get dressed and to grab our belongings. So we left and it was unclear exactly how long," says 15-year-old Alyona Ovcharenko. Even a year before this urgent evacuation, she was a "home child" - that's what the orphanage system calls children who lived with their biological families. Alyona and her twin sister Nastya were raised by their father.

"He worked as a construction worker, they lived in the center of Donetsk, and everything was going fine. But one day he suddenly fell ill. It turned out that there was fluid in his lungs, and he died," their aunt tells the story of the girls. "After that, the sisters were sent to their mother, but she couldn't handle it. She is not well off; she has drinking problems. So the girls were taken to an orphanage together with their younger brother, who lived with their mother. She had time to improve but she was in no hurry to visit the children. I think she only visited once."

In February 2022, Alyona and Nastya wrote to their aunt that they were now staying at the Romashka sports and recreation center near the town of Taganrog. Together with them, according to various reports, there were about 400 other orphans from several Donetsk institutions, as well as from the Uglegorsk specialized boarding school for children with disabilities.

On February 20, 2022, an announcement appeared on the website of the "Donetsk People's Republic" Ministry of Education - 626 orphans were now placed in Russia. The Kursk and Rostov regions have become the largest hubs for orphanages and boarding schools removed from the territory of the Donetsk region. (Groups of children from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions also arrived in Voronezh and Nizhny Novgorod in the first weeks after the war broke out, but we do not know the details of their evacuation.)

"Thank you, Russian Federation, for saving children's lives! We believe that soon the long-awaited peace will come to our Republic and everyone will return home!" — read the end of the Ministry of Education's announcement.

Children from the so-called DPR cross the Russian-Ukrainian border at the Matveev Kurgan checkpoint in the Rostov region. February 20, 2022
Children from the so-called DPR cross the Russian-Ukrainian border at the Matveev Kurgan checkpoint in the Rostov region. February 20, 2022

Four days after that, Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the orphans, who thought they were leaving for a few days, became refugees.

"Dear kind adults, abolish war"

"Toothbrushes, tubes of toothpaste, socks, underpants, T-shirts," a volunteer from Nizhny Novgorod, who runs the Youtube channel "To the Children of Donbas," recounted the needs of the relocated Donetsk social center on February 19. Caretakers, according to the volunteer, didn’t have time to go home to grab a spare pair of underwear and clothes before leaving for Russia. Because of the rush, some of the children's documents were left behind in Donetsk. The volunteer specified that six employees of the Social Center watch over 54 children ages 3 to 16 on a 24-hour basis until they are placed in schools.

By spring, the orphans who had been taken to the Kursk and Rostov regions had begun their studies. Volunteers regularly visited the children of Donbas, providing them with clothes, hygiene products, toys, and entertainment.

A drawing contest for young children from the Amvrosievsky boarding school was held in Kursk city in March of 2022. The children were asked to depict an ideal world, and then their works were handed over to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

In the Rostov region, children from Donbas were visited by a unit searching for artifacts from the Great Patriotic War. The prospectors in military uniforms handed out goods, toys, and candies. Volunteers admitted that preschoolers would take them for soldiers and would be frightened. But the effect, according to them, was the opposite - the children were happy to tell the guests that they wanted to become soldiers themselves. The meeting ended with a concert, performing the songs "Don't Take the Sun Away from the Kids" and "I'll Go Out into the Field with a Horse,” waving a Cossack saber.

"Dear kind adults, cancel the war, and I will decorate spring for you with colorful stars,” a child from the Donetsk region sang on the Romashka camp's summer stage for officials, who brought in notebooks, pencils, and backpacks for school. Most of the children stayed in the camp's temporary accommodation until September 1, 2022.

Entertainers dressed as characters from Russian fairy tales, trips to the circus, "sobriety lessons" for the teenagers, chess tournaments, and tours of St. Petersburg and Moscow - this is how children from the Donetsk region spent their first six months in Russia. Some told journalists they didn’t want to leave, while others were disappointed that their return home was postponed or canceled altogether.

"When we found out it was a long stay we got very upset. We wanted to return," says Veronika, 17, a pupil of the Amvrosiyivka boarding school.

"They helped us - brought us clothes, bicycles, rollers. But mentally, I personally could not take it anymore," says 17-year-old Marina from the same boarding school.

Imagine, you were living in a house, and then you are suddenly ripped away from your home, and moved to another place. They said it would only be for three days

Marina describes herself as a difficult teenager and believes that the change of environment had a negative impact on her, so she "was naughty" in Kursk. For example, a month and a half after the evacuation, she quarreled with the director and ran away.

"I let myself go freely; I ran almost to the outskirts of the city, but the ground was muddy there and the dogs were big and angry," says Marina. "I called the school worker and asked him to pick me up. They held me under my arms and asked me, 'What if you run away again?' They brought me back to the boarding school and asked me to pack my belongings. They said I had a neurological disorder and they took me to a psych ward. I spent two weeks there. Because of the drugs they were giving me, I constantly wanted to sleep. You can't even smile much — your muscles are that relaxed. But we eventually made friends with the head doctor there, and he even allowed me to stop taking my medications. And the counselor there listened to me." (The child does not have any medical reports after hospitalization, and journalists have not been able to contact the doctors who treated her — ed.)

Guardianship. "Our country knows how to surprise"

Three weeks after the first displaced children were relocated to temporary accommodation centers, Maria Lvova-Belova, the Presidential Ombudsperson for Children's Rights, discussed their fate at a meeting with Putin. "The opportunity to find a family should be given to every displaced child, regardless of citizenship," he concluded at the time.

By mid-April, Lvova-Belova had received about 800 applications from various families who wanted to provide the children with "home, shelter and comfort." Later the hotline for such families was launched in the Moscow region.

As early as the end of April 2022, the first group of orphans from the Donetsk region left the Rostov and Kursk regions, along with several others from temporary accommodation centers in Nizhny Novgorod and Voronezh. The 27 children were handed over under "temporary care" to Moscow foster families, accompanied by officials and TV cameras. On May 30th, Putin signed a decree simplifying the procedure for obtaining citizenship for children from the "DPR, LPR and Ukraine." This was intended to eliminate the final bureaucratic hurdles, ensuring the transfer of orphans to Russian custody, and transitioning them from temporary to permanent care.

Putin meets with children's rights ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova. March 9, 2022
Putin meets with children's rights ombudsman Maria Lvova-Belova. March 9, 2022

By July 14, 2022, another 108 children had received Russian citizenship and were placed in families in Moscow and the Moscow, Voronezh, Kaluga, and Tula regions, as well as in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District.

"It was hard to believe in success, but our country knows how to surprise," commented Lvova-Belova.

Candidates for foster parents from different regions traveled to Rostov and Kursk regions to meet with children from Donbas or called them on video calls.

The children who did not find their way into families have conflicting descriptions of what exactly happened.

"There are well-behaved children, who deserve to be placed in new hands to new parents"

"Close to summer, we were told that new people would be arriving at Romashka, and we started to be scattered among families," recalls Diana, who, together with her brother Ivan, was evacuated to the Rostov region from Donetsk boarding school No. 1. "Children were invited into a dedicated room. First, they were given candidates and they were allowed to select three or four people to talk to. Children were taken to all sorts of places, some were sent to very far lands in Russia.

Diana and Ivan are the youngest children of a Donetsk resident who is currently serving a sentence for theft in a local colony and is due to be released in 2025.

"This is the third or fourth time that mother is in jail," says the eldest sister. "There are only five of us, we all have different fathers. They probably all died by now. We lived with our grandmother for a long time, and when our mother got out of prison for the first time and took us away, we all went downhill. We started running away from home and ended up in boarding schools. That's how we grew up. When my brother and sister were being taken away, we didn't know about it. There was no phone reception in Donetsk and the Internet didn't work either. Later, they called and told me everything. On the one hand, it was not very good that the kids were so far away. On the other hand, at least we had a way of staying in touch with them."

Diana says that the moment when the adults in Russia came to meet the children and noticed her brother was the hardest moment for her in the last two years. She was scared that they might get separated.

"In the end, those who didn't want to be taken in by families were sent to orphanages," she says.

The siblings were taken to Novocherkassk, a city 40 kilometers away from Rostov-on-Don, but they were placed in different institutions. Diana was placed in an orphanage, while Ivan was placed in a college dormitory.

Children from an orphanage in Donetsk Region have lunch at a camp in the village of Zolotoy Kose, Rostov Region. July 8, 2022
Children from an orphanage in Donetsk Region have lunch at a camp in the village of Zolotoy Kose, Rostov Region. July 8, 2022

To 16-year-old Ksenia, who was also evacuated from Donetsk boarding school No. 1 to the Rostov region, it seemed that the relocation of siblings was intentional.

"They took away those who had one or more siblings. Adults showed videos and photos of their own kids and of their apartment. And if everyone agreed, then they would take them away. You only had to be patient for two or three weeks while the documents were being compiled," she recalls. “My brother was already 18 years old by that time, and we were not offered to foster parents. But I wouldn't have accepted it anyway; foster families are not my thing."

A family from Podolsk came to Kursk to meet Veronika and her younger sister — pupils of the Amvrosievsky boarding school but later gave up custody.

"We really wanted to go live with them but something happened in that family — that is what social workers told us," she says.

Marina, who came to Kursk Oblast from Amvrosiyivka orphanage and had a hard time coping with the transfer, was also not opposed to being placed in a family, but she did not believe in such a scenario beforehand. According to her, although the kids were asked if they wanted to meet the foster parents, the educators also took into account the child's personal characteristics and his or her chances of being liked by the foster parents.

"We were the ones who sort of made the decision, but we didn't," Marina reasoned. "There are well-behaved children, who deserve to be placed in new hands to new parents. And there are those who, as it happens, are not very obedient. I knew that even if I asked to go to a family, no one would take me in. And anyway, who from the orphanage wouldn't like to be in a foster family? I think a lot of people would just like to see something new in life."

By November 2022, 380 children from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were already in foster care in 19 regions of the Russian Federation. Since then, the authorities have not updated these statistics.

These families became a showcase of the mercy and indifference of Russians. The faces of their adopted children from Donbas were shown on federal channels. Some families Lvova-Belova visited personally and even noticed that children traumatized by war were changing “for the better.” "It's heaven and earth. The children even look like their foster parents." For some families, the authorities allocated new housing to accommodate large family groups—those who adopted several brothers and sisters from Donbas at once— or, for example, donated household appliances.

However, the staff of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children's Rights does not provide information about the fate of children who were taken to Russia but not returned to their families. Such children went to boarding schools and family centers in different parts of the country and were included in the all-Russian unified database of orphans, where we found 285 profiles of children from the Donetsk region and confirmed the identity of each child.

Children in the system

The first profiles of the removed children appeared in the database in early October of 2022, just one week after Russia annexed the territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions of Ukraine. Most of the children (263 profiles) appeared in October and November 2022, but their profiles continued to emerge in the database in 2023, where we found a total of 14 such cases. In half of these cases, the child was recognized as “left without parental care” by a court decision. Among such children is Sergiy Kravchuk, who was transported by an unknown person from the Kherson region in the summer of 2022. He spent almost a year in the Center for Children without Parental Care in the town of Pechory, Pskov region, and his mother later managed to bring him back to Ukraine.

Children removed from Ukraine were placed in institutions in at least 15 regions of Russia. We found the most profiles in the Oryol region (38 children,) Nizhny Novgorod region (28,) and the Rostov region (27.) We also found 23 children in the Saratov region and Bashkortostan, 22 children in the Bryansk region, and 20 children in the Kirov region. However, these are not all children from Ukraine who ended up in these regions. For example, it is known that 66 people were sent to the Oryol region.

The total number of Ukrainian children in the database of orphans may be higher. As "Important Stories" calculated earlier, in 2022 the number of orphans listed in the database in Russia increased significantly, and by the summer of 2023, there were 2,400 more profiles in the database than the average for the previous six years. Yet it is impossible to state unequivocally that all of these children were taken from Ukraine.

The profiles of most of the children we found indicate that they can be adopted, although Maria Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children's Rights, has repeatedly denied this. At the same time, in the spring of 2022, when the process of mass export of Ukrainian children had just begun, she called adoption the most preferable: "The top-priority way is adoption. But we realize that it will take more time, and now we need temporary care for those children who may have relatives in the future."

According to the profiles published in the database, Russians were able to adopt at least 214 children taken from Ukraine whose parents had died or had been deprived of parental rights. Another 71 children were eligible for adoption only under guardianship. These are children whose parents are in prison, have their rights restricted, or whose whereabouts are unknown. Important Stories and Verstka do not know whether children from the database are actually given up for adoption.

Adoption and guardianship are different forms of family placement: adoptive parents get the same rights as biological parents, and if adopted children want to be taken away by their biological relatives, it is extremely difficult to do so.

There have been at least 20 cases where the status of parents of Donetsk children was changed through the Russian court in absentia. For example, from restriction of rights to deprivation of rights. However, we only managed to find one of these cases in the court database concerning children taken to the Russian Federation. The court recognized a Ukrainian national—the father of two orphaned brothers who ended up in the Oryol region—as missing. The mother of the boys had been deprived of her rights even before the war started. After the court's decision came into force, the brothers' status in the database changed: in addition to "guardianship," "adoption" became a possible form of placement.

The profiles of 98 children had disappeared from the database by the time this material was being prepared. According to the law, a minor is removed from the database only when they are placed in foster care, return to their parents, become adults, or die. Important Stories and Verstka know that in 17 cases, the children have already turned 18 years old, and at least four children were returned to their biological relatives in the occupied territories, specifically to the Donetsk region—to an older sister, an uncle, and their grandparents. One child was returned to his mother in Kherson. The other 76 children were presumably placed in foster care in Russian families. According to Lvova-Belova, 380 of the removed children were placed with families, but she refers only to the period from April to October 2022 — before the annexation of Ukrainian territories. Thus, the total number of Ukrainian children in Russian families could be more than 450.

As of now, at least 187 children from Donbas who ended up in Russia are still living in orphanages or attending college.

The mood is steady

In addition to name, age, health status, eye color, hair color, and possible form of placement in a family, orphan profiles briefly describe the child's personality.

"Reacts appropriately to criticism and praise." "The mood is steady." "Emotionally stable, in stable spirits." "Energetic, persistent, with a positive outlook on the future." "Self-care and labor skills are mastered." These characteristics were given to children who left their hometowns in an emergency, spent six months in a temporary accommodation facility, and had to learn to live in a new orphanage.

In addition to the profiles, some children were filmed in short videos, which are believed to help orphans get into foster care more quickly. In these videos, the kids talk about themselves while the adult behind the scenes talks to them, but rarely do these monologues about their grades at school and clubs give an insight into what the child really cares about or is passionate about.

You cannot tell from any of the videos that the dressed-up child has recently been taken out of the territory of military operations, has parted with friends and caretakers, and has moved around several different cities. 

"I can make a poster. I can draw. I like puzzles and mosaics. I can dust, mop floors, wash dishes, sweep," says 14-year-old Masha, who is listed in the Kirov region's orphan database. For a year now she has been living separately from her younger sisters who were sent to an orphanage in another region.

"I would like to travel — to Italy or elsewhere... I know how to clean, how to mop floors, how to dust. I am best at cooking rice and buckwheat," says 15-year-old Arina about herself. At the time of filming this interview, she had been living in the Oryol region for only a month. Soon a local TV channel showed her thanking Oryol businessmen for the upholstered furniture: after the arrival of children from Amvrosiyivka, they gave the orphanage six new sofas.

The children did not know what principle was used to distribute orphans by regions and boarding schools — they say that the educators received the lists and simply read them out.

Maria Lvova-Belova brought orphans from DPR to Nizhny Novgorod region to be placed in families. September 22, 2022
Maria Lvova-Belova brought orphans from DPR to Nizhny Novgorod region to be placed in families. September 22, 2022

The boarding school. "First we liked it, then we did not"

"Green uniforms, jackets, berets," lists 16-year-old Ksenia, who used to attend a boarding school in Donetsk and now attends a cadet class in the village of Belogornoye in the Saratov region. "Every Monday we have a line-up, and we sing the Russian national anthem."

Cadets started their training at the rural school in 2016. The classes were opened for the anniversary of the village on the initiative of Nikolai Pankov, a member of the State Duma, using money from Vyacheslav Volodin, who grew up in Belogorny and who helps the school regularly. After the launch of the cadet classes, a sports obstacle course was installed in the courtyard. Not only orphans study in this institution: 85 children out of 121 are "home kids."

Ksenia explains that discipline is strict at the school where she found herself with other children from Donetsk. If a cadet misbehaves at school, a board of teachers may be expecting the student for a disciplinary conversation. In special cases, they promise to "put him or her on the list" in the village. If violations occur in their free time, that is, in the orphanage itself — they can take away their cell phone for a few days or forbid them to go outside the premises.

"Usually in order to leave the grounds of the boarding school we have to request permission via written application, but the most important thing is not to miss breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and regimented moments. If we miss those, we will be punished."

When joining the cadet school, Donetsk children took an oath in front of the military. Among the extracurricular activities that Ksenia mentions are the "I am a Patriot" club, military formation drills, and military song performances. For a year and a half, the children were visited several times by soldiers fighting in Ukraine—one of them gave the school a tactical first aid kit, while another gave "fragments of enemy shells."

In February 2024, the school opened a "Museum of the Special Military Operation."

After a year as a cadet, Ksenia concluded that students are gradually being "trained for military action."

"Most of the children plan to enter the military school in Volsk city," she says.

Ksenia says that in the Donetsk boarding school, she felt freer than in the cadet class because she could at least go for walks in the city and see acquaintances more often. They also didn't prohibit her from wearing long fingernails and "different hairstyles." But she tries to be neutral about the changes because she won't be able to change anything before she graduates from the cadet school: "At first we liked it here, then we did not, and now we don't care."

Another institution that stands out among the rest is the "Chicherin Center" in the village of Karaul, Tambov region. It is a private boarding school for about 30 people, under the patronage of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Several children from Horlivka ended up here.

The pupils met Lavrov in Moscow in February 2024 and invited him to visit. A student from the Donetsk region personally handed the minister a painting as a gift. Judging by the social networks of this institution, the kids have extracurricular patriotic events on their schedule every week, starting from "Courage Lessons" about Russian military leaders and "Russia is My Homeland" recitation contests to online diplomatic receptions.

On February 8, 2024, the day of the young anti-fascist hero, Ukrainian orphans in garrison caps went on a quest called "Roads Scorched by War" — they collected a parcel for an imaginary battlefield and sang war songs. And on February 10, on Diplomat's Day, two girls from the Donetsk region recorded ditties with congratulations for those whose job it is to "prevent war," against the background of the Russian flag.

The other boarding schools where the Donetsk children have been placed are not fundamentally different from other educational institutions in modern Russia and the occupied territories. Together with their local peers, orphans from Donbas participate in talks about their homeland and in actions in support of those fighting in Ukraine — this happens in almost every region.

In the Nizhny Novgorod region, at the Zolinsky specialized boarding school, a girl from the Uglegorsky institution for children with special needs performed at an open class hour entitled "You were also born in Russia." In a folk costume, she performed in a skit with a classmate — in the final scene, the teacher gives the girl a gun to shoot the antagonist. The definition of the word "fake" is printed on the left side of the chalkboard.

The Naryshkinsky boarding school in the Oryol region, which took in 57 children from Donbas, has advertised a contract service three times in the past six months in its Vkontakte group — with instructions on how to apply and what payments are due.

In the family center in the town of Sosnovka, Kirov region, during the game "Zarnitsa" they recently divided the children into teams of military units and then organized a competition for the most beautiful combat leaflet. The game was dedicated to a graduate of the boarding school who "died during a special military operation in Ukraine."

In Elets, Lipetsk region, kids from Donetsk, together with classmates, sewed gloves for Russian soldiers.

As the staff of the boarding schools suggest, Ukrainian children — new citizens of Russia — do all of this with even greater involvement, because they have seen the fighting with their own eyes.

"We know how hard and how scary it is for everyone. But you are our Russian brothers and sisters, and we will never leave you to be torn apart by the enemy. I, Tatyana M., am writing to you. I am from Makiivka but now I live in Russia," — this is how a new pupil of the orphanage in Togliatti addressed her peers in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Such letters, as the director of this institution said, the children write "every spare evening."

"The students are constantly discussing the importance and responsibility of soldiers and officers in the Special Military Operation," she says. "And to help the soldiers in some way, to contribute to the victory, the children draw, make crafts for the soldiers, and weave camouflage nets. The staff and students are trying to help the soldiers and keep them safe in some way."

"They even called us Ukrainians"

Even though children brought to Russia receive Russian citizenship and then passports, this does not protect teenagers from bullying. In several boarding schools, local children were embarrassed that newcomers were now studying with them.

"We were told that we are the people of DPR, Ukrainians, and they accused us of starting all this. I tried to explain that I was in no way responsible for the hostilities," says Marina Kramorova, who was taken from the Amvrosiyivka boarding school to Kursk. She encountered conflicts in college, where she was assigned to study construction.

In the beginning, they were rude, they even called us Ukrainians," recalls Ksenia, who joined the cadet class. "But now everything has changed, and no one insults us or calls us non-Russians. The counselor gathered everyone for a conversation, and we expressed our point of view to each other. I said, for example, one should not treat a person poorly due to their nationality."

Ksenia specifies that the counselor worked with the children from Donetsk especially closely in the first month after they arrived at the cadet school and, among other things, "conducted an aggression test."

"It happened rarely, but some children said that we were "ukropes" (a derogative term that refers to Ukrainian nationality — ed.) They asked why we came here," says Alyona Ovcharenko, who, together with her twin sister and younger brother, came from the Rostov temporary accommodation to the orphanage in Bashkortostan.

Recently Alyona, her sister, and their brother were taken into a family. She recalls her first meeting with her future foster mother as follows: "They said that I would have my own separate room, that no one would hurt me, that they would help, feed, and love me." After the visit, the children consented to stay with the family.

"And those kids from the DPR, are they the children of ballerinas?”

At the beginning of the full-scale war, Maria Lvova-Belova and regional officials regularly spoke about the removal of children from the occupied territories. Children were handed over to new foster parents under the camera, given gifts, and invited famous artists to visit them. Two years later, the authorities stopped publicly reporting on the placement of such children in families and began to widely publicize the cases of their return to Ukraine, while foster parents who want to foster children from Donbas cannot find them. The situation may likely have been influenced by the arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and Lvova-Belova, which the International Criminal Court issued in The Hague in connection with the deportation of Ukrainian children.

Children from Ukraine at a camp in the village of Zolotoy Kose in the Rostov region. July 8, 2022
Children from Ukraine at a camp in the village of Zolotoy Kose in the Rostov region. July 8, 2022

"Where are the orphans from Donetsk and Luhansk? When you watch TV, there are so many stories about abandoned children in our country and orphans in their country. Where do they take them? I do not understand," members of one chat room for foster parents wrote.

"From there, everyone has already been distributed and placed... they just don't exist. That's how they answered when I asked," — the other chat members share their experience.

The orphanages, where the removed children are cared for, also tell about the difficulties with the transfer to families. "We went to Rostov-on-Don ourselves and brought 30 children. Four of them were handed over to families, and 26 are still living in the institution. When we first brought them, there were a lot of people who wanted them. Four of them were given away, but there are still no candidates for the rest of the kids," they say at the Zolinskaya boarding school in Nizhny Novgorod region.

When asked why it is difficult to place children in families, an employee of the orphanage says, "All foster parents want girls and want them to be little. But they are all adults; the little ones were taken away in the first place. If only two children came to the first grade, 12 people in the ninth grade also arrived here. Any child, no matter where he/she comes from, from the DPR or not, is always much more difficult to handle at this age. Girls from the first, second, and fourth grades were taken away. Older boys, and teenagers, are always left behind.

According to the profiles of removed children that Important Stories and Verstka found in the orphan database, it is indeed that mostly older children remain in the system. 90% of the children remaining in the database are over the age of 10 y.o., and all children under five years old have already been taken into families.

According to an employee of the Zolinsky orphanage, it is mostly large family groups — three or more siblings — that get stuck in institutions. Not everyone is ready to take several children into the family at once. In addition, some children keep in touch with relatives in the occupied territories — this also discourages potential guardians. "Many people understand very well that children mostly maintain some kind of relationship with their relatives left there. Even though they lived in an orphanage before they were taken away. One by one, I began to have grandmothers, sisters, and so on. The regions are recovering, and a normal, quiet life resumes," says the woman. Despite the presence of relatives who might be ready to take them away, the children still end up in the database.

Potential adoptive parents also speak about their fears due to ties with relatives and the unclear status of their children. "Children from LPR and DPR are in the database of various regions. Only they have different statuses; at any moment relatives in Ukraine may be found and they will have to give them up," they write in one of the groups of foster parents. "There are a lot of serious problems there, the risk of having to return them is many times higher. Why the rose-colored glasses? To ruin your own life and the child once again," the candidates discuss.

Some foster families thought they could take " trouble-free" children from well-off families — in case they had lost their biological parents. But many of those taken from Ukraine are boarding school inmates with the same problems as Russian orphans.

"In essence, it's all the same: dad is missing, mom is deprived of parental rights for excessive drinking. They are all the same orphans but with an unclear legal status. If you want to help a child from the DPR in the hope of getting a child from a decent family, where the parents died instead of being drunk — it's not a good idea," — the guardians wrote in the chat group. "My friend asked me why I need these children of alcoholics and thieves; she told me that it is better to adopt one from the DPR," — says one of the parents. She got the answer: "And those kids from the DPR, are they the children of ballerinas? Everything is the same with those kids. Alcohol, drugs. Bingo. Only there is more trouble with documents."

Families. "Since you're doing well, don't call me ever again"

Irina, a resident of Bryansk (the name of the city has been changed — ed.), applied with the local guardianship office right after the war started. Potential foster parents were then offered to leave their information in case children from Donbas were brought to the region.

"Among those who arrived, the majority of them were siblings; there were many of them, and we couldn't take in that many kids," says Irina. "I was eager to adopt so I kept looking for a child. I found two or three girls in the Kirov region and called the regional guardianship office. I didn't even suspect that the child I would like would be from the DPR."

Irina went to the Kirov region to meet with the girl — 12-year-old Katya — and took her on vacation.

"She is already a teenager, and it is important to find something to talk about," Irina says. "I showed her pictures and told her, 'like, look, here is your sister and two brothers. We have a dog and a kitty cat.' I think she liked that — it turned out that she loves animals, and we have a funny dog."

Irina says that immediately after they met, Katya started referring to her and her husband as mom and dad — and they couldn't figure out whether it was good or bad.

But when negotiating custody, Katya asked, "Will you allow me to stay in contact with my relatives?" And that, according to Irina, was her condition.

Katya's biological father, who was deprived of parental rights, is in Donetsk, and her older brother is fighting at war.

"When Katya came to our family, her father got offended. He told her that since she was doing so well with us, she shouldn't call. Despite that their contact has resumed recently," says Irina. "Katya tries to seclude herself when she talks to him on the phone, she goes into a room or the kitchen. But I hear that his manner of talking to her has improved. Her older brother was even going to visit us, but while he's fighting, he can't yet."

While Katya was getting used to life in her new family, the foster parents began to tackle bureaucratic issues that had not yet been resolved.

"They have DPR birth certificates, and it is difficult even to buy train tickets with this certificate — it's like a foreign document, which you can only show at the counter. It is also difficult to get child support from her biological parents — although her birth father has already received a notice, he still does not have a special account number. Also, Katya's mom died recently, according to her father. I wanted to register a child support allowance for the loss of the breadwinner and I can't do it either — they couldn't find the data."

At the same time, the institutions where the children are cared for claim that the children's documents are all in order. "They all have DPR documents, none of them had Ukrainian ones. There are no problems at all. These are now our Russian regions, and these children are the same as everyone else in Russia. Just like everywhere else, there are no differences," they say at the Zolinskaya boarding school.

In Bryansk, Katya picked up singing and joined the First Movement, which instills traditional values in teenagers. She was also recently chosen as a commander in the school's military formation and song contest. Irina says that although Katya is an active child, relocations have taken a toll on her.

"She has been sick all year long. Perhaps it's a result of her nervous system taking a hit," says her foster mother. "She had a hard time at school at first, too. When she told classmates she was from Donetsk, some children started calling her names and insulting her. They just don't understand, for them, it's still Ukraine. In the end, we transferred her to a different school."

Irina says that meeting new people and saying goodbye hurt Katya, and once she even "slipped," saying, "Why get to know people closely if you'll have to be separated anyway?"

The woman notes that Katya's online contact with her friends from the Donetsk region is also gradually fading away because there is "no reinforcement of friendship."

Maria Lvova-Belova visited a family who took in two girls taken from Donbas. April 26, 2022
Maria Lvova-Belova visited a family who took in two girls taken from Donbas. April 26, 2022

"My uncle realized too late that I had been out of the family for a long time and that I had been taken away"

Sometimes children taken from the Donetsk region go to their relatives' homes and disappear from the orphan base.

Diana and Ivan's older sister, whose mother is serving a sentence for theft, came to pick them up in December 2022 in Novocherkassk, a city in the Rostov region, where the girl was placed in a boarding school and the boy in a college’s dorm.

"Ivan knew that I was preparing the documents for guardianship, but we didn't tell Diana about it for a long time so she wouldn't worry and wait," said the older sister. "And finally we met in Novocherkassk. I said: "Tomorrow or the day after tomorrow we will go home."

"As soon as I saw my sister, I ran into her, almost knocked her down, I was happy," Diana recalls.

To take the children away, the older sister applied to the Novocherkassk guardianship office. But now that the teenagers have returned to the Donetsk region, they have to re-issue documents.

"At the border between Rostov region and the DPR, there were questions about the document that confirmed that I had taken custody of the children — they suspected that the documents might be fake," said the oldest sister. "So I had to call Novocherkassk to have them confirm everything."

"The problem is that I am a Russian citizen now," says Victor, another teenager who returned home to Donetsk from the Samara region. His relative, the boy realized, had been asked to take guardian courses to a more complicated, Russian standard. Victor does not know in detail how the bureaucratic issues were resolved, but he says it was difficult.

Victor came to Russia after the evacuation of the Donetsk Social Center, a shelter for children who found themselves in difficult circumstances. He was later moved from the Rostov region to one of the orphanages in the Samara region, where the teenager "felt great."

Victor received his RF passport in a beautiful assembly hall, and he read the oath from the stage. In his free time, he could do carpentry, law, cooking, cutting, and sewing. On Victory Day, the teenager took part in a flag show, carrying the Russian tricolor in the town square.

But when Victor was contacted by a relative from Donetsk and offered custody, he agreed because "it gave him hope.”

"My uncle found out late that, as it turns out, I had been away from the family for a long time and that I had been taken away," said Victor. "And I thought that I would live with my family and return to my roots. After all, that is your true homeland. You have spent much more time here than somewhere abroad."

Back home, Victor plans to use the experience he gained in Russia (in particular in his law classes) to help Donetsk restructure its laws to Russian standards.

Victor considers his happiest moments during his two years in Russia to be his classes at the children's TV studio and joining the military-patriotic club "Battle Settlement. Border guards." His Vkontakte page has several photos of him in military uniform, with a bulletproof vest with the letter V and an automatic rifle.

"There are no 'children of Donbas' — they are Ukrainian children"

Since February 2022, Russian authorities say 64 children have returned to their relatives in Ukraine — most of whom were separated from their families because of the war, rather than being raised in orphanages.

The Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, told us that the matter of returning all removed children, including orphans from orphanages and boarding schools, is one of the priorities. Ukraine has not had complete information about the children of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions since 2014.

"For Ukraine, there is no such thing as 'children of Donbas' — these are Ukrainian children, and the requirement to unconditionally return these children concerns both those removed from the newly occupied territories (since February 2022) and children who lived in the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (in early 2014,) as well as those born in the occupation. Russia does not provide information on deported and forcibly displaced children from any of these territories and blocks access not only to Ukraine but also to international organizations."

Lubinets left unanswered the question of what exactly such a procedure might look like in the case of children who were first brought up in institutions in the occupied territories and are now in Russia.

Maria Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children's Rights under the President of the Russian Federation, has not responded to questions from Verstka and Important Stories at the time of publication of the text.

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

“You got your mom’s eyes, you have grown up”

Children's relatives, family friends, former teachers, caretakers, and sometimes the parents themselves observe how Donetsk children are settling in Russia from a distance. They leave comments under the kids' photos on social networks: "You've got your mom's eyes, you have grown up," "I am with you, my children, daddy is too, say hello to everyone," "I love you very much, my niece," "Have you become so famous that you forgot to wish your grandfather a happy birthday?"

"It's hard that the children are far away," says Ekaterina, the aunt of two twin sisters who ended up in a foster family in Bashkortostan. "But after their father died they wanted to live in a family, they got used to it, and I am happy for them.

They miss only lard and normal borscht; over there they cook it with sauerkraut. When they grow up, they will come back, I hope. As of now, they are still dreaming of Moscow."

Oleg, a teenager from Donetsk, who in the fall of 2022 with his sister ended up in the Ryazan region, plans to stay there. He has enrolled in a college of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and expects that he soon will get in the queue for an apartment. In the small town of Rybnoye, where he lived in a boarding school immediately after moving, housing for orphans can be obtained quickly, but in Ryazan, as Oleg learned, it will take a couple of years — but he is ready to wait.

Marina from the Amvrosievsky boarding school, who now lives in Kursk, will turn 18 soon. But she has different plans: she wants to go home with a group of her classmates.

"When I am 18, I will no longer be here — I will go to Amvrosiyivka. I would go to the boarding school, and buy flowers for my teacher, director, deputy... I would stay and live there," she dreams. "Our deputy is a woman of soul. When you talk to her, it's like taking medicine. She tells me, "We can do it, everything will be okay, we will see each other. That's life, and not only that, you have to experience it. It's life, you have to be patient and try to move on."

Marina wants the civilians to stop "suffering because of politics as soon as possible." She doesn't understand how loved ones can sever ties with each other during a war while noting that "Russia has always won."

"In essence, Ukraine is Russia," she argues. "Because it was originally Rus'. When we found ourselves here, we were often invited to different events, and we already know, for example, who our president is, and what Russia is.

We know that we have to defend our motherland, no matter what. Sometimes people say to me, "You used to live in Ukraine", and I correct them — "I used to live in the DPR." As if it is an insult, although I was born in Mariupol. I like Russia better. Our people, Russians, are strong."

Some displaced children imagine that one day they will return not just to Donetsk, but to their family, even if their parents are deprived of their rights.

"It's very boring here. Even bad. Okay, good night, I'm going to turn in my phone," replies 14-year-old Taisiya.

She lives in a boarding school in one of the central regions of Russia together with her younger sister, Veronika. Their older sister was sent to live in another region. "I don't know why we were separated," Taisiya said. She explained that it happened once before — when they were taken away from their biological family in Donetsk.

The guardianship authorities drew attention to the mother of many children when Taisiya received severe burns at home, but no one took her to the hospital.

"My mom and I explained everything in court," she said. "A month later the inspection came to us. Mom had already started drinking at that time. The house was a mess, vodka was lying around. They told her, 'There will be trouble with your children.' My aunts took my younger sister and me to a boarding school in Uglegorsk. And then my older sister too, but to another boarding school. I asked why we weren't together, and they said, 'It's not allowed.' And after the war started, we were also scattered.”

The video interview, which was made for the sisters at the orphanage, begins with a question about a dream.

“I dream of my mother" replies the youngest, Rita.

“And I dream that the war will be over soon," Taisiya says.

When in Uglegorsk, Taisiya thought she was about to return to her family. Her mother later admitted that there was a chance, but she missed it and continued drinking.

"I told her, 'Mom, why didn't you do better? It's your fault; it is because of you we ended up in boarding school'. In response, she kept silent," the daughter remembers.

Taisiya has been in a Russian orphanage for over a year. The director of this institution says that the "special military operation" makes them sad and affects everyone, but "the children are content, satisfied."

Taisiya has been successful in athletics and embroidery. The head of the institution notes that Taisiya's stitching and needlework in the sewing class is "just beautiful," and hopes that "the two little angels will find a family."

Taisiya still writes about her life in Russia as something temporary: "I just want to go home." She talks about her relatives in Donetsk and reveals the names of her mom, dad, uncle, and grandmother. However, lately, she can't get through to them: "I guess there is no phone connection." 

Taisiya believes that by now, her mom must be regretting everything and something can still be changed.

"She promised me she'd take us back. "But the war is ongoing, nothing is working out.”

Edited by Olesya Gerasimenko, Ivan Zhadaev and Alesya Marokhovskaya