Skip to main content
  • Share to or
Nastya Tolstokorova

‘She was the meaning of my life’ The story of two Mariupol women’s search for their missing granddaughter

Source: Meduza
Nastya Tolstokorova
Nastya Tolstokorova
The personal archive of Nastya Tolstokorova’s grandmother

Story by Anna Ryzhkova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Each day, thousands of Ukrainians go on social media to search for relatives who have been separated from them by the war. Some have disappeared amid the chaos of shelling; others have evacuated in a rush with no cell phone. Many have vanished after entering “filtration camps” run by the Russian military. The independent Russian media project Verstka recently told the story of two women who have been trying since March to find out what happened to their children and their granddaughter; the three disappeared when their apartment was shelled in Mariupol, but the women have reason to believe they're still alive. With Verstka’s permission, Meduza is publishing an abridged translation of the story.

‘That’s my granddaughter’

In July, 108 children from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic who were left without parents or guardians were sent to live with families in six different regions of Russia. The children first met the families in the Moscow region; several Russian TV networks showed footage of the meetings.

After the “adoptions,” Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, posted a video on social media that showed the families meeting the children and giving them gifts as Lvova-Belova and the self-proclaimed Children’s Rights Commissioner of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” Eleonora Fedorova, wipe tears from their eyes.

Lvova-Belova told journalists that these children were residents of orphanages in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, and that they had no parents or relatives who could take them in.

After Verstka first published a story about Ukrainian orphans being sent to Russian families, a woman using the name Tatyana 34565 contacted the outlet. “That’s my granddaughter,” she wrote. “I’m from Mariupol. The child was with her parents, and we’ve been searching for her since March.”

filtration camps

‘I’ve never been so scared’ Ukrainian refugees give firsthand accounts of ‘filtration camps’ run by Russian troops

filtration camps

‘I’ve never been so scared’ Ukrainian refugees give firsthand accounts of ‘filtration camps’ run by Russian troops

Tatyana explained that she was referring to one of the children she’d seen in the video. “A small girl in a lilac dress, with her hair in pigtails and a backpack on her back. She only appears in the frame for a few seconds,” said Tatyana.

“Only our Nastya could cry and pout her lips like that,” she said. “I work at the kindergarten that Nastya used to go to. We were always together. The turn of the head, the look in her eyes, it’s all her. It looks just like her.”

After she first saw the video, Tatyana said, she replayed it several times. Then she paused it on the girl in the lilac dress and compared it to a picture of Nastya from last year, when she had the same pigtails as the girl from the video. Then she found the contact information for the head of Maria Lvova-Belova’s office and sent him a screenshot from the video and the photo of Nastya.

Now, for the first time in the almost five months since she lost Nastya and her parents, Tatyana had hope that she might see them soon.

A screenshot from a video posted by Russian Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova
The personal archive of Nastya Tolstokorova’s grandmother

‘Don’t go anywhere — there’s a war’

Pavel Tolstokorov, Olga Tolstokorova, and their daughter, Nastya, lived near both sets of Nastya's grandparents in Mariupol. Olga’s mother, Yelena, could see the family’s nine-story apartment building from her window, while Pavel’s mother, Tatyana, lived close enough to see the window of their fourth-story apartment.

Nastya’s parents frequently took her to see her grandparents; Tatyana, who worked at her school, saw her almost every day. “I wanted her to always be close to me. She was my hope, my rock, and the meaning of my life,” said Tatyana.

ukrainian children in russia

‘They define themselves through their experience of the war’ Katrin Nenasheva on trying to build a safe environment for forcibly deported Ukrainian children

ukrainian children in russia

‘They define themselves through their experience of the war’ Katrin Nenasheva on trying to build a safe environment for forcibly deported Ukrainian children

Pavel, Nastya’s dad, was a sailor. Two weeks before Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine began, he returned to Mariupol after a seven-month trip — his first as the ship’s second mate. Tatyana said the family took pride in Pavel's career success.

In the days leading up to February 24, Pavel and Nastya spent almost every minute together. Pavel was thrilled, Tatyana said, at how Nastya was starting to learn to spell.

On February 24, at 6:30 am, Tatyana was awoken by a call from one of her coworkers. “She said, ‘Don’t go anywhere — there’s a war.’ And I asked, ‘Have you gone nuts?’” Soon, though, Tatyana realized she wouldn’t be going to work that day.

The following day, she left her apartment to stock up on groceries and get some medicine for her husband. She also stopped by the hospital to give blood.

Bread and cheese

The families soon found themselves living in an active shelling zone. Civilians started leaving their homes as rarely as possible, only going outside when necessary, such as when they needed to cook meals over fires.

On March 7, Tatyana made some borsch and invited her son and his family to come over for an early Women’s Day celebration. The next day, Nastya's other grandmother, Yelena, went over to the young family’s home herself; they didn’t like leaving their apartment, and they especially didn’t like going to Yelena’s apartment, which was on the top floor of its building.

“They were afraid that if the top half of the building caught fire, it would be impossible for us to get out. They told me, ‘If a shell hits the roof, we’re all dead,'" Yelena said.

Several days after the holiday, Yelena’s husband planned to go visit Pavel and his family. The day before the visit, March 11, Yelena baked some bread and prepared some cheese to send with her husband for Nastya. Nastya would never receive it.

‘A hole to the sky’

On March 12, at 4:15 in the morning, two explosions rang out in the area. “The strike was so strong that it seemed to tear our house in half,” said Yelena. “I fell on the floor. My husband went to the balcony and opened the curtains, which had been shut tightly for days, and looked outside. He said, ‘I think something happened out there. Something hit Olga’s apartment.” The building’s fourth floor, where Nastya’s family lived, was on fire.

The city was still under a curfew, but Olga’s parents weren’t going to wait until morning. “I told my husband, ‘I don’t care if they’re firing — I’m still going to run. I can’t just wait,’” said Yelena. Her husband went with her.

When they reached their daughter’s building, they saw that one of the shells had hit the exact part of the building where Pavel and Olga lived. The fourth and fifth stories were destroyed. In the days that followed, Yelena said, the upper stories collapsed.

The building in Mariupol where Nastya’s family used to live
The personal archive of Nastya Tolstokorova’s grandmother

When Tatyana heard the explosions, she also went to the window and saw that the family's apartment was on fire. She ran to the building, went inside, and tried to go up the stairs. When she reached the third floor, she saw that there was nothing left. “I lifted my head and saw a hole to the sky,” she said.

“During the explosions, a lot of residents were hiding in the basement,” said Yelena. “But they told us that Pavel, Olga, and Nastya weren’t there.” Later, other neighbors told Tatyana that after the first explosion, they saw the family outside, but nobody could say where they went after that. Tatyana and Yelena doubted the family had survived.


On May 12, rescue workers began clearing the rubble from the building where Pavel, Olga, and Nastya lived. They didn’t find any new bodies.

About a week later, some of Olga’s friends told Tatyana that someone had logged into Olga’s VKontakte account from a cell phone on May 18. “I thought that if someone logged into her account again on May 23, we could be sure it was Olga, because May 23 is Nastya’s birthday,” Tatyana said.

On May 23, someone indeed logged into Olga’s account again. Her friends and relatives sent her dozens of messages, but none of them were opened. On June 15, Olga’s account was frozen due to “suspicious activity.”

“Her phone could have fallen into someone else’s hands, of course,” said Tatyana. “But if it had been left in the building, it would definitely have been destroyed in the fire. That means she and Pavel managed to get away from the explosion site.”

‘It’s going to be very painful for you’

One day, a volunteer reached out to Tatyana. She suggested Tatyana fill out a form on a website called DNR Shield, which has a database of missing Ukrainians, so Tatyana did. Each of her relatives’ entries was given a unique number, making them easy to search for. Later, when Tatyana's cousin went to the site and searched the database, she found the entries for Olga and Pavel, but not for Nastya; that one appeared to have been removed or not to have been saved.

Tatyana suspected the removal was no accident, and she started searching the Internet for information about Ukrainian children who had lost their parents or guardians. She knew that many refugees from Mariupol ended up in Russia, so she focused on Russian media reports.

The day Tatyana found the video of the children from the Donetsk region, her husband had to search their home for sedatives to calm her. Unlike Tatyana, he wasn’t immediately convinced that the girl in the video was Nastya. He warned Tatyana that if it turned out not to be Nastya, she would have a hard time with the news. “He kept repeating, ‘it’s going to be very painful for you,’” Tatyana said.

escaping through russia

‘I’ve never been so scared’ Ukrainian refugees give firsthand accounts of ‘filtration camps’ run by Russian troops

escaping through russia

‘I’ve never been so scared’ Ukrainian refugees give firsthand accounts of ‘filtration camps’ run by Russian troops

When Tatyana managed to get in touch with an official from the Office of the Russian Children's Rights Commissioner on Telegram, he told her that the girl in the video wasn’t Nastya. He did, however, offer to organize a meeting with the girl in Moscow to convince Tatyana once and for all that he was telling the truth.

They arranged for Tatyana’s neighbors Galina and Andrey to meet the man. Close friends of the family, the couple had watched Nastya grow up and cared about her deeply. Tatyana knew they would be able to tell if the girl really was Nastya.

When it came time to set a date for the meeting, the office started to stall. Tatyana began to worry that the plans would all fall apart. Then the official told her that Galina and Andrey wouldn’t be able to see the girl in person, but that they would be shown photographs and videos where she would be clearly visible.

The meeting finally happened on July 20. Officials showed Galina photos of the girl from Donetsk along with the full version of the original video that Tatyana believed showed Nastya.

“It’s not Nastya. They [Editor’s note: Galina and Andrey] would know. It’s not her nose and it’s not her big blue eyes,” Tatyana wrote to Verstka immediately after the meeting.


The building Tatyana lives in has 36 apartments. Only nine still have people living in them; the rest of the residents have evacuated and haven’t come back. Not long ago, water returned to the pipes, but so far, it only reaches as high as the fourth floor. Tatyana lives on the ninth.

The car that Pavel planned to use to evacuate his parents and his family is still parked near the building. Tatyana said it’s gradually being scavenged for parts.

The kindergarten where Nastya went to school and Tatyana worked was destroyed by shelling. She recently got an offer to come work at a new kindergarten that’s opening in Mariupol, but she declined. “It’s too painful for me to see children right now,” she said.

Yelena has moved to Vinnytsia. She doesn’t think she’ll be able to find the strength to return to Mariupol as long as it’s occupied by Russian forces. Still, she has hope that Pavel, Olga, and Nastya are alive somewhere. “I can’t bear the thought that they're gone,” she said. “Half of my heart has been torn out.”

On May 23, Yelena went to a store and bought Nastya a birthday girl: a stuffed dog. She said Nastya loved animals and was always playing with a dog that lived near their home in Mariupol.

Tatyana agreed: Nastya stood out from other kids for her sensitivity to all living things. For example, she never picked flowers — she thought it would hurt them to be separated from their mothers, the bushes.

“She thought it would hurt both the mom and the children — the flowers,” said Tatyana. “If she separated them, the buds would wither and die.”

If you’ve seen Olga, Pavel, or Nastya, get in touch with Verstka.
  • Share to or