“Matushka Maria”, the Christian fundamentalist who delivers the orphans kidnapped in Ukraine to Russia

Vladimir Putin receives Maria Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for children’s rights, who oversees the process of handing over orphaned children illegally brought from Ukraine. (Pres. Russia)

Aunt Ira, I am in Russia, the Russian military brought me here. I write to you in secret, I managed to get a phone for a few minutes. My mother is no longer alive, she was killed in a bombing. They say I am an orphan. But I’m not an orphan, I have you, I have grandparents. There are many children like me here. They say they want to leave us in Russia. And I don’t want to stay in Russia! Aunt Ira, get me out of here. I want to go home to Ukraine”.

This is the WhatsApp message left by a Ukrainian war boy deported to Russia and illegally placed in the adoption system of that country. He read it to dozens of stunned diplomats, last week at the annual meeting of the OSCE, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the head of the Ukrainian delegation, Yevhenii Tsimbaliuk. In the same condition as this child there are at least another 2,161 minors who were illegally removed from their country and declared “orphans without families” even though they have close relatives who could raise and protect them. And they are part of the 232,400 boys who were forcibly taken to Russian territorymany with their families, and others who were separated from their parents wounded in the war.

“Russia carries out a consistent criminal policy of deporting our people. It forcibly deports both adults and children. This is one of the most heinous war crimes. In total, more than 200,000 Ukrainian children have been deported so far. They are orphans from orphanages. Children with parents. Children separated from their families”, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his traditional video message on Wednesday.

Vira Makovi, Ukrainian girl.
The terror of Ukrainian mothers to lose their children in the war. This is the girl Vira Makovi, a girl whose mother wrote all the information on her back and on a card that she put in her coat so that she could be identified in case she could not protect her. . (Facebook)

“The Russian state disperses these people on its territory, settles our citizens, in particular, in remote regions. The objective of this criminal policy is not only to rob people, but to make the deportees forget about Ukraine and not be able to return. But we must also find a solution to this challenge. And ensure that all those who killed, tortured or deported Ukrainians are held accountable,” Zelensky added.

“The inevitability of punishment is a principle that Ukraine will definitely teach Russia. But first of all, we must teach him on the battlefield that Ukraine will not be conquered, that our people will not surrender and that our children will not become the property of the occupiers”, assured the Ukrainian president in the emotional message.

Vladimir Putin signed last week an emergency decree to accelerate the process of granting Russian citizenship to these children and so that they are delivered as soon as possible to Russian families. He also met with the official responsible for this entire process, Maria Lvova-Belova, a 37-year-old fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, married to a priest and mother of 17 children, 5 by blood, 4 adopted and 8 in custody. The Russian leader asked this official, who holds the title of Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia, to speed up the entire process to “integrate” Ukrainian children into their new Russian society. Something that is clearly prohibited by the Geneva Convention, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and that constitutes a “war crime”.

Maria Lvova-Belova with Ukrainian boys illegally deported to Russia.
Maria Lvova-Belova with Ukrainian boys from the devastated city of Mariupol, illegally deported to Russia, at the “Poliany” center in Moscow. (Pres. Russia)

“In fact, the Russian president legalized the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. This is a state policy of Russia. First they come to kill the parents and then they take the children”, denounced Tsymbaliuk while showing his colleagues at the OSCE assembly evidence of the theft of babies and the movement of minors across the border.

Among other centers in which the orphans were confined, one called “Romaska” located at 20 Lomonosov Street in the Russian city of Rostov, 200 kilometers from Moscow. There are 540 Ukrainian boys. also registered Commissioner Lvova-Belova’s visit to Moscow’s “Poliany” center where she was photographed with 31 other orphans illegally transferred from Mariupolthe Ukrainian city shelled for three months by Russian artillery.

In November 2019, Lvova-Belova was elected senator for her Penza region (625 kilometers southeast of Moscow) just one day after receiving the membership card for the ruling party, United Russia. A year later, Putin named her Defender of Children. The secret of the rapid ascent is in the support this music teacher has from the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her own husband, Pavel Kogelman, was ordained a priest after several years of theological studies. He is also a renowned computer programmer.

Ukrainian girl kidnapped in Rostov, Russia.
One of the Ukrainian girls allegedly illegally transferred to the Romanska center in the Russian city of Rostov in an image posted on Facebook.

In a report published in a Penza church magazine, she said that her father “discovered faith” when she was 10 years old and that since then religion is the column of his life. “At that time I attended a music school, and from the age of thirteen I also began to sing in the church choir. That was saving for me, since I spent my adolescence in the church. She enjoyed it very much. During the week and whenever she had free time he was in church. I used to sing in the choir and still do despite my busy schedule. I realised that was my source of strength. When I’m in church and I sing, I go back to normal and put my thoughts in order,” she said.

He also displayed his mysticism. “When I feel really bad, we have the Holy Hierarch Innocent of Penza, whose church I go to almost every day. I call it “our foreman” because when I don’t have money for our works I go to him and say: ‘Father, please do something! I’m lost and I have no idea what he’s doing. Also I ask you to help us bring more and more children to our land”.

And it is in this context that Vladimir Putin turned to Lvova-Belova to help him reverse the Russian population decline that has been one of his obsessions since he came to power.. He sees it as both an economic and a geopolitical problem. In his speeches, regularly asks Russians to have more children. It even approved a series of incentives to boost the birth rate, such as bonuses for couples who have more than one baby. Also this could explain his stubbornness to force the migration of Ukrainians to Russian territory and the order to transfer all children who find themselves in a situation of abandonment in the occupied zones.

A group of boys inside a bunker that the Ukrainian Azov battalion says is at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine.  April 18, 2022. Azov Battalion/handover via Reuters
A group of boys inside a bunker that the Ukrainian Azov battalion says is at the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, Ukraine. April 18, 2022. Azov Battalion/handover via Reuters (Azov Battalion/)

The birth rate in Russia is very low. The number of children per woman, 1.5 on average, is below the threshold of 2.1 needed to replace the population without immigration. And since 2014, migration has increased, which was accentuated with the start of the new war in February. Since then some 300,000 people left the country, most of them professionals with very good training. The pandemic took the lives of another 700,000 people.

In 1989, the then Soviet Union had 286.7 million inhabitants, more than the United States (246.8 million). Following the collapse of the communist bloc, and without the former Soviet republics, the population of the Russian Federation fell to 148.5 million. In 2020, it dropped to 144.1 million, compared to 329.4 million in the United States. According to the latest United Nations projections, made before the pandemic and the war, could fall to 139 million in 2040.

The theft of children during wars has a very long history. It was produced systematically in World War II. The Nazi practice of abducting “racially desirable children” from conquered countries and raising them as Germans is well documented. And the abduction by the Soviets during the 1940s of almost 28,000 Greek children to communist countries is also well known. The Greek delegation to the United Nations successfully lobbied for the inclusion transfers of children in the legal definition of genocide specifically for these crimes.

ukrainian boy in bunker.
Yehorka, 8, lights a candle in the shelter she shared with her family and where she wrote a war diary. He was transferred to Russia and nothing is known about him. (Evgeny Sosnovsky/Facebook)

Child abductions are considered so heinous that the first convictions for genocide in history were for 14 Nazi officers accused of forcibly transferring Polish children to Germany. In the trial, recalls Professor Marcia Zug in an essay for “The Conversation”, Prosecutor Harold Neely suggested that child abduction might even be the most scandalous of all Nazi crimes.. Neely said that the world knew about the mass murders and atrocities committed by the Nazis, but added that “The crime of child abduction, in many respects, transcends them all.”

Putin did his best impression of a normal human being during the celebration of International Child Protection Day on Tuesday, vowing “do everything” to help children whose lives have been turned upside down by their war in Ukraine. “On this day, it is impossible not to remember the children of Donbas (the region of Eastern Ukraine that he is trying to conquer), who have been subjected to lethal danger for eight years,” the Russian leader said during a videoconference with families and in which he also participated. “Matushka Maria”, which is how Lvova-Belova is familiarly known and how Putin referred to her.

In the video conference, Putin directly blamed the Ukrainian forces for the suffering of the minors, blaming the “kyiv regime” for the many dead and wounded children, despite overwhelming evidence of a deliberate campaign by its own troops to target civilians in an attempt to crush Ukrainian resistance since the February 24 invasion. “A lots of [niños] they lost their parents, and there are some who have been left with no family at all. We will do everything possible to guarantee them all social support measures. … And of course, we will help children who have lost loved ones obtain the same loving, friendly and generous families as yours”, he told the Russian families present.

Kira Obedisnky, the 12-year-old Ukrainian war orphan who was rescued by her grandfather Alexsandr from the pro-Russian enclave of Donetsk when she was to be clandestinely deported to Russia.  (Presidency Ukraine)

“Russia is ruthlessly taking lives and destroying futures, mutilating and raping, making orphans of our most needed and appreciated generation”Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova responded in a Facebook post. She said the forced deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia was part of the authorities’ war crimes investigation, as it is “a direct test of a plan to destroy the nation.”

“From the testimony of those who have been saved, we know of these horrors that Russian troops forcibly transport people to Russia, where children are separated from their mothers. Then they send the mothers to Sakhalin (the island in the far east of Russia, in the Pacific, which disputes with Japan) and the children to other cities. Is this really the 21st century?”. Venediktova wrote.

Maria, Lvova-Belova, Ombudsman for Children of Russia.
“Matushka Maria” Lvova-Belova, commissioner for the defense of children, receiving instructions from Vladimir Putin (Pres. Russia)

The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, also provided a counterpoint to Putin’s eerie kindness, saying in a statement on the eve of the party that “at least two children in Ukraine are being killed every day”, mostly in attacks with explosive weapons in populated areas. “These 100 days of war in Ukraine have had devastating consequences for children on a scale and speed not seen since World War II”UNICEF added.

While, “Matushka Maria” Lvova-Belova continues with the tragic work commissioned by Putin, moving buses full of Ukrainian boys every day to Russian territory. Although there is a sign of hope. A vast underground network of the Russian resistance is known to be at work and has already rescued several families and orphaned children. managed to get them out via Estonia and are already safe in a refugee camp in Poland.


Putin facilitates the process to impose Russian citizenship on children smuggled out of Ukraine