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Captive audience How Ukrainian children forcibly taken to Russia are taught to love their ‘new homeland’

Source: iStories

In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, accusing them of complicity in the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children (a war crime). According to Lvova-Belova herself, 700,000 Ukrainian children have been transported to Russia since February 2022, including 1,500 who allegedly ended up in orphanages. Media reports indicate others have been placed in foster homes or been “adopted” into Russian families. In a new investigation, the independent outlet iStories identified several Ukrainian children being held in Russian orphanages and uncovered how they’re being “reeducated” and taught the “patriotic values” of their “new homeland.” Meduza is publishing an English-language version of the story.

A new homeland

Valeria stands on the stage of an orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod, dressed in a traditional Russian folk costume. She’s performing for a Russian Unity Day celebration. “We are [one] people, and we are united — together we are invincible!” she recites. The teachers praise her and the other children for their “good knowledge of the history of the big and little Homeland.”

Valeria’s homeland is Ukraine. She, her siblings, and other orphaned children were taken from the occupied Donetsk region following Russia’s full-scale invasion. Their profiles are included in Russia’s federal orphan database, where Russians can look for children to foster or adopt. iStories estimates that by summer 2023, there may have been nearly 2,500 orphaned and unaccompanied Ukrainian children in this database. All of them, like Valeria, are taught to love their “new homeland.”

In February, a year after Russia started its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Naryshkino orphanage solemnly unveiled a memorial plaque in honor of one of its graduates: Ramis Isaenko. In fall 2022, he enlisted in Wagner Group from a prison where he was serving out a sentence. Two months later, he died in Ukraine. “He fought for the freedom of the ‘LNR’ [the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’] and died a brave death on the battlefield, showing courage and valor,” the plaque reads. It makes no mention of his criminal history.

Isaenko had three convictions: for stealing, buying drugs, and failing to pay alimony. He first went to prison in 2017, on drug charges. In 2020, he tried to steal from a store and got a suspended sentence, but six months later he was back on trial for a series of car battery thefts. Isaenko was given four years in a high-security prison. After his death, his record was expunged due to “pardon and death.” Isaenko was already a combat veteran when he received his first conviction. By the second, he was under the care of an addiction specialist and seeing a psychologist for “disturbing changes in personality.”

While Isaenko was at war in Ukraine, nearly 60 children from the Donetsk region were brought to his orphanage. A few months later, they took part in the unveiling ceremony for his memorial plaque — a plaque honoring a man who fought against their country.

At the Naryshkino orphanage, great attention is paid to patriotic education. The children regularly meet with a Soviet–Afghan War veteran turned priest, who tells them about “true patriotism” and “the feats of the holy defenders of Rus’” whom “the Lord called to service.” The students dedicated a “hero’s desk” to a graduate who died in Afghanistan, celebrated Russian Flag Day, met officials from the Russian Federal Protective Service, Interior Ministry, Prosecutor’s Office, and Federal Security Service (FSB). Children who have suffered through the devastation of Russian aggression were made celebrate “Reunification Day” (a new holiday marking Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories) and listen to stories from active military personnel (orphanage alumni) about their “feats” in the war against Ukraine.

iStories identified seven children at the school who’d been taken from the Donetsk region and attended these “patriotic” events. They’re all listed in the Russian federal orphan database. One of them was ceremoniously given a Russian passport on their 14th birthday.

In October, the Naryshkino orphanage was under threat of closure. The staff appealed to Putin with a request to save the institution. “We currently house children brought from the Donetsk People’s Republic. These children have been so united by a common tragedy and constant relocations that they live as one big family, helping and caring for each other as if they were real brothers and sisters. Moreover, many of them are indeed blood relatives,” the petition read.

The management forwarded questions about the orphanage’s closure and the fate of the children to the regional education department. At this writing, there was still no response.

Who is Maria Lvova-Belova?

‘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.

Who is Maria Lvova-Belova?

‘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.

A new family

In October 2022, at least nine new pupils from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine arrived at the Trajectory Center, an orphanage primarily for children with special needs. At the center, students write letters of encouragement to soldiers fighting in the “special military operation.” Some of these letters read, “Our dear heroes, defenders, we’re proud of you! Thank you for your courage. There’s nothing stronger than the heart of a soldier! The strength and spirit of the Russian people is with you!”

iStories was able to identify three of the children at the Trajectory Center taken from Ukraine’s Donetsk region. All of them are up for adoption, not just guardianship. Unlike guardians, adoptive parents receive the same rights as biological parents and can change the child’s name and personal information. It would be extremely difficult for relatives to get deported children back if they’ve been adopted.

Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova has repeatedly emphasized that Russians cannot adopt children from annexed territories. (Although she herself “adopted” a teenager from Mariupol.) It’s unclear why children taken to Trajectory are up for adoption; the center told iStories that some of them were placed under guardianship.

The center teaches the deported children to be true “patriots.” The director, Dmitry Batishchev, also heads the regional branch of the pro-war “We don’t abandon our own” movement. The children help weave camouflage nets, make trench candles, and collect socks and balaclavas, all of which the movement sends to Russian military personnel. They also send video messages to the soldiers thanking them for their service, wishing them victory, telling them the “truth” is on their side, and praising Russia as a bastion of “hope, compassion, military valor, and honor.”

Russian authorities don’t believe these kinds of activities are harmful to children who were taken from occupied territories. On the contrary, Lvova-Belova says that “it’s important to understand that the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ territories have been shelled by the Ukrainian army for many years, and most of the orphaned children from the republics’ social institutions are aware of this.” According to her, “the children don’t see Russia as an enemy: they expect protection and assistance from it, so being placed in safe Russian [adoptive and foster] families isn’t a traumatic experience for them.”

Finding a way home

A deported teen finds his way home Earlier this month, the Russian army sent him an enlistment summons. Now Bogdan Ermokhin is back in Ukraine and with family.

Finding a way home

A deported teen finds his way home Earlier this month, the Russian army sent him an enlistment summons. Now Bogdan Ermokhin is back in Ukraine and with family.

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Story by Katya Bonch-Osmolovskaya

English-language version by Emily ShawRuss

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