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‘Just call me Masha’ The International Criminal Court issued warrants for the arrest of Putin and one of his appointees, Maria Lvova-Belova. She’s clearly no ordinary mom of 22.
Story by Anna Ryzhkova and Regina Gamalova (Verstka)
Adapted translation by Anna Razumnaya and Emily Laskin
On March 17, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued a warrant for the arrest of the president of Russia as well as an unexpected member of the Putin administration: Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova. The ICC chose to prosecute Putin under an article of international law pertaining to forcible deportations. Because of Lvova-Belova’s involvement, it appears that the ICC will try to prove Putin’s complicity in removing thousands of children from Ukraine, forcibly bringing them to Russia, and, often, placing them with Russian adoptive families in order to “reeducate” them. A report from Yale University’s Humanitarian Research Lab (HRL) suggests that Lvova-Belova has, in fact, played a key role in orchestrating the large-scale deportations of children in violation of international humanitarian norms. In response to the ICC arrest warrant, Lvova-Belova quipped: “It’s great to know our work to help our country’s children has been noticed by the international community.” The statement denied the children’s Ukrainian identity, a position in keeping with the goals of Russia’s “reeducation” programs. On March 15, the independent Russian publication Verstka published a profile of Lvova-Belova. With Vertka’s permission, Meduza in English summarizes the story of Lvova-Belova’s rise from a provincial Christian activist to a key instrument of Putin’s aggression against the Ukrainian nation.
On October 27, 2021, Maria Lvova-Belova met with Putin on a video call. She had assumed the post of children’s rights commissioner the day before, taking the place of her good friend, Anna Kuznetsova. Lvova-Belova met the president in a petal-pink blazer with a floral brooch, and began her presentation, mentioning that she had been a children’s rights advocate for the past 15 years. Putin asked her a personal question: “How many children do you have yourself?”
“I have nine, five of them born to me, four adopted, and I also foster 13 kids with disabilities.”
“How do you manage all of this? I mean, this and the social work?” Putin asked.
“Well, that’s just the way they are, moms with many children,” said Lvova-Belova. “We’re all multitaskers.”
When they met again on March 9, 2022, Russia had been at war for over two weeks. From the start of the invasion, Lvova-Belova set out to “evacuate” Ukrainian children, to “save them from shelling” and “give them a future” in Russia. By early March, more than a thousand Ukrainian orphans had been brought to Russia. “The president has underscored,” wrote Lvova-Belova on her Telegram channel, “that every displaced child should have an opportunity to find a family.”
Nine months into the invasion, she admitted that, as soon as she took her post, things became “infernal.” She named, in particular, “the special operation, the Donbas, all of it.” But, she continued, “I have no regrets about this year, because my team and I gave ourselves to this, not 100 percent, but 150.”
At that moment, she was on seven international sanction lists for illegal deportations of Ukrainian children to Russia.
‘More of a mom’
By the time Maria Lvova-Belova was appointed the children’s rights commissioner, she had already served as a city councilor in Penza and on the party council of United Russia, Putin’s political party. The mother of a large family, married to an Orthodox priest and herself a philanthropist, Lvova-Belova had the perfect resume to take over the job when Anna Kuznetsova, the previous commissioner, was elected to the State Duma. According to an insider to the appointment process, Lvova-Belova was backed by the Russian Orthodox Church: “Her background was better, and she was more of a mom.” And since the ROC has the final say in Russia’s family-related policy, Belova got the job, turning it into a “collaborative project” between the ROC and the president’s administration.
Lvova-Belova, a trained musician, married at 19, after meeting Pavel Kogelman while singing in a church choir. Pavel wanted to have a large family, and this won her over — she was used to turning down second dates with men who said they wanted fewer than three children. Their first child was born in 2005, and the second came two years later. In 2008 she heard about disabled orphans living in a Penza hospital ward, and began volunteering there. That work led to the creation of her first charity, Blagovest. At first, Maria and her friend, Anna Kuznetsova, as well as their husbands, participated in Blagovest’s work. But soon, the two friends quarreled, and the Kuznetsovs left the organization.
Oleg Sharipkov, deputy head of another Penza NGO, remembers those days: “They used to be just normal girls with a bit of an Orthodox twist,” he says, “but ever since they broke up, they were caught in this stupid competition: who has more kids, who lights more candles in church, who gets closer to the president.”
In 2014, Lvova-Belova joined the All-Russian People’s Front, a political coalition started by Vladimir Putin. Shortly afterwards, she took the helm of the grassroots Russia’s Mothers organization. She launched a rehabilitation center for disabled graduates of local orphanages, receiving a large grant from the regional Ministry of Labor.
In 2016, Anna Kuznetsova became the children’s rights commissioner. Lvova-Belova’s career was also blossoming. With more government funding, she was opening larger rehabilitation centers. After Veronika’s House (funded by a 27-million-ruble grant), came an even larger “art estate” for children with disabilities (this time, 190 million rubles was cobbled together from government grants, regional subsidies, and dozens of donors, including Sberbank and the oligarch Roman Abramovich). In 2016, Lvova-Belova was presented with the ROC’s Order of Prince Vladimir for her charitable work. By 2018, she had become one of Putin’s presidential election proxies. As her star continued to rise, her husband gave up his own career as a software engineer, resolving to become a priest. Lvova-Belova took this in stride: one has to make sacrifices, so she had to “get rid of a few short skirts.”
In June 2021, Lvova-Belova graduated from the President’s Cadre Reserve, a technocratic incubator run by Sergey Kiriyenko, Putin’s chief of staff. A few months later, Putin appointed her to her current post.
‘All the children are our own’
As a child, Lvova-Belova says she could never imagine her future profession, but always knew that she wanted to be a mom. As a parent, she became a firm believer in “hugs instead of lengthy talk.” As an official, she practiced the same philosophy: her staff calculated that, since the start of the Russian invasion, Lvova-Belova has hugged over a thousand Ukrainian children. She also brought hundreds of them to temporary facilities in Russia in the first months of the war. As early as March 11, she made it known that children “evacuated” from Ukraine would be handed over to Russian families and declared that Putin unconditionally supported her work.
Adoption inquiries peaked in March and April. In February, the number of Yandex searches using the keywords “adopt a child from the Donbas” was only 218, but by March and April that number rose to over 13,000, and the total number of such queries in 2022 reached 30,824. “Isn’t this true unity,” enthused Lvova-Belova, “isn’t this true patriotic feeling, when there are no alien children, when all the children are our own?” In response to the public’s interest in adoptions, she developed special instructions on how to adopt a child from the Donetsk or Luhansk region.
Lvova-Belova publicly supported official propaganda about “saving the children of the Donbas.” But where other officials spoke primarily about the threat of Nazism to children, she was apt, instead, to praise Russian families. She believes that children affected by shelling dwell “on the border between darkness and light,” and that Russians are able to provide “shelter” and to “warm them with care and love.” More than once, Lvova-Belova has noted that children traumatized by war changed “for the better” with Russian families. “It’s night and day,” she said. “The children even begin to outwardly resemble their adoptive families.”
Officially, it became possible for Russian families to become legal guardians of Ukrainian children only in May 2022, when Putin signed an order on a simplified procedure for children to become citizens of the Russian Federation. But Lvova-Belova was in talks with the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” before then, in order to place Ukrainian orphans with Russian families as quickly as possible. The first 27 children from the “DNR” came under “temporary custody” in the Moscow region in April.
It’s not uncommon for Lvova-Belova to personally accompany children from the occupied territories to Russia during “evacuations.” She has sometimes been the person to hand them over to their new adoptive families, and is evidently moved to tears by the experience.
By October 2022, according to official data, 380 children from the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were living with Russian families. It’s difficult to determine how many more are living in institutions for unaccompanied minors.
In January 2023, Verstka discovered at least 14 young children from Kherson, living in what has been called a children’s concentration camp, in annexed Simferopol. In February, Russian independent network TV Rain obtained documents from regional authorities showing that 400 orphans had been placed in 24 different facilities in August 2022, and that only 36 of them were now living with families.
Lvova-Belova claims that her team works not only to place Ukrainian children with Russian adoptive families, but also to reunite them with their birth families. She always trots out the same story as an example of the latter scenario — one man, who served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was allowed into Russia after “filtration” and managed to retrieve his children and bring them home. “We’re definitely not working to take children from their parents and give them to Russian families,” she says.
‘She’s just the greatest person’
In August, Maria Lvova-Belova announced that she had adopted a Ukrainian child, a 15-year-old named Fillip, from Mariuol. The teenager found himself in Russia in May, when he was sent to a sanatorium in Odintsovo, near Moscow, with 30 other children from Mariupol.
In the fall, the television network Tsargrad shot a documentary featuring Fillip, called This is My Child. In it, Fillip says that before the war, he lived with an adoptive family in Mariupol, but that they abandoned him when hostilities started. After he was sent to Russia and placed in the sanatorium, he really struggled emotionally. But that all changed when Lvova-Belova visited.
“The moment Masha arrived, it was unforgettable,” Fillip told a journalist for the Tsargrad documentary. “She’s just the greatest person I’ve ever met. I’ve never had a person who would love me as much as she does.”
The commissioner presents herself as the consummate mom. When she’s with children, she sits on the floor with her legs tucked under her, holds preschoolers’ hands, sits them on her knee, and hugs and kisses them to calm them down. During interviews, she asks journalists to just call her Masha, and her employees have shortened her name and patronymic — Maria Alexeyevna — to just two letters, MA.
Just before the anniversary of the invasion, on February 16, Lvova-Belova met with Putin to give an account of her work. She mentioned that she now knows what it’s like “to be the adoptive mom of a child from the Donbas,” since she’d adopted 15-year-old Fillip from Mariupol. “Thanks to you,” she said to the Russian president.
In July, Maria Lvova-Belova visited children who had remained in the ruins of Mariupol. She told them that “a little part” of the city now lived in her own home. The children were photographed with the commissioner. Instead of “cheese” they said “Mariupol — city of the future.”
After her trip, the commissioner decided to return the “feeling of peaceful life” to children from the Donbas, so between June 2022 and March 2023, she organized a series of six camps for them in southern Russia and outside of Moscow. Lvova-Belova personally met the children with loaves of bread (a sign of hospitality) and performers in Russian folk costumes. “We’re greeting you this way because now, you’re ours,” the commissioner told the teenagers.
As part of the camps’ “integration” programming, the teenage participants are encouraged to undergo “psychological rehabilitation.” After that, the kids return home — back to “especially heavily shelled territories,” as Lvova-Belova calls their hometowns. She thinks that two weeks at camp should help not only the kids, but also their parents: a child can go back home and give their family “a charge of confidence” that “they won’t be left stranded” in Russia.
In fact, however, not all the kids who get sent to camp get to go back home two weeks later. At the beginning of March Lvova-Belova herself reported that there were about 89 children who “lingered” on vacation at children’s camps in the south of Russia and in Crimea. According to the commissioner, no one was keeping them there by force. The problem was complex situation at the front, and the fact that their parents couldn’t come collect them, Lvova-Belova explained. She didn’t specify which camps were involved.
“These are kids from the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions,” a source familiar with the situation told Verstka. “They can technically go home now, if their parents personally come get them. But we know that men may not make it in or out of the country, due to filtration measures. It’s not clear at what point these children will be considered to have been left without parental care, and therefore subject to being transferred to an adoptive family or somewhere else.”
Roman Kryukov, a student at the Academy of Pedagogy and Psychology at the Southern Federal University, worked at one “integration” period last fall. “These are kids who come face to face with the military, they see tanks in their cities, so the topic of the ‘special military operation’ clouds the air,” he told Verstka. “Honestly, I expected to see children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), who were difficult to reach or didn’t believe others. But I can’t say that I saw any differences [from other kids]. Of all the requests I got from them, only two were related to events in Ukraine — for example, about the fear of losing their loved ones.” He suggests that it has to do with the plasticity of a child’s psyche, which easily adapts to new conditions.
‘This is moral abuse of children’
Maria Lvova-Belova worries not only about the fates of Ukrainian children, but also about the upbringing of Russian schoolchildren, which must be “patriotic.” In May, she gathered teenagers from 82 regions of Russia in Moscow, where they presented projects about bullying, peer relationships, and a happy childhood. Participants in the forum told Verstka that several people from the “DNR” were invited, including a tenth-grader, Polina Chichkan, from Horlivka. Lvova-Belova posted a photo of the girl and suggested that Russian students would help Polina “take her mind off terrible events.”
Two attendees from Tula, Maria Zhidkova and Alina Molodtsova, interpreted the assignment in their own way and decided to make Polina the face of a project called “The truth of the children of the Donbas.” They created a video which features the girl from the “DNR” standing in front of the flags of the Russian Federation and the “DNR,” and, alongside similarly-aged compatriots, reading a text about life under shelling.
Verstka asked Maria Zhidkova about her impressions on meeting Lvova-Belova. She answered that the commissioner’s openness and love for children shocked her, and called Lvova-Belova a model for youth. “I didn’t believe there were such people,” she said. “Maria Alexeyevna showed me that you can help people and do it simply.” When she was asked about the meaning of the war and about the fate of the children who have become its victims, the girl couldn’t answer. She added that she “doesn’t have a political education.”
At the next meeting of students — a new state-sponsored children’s and youth organization named Movement of the First — Lvova-Belova brought her adopted son from Mariupol. He appeared on stage in a sweatshirt with a print composed of knives, roses, eagles, barbed wire, and Russian dolls.
Polina Chichkan, the student from Horlivka, also went to that forum. While there, she told Russian state-owned television network Russia-1 that she sees “the unity of the nation and new territories.” But when she returned to Horlivka, she made a video for her peers, in which she said that the mission of Movement of the First was “to be with Russia,” “to be human,” “to be together,” “to be in the movement,” and “to be first.”
“Such communities are very reminiscent of an analogous movement in Nazi Germany: there, children also mostly practiced sports, music, and various non-political activities, but when the authorities needed them, they supported the state and the army,” psychologist and teacher Daniil Ken told Verstka. “This is moral abuse of children, and it forces parents to make a choice: either oppose it and endanger themselves, or find some kind of justification and reconcile themselves to it.”
In March 2023, Lvova-Belova supported a ban on adoption of Russian children by families from “unfriendly” countries. “In the context of the politics of the so-called ‘cancellation of Russia,’ there’s a high likelihood that Russian children abroad will be harassed and humiliated on the basis of nationality,” she said. She suggested helping the children of Africa, instead, to support “international cooperation.” Like a true believer, she sought an official blessing — not from a priest in church, but from Putin in the Kremlin.
Adapted for Meduza in English by Anna Razumnaya and Emily Laskin
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