Russia, which boasts of taking in 700,000 children, stands accused of trying to erase their Ukrainian identity
4 February 2024
During the 14 months for which Veronika Vlasenko attended school in Russia, she was regularly told by teachers and fellow students that she would never be able to go home to Ukraine. “Every day they said to me that I would be staying here for ever and would never leave Russia,” she said. “They told me that Ukraine doesn’t exist, that it never existed, that we’re all Russians. At times the other kids would beat me for being pro-Ukrainian.”
Veronika was one of nearly 20,000 children documented by Ukrainian authorities as having been taken from Ukraine to Russia over the past two years. The authorities believe the real number is probably 10 times that, while Russian officials have even boasted of moving 700,000 Ukrainian children to Russia.
Nearly two years into the war, there are growing fears that if no way is found to bring the children home soon, Russia’s systemic programme to “re-educate” Ukrainian children could prove devastatingly effective. Ukrainian officials are calling on international organisations and neutral countries who may still hold some sway in Moscow to put pressure on Russia.
Of the 19,500 cases for which Ukrainian authorities have names and data, only about 400, including Veronika, have managed to return to Ukraine so far. “Russia is actively erasing their Ukrainian identity and inflicting unbelievable emotional and psychological damage,” said Latvia’s president, Edgars Rinkēvičs, at a conference devoted to raising awareness of the issue in Riga on Thursday. “What makes it even worse is that Russia proudly exhibits its actions,” he said.
Russia’s claims about the resettlement of children are one of the reasons why the issue formed the basis of the arrest warrant issued by the international criminal court last year for Vladimir Putin and for the Russian children’s commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova. The warrant says Russia acted with the “intention to permanently remove” children from Ukraine, a war crime.
Andriy Kostin, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, said Russia’s actions were the largest-scale deportation of children in Europe since the second world war. “Russia is trying to destroy the Ukrainian nation, not only physically, but by severing familial bonds and erasing the Ukrainian identity of the deported children,” he said in Riga.
Russia has used different methods to bring Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, often citing security concerns and a need to remove children from dangerous
areas of conflict. In some cases, Russian authorities moved entire orphanages or children’s homes to Russian-controlled areas. In other cases, children were separated from their parents, taken to Russia and given new names.
In November a BBC investigation uncovered that an infant girl stolen from a children’s home in occupied Kherson had been transferred to Moscow, issued with new documents with a changed name claiming she was born in Russia, then adopted by a Russian political leader and Putin ally, Sergei Mironov.
Not all of the children were taken forcibly to Russia. Veronika, who grew up in a village in the Kharkiv region less than a mile from the border, travelled across the border with her aunt two weeks after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, to avoid the military clashes that were tearing through her village as the Russian army advanced. She and her aunt stayed in a series of camps for refugees. Veronika, then 12, was initially pleased to be in Russia, the first time she had set foot in the country. It was the first time for two weeks that she could wash and have hot food and a comfortable place to sleep without the sound of explosions.
Veronika was eventually separated from her aunt and placed in a children’s home in the city of Lipetsk. Her mother, who formerly served in the Ukrainian army, was unable to travel to Russia to search for Veronika for fear of arrest. “It was so hard to be alone in this environment, with everyone telling me terrible things about Ukraine,” Veronika said. After a while she was so traumatised that she lost a lot of weight and her hair started falling out.
Veronika’s grandmother travelled thousands of miles on a circuitous route from Kharkiv to Lipetsk via Poland and the Baltic states to rescue her granddaughter and bring her back to Ukraine, where she has been reunited with her mother. “Now I just want to help other Ukrainian children to come home too,” Veronika said.
Russian authorities have claimed that Ukrainian children whose parents or guardians travel to Russia are able to take them home, and in some cases, such as Veronika’s, this has eventually worked. But not every child has a relative who is able to make the long and risky journey, not every child is able to contact their families, and there are many cases of younger children having their names changed before adoption by Russian families. “Russia is telling them they are not wanted, that nobody is looking for them, changing their names and trying to issue them Russian passports,” said Olena Zelenska, the wife of Ukraine’s president, who was in Riga last week to speak on the issue.
She called on allies of Ukraine and neutral countries to work as intermediaries to help bring Ukraine’s children home. She cited the case of one child who had been returned after efforts from the UN agency Unicef and Qatar. “There is no more important task for the adults to use their power and resources on than to help rescue children,” she said.
Shaun Walker is a British publicist and journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. He is an expert on political history of Eastern and Middle Europe. He has lived in Russia for more than ten years and was working as a correspondent for The Guardian. Before that, he was a correspondent for The Independent from Russia. Walker studied Russian and Soviet history at Oxford University. Some of his famous books are The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past, Odessa Dreams: The Dark Heart of Ukraine’s Online Marriage Industry, Our Cosmic Family: We are all brothers and sisters, Un-Making a Murderer: The Framing of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. Readers, especially ones in the West were particularly interested in The Long Hangover, mostly because of the author’s new and critical view of the Russian reality, as well as the history of the Soviet Union.