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‘They could start to resist’ How the Russian authorities are working to indoctrinate and digitally surveil deported Ukrainian children

Source: Meduza

In the two years since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has forcibly deported thousands of Ukrainian children. While the total number of these deported minors is unknown, Kyiv has reported nearly 20,000. After the children are separated from their families and taken to Russia, the Russian authorities begin working to make them forget about their home country, telling them that their parents aren’t coming to get them and that Russia is their home. To learn how this system works, Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova studied thousands of documents and spoke with employees from Russia’s Education Ministry, the main agency responsible for these “reeducation” measures.

“‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and ‘Glory to the heroes!’ are nationalist greetings.”

“Ruscism is the unofficial name for the political ideology and social practices of Russia’s ruling regime in the early 21st century. […] The term was created by Russophobes.”

“The term ‘orcs’ is used by Russophobes and extremists as an offensive name for Russian soldiers.”

These are all entries from a glossary the Russian Education Ministry compiled in 2022, to inform teachers of the words and phrases “containing signs of nationalist extremism” that Ukrainian children might use at school.

The glossary is appended to a guide titled “Prevention of Conflicts and Manifestations of Extremism and Terrorism in a Multicultural Educational Environment,” which warns that the use of “specific slang terms” or even discussion of “political topics” may indicate that a “destructive ideology” has spread among a group of students.

According to these and other leaked ministry materials, it’s the job of Russian teachers to “form a Russian identity in members of the rising generation from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.” This indoctrination process can begin as soon as deported Ukrainian children arrive in Russia, although a separate document warns that children at this stage are liable to exhibit “moodiness,” “opposition,” “distrust towards adults,” aggression, and “ideas of personal superiority,” as well as having “difficulty taking an objective view of the unfolding situation.”

Russia’s deportation of Ukrainian children

‘Embittered children’ What Russia teaches potential guardians about orphans forcibly taken from Ukraine

Russia’s deportation of Ukrainian children

‘Embittered children’ What Russia teaches potential guardians about orphans forcibly taken from Ukraine

The guide goes on to claim that Ukrainian children lack the “knowledge” and “social skills” that “children in the Russian space have by default.” It also includes instructions on how to handle conversations about children’s family members who may have been killed or gone missing during the war:

Don’t say “Don’t worry, they’re in a better place” or “They’re looking down on you from heaven.” […] Speak honestly with the child about the fact that his loved ones were killed or his home has been destroyed. […] Say directly that they have died.

Eventually, the guide says, the child should start to experience feelings of pride, patriotism, and belonging to Russia. It also refers to the war in Ukraine as a “complication of the geopolitical situation” that forces families “into involuntary resettlement.”

According to the Education Ministry, the process of “reeducating” Ukrainian children based on Russian “spiritual-moral values and historical and national cultural traditions” should continue until their graduation, with the final result being that the children “develop a Russian identity.”

A ministry source who spoke to Meduza on condition of anonymity referred to these teacher guides as a “total disgrace”:

“Say directly that they have died” — that’s fucked up. If a child doesn’t know their family’s fate, just saying “They died” is about the worst thing you can do. You should start by finding out what the child knows about his family, how likely he thinks the odds are that they survived, whether it makes sense to hold out hope…

The source also objected to the guide’s use of the term “integration”:

Integration is something that takes place in a multicultural environment — one that permits cultural diversity and respect for the culture of the non-dominant group. But just try right now to show respect for the Ukrainian language, the anthem, the coat of arms — I mean, they arrest people for this! So the integration of these children isn’t possible. What they really mean is most likely assimilation or marginalization.

Instructions from the Kremlin aren’t the only reason the Education Ministry cares about “integrating” deported Ukrainian children. According to Meduza’s source, officials in the ministry are genuinely afraid of them. “The idea that Ukrainian children are potential terrorists looms over our conversations. We’re not morons — we realize that Russia didn’t come to Ukraine with ‘peace and kindness.’ And that the children who were taken from there to a hostile environment could start to resist,” this person said. “Behind the scenes, they’ve started saying as much, even at the leadership level. But at round table events, of course, all you hear is ‘Ukrainian children are so wonderful.’”

Putin’s ICC warrant

Putin the suspect The International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Russia’s president

Putin’s ICC warrant

Putin the suspect The International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Russia’s president

The source added that in late 2022, the Education Ministry began preparing its employees for potential terrorist attacks against the ministry itself. The documents Meduza obtained warn of the possibility of “armed attacks” (including ones involving “flammable liquids,” an apparent reference to Molotov cocktails), “hostage-taking,” “detonation of explosive devices,” “arson,” and drone attacks.

The head of a Russian state foundation that works with orphans told Meduza that he’s heard similar concerns. “Behind closed doors, they understand that the integration of Ukrainian teenagers is an explosive situation, and they’re trying to provide guidance to teachers and everybody else,” he said. “Our students are also inundated with the idea that there are ‘fascists in Ukraine’ — and then a real ‘Ukrofascist’ is brought to your class.”

‘A friendly image of Mother Russia’

At the start of the full-scale war, Vladimir Putin allocated 52 million rubles ($573,000) to Russia’s Education Ministry to create an agency called the Federal Center for the Development of Teenage Socialization Programs (from here on referred to as the Teenage Programs Center). This entity oversees a project called Teenagers of Russia, which was presented to Putin about two weeks after the start of the full-scale war.

The Teenagers of Russia program is an initiative of Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova and was designed, according to her, to help “millions of teenagers pass safely through the zone of turbulence” during the war. The International Criminal Court has taken a different view on the program: last year, it issued arrest warrants for Putin and Lvova-Belova for their alleged roles in the war crime of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.

Since its creation, the Teenage Programs Center has coordinated the Russian authorities’ work with school-age children in all of Russia’s regions as well as in Ukraine’s occupied territories. According to documents obtained by Meduza, the Teenage Programs Center is especially focused on providing “support to minors located in the special military operation zone.”

The new agency, which reports to both the Education Ministry and Lvova-Belova, was launched “specifically for Ukrainian children” for the purpose of “explaining to them ‘where the truth is,’” two sources from the Center told Meduza.

“When the Teenage Programs Center was established, [its employees] immediately began making trips to visit children, both in Mariupol and in the LNR, as well as ones who had already been taken to Russia. They would distribute humanitarian aid, hold training sessions, and generally try to create the image of a friendly Mother Russia: ‘You’re here now, and everything here is great!’” said one source. “That’s their main activity.”

According to Meduza’s sources, the Teenage Programs Center’s employees are tasked with “erasing these children’s Ukrainian past and integrating them into the Russian world.”

Among other projects, the Teenage Programs Center is in the process of building a network of “teen spaces” that hold “patriotic seminars” in which children are told about the “achievements of our country” and the “significance of the events happening in Russia’s new regions.” These seminars allow teenagers to meet people who Teenage Programs Center director Valery Maiorov refers to as “safe adults,” a category that includes Russian soldiers and priests.

Meduza spoke to the director of one of the Teenage Programs Center’s “teen spaces,” who described her work with Ukrainian children as follows:

Small children [in war zones] come to their senses more quickly than adults. Teenagers, of course, are all on social media, which has an influence on them. [As a result,] they get the wrong idea about why this war began. […] Many of them support Ukraine, many are critical of the head of state. We invite specialists from the relevant agencies to explain things to them.

These “teen centers” also coordinate “military sport” activities, trips to exhibitions with names like “We oppose Nazism,” visits to shooting ranges, and even “preparations for service in the Russian Armed Forces.” According to an Education Ministry report, the centers had been “visited by over 150,000 teenagers” as of September 2023.

“Essentially, Maiorov oversees a substantial portion of the ideological work with teenagers outside of schools,” a source from the Teenage Programs Center told Meduza. “The children return from school, where they’re indoctrinated, and they go to these institutions, where they’re indoctrinated even more.”

The agency is opening “teen centers” on Ukraine’s occupied territories as well: branches are already operating in Donetsk and Mariupol, and preparations are underway for new ones throughout the occupied territories of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions. Maria Lvova-Belova and the leadership of the Teenage Programs Center are personally overseeing this process.

Lvova-Belova and the ICC

‘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.

Lvova-Belova and the ICC

‘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.

‘You’re in Russia — speak Russian’

The Teenage Programs Center is subordinate to the Russian Education’s Ministry Department for the Protection of Children’s Rights. The head of this department is a woman named Larisa Falkovskaya, a former school psychologist who has been personally sanctioned by the European Union.

Falkovskaya’s department also oversees the Federal Coordination Center for the Provision of Psychological Services in the Education System (FKTs) — the agency responsible for creating the teachers’ guides described at the beginning of this article. The FKTs is also responsible for training teachers in Ukraine’s occupied territories and for working with students “in bad situations.” A ministry source described the agency’s work as follows: “Essentially, they parachute in to see children whose relatives and friends have recently been killed. They counsel everybody one by one, like a conveyor belt: ‘Our country is here to help you.’”

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According to reports obtained by Meduza, Ukrainian children have complained to psychologists of anxiety, “separation from family,” panic, shock, and “suicidal tendencies.” They’ve reported being afraid of “loud sounds” and noise from airplanes, as well as experiencing grief, depression, and “separation anxiety.” Many are also concerned about being “stigmatized because of their strong dialect” and “difficulties quickly transitioning to Russian language.”

These language-related fears are well-founded, according to a source from the Education Ministry. “All of the decision-makers will say without hesitation that work [with children] should be conducted in Russian: ‘They all know it there, and if they don’t know it well, then they should learn it,’” said the source. “They say, ‘The Constitution says Russian is the state language. You came to Russia, so speak Russian.’”

Healthcare in occupied Ukraine

‘It wasn’t like this before Russia came’ The state of healthcare in Ukraine’s occupied territories after two years of war

Healthcare in occupied Ukraine

‘It wasn’t like this before Russia came’ The state of healthcare in Ukraine’s occupied territories after two years of war


Falkovskaya’s department isn’t just responsible for pressuring Ukrainian children to assimilate — it also carries out their placements into Russian families. This is overseen by Falkovskaya’s deputy, Anastasia Akkuratova, who, according to leaked documents, organizes Ukrainian children’s deportations to Russia and adds them to the Russian State Orphan Database.

Maria Lvova-Belova continues to insist that Russians cannot and do not adopt children from the “new regions,” claiming they can only serve as foster parents or guardians and that the goal is for the children to eventually be returned to their families. She often repeats that she herself is serving as a “foster parent” — not an adoptive mother — to Filipp Golovnya, a 17-year-old from Mariupol.

These claims are not true. Meduza has viewed “summary reports” from the Education Ministry on the “identification and placement of orphans and children left without parental care” from the first three quarters of 2023 that contain documentary evidence of a program for the mass adoption of Ukrainian children. This evidence shows that:

  • In the first quarter of 2023, Russian-backed officials “identified” 220 “orphans and children left without parental care” in each of the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and 14 children in these categories in the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region. According to the reports, 26 of these children were “given up for adoption” to Russian citizens, four of them were returned to their biological parents, and seven of them were taken away from their relatives because of alleged “direct threats to their life or health.”
  • In the second quarter of 2023, the number of orphans and “children left without parental care” recorded by Russian-backed agencies in Ukraine’s occupied territories rose to 40 in the Zaporizhzhia region, 286 in the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” and 409 in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” Six more children from the occupied part of the Donetsk region were given up for adoption to Russian citizens, 16 were returned to their parents, and 19 were taken away from their relatives.
  • The third quarter of 2023 was the first to include data about the occupied part of the Kherson region. In addition to 63 orphans and “children left without parental care” there, the Russian-backed authorities reported a total of 45 children in the Zaporizhzhia region, 343 in the Luhansk region, and 569 in the Donetsk region. The number of children adopted by Russian citizens also surged to 45, most of them from the Donetsk region. Meanwhile, the occupation authorities took three children in the Kherson region away from their relatives.

This data doesn’t account for all adoptions of Ukrainian children from the occupied territories by Russian authorities. During the months when the reports did not include the Kherson region, for example, a 10-month-old girl was taken from an orphanage in the region. According to reporting by iStories, she was adopted in December 2022 by Sergey Mironov, the chairman of the political party A Just Russia — For Truth.

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‘They called us Ukrainian pigs’ Kyiv says Russian Red Cross employees have mocked and humiliated POWs in occupied territories

What’s going on with the Russia Red Cross?

‘They called us Ukrainian pigs’ Kyiv says Russian Red Cross employees have mocked and humiliated POWs in occupied territories

‘Big Brother for teenagers’

The Russian Education Ministry continues to monitor Ukrainian children after they are adopted into Russian families and is responsible for compiling a report if a child dies. In the first half of 2023, the ministry recorded the deaths of five children from the occupied parts of the Kherson and Luhansk regions. One of the children died by suicide.

The documents obtained by Meduza indicate that one of the Education Ministry’s tasks is to take measures to prevent child suicides in the occupied territories. It does this with the help of an organization called the Center for the Study and Network Monitoring of the Youth Environment, according to two sources from the ministry. This agency’s powers, however, go far beyond suicide prevention efforts.

The Center is an IT company that was founded on Vladimir Putin’s orders and that receives billions of rubles from Russia’s federal budget. It develops its own software, which it then uses to monitor the online spread of “anarchism,” “Nazism,” and “other forms of destructive information” online.

The Center’s main product is a software called Profilaktika, which allegedly tracks over 540 million profiles of teenagers on social media (and considers more than two million of them to exhibit “destructive behavior”).

“This is Big Brother for teenagers,” an Education Ministry employee familiar with the system’s operations told Meduza. “It [uses neural networks to create] a risk profile for each child — suicide, terrorism, extremism — and sends information about this to the [software’s] operator. It can also send it to the authorities.”

The employees that use the software are guided by a brochure that includes the late Alexey Navalny’s investigative team as an example of an “extremist organization” and describes Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in the following terms: “Neo-Nazi organizations [were] used to form a so-called ‘opposition’ and carry out coups d’état.”

Surveillance in Russia

‘These wonderful cameras’ Leaked documents reveal the Kremlin’s plan for a secretive government agency to build a nationwide surveillance network

Surveillance in Russia

‘These wonderful cameras’ Leaked documents reveal the Kremlin’s plan for a secretive government agency to build a nationwide surveillance network

According to documents obtained by Meduza, TsISM has already tested its software in 44 Russian regions. The organization plans to expand it to the entire country and integrate it with Interior Ministry databases in the near future.

It’s unclear how effective this program is, but two Education Ministry employees who work with the data it generates told Meduza that the software is very good at de-anonymizing teenagers online. “Even if a child used a pseudonym online, changed his age, used somebody else’s photo, and blocked his parents, the center would still help identify him,” one employee said.

Meduza has obtained dozens of the risk profiles created with data from the Profilaktika software. Each one contains its subject’s photo, address, and phone number, as well as a detailed analysis of their social media accounts, including the number of likes, reposts, and comments they’ve left.

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The profiles also indicate whether a teenager belongs to any “opposition communities” or has posted or liked any posts that “discredit law enforcement,” “criticize the current authorities of the Russian Federation,” “depict shock content,” or relate to “anarchism.” These factors are used to assign each child both a “destructiveness score” and an “opposition score.”

“TsISM scours the Internet, monitoring online activity and helping law enforcement identify opposition activists and opponents of the Russian authorities,” one source from the Education Ministry put it.

In 2023, TsISM received 621 million rubles ($6.7 million) from Russia’s federal budget for this work. Over the next three years, it’s slated to get more than 1.7 billion rubles (more $18.5 million), according to leaked documents.

The ultimate goal, the documents say, is for the program to “cover at least 85 percent” of the social media accounts of children and teenagers living in Ukraine’s occupied territories.

Kremlin leaks

‘Latching onto successful projects’ Leaked documents suggest Kremlin spin doctors are presenting popular movies and TV to Putin as propaganda wins

Kremlin leaks

‘Latching onto successful projects’ Leaked documents suggest Kremlin spin doctors are presenting popular movies and TV to Putin as propaganda wins

A ‘Ministry of Orphans’

To consolidate their various initiatives and programs for deporting, adopting, indoctrinating, and surveilling Ukrainian children, the Russian authorities are considering creating an entire new government agency. In communications between the Labor Ministry and the Education Ministry, federal employees have referred to the proposed entity as a new “ministry.”

According to sources from the Education Ministry, this idea is being “pushed for” by State Duma deputy Anna Kuznetsova. Russia’s former Children’s Rights Commissioner, Kuznetsova is most well-known for her ultra-conservative statements and initiatives. One of Meduza’s sources described the situation as follows:

They say the “Ministry of Orphans” is being made specifically for her. That Kuznetsova is very unhappy with her new position and that she’s got no use for the State Duma. Meanwhile, there just so happens to suddenly be a ton of orphans and socially disadvantaged children in Russia. And all of these Ukrainian children may also end up under Kuznetsova’s authority — that’s the whole point of the initiative, as far as I understand. To take control of all the guardianship and child welfare agencies and the entire state policy for kids with disabilities.

Kuznetsova has referred to Ukrainian children as “hostages” (not of Moscow but of Kyiv) and has taken various efforts to “speed up the process” of their adoption in Russia.

Some of Meduza’s sources expressed doubts that the proposal will become a reality due to the amount of money it would cost. According to one source close to the Kremlin, the final decision will come after Russia’s presidential election in mid-March.

Education Ministry employees, however, have begun discussing the initiative as if it’s already a done deal. When the agency began moving to a new building in Moscow in October 2023, a source from the ministry told Meduza, employees assumed the purpose of the change was to “free up a building for the ‘new ministry.’”

* * *

Since the start of the full-scale war, Russian schools have been teaching children about the importance of “disarming” Ukraine, forming a “Russian civic identity,” and “serving the Motherland.” This same rhetoric is used in schools in Ukraine’s occupied territories.

Russian volunteers working in the occupied territories, however, aren’t particularly concerned about these goals. Many Russian students whose views have already been shaped by the government’s anti-Ukraine rhetoric, volunteers told Meduza, are unwilling to have normal interactions with Ukrainians, despite the Kremlin’s indoctrination programs.

“One boy came into our class and said, ‘I’m a citizen of Ukraine — and I’m proud.’ The other kids beat him up, and he didn’t come back to school,” one volunteer told Meduza. “Another boy (from Mariupol; he and his mother barely got out of there) came to our school and got called a khokhol [a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians]. He endured it until the bullies got together and beat him intensely. The kids’ homeroom teacher just shrugged, and the parents of his classmates said, ‘Why did you even come here? Nobody told you to.’ And he didn’t go back to school.”

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Story by Lilia Yapparova. Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale.

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