According to Ukraine’s National Information Bureau data, almost 20,000 Ukrainian children (including but not limited to orphans) have been forcibly taken to Russia and Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine during the invasion. Although the Ukrainian authorities are working on bringing them back, and have regularly reported successfully returning dozens of children to the country, most of them remain in Russia. The independent news outlet iStories has now discovered that, in 2022, Russia’s federal orphan database grew by 2,450 new records in excess of the average number of new files over the past six years. The journalists believe this reflects the Russian authorities’ efforts to place Ukrainian children forcibly removed from their home country for adoption and foster care in Russian families, and to integrate them irreversibly into Russian society.
Judging by Russia’s Education Ministry data, the number of children listed as orphans across 21 Russian regions abruptly increased in 2022. The federal orphan database contains the profiles of children who have either been orphaned or left without a guardian and are therefore available for adoption or foster care. The Russian publication iStories has calculated that, in 2022, the database grew by 2,450 new child dossiers in excess of its average annual number of new records in recent years. The greatest spikes in the number of new records were observed in the following regions: Rostov (with 573 new children in excess of the average), Moscow (up by 460 new child profiles over the average), and Nizhny Novgorod (up by 388).
This difference cannot be confidently attributed to the influx of children from Ukraine, iStories notes. Nevertheless, the publication was able to establish that two Russian regions, the Nizhny Novgorod oblast and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District in the Russian Arctic, have listed orphans from Ukraine in their adoption and foster care databases.
The system of forcibly removing Ukrainian children to Russia came into being as far back as 2014, says Xenia Hell, an International Criminal Court (ICC) analyst interviewed by iStories. At that time, Ukrainian children weren’t registered in the Russian federal database, she says, because social workers would promptly hand-pick foster parents and adoptive families for each child. According to the ICC staffer, this system broke down with the full-scale invasion. “Removing even 2,000 children is a massive task that requires well-oiled, well-organized infrastructure,” she says. “They’ve abducted more children than their system of guardianship, created back in 2014, could take in. The couples who used to adopt new children without any problems already had their hands full, and newcomers have nowhere to go.”
Among the Ukrainian children who surfaced in the Russian adoption database, journalists have identified nine-year-old Oleksandr Chizhkov and his younger sisters Valeria and Halina. Their files were added to the system no later than November 2022, when their photos were uploaded. Although journalists established that the siblings had been flown in from Donetsk together with other orphans, their profiles don’t mention this fact.
In Russia, Oleksandr and his sisters spent over a year at the Lastochka “child rehabilitation center” in Nizhny Novgorod. Last May, they were moved to an orphanage that’s known for regularly organizing “patriotic” activities for the children who live there. Last January, for example, the orphanage was visited by Russian servicemen who told the children about their combat experiences in Ukraine. In March, the institution held a craft workshop on weaving camouflage nets.
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Social service officials in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District claim that Ukrainian orphans that came to their region didn’t go to orphanages at all, but straight to adoptive families and foster parents. The Druzhinin family from Solekhard appears to be a case in point. In 2022, they took in five new foster children from Ukraine. By that time, there already were 13 other children in the family. When speaking on local television, the foster mother Olga Druzhinina said that, “as a mother,” she was particularly happy with patriotic education in the region. “I’m very glad they will now have to raise the flag and sing the national anthem at the start of every week. I’m happy that kids will memorize the anthem. And the patriotic lectures — I had asked the administration for this myself, and I’m so happy.”
ICC staff member Xenia Hell believes this “patriotic” education is part of a concerted effort to integrate Ukrainian children in Russia, thus acquiring new Russian citizens. “They’re treating children as if they were expendable material: they’re plucked out of their home environment and forcibly moved to an environment where they’re bound to dissolve,” she says. According to Hell, the system has been deliberately organized in such a way that doesn’t foresee returning the children back to Ukraine:
This system doesn’t make provisions for returning children. [Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria] Lvova-Belova is the immediate architect of this system. It was in her power to establish the mechanisms of possible return, of restoring the [child’s] original papers and tracking down family members in Ukraine. Judging by the testimonies available to the public and to the [ICC] prosecutor, she is the person who made the decision to make this system as soulless and criminal as it is.