Oleksandr has not seen his mother since Russian soldiers captured the pair in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, in April and took her away. At 12, he escaped adoption into a Russian family only because he remembered his grandmother’s phone number and called her to come and save him.
“They said that they would send him to an orphanage or they would find a family in Russia,” said his grandmother, Lyudmila, of Ichnya, in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region. “I told them, ‘I’ll risk my life. I’ll come and pick him up.’ I was pleading with them not to send him to Russia.
“They told me, ‘It’s going to be very hard, and the paperwork is awful.’ I said I didn’t care,” Lyudmila said. The Washington Post is identifying her and Oleksandr by first names only to protect them from reprisal.
While Ukrainians face daunting logistical barriers to recover children taken to Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a decree last May making it quick and easy for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children.
The policy is vigorously pursued by Putin’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, who openly advocates stripping children of their Ukrainian identities and teaching them to love Russia. Last spring, Lvova-Belova personally adopted a Ukrainian boy — an orphan who had been evacuated from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was under heavy bombing by Russia, first to Donetsk and then to a sanitorium near Moscow. Lvova-Belova has also spoken publicly about her efforts to change his views.
It is a potential war crime to remove children during conflict or to change their nationality, but Russia has been secretive about how many Ukrainian children have families or relatives who want them returned home. Lvova-Belova has insisted that none have Ukrainian families, while Ukraine officials say all belong in Ukraine.
“Russia changed its adoption law to give these children to Russian families as soon as possible,” said Alexandra Romantsova of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, which documents possible Russian war crimes and won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. “In these families, children are kept from the truth so they don’t give them the chance to keep a connection with Ukrainians or Ukrainian identity at all. It is one of the ways that Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainian identity.”
Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s top children’s rights official, said last month that 10,764 Ukrainian children had been reported by relatives, family or friends to have been deported by Russia without their parents.
At a news conference on Oct. 26, Lvova-Belova said that about 2,000 “unaccompanied children” from Ukraine were “evacuated” to Russia, mainly to orphanages and other groups homes, while “350 orphans from Donbas have already been placed in foster families in 16 regions of Russia, but a thousand more children are waiting for new parents.”
Lvova-Belova did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
In August, the Department for Family and Children in Russia’s Krasnodar region posted a statement on its website that more than 1,000 children from Ukraine had been adopted by families in distant cities including Tyumen, Irkutsk, Kemerovo and even the Altai Territory, more than 2,000 miles from Ukraine.
Three hundred more were awaiting adoption, the department said. After an outcry, the page was swiftly deleted, but a copy is archived.
The Kremlin has made a propaganda triumph of the removal of children, with photos and video plastered on its website and on state television. Several Ukrainian families told The Post that their children were told they would be adopted by Russians, despite having their own families.
After Russia’s illegal claimed annexations of Ukrainian territory, Russian authorities doubled down, insisting that the children in those four regions were now Russians. An unknown number were taken from orphanages and homes for disabled children before Russia’s retreat from Kherson last month.
Human Rights Watch reported on Dec. 12 in a submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child that the number of forced illegal transfers of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia “remains unclear.” It called on Russia to halt any further adoptions.
In July, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that 2,000 Ukrainian children had been removed to Russia despite having families in Ukraine.
Ukrainians who have lost their children face bureaucratic resistance — and often danger — trying to get them home.
Oleksandr’s family was torn apart in Russia’s attacks on Mariupol. On March 24, Oleksandr was struck in one eye during a Russian missile attack. His mother, Snezhana, rushed him for medical help, and they were later captured by Russian forces. The Russians then sent the boy, known as Sasha, to a hospital in Donetsk, in occupied Ukraine, where he was told that he would be adopted by Russians because he had no parents.
“The Russians said, ‘You, mom, step aside. We’re taking your son to the hospital.’ Sasha started to cry, and said, ‘No, please, I want to stay with my mother and how will I find her later?’” Lyudmila said, recounting what her grandson told her when he managed to borrow a phone six days later. The boy was terrified.
“They talked to him about Ukraine and Russia there and told him that Ukraine is bad and Ukrainians are evil,” Lyudmila said. “They forced the children to speak Russian.”
Lvova-Belova, Putin’s children’s rights commissioner, is a religiously devout mother of 22 children. After she adopted Filip, an orphaned teenager from Mariupol, she told Russian media that her heart skipped a beat when she saw him during an official visit. “I realized that I couldn’t live without this child,” she said. Filip has given interviews to Russian media describing how his mother died of cancer in 2017, and that he was abandoned by his stepfather amid the bombing in Mariupol.
In August, Lvova-Belova told a conference in Russia’s Far East that Filip had to change his Ukrainian ways. “My adopted son runs after my young children and says, ‘I will eat the Muscovite.’ And this manifests itself in everything,” she said. “He tells them how he used to go out with a flag to demonstrate in support of Ukraine, how he used to celebrate various Ukrainian holidays. And he is proud of it!”
Children like him “are not at all close to the culture and history of Russia, and they openly admit it,” Lvova-Belova said. But she told journalists in September that assimilation was working. At first, Ukrainian children taken to Russia would sing the Ukrainian national anthem and insult Putin, she said “but then it transforms into love for Russia.”
To avoid the combat zones, Lyudmila, Oleksandr’s grandmother, traveled from Ukraine via Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia and into Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine to get him back.
“Sasha was overjoyed and I was ecstatic. We hugged each other,” she said. They left as quickly as possible, but Lyudmila said she was questioned at length and pressured by security officials in occupied Donetsk to stay. “I had to lie quite a bit,” she said. “It was the only way out.”
Olga Lopatkina and her husband, Denis, of Vuhledar, Ukraine, faced similar barriers trying to recover six of their nine children, after the children, ages seven to 17, were stranded in a Mariupol sanatorium on the Russian side of the front line by Russian attacks. Eleven children from other families were in the same facility. With attacks nearing Vuhledar, the Lopatkins evacuated to France with three children, determined to bring the other six to France as soon as they could.
By March 19, the 17 children were taken to a Donetsk clinic. Lopatkina sent all required documents to recover her six children home but was turned down by Moscow-aligned welfare officials. Officials told the children they would be adopted by Russians, she said.
“It was kidnapping,” Lopatkina said. “The worst thing was that they always told our children, ‘Just forget about your parents. That’s it. You will go to Russia and you will be Russians.’ All along they were telling our kids they would be better off in Russia. ... Your parents, they abandoned you. They don’t want you.”
When officials blocked their return to their parents, the oldest son, Timofei, 17, said he was “was extremely upset and kind of desperate. When I learned of the decision, I was shocked.” Eleonora Fedorenko, the responsible welfare official in Donetsk, did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials pressured Timofei to agree to go to Russia with his five siblings, promising that he would become rich and lead a great life, Lopatkina said. He refused and eventually she arranged for her children to go to France.
“Doesn’t Russia have its own kids?” Lopatkina said. “I have no idea why they need ours. I guess it’s just to [hurt] us.” The fate of the other 11 children also taken from the Mariupol sanatorium to the Donetsk clinic is not known.
Lvova-Belova has been sanctioned by the United States, Britain, the European Union, Canada, Australia and Switzerland over the forced adoption of Ukrainian children into Russian families. She has called the accusations “fake.”
She and other Russian officials claim that any adopted Ukrainian children had no families. But two Ukrainian siblings, Makar and Zakhar, aged eight and nine, interviewed by state media on a train on their way to meet the Russians adopting them, said they did have a grandmother who had tried to contact them.
The interview was part of a number of propaganda stunts featuring Lvova-Belova and Russian politicians including the Moscow region’s governor, Andrei Vorobyov, and showing Ukrainian children being handed colorful balloons and fluffy toys and being turned over to Russian parents. Vorobyov did not reply to a request for comment.
Larysa Yahodinska of Orene in northern Ukraine said she had to walk through a mined forest with Ukrainian border guards to recover her 17-year-old son, Vladislav, who was seized by Russian soldiers on March 5 and sent to an orphanage in Belarus.
Soldiers had detained Vladislav and an older brother and had blindfolded, beaten and tortured them before Vladislav was taken to Belarus, she said. Human Rights Watch reported that many children were subjected to searches in Russian filtration camps, with some separated from their parents or detained.
Yahodinska eventually convinced officials to bring Vladislav to the border, where they were reunited. The older son is reported to be imprisoned in Russia.
Lvova-Belova has called Ukrainian demands to return Ukrainian children “incomprehensible” and has accused parents, separated from their children by Russian attacks, of abandoning them. “And now, for whatever reason, they want the children back,” she said, describing one case.
Putin has applauded her zealous promotion of the removals of Ukrainian children. Condemning Western sanctions against her, he said in September: “We should thank her and make a low bow to her.”