“Now You Will See How Interesting It is in Russia”

Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova and her sister are deporting disabled Ukrainians from occupied territories against their will — an act which may constitute a war crime.

26 Apr 2024
“Now You Will See How Interesting It is in Russia”

“With tears in their eyes and hope in their hearts. The Louis Quarter team welcomed new arrivals from Kherson,” — this is how members of the Russia’s Penza-based charity, Louis Quarter, described the arrival of four people from the occupied Kherson Oblast in November 2023. Previously, these individuals had resided in a boarding school for children with disabilities in Oleshky. Now adults, all four have been declared legally disabled — meaning the law does not allow them to independently manage their own property and money, to marry or go to court.

Nor do they have a say in which country they live and which citizenship they hold, having been notified of their departure for Penza only a day prior. One of the disabled residents taken to Penza, 27-year-old Oleksandr Danylchuk, explains to IStories: “I tell them straight: yes, I want to leave [for Ukraine]. I have friends there; I have foster parents there. Home is home, after all — you grew up there, you were born there.” He now lives thousands of kilometers from his home and the possibility of returning seems out of the question.

IStories, in collaboration with the Ukrainian war crime investigators The Reckoning Project, reveal how Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, and her sister Sofia are deporting disabled Ukrainians into Russia.

IStories have previously reported on how Russia kidnaps orphaned Ukrainian children and places them in Russian families. Read our coverage of the case via this link.

“New Shores”

Oleksandr Danylchuk and three other students of the Oleshky boarding school were brought to a district in the city of Penza called “Novye Berega” (“New Shores”) — a residential complex for people with disabilities and those with physical or mental disabilities who have outgrown the orphanage system. At the grand opening of the project in November 2023, the Governor of Penza Oblast, Oleg Melnichenko, the Chief of the Presidential Directorate for Social Projects, Sergey Novikov (IStories reported on how his department became the “chief censor” of Russian culture), and the Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, were all in attendance. At the event, students displaced from boarding schools in the occupied Ukrainian territories were presented as the “new residents of the unique art estate.”

New Shores
New Shores

New Shores is the most ambitious project of the Penza-based charity Louis Quarter, established by Lvova-Belova. Construction began in 2018, and since then, six residential buildings, a church, hotel, cafe, pottery workshop, and a beauty salon have been built on the site. By the time of the opening, 56 people with disabilities were living there.

Local media refer to New Shores as a “project unique to Russia and the world,” the “Oxford” and “Skolkovo” for people with disabilities. High-ranking state officials — including, then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Head of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko, Governor Oleg Melnichenko, and Patriarch Kirillsupported the project from the outset.

According to Louis Quarter’s financial reports, the construction of New Shores cost over 208 million rubles ($2.25 million). The state, oligarchs, and local businesses invested heavily in the large-scale construction project. Donors included Roman Abramovich, billionaire nickel tycoon Vladimir Potanin, businessman Konstantin Malofeev and Vladimir Putin’s close friend Gennady Timchenko, as per the organization’s reports. According to IStories’ calculations, Louis Quarter’s projects received almost 160 million rubles from the presidential grants fund — making it the second-largest recipient in the “social protection” category since 2017.

In 2022, Lvova-Belova and a resident of the New Shores facility, presented the project to Vladimir Putin, who promised to “charge the government with replicating the initiative as widely as possible.”

Initially, Louis Quarter and New Shores were headed by Maria Lvova-Belova. Intriguingly, almost all her relatives have managed to work for the organization: her father Alexey Lvov-Belov, husband Pavel Kogelman, and brothers Pavel and Fyodor (both of whom currently work at Louis Quarter’s Krasnodar branch). The commissioner’s younger sister, Sofia, was the architect and designer behind the project. In spring 2023, she took over the headship of the foundation, becoming its executive director. 

“Now you will see how interesting it is in Russia”

Shortly before the grand opening of New Shores, Russian media outlets reported the arrival of residents from the “new regions” (a euphemism referring to the Russian-occupied Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts of Ukraine.)

“Despite being at New Shores for only 5 days, they have already managed to settle in and fall in love with their surroundings. Six people with mental disorders from the Shakhtarsk orphanage in the Donetsk People’s Republic and four wheelchair-bound children from the Kherson Oblast now live in this unique art complex,” GTRK Penza reported.

The authorities of the annexed regions thanked Maria Lvova-Belova for her “close cooperation” and for organizing the relocation of the new residents, who were transferred to Penza on her personal invitation. “You’ve stayed in different institutions, but you’ve never traveled across Russia. Now you will see how big and beautiful it is, how interesting it is, how wonderful the nature is, and how they’ll take care of you,” Alla Barkhatnova, the Minister of Labor and Social Protection in the occupied Kherson Oblast, told the wards before their departure.

Four young adults from the Kherson Oblast were taken on a journey to see “how interesting it is in Russia”: Oleksandr Danylchuk, Anastasiia Mamotiuk, Victoriia Markeliuk, and Anastasiia Yavorovska. They had spent much of their lives in the Oleshky boarding school for children with special needs, being declared legally disabled and deprived of parental care.

“On the 15th [of November 2023], I didn’t know yet that we were leaving [for Russia]. But on the 16th we were told, they came to my room and told me to pack. But where we were going — nobody said anything,” recalls Oleksandr Danylchuk. “Alla [Barkhatnova] comes and says: ‘My dears, you’re going to Penza, to Russia.’”


Sofia Lvova-Belova, the head of Louis Quarter, knew about the deportation of the Ukrainian students much earlier than they did. “Usually, we conduct interviews in several stages, familiarize ourselves with all the details, and ask many questions before making a decision [on accepting new people]. This time around it was different because of poor connectivity in the region; we didn’t see the individuals beforehand, and we had very little information. During preparations, our motto became: ‘We’ll meet them and then we’ll figure it out,’” she explained. Her sister, Maria Lvova-Belova, first invited the students to Penza back in September 2023, during a visit to the Kherson Oblast.

According to Oleksandr Danylchuk, no one had actually inquired about their willingness to relocate. Danylchuk recalled a conversation that took place once in Penza: “I told them that I wanted to leave. And Sonya [Sofia Lvova-Belova] said, ‘Well, maybe you’ll get used to us?’ I said ‘Sonya, how old am I? Am I 10 years old? How can I get used to this? I have friends there [in Ukraine], I have foster parents.’” But, according to him, there is no talk of them returning home.

Oleksandr adds that they began receiving Russian passports and were issued bank cards for allowances while still living in the occupied territory. “By issuing these documents, they think we will live in Russia. They think we belong to them,” he wrote to his former tutor.

Publicly, Sofia Lvova-Belova asserts that the wards brought to Penza from the “new regions” have no desire to return home. “No one wants to go home; we’ve already accepted them into our big family. It was immediately clear to me that they would stay. We’re not keeping anyone prisoner; the doors are open. I say, ‘Guys, who’s ready to go back?’ Everyone says, ‘No, we’re not going anywhere,’” she claims. According to her, people in boarding schools located in the occupied territories are lining up for the chance to stay at Louis Quarter.

Stephen’s Home

Before the full-scale war began, Oleksandr Danylchuk spent most of his time at Stephen’s Home — an assisted living facility for adults with special needs. It was established in 2019 in the village of Daryivka, Kherson Oblast, with the support of the local evangelical Baptist church and the TruPROMISE program, a scheme initiated by the American foundation, New International.

“All his belongings were here, his friends, he saw this as his home,” says the head of the foster family, Vyacheslav Shchirsky, who was set to become Oleksandr’s legal guardian at Stephen’s Home. Due to difficulties in processing documents for the transfer of a disabled person from an institution to a family, Oleksandr periodically returned to the Oleshky boarding school and formally remained its resident.

“We had a wonderful New Year’s Eve 2022, celebrated Christmas together in January. In mid-February, I brought Sasha back to the boarding school because mandatory sanitary procedures were taking place there. Then the war broke out, and we were separated,” Shchirsky recounts. After the full-scale invasion, Vyacheslav, along with his family and the residents of Stephen’s Home, evacuated to Romania.

“Sasha is considered legally disabled because of his diagnosis. To transfer him to a family, this diagnosis needed to be reviewed. This is a very lengthy process that can take several years. In 2022, a medical board convened in Mykolaiv to assess Sasha’s case, but the final decision rests with the court,” explains Anna Kobzar, legal consultant at the Oleshky boarding school. According to her, this process is complicated by the fact that many documents have been lost: some were taken by the Russians during their retreat from Kherson, and some were destroyed during the war.

Oleksandr Danylchuk
Oleksandr Danylchuk

The reason why only four people were removed from the boarding school remains unclear. “I think they were taken precisely because they are the most transportable, sociable,” speculates Vadim Reutsky, a tutor at the school.

IStories interviewed several experts in the field of disability rights, who note that students can be transferred from one boarding school to another within the same region. However, moving incapacitated individuals between regions is not in their practice (from the Russian perspective, the Oleshky residents were moved from one region to another since Russia annexed the territory).

According to the law, the organization which houses a disabled individual is automatically considered their legal guardian. As the head of the organization, Sofia Lvova-Belova has the right to manage the residents’ money and property, as well as to represent their interests in court. The institution receives 75% of the ward’s pension as payment for their residence. In the case of Louis Quarter, pension deductions constitute a small part of their total income. In 2023, the foundation received just over one million rubles from pensions out of a total revenue of 125 million rubles ($1.3 million), according to financial statements.

“Theoretically, those wishing to become guardians can apply to the guardianship department and demonstrate that despite their different nationality, they want to ensure that this person lives with them. The department should then act in the interests of the disabled individual. How do they interpret this? Nobody knows,” says a disability rights expert, who requested anonymity. According to him, one option is to try assigning them full legal autonomy, allowing them to travel independently to their families.

The fate of the boarding school

By the onset of the war, just over a hundred people lived at the Oleshky boarding school. In October 2022, before Ukraine regained control of the Kherson Oblast, they began evacuating the facility. Some were transferred to institutions in Crimea and the Krasnodar Krai, before being returned to the occupied territories.

Minors continued living at a facility in Skadovsk, a city in the Kherson Oblast [under the control of Russian forces]. Vitaliy Suk, the head of the institution, and former manager of a driving school, admitted “that he could never have imagined that he would one day be the director of a children’s boarding school.” As of April 2024, 43 children with developmental disabilities live under his stewardship.

Adult wards were sent to the village of Strilkove in the Henichesk district (also under Russian control), where the Dnipro-based Psychoneurological Boarding School was relocated. It was from here that the four students were chosen for deportation to Penza. Estimates suggest that there are currently 27 adults from the Oleshky boarding school still living in Strilkove.

I tell them straight: yes, I want to leave [for Ukraine]. I have friends there; I have foster parents there. Home is home, after all — you grew up there, you were born there.
Oleksandr Danylchuk
One of the four disabled students sent from the Ukrainian boarding school to Penza

IStories and The Reckoning Project were able to establish just eight cases in which relatives managed to return the children taken from the Oleshky boarding school. In late November 2022, for instance, Marina (name changed to preserve anonymity) was able to retrieve her 13-year-old disabled daughter Veronica from Simferopol Hospital No. 5. Veronica and 11 other children were sent there three weeks prior. According to Marina, her daughter was kept in poor conditions, and hospital staff questioned whether she really wanted her back.

“She was wearing dirty clothes, the children weren’t bathed, she had a fungal infection. They didn’t want to give me her wheelchair, claiming it was the property of the boarding school,” the woman recalled.

Oksana, the mother of an adult boarding school resident, could not collect her daughter for over a month due to bureaucratic issues related to being forced to accept Russian citizenship. “She was taken from Oleshky to Skadovsk, and from Skadovsk to Strelkove. There, they issued her a Russian passport but told her that to leave she needed a Russian foreign passport, which took us a month to get,” she explains.

Maria Lvova-Belova herself spoke about Polina Kindra’s fight to retrieve her grandson, which saw the woman wait nearly three months for the results of a DNA test to prove her relation to the boy. “When I came to Skadovsk in the summer of 2023, [institution director Vitaliy] Suk said there were some errors in the documents, and that they wouldn’t give me my grandson. I lived in Dzhankoi in a shelter for parishioners of the local church and was forbidden from seeing my grandson all that time, waiting for who knows what. It was very painful,” the grandmother recounts.

Gleb Bogush, an international law expert and researcher at the University of Copenhagen, asserts that the forced displacement of civilians without valid cause may constitute a war crime, and under certain conditions, could also be deemed a crime against humanity.

Maria Lvova-Belova during a visit to the Kherson Oblast in September 2023
Maria Lvova-Belova during a visit to the Kherson Oblast in September 2023

“International law generally prohibits the displacement of civilian populations from occupied territories, regardless of whether they are children or disabled individuals – it’s forbidden”, notes Bogush. According to the expert, the fact that the students taken to Penza were disabled serves to confirm that their displacement was involuntary.

Russian authorities are obliged to facilitate the return of displaced persons and oversee their reunification with families, including foster families, stipulates Bogush. “The mere fact that certain technicalities weren’t totally formalized (as in the case of Oleksandr Danylchuk and his guardians from Stephen’s Home - Ed. Note) doesn’t matter. The interests of the person being reunited with their family must take priority. It’s clear that international laws are still being violated, and no significant efforts have yet been made to stop this practice.”

The Oleshky boarding school has changed beyond recognition. “The walls are bare, they took everything, expensive medical equipment, we had a new kitchen, everything was removed. And then there was also flooding because of the dam explosion. Our school no longer exists,” say former employees of the institution who witnessed the removal of students and property from the facility.

IStories sent requests for comment to Sofia Lvova-Belova, Human Rights Commissioner Tatyana Moskalkova, and Minister of Labor and Social Protection of the occupied Kherson Oblast, Alla Barkhatnova. At the time of publication, they had not responded.

Translated by Sasha Molotkova