Using Adoptions, Russia Turns Children Into Spoils of War

New York Times, October 23, 2022

Thousands of Ukrainian children have been transferred to Russia.

["Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" is an act of genocide under Article 2(e) of the Genocide Convention.]

A broken window at a hospital in March in Mariupol, Ukraine. Russian officials have made clear that their goal is to replace any childhood attachment to home with a love for Russia. Credit: Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

By  Emma Bubola

As Russian forces laid siege to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol this spring, children fled bombed-out group homes and boarding schools. Separated from their families, they followed neighbors or strangers heading west, seeking the relative safety of central Ukraine.

Instead, at checkpoints around the city, pro-Russia forces intercepted them, according to interviews with the children, witnesses and family members. The authorities put them on buses headed deeper into Russian-held territory.

“I didn’t want to go,” said Anya, 14, who escaped a home for tuberculosis patients in Mariupol and is now with a foster family near Moscow. “But nobody asked me.”

In the rush to flee, she said, she left behind a sketchbook containing her mother’s phone number. All she could remember were the first three digits.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, Russian authorities have announced with patriotic fanfare the transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be adopted and become citizens. On state-run television, officials offer teddy bears to new arrivals, who are portrayed as abandoned children being rescued from war.

In fact, this mass transfer of children is a potential war crime, regardless of whether they were orphans. And while many of the children did come from orphanages and group homes, the authorities also took children whose relatives or guardians want them back, according to interviews with children and families on both sides of the border.

As Russian troops pushed into Ukraine, children like Anya who were fleeing newly occupied territories were swept up. Some were taken after their parents had been killed or imprisoned by Russian troops, according to local Ukrainian officials.

This systematic resettlement is part of a broader strategy by the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to treat Ukraine as a part of Russia and cast his illegal invasion as a noble cause. His government has used children — including the sick, poor and orphaned — as part of a propaganda campaign presenting Russia as a charitable savior.

Through interviews with parents, officials, doctors and children in Ukraine and Russia, The New York Times identified several children who had been taken away. Some returned home. Others, like Anya, remain in Russia.

A photograph provided by the Kremlin shows President Vladimir V. Putin meeting in March with Maria Lvova-Belova, his commissioner for children’s rights. Credit: Pool photo by Mikhail Klimentyev

The Times interviewed Anya several times through instant messages, exchanged voice memos with her and verified key details through her friends, photographs and a journal she kept identifying other children she had been with. She asked reporters not to contact her foster parents, who had told her not to talk to outsiders.

Anya had lived apart from her mother and was in only sporadic contact with her before the war. Without the phone number, Anya said she could not reach her.

At first, reporters could not, either.

The Times is not identifying Anya’s full name. A shy girl with a passion for drawing, she said that her Russian foster family treated her well but that she ached to return to Ukraine. Soon, though, she said she would become a Russian citizen. “I don’t want to,” she said. “My friends and family aren’t here.”

Anya and others described a wrenching process of coercion, deception and force as children were shipped to Russia from Ukraine. Together, their accounts add to a growing body of evidence from governments and newsreports about a removal-and-adoption policy that targets the most vulnerable children in the most dangerous situations.

Transferring people out of an occupied territory can be a war crime, and experts say the practice is especially thorny when it involves children, who may not be able to consent. Ukrainian officials accuse Russia of perpetrating a genocide. The forced transfer of children, when intended to destroy a national group, is an act of genocide under international law.

Russian officials have made clear that their goal is to replace any childhood attachment to home with a love for Russia.

Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, has organized the transfers and said that she herself adopted a teenager from Mariupol. Ms. Lvova-Belova, who is under Western sanctions, said the boy had been homesick at first and even attended a demonstration supporting Ukraine.

“He was yearning for the house in which he grew up, friends and his dear Mariupol,” she wrote on Telegram. But the children soon come to appreciate their new home, she said.

The exact number of resettled children is not clear. Russian authorities did not respond to questions from The Times. Ukrainian authorities said they did not have an accurate count, but placed the figure in the thousands.

In April, Russian authorities announced that more than 2,000 children had arrived in Russia. Most came from group homes and orphanages in territory long occupied by Russia. Russian officials said that 100 had come from recently occupied areas. In the following months, they announced hundreds of new arrivals.

Olga Druzhinina said she had adopted four children, aged 6 to 17, from the Ukrainian city of Donetsk more than 1,600 miles from her home in Siberia. Credit: Courtesy of Olga Druzhinina

While the resettlement of children from newly occupied lands has so far been sporadic, the Russian government recently announced plans to resettle these children more efficiently, raising the prospect of many more transfers.