Theft of children: how is the most sinister face of the Russian invasion that led the International Criminal Court to order the arrest of Vladimir Putin

Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova arrives in Moscow with a group of boys illegally transferred from the then-occupied city of Mariupol in October last year. (Presidency of the Russian Federation)

Vladimir Putin intends to end the generation of his Ukrainian parents through war and retain the children to indoctrinate them and turn them into Russians. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, 232,000 minors have been evacuated from the areas occupied by the Kremlin forces and transferred to Russian territory. Now we know that At least 6,000 of these boys – although it is clarified that the number could be “significantly higher” -, between four months and 17 years old, are being held in re-education camps and that hundreds have already been given up for adoption to Russian families. The vast majority of children are claimed by relatives and legal guardians in Ukraine.

According to a report released this week by the Yale University School of Public Health (HRLY) and the Conflict Observatorywhich the State Department created in May to document war crimes and other atrocities committed by Russian forces, the minors are being held in at least 43 centersincluding 12 used as summer camps by Russian state organizations around the Black Sea, another 7 in the occupied Crimean peninsula and 10 around the cities of Moscow, Kazan and Yekaterinburg. Eleven of the fields are located more than 800 km from the Ukrainian border, including two fields in Siberia and one in Magadanin the Russian Far East, near the coast of the Pacific Ocean.

At least 32 of the fields, 78% of those identified in the investigation, “are engaged in systematic re-education efforts with the apparent aim of integrating Ukrainian children into the official view of Russian culture and history”. Putin himself spoke several times in his messages from Moscow about his intention to “Russify” the Ukrainian population. “Russia carries out a consistent criminal policy of deporting our people. 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,” denounced the president in September Volodymyr Zelensky. “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 make deportees forget about Ukraine and cannot return”, he added.

Ukrainian boys kidnapped in Russia.
Ukrainian teenagers in the Russian camp of Medvezhonok, where at least 300 kidnapped boys from the occupied territories in Ukraine were housed. (Telegram)

Since the invasion, several high-ranking Russian officials have trumpeted the transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia to be adopted and become Russian citizens. State television shows the arrival of these contingents and the officials handing out teddy bears to the children, who are presented as “abandoned rescued from war”. In the case of the summer camps denounced by HRLY, many parents were forced to accept the trip of their children and once there, they warned them that they would not return. This occurred in at least four camps, those of Artek, Medvezhonok, Lucistyi and Orlyonok.

In September, Putin signed an emergency decree to speed up the process for granting Russian citizenship to these children and for them to be handed over to Russian families as soon as possible. He also appointed in charge of the whole process to Maria Lvova-Belovaa 38-year-old Fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, married to a priest and mother of 17 boys, 5 blood, 4 adopted and 8 in custody. The Russian leader asked this official who holds the title of Presidential Commissioner for the Rights of the Child in Russia, which will speed up the whole process to “integrate” the Ukrainian boys into their new society. Something that is clearly prohibited by the geneva conventionthe UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for constituting a “war crime”.

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 they meet 540 ukrainian boys. The visit of Commissioner Lvova-Belova to the center was also registered “Polyany” in Moscow, where she was photographed with 31 other orphans illegally transferred from Mariupolthe Ukrainian city shelled for three months by Russian artillery.

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A Ukrainian mother’s fear of losing her daughter, Vira, made her write her name on her own body and on a card attached to her coat, the information on how to connect her with relatives. (Twitter)

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 of the ruling party, United Russia. A year later, Putin named her Children’s Advocate. The secret of the rapid rise is in the support that this music teacher has from the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church. Her own husband pavel kogelmannwas ordained a priest after several years of theology studies.

Putin is obsessed with reversing Russian population decline. He sees it as both an economic and a geopolitical problem. In his speeches, he regularly asks Russians to have more children. He even approved a series of incentives to boost the birth rate, such as bonuses for couples who have more than one baby. In this context, one could understand the order he issued to his generals to transfer to Russian territory all the children they find “in a situation of helplessness” in the occupied areas.

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 necessary to replace the population without immigration. And since 2014, emigration has increased, which was accentuated with the start of the new war in February. Since then some 300,000 people have left the country, most of them professionals with very good training. The pandemic took the lives of another 700,000 people.

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Ukrainian boys illegally held in the Zolotaya Kosa camp, on the Azov Sea, in Russia’s Rostov region. (AP Photos)

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 drop to 139 million by 2040.

The practice of stealing children during wars has a very long history. The Nazi practice of kidnapping “racially desirable children” of the countries conquered during World War II and raising them as Germans is well documented. And the kidnapping by the Soviets during the 1940s of almost 28,000 Greek children is also well known. The Greek delegation at the United Nations successfully lobbied for child transfers to be included in the legal definition of genocide.

Child abductions are considered so egregious that the first genocide convictions in history were for 14 Nazi officers accused of forcibly transferring Polish children to Germany. At the trial, remembers the teacher Marcia Zug in his essay for The ConversationThe prosecutor Harold Neeley suggested that child kidnapping might even be the most scandalous of all Nazi crimes. Neely said the world knew of the mass murders and atrocities committed by the Nazis, but added that “the crime of child abduction, in many ways, transcends all of them.”

Guys.  Ukraine.  War.
Ukrainian children about to be loaded onto a train in the occupied Donbas to be transferred to re-education camps in Russia. (Telegram)

Perhaps the most concrete evidence of the crime that Russian forces are now perpetrating is in this message from a kidnapped Ukrainian child read by the head of the Ukrainian delegation, Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk, to the annual assembly of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, when denouncing what was happening:

“Aunt Ira, I am in Russia, the Russian military brought me here. I am writing to you secretly, 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’m 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.”

The child was returned to his aunt, earlier this year, due to international pressure.

The original version of this note was published on February 18, 2023

Keep reading:

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for war crimes in Ukraine

A year of Russian invasion in Ukraine: a month-by-month timeline of a war that shakes the world

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