CHERNIVTSI, Ukraine and MOSCOW—When 12-year-old Kira Obedinsky was injured and taken by Russian forces from her besieged Ukrainian home of Mariupol last April, her family was terrified they would never see her again.
“We were told Kira would be sent to one of the orphanages in Russia. And then we would definitely not be able bring her home,” her grandmother Svitlana Kuzminskaya said in an interview with the Star.
The threat was real. Thousands of Ukrainian children have been captured and transferred to Russia — a crime that meets the international definition of genocide, according to Daria Herasymchuk, Ukraine’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights.
Kira was rescued weeks later through a complex special operation and became the first Ukrainian child rescued from Russian captivity. But since her return, only a few hundred of the estimated hundreds of thousands of children deported to Russia have been retrieved. Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has called this “the largest instance of state-sponsored kidnapping of children in the history of our modern world.”
On Friday, the International Criminal Court revealed it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes due to his alleged involvement in the abductions of Ukrainian children.
More than 700,000 children have been “evacuated” from Ukraine, according to Russia’s Interdepartmental Coordination Headquarters. Ukrainian authorities believe this number may be overstated. But at least 16,200 Ukrainian children have been forcibly kidnapped and are unable to contact their families, according to a Ukrainian government website that shows names and photographs of missing children.
Meanwhile, a Star analysis of Russian ministry and charity reports and finds shows that Russia is struggling to find enough homes that will take confused and terrified abducted Ukrainian children. Dina Magnat, head of Russia’s School for Foster Families, acknowledges it’s hard to find families for these children and says they are being put under guardianship, not being adopted.
“These are notoriously difficult children,” she wrote on a blog, “even without taking into account the trauma of war.” Charities in many parts of Russia are voicing concern about an escalating humanitarian crisis.
“The number of appeals to our foundation (to place children) is growing,” Elena Alshanskaya, president of Volunteers for Orphans, wrote on its website in February, suggesting increasing numbers of “orphaned” children.
“Our staff and volunteers no longer have time to receive and process them.”
As children have arrived since the invasion of Ukraine a year ago, the number of Russians interested in adoption has decreased by 80 per cent, Naila Novozhilova, director of Arithmetic of Good, a foster parenting charity, told Russian media. Families are anxious about their deteriorating financial situations and the uncertainty surrounding the “special operation,” she said — Russia may well have struggled to find homes for the children it already had, without adding “evacuated” Ukrainian children.
It is an “Unacceptable Day,” said a headline in the newspaper Izvestia in November. “Why did families become afraid to take children from orphanages?” (The state also prohibits adoption by citizens of more than 50 countries “unfriendly” to Russia, cutting out a long-standing source of homes for that nation’s orphans.)
Russia’s own children’s ombudsperson, Maria Lvova-Belova, has adopted a boy seized in Mariupol, she said at an October press conference: “I saw my son when a group of 31 children was evacuated from Mariupol.” (Lvova-Belova and her husband are parents to at least 10 biological and adopted children.)
“Children purported to be orphans and those who were residents of state institutions appear mostly targeted for deportation to Russia’s territory for adoption and/or placement in foster care,” according to a Yale University report. The report also found many Ukrainian children separated from their parents for indefinite periods at 43 “re-education” camps; there they are indoctrinated in “Russia-centric academic, cultural, patriotic, and/or military education.”
Russia’s federal data bank says almost 40,000 children are waiting for adoption, but representatives of non-profit organizations in the country insist that there are at least twice as many orphaned children than that.
The government does not appear to have a public estimate of how many abducted children it is “re-educating.” However, a website in that country reports that 18.5 billion rubles ($330 million) has been allocated to the “Movement of the First,” a new state-sponsored children’s and youth organization for “patriotic education of children”; Putin himself heads the advisory board.
Tragically, Russian reports indicate that abducted Ukrainian children suffering from illness or disabilities are being returned to orphanages by guardians who can’t take care of them. To reduce these numbers, the government ordered “in-depth preventive medical examinations” of more than 80,000 Ukrainian children in October, apparently so agencies can promise healthy kids to prospective adoptive parents.
The Russian federal budget has promised 10 billion rubles ($180 million) to provide housing for orphans. But this figure is not enough to meet their growing numbers, said Olga Khokhova, a member of the federation council committee on social policy, in December.
In January, Anna Kuznetsova — a deputy chair of Russia’s parliament, the Duma — said that up to 600 billion rubles ($11 billion) is required to house all the nation’s orphans; this indicated that Russia has an increasing number of orphans, perhaps including large numbers of Ukrainians. Kuznetsova suggested using property of citizens who’ve left the Russian Federation to provide the needed funds.
“There are those who have betrayed their country … there are those organizations in Russia whose owners are people from unfriendly countries. Maybe in the search for funds for housing orphans we should turn and look for resources in this direction?” she said, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
Putin’s dark effort to add Ukrainian children to the Russian population appears to be part of his Decade of Childhood initiative in response to his country’s prolonged demographic decline. There are expected to be 20 per cent fewer Russians by 2100, according to United Nations forecasts, and Putin’s initiative was mostly designed to encourage more childbirth. But adding a large number of Ukrainian children would suit those ends as well.
Meanwhile back in Ukraine, families whose children have been abducted and deported to Russia still wait and hope.
“I still hardly believe we succeeded (in bringing Kira back to Ukraine),” said Kuzminskaya. “Especially when you consider how many thousands of Ukrainian children were deported to Russia.
“We were lucky.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
does not endorse these opinions.