From the start of the invasion, the Russian authorities purposefully removed children from Ukraine, aiming to turn them against their homeland. Some have returned to tell their stories. Thousands of others have not been as lucky.
By Carlotta Gall, Oleksandr Chubko and Cora Engelbrecht
December 27, 2023
The New York Times
Wounded in the eye from an explosion, Oleksandr Radchuk, an 11-year-old Ukrainian boy from the destroyed city of Mariupol, waited calmly in a tent while Russian soldiers interrogated his mother. The two had been taken prisoner after their port city came under prolonged attack by Russian forces in the spring of 2022. His mother, Snizhana Kozlova, was gone for 90 minutes. When the Russian guards brought her back, she hugged him wordlessly. Then social services officials arrived and took charge of him. “We were crying, I couldn’t believe they were taking me away,” the boy, now 13, who goes by Sasha, recounted in an interview in the presence of his grandmother, Lyudmyla Siryk. His mother was detained and he has not seen or heard from her in the 20 months since.
Sasha is one of thousands of Ukrainian children forcibly separated from their parents by the Russian authorities in the early stages of the war in Ukraine, now nearly two years old. They are among the most forlorn victims of Russia’s invasion.
Some were wounded or orphaned in bombardments on Ukrainian towns and villages. Some were left homeless and alone after parents were detained. Others were separated from families believing they were sending their children to summer camp.
Ukraine says it has verified the names of more than 19,000 children who have been transferred to Russia or Russian-controlled territory. Over recent months, 387 children like Sasha have been tracked down by relatives and brought back home, with the help of the charity Save Ukraine and SOS Children’s Villages Ukraine, among others.
Their accounts have helped officials and investigators build a picture of a Russian effort to remove children from Ukraine — often under the pretext of rescuing them from the war zone — to turn them against their homeland and into loyal Russian subjects. Some described a feeling that the Russian authorities used them to lure their Ukrainian families to the Russian side.
The Russian strategy was deliberate, premeditated and systematic, according to the accounts of dozens of children and their families, as well as evidence collected by Ukrainian and international human rights and war crimes organizations.
The Russian authorities relocated children from Ukrainian orphanages and certain schools en masse, according to Russian documents gathered by Lyudmyla Denisova, formerly Ukraine’s top human rights official, which she shared with The New York Times. Russian soldiers and police officers escorted the children on buses. Regional authorities housed the Ukrainian children and
placed them with Russian foster families. A decree by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia opened the way for Russian families to adopt Ukrainian children.
The exceptional scale and duration of the effort has little comparison in modern warfare, and the forcible transfer of children, war crimes investigators point out, can be an act of genocide under the Geneva Convention.
Yet Mr. Putin and his commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, announced the transfer of children from Ukraine publicly, showing it off as Russian humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian families. Their own public statements now lie at the heart of a still-sealed arrest warrant against them for war crimes, issued in March by the International Criminal Court.
Ms. Lvova-Belova wrote about the children and posted photographs of them on social media in June. “These guys, who until recently were hiding from shelling in the basements of Mariupol, are now on real summer vacation,” she said.
The New York Times traveled across Ukraine this year to photograph and interview more than 30 children who made it back from Russia, speaking with them in the presence of adult family members and guardians, or with their permission. Many of the children were still traumatized by the events.
From the first weeks of the war, Ukrainian officials warned that Russia was purposefully removing children. As millions fled from the fighting, the Russian authorities set up so-called filtration camps, where they screened Ukrainians coming out of the battle zone into Russian-controlled territory.
Those suspected of being combatants were detained. Civilians, including children, were swept up in a resettlement program that placed them in towns and cities in Russian-occupied Ukraine or across Russia, as far as Siberia.
It was at one such camp that Sasha and his mother were separated. They had sheltered for two weeks in a Ukrainian military field hospital in the basement of the Ilyich steel works in Mariupol after Sasha was wounded in an explosion and were captured along with the Ukrainian troops when the plant was surrounded by Russian forces.
Sasha’s grandmother managed to locate him in a hospital in a Russian-controlled part of Ukraine only because sympathetic doctors publicized his case on social media. When she called, he begged her, “Grandma, take me away from here.” It took his grandmother more than two months to gather the right papers and journey through Russia to collect him. Other families, too, scrambled for safety as Russian troops seized Mariupol in one of the most brutal episodes of the war. Among them was Yevhen Mezhevyi, 40, a crane operator and single father of three. He and his children — Matvii, then 12; Sviatoslava, 8 at the time; and Oleksandra, who was 6 — took shelter with hundreds of others in a deep World War II-era bunker at a hospital.
Soon it was surrounded by Russian forces, and on April 7, 2022, they decided to join an evacuation of civilians organized by the Russian military and boarded a bus. At a checkpoint,
Mr. Mezhevyi, who had done military service several years earlier, was detained. He said that the Russian soldiers gave him two minutes to say goodbye to the children. “They told me, ‘You come with us, put the kids on the bus.’”
For seven weeks, he passed through a wringer of Russian detention camps, undergoing beatings, torture and interrogations. By the time he was released, on May 26, his children had been flown to a sanitarium called Poliany, a strictly guarded institution near Moscow. They were now pawns in a Russian propaganda campaign.
Ms. Lvova-Belova publicized her “rescue” of young Ukrainians, flying with a group from Crimea, visiting others at the sanitarium and settling children with Russian foster families.
She herself even adopted a Ukrainian teenager, Filip Holovnya, from among the children taken to the sanitarium. Mr. Mezhevyi’s son, Matvii, remembered seeing Filip and her there, according to the Reckoning Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit group researching war crimes.
Penniless and homeless, Mr. Mezhevyi was at first relieved that the children were at least being cared for. “Then, my son called me and said, ‘Dad, you have five days to pick us up. Otherwise, we will be adopted.’” “I was hysterical and panicked,” he recalled.
Quickly, he discovered a network of volunteers in Russia and Ukraine who were helping to retrieve missing children. They offered him transportation and lodging, while lawyers drafted letters and provided documents. He made it to the sanitarium in time. “Relief, relief,” Oleksandra said, describing the day her father arrived when the children briefly joined a video interview alongside their father. “I wanted to cry for joy,” Matvii said.
By May 2022, Russian troops had occupied about 20 percent of Ukraine. In war zones, they relocated children and sent them to foster homes and technical colleges in Russia or to camps and children’s homes in occupied territory away from the fighting. That effort accelerated sharply after August. First in Kharkiv, a province in the northeast, and then in Kherson, in the south, the Russians began sending away children and pulling out the civilians who worked for them, before withdrawing their own troops ahead of advancing Ukrainian forces.
On Oct. 6, schools in Kherson suddenly announced trips for all schoolchildren to camps in Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014. Some were told it was obligatory, but many wanted to go.
Groups of children had been making two-week trips to the camps all summer. In the wartime conditions of the Russian occupation, few in Kherson knew that children were already being blocked from returning to the Kharkiv region.
In Kherson, Alla Yatsentiuk said that her sons, Ivan, then 9; and Danylo, who was 13, had wanted to go. Over several days in October, throngs of children gathered at the river port of Kherson to take a barge to the eastern bank, where buses awaited to carry them to Crimea.
“Almost the entire river port was full of children,” Yurii Verbovytskyi recalled in an interview when he was back home in Kherson in September. Yurii, 16 at the time, joined because his friends were going, he said.
Denys Berezhnyi, then 17, was told by his school principal that he had to go and agreed, he said, to avoid bringing trouble on his parents. On Oct. 7, 2022, hundreds departed. “For the children who were taken illegally, this date will be remembered very well,” he said. That morning, Ms. Yatsentiuk woke with a feeling of foreboding. Ivan decided not to go. But Danylo was receiving text messages from his friends already in Crimea and was excited. They went down to the river port the next day and found crowds of children in groups with supervisors. “There were maybe 500 to 600 children at 10 a.m.,” Ms. Yatsentiuk recalled.
Danylo left, and a week later Ms. Yatsentiuk received a call from one of his Ukrainian supervisors warning her without explanation to bring him home as soon as possible. That same day, Russian troops began a general evacuation of troops and civilians from Kherson. “They deceived the parents saying that it was a vacation,” Ms. Yatsentiuk said of the Russian authorities. “It was a lie. It was a deportation under the pretext of children’s recreation.”
Things unraveled quickly. The school principal left his post. The teachers were sent back to Kherson, forced to abandon their charges in Crimea, while the children were told they could not go home because of the war. In Kherson, families were told to collect the children themselves. Many did and became refugees in Russia. “The next time I saw Danya was half a year later, short of two days,” said Ms. Yatsentiuk, using Danylo’s nickname. She had to apply for a passport and travel through Poland, Belarus and Russia to reach Crimea and bring him home. She found him, finally, in a sanitarium on April 6. By then, most of his classmates had dispersed, taken into Russia by their parents or back home to occupied areas of Ukraine.
From the start of its annexation of Crimea, Russia enforced a campaign of Russification and indoctrination of Ukrainian children in occupied areas, according to Ukrainian and independent research organizations. The deported children underwent the same treatment. Lessons were in Russian. Children had to sing the Russian national anthem at assembly. They were shown Russian films, taught Russian history and told to forget their Ukrainian nationality. Children and their families were offered passports, money and apartments to stay in Russia or Russian-controlled Crimea.
The indoctrination included a constant repetition of the Russian line and a mixture of promises and scare tactics. The children were told that they would face reprisals back in Ukraine for going to the Russian side, that everything was bombed and destroyed anyway and even that their parents did not want them.
Serhii Koldin and Kseniia Koldina, a brother and sister, were among the most fragile of cases, children whose parents in Ukraine had lost custody of them two years earlier. Serhii and Kseniia had been living with a Ukrainian foster family.
During the Russian occupation of their town, Vovchansk, in northeastern Ukraine, their foster parents sent them to Russia. Serhii, 11 at the time, was sent to a children’s summer camp in southern Russia, and Kseniia, then 17, went to a college in the Belgorod region.
For nine months, they did not see each other. When Kseniia turned 18, she decided to go back to Ukraine and take her brother with her, but she encountered not only bureaucratic obstacles but also a lack of cooperation from his new foster family and from Serhii himself. He stopped taking her calls. She went to collect him anyway. When she arrived, he acted like she was a stranger. “He was confused, anxious, as if he was threatened and told not to talk to me,” she said in an interview in Kyiv with Serhii. “When I reached out to hug him, as I hadn’t seen him for nine months, he backed away.” “He started saying, ‘It’s better for me in Russia. I want to stay. I have friends, I have a school here,’” Kseniia added. “But I realized that opinion was imposed on him.”
Serhii interrupted her. “Nothing was imposed on me,” he said. The two were staying in the home of the chief executive of Save Ukraine, a charity that had helped with their return, until a more permanent solution could be worked out. Serhii repeated Russian tropes that he had evidently heard during his nine months in Russia, correcting a mention of the war, to use the propaganda phrasing enforced in Russia. “But it’s not a war, it’s a special operation,” he said. “I found out that he was told it was bad in Ukraine, that everyone there are Nazis, ‘khokhols,’” Kseniia said, using a derogatory term Russians use to describe Ukrainians. “But we are khokhols,” Serhii replied.
‘We Were Taught to Shoot’
The indoctrination and patriotism of Russian education has long included an element of military training, including children in Soviet pioneer camps being taught how to disassemble and reassemble an assault rifle. But recently, military camps in Russia and occupied eastern Ukraine have proliferated as part of what analysts say is a creeping militarization of Russian society under Mr. Putin.
In the camps, Ukrainian children wear uniforms and undergo semi-military training, raising concerns that Russia was planning to use them as foot soldiers in Ukraine.
Artem Hutorov, then 15, and a dozen classmates were taken from their school in Kupiansk by Russian soldiers as Ukrainian troops closed in on the eastern city last year. The soldiers moved them from the frontline to a school in Perevalsk, farther into Russian-occupied Ukraine.
At that school, they wore military gear, either green camouflage or white naval cadet uniforms. Artem appeared in a photograph on the school’s website, the “Z” symbol of the Russian occupation force in Ukraine, emblazoned on his sleeve.
Back home, he shrugged it off. They were in uniform all the time, he said. He was standing outside his village home, tanned and smiling, back from cutting wood in the forest with his stepfather.
Nina Nastasiuk, from Kherson, was sent twice a week to military training during her months at a camp in Crimea. She was 15. “There was not much choice,” she said.
During the occupation of his village in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, Serhii Cherednychenko, then 16, was befriended by Ukrainian soldiers serving with the Russian occupying force. They encouraged him to go to Russia with them in August 2022, where he was enrolled in a technical college. He lived in Russia for 10 months and was told that he and a group of Ukrainians at the college would attend a military camp. “Soldiers come from the frontline, let you hold a rifle, say, ‘Guys, it’s so cool. We are carrying out a great feat.’ And it sticks in your head,” he said. Living there without family, he decided to return to Ukraine. The day he left, the other Ukrainian children were taken to the military camp.
Other aspects of the Russian military indoctrination are more formal and more structured, aimed at taking over Ukraine’s military capabilities and its future personnel, Ukrainian officials say. A prime example was Russia’s relocation of the Kherson Naval Academy in October 2022. Under occupation, Vladyslav Rudenko, then 16, was enrolled by local officials at a naval college for children under 18 that was part of the academy. Ten days later, he was ordered to evacuate along with 300 staff and students from both institutions.
More than 30 Ukrainian cadets, who were over 18, were sent to a navy base at the Russian port of Novorossiysk for training. Vladyslav was sent to a summer camp in Crimea and then resumed his studies at the college, which was re-established in Lazurne, a Ukrainian town under Russian control on the Black Sea. There he came under persistent pressure to drop his pro-Ukrainian stance, he said. His mother, Tetiana, was detained and interrogated aggressively by the Russian secret service, the F.S.B., when she arrived at the college to take him home in May 2023. Four Ukrainian children from his class remained behind at the college, he said.
Once reunited with their families, some children have shown signs of lasting trauma after being separated, sometimes for up to a year, from their homes. Those signs include depression and self harm, according to a psychologist with Save Ukraine. The trauma was often too much for them to verbalize. Several declined to be interviewed, agreeing only to photographs.
Marharyta Matiunina was 8 when she was sent to a Russian camp by local officials around the time of the mass transfer to Crimea while staying with her father. Her mother, Veronika Tsymbolar, did not know where she was for four months. Marharyta played happily with her sister and brother in their one-room apartment in the Mykolaiv region as her mother spoke, but she buried her head in the sofa when asked how her time in the camp had been. “She wants to forget it, like a bad dream,” her mother said.
Kyrylo Sakalo crossed and uncrossed his legs uncomfortably during an interview alongside his mother and grandmother and barely looked up from his cellphone. He said he had plotted to run away from the summer camp in Crimea when he was told he could not go home. “Tell them about the water,” his mother prompted. “Don’t remind me!” he exclaimed in alarm. Staff at the camp had thrown water on Kyrylo, then 11, to wake him up in the morning, his mother explained later.
But it was too much for Anastasiia. She left the room without a word and came back cuddling one of the family’s pet dogs.
Sasha, the boy wounded in the eye, has been cared for by his grandmother since she managed to retrieve him from the hospital, in Donetsk, in Russian-controlled Ukraine. He pines for his mother. His grades have plunged.
Ukrainian prisoners, released in exchanges with Russia, have said that they saw his mother in a prison in Taganrog, in southern Russia, where many Ukrainian prisoners of war, including women, are being held. “They told me that she would come to me in two to four days,” he said of the Russian officials who took her away. “They did not even let me say goodbye.”
Reporting was contributed by Daniel Berehulak, Nikita Simonchuk and Diana Poladova from Ukraine. Anna Ivanova contributed reporting and lighting assistance for portraits. Produced by Gray Beltran, Kirk Kraeutler, Rumsey Taylor and Gaia Tripoli.
Carlotta Gall is a senior correspondent currently covering the war in Ukraine.
Cora Engelbrecht is a reporter and story editor on the International desk. She is based in London and joined The New York Times in 2016.