At first glance, Maria Lvova-Belova’s Telegram channel looks like a warm bath. The online news channel of the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner is a series of photos, videos and posts with compassionate stories about orphans and refugee children from Ukraine. One moment she’s bending over a cot in an orphanage, the next she’s decorating a Christmas tree with a toddler, or she’s waiting for a group of children in an airport terminal with flowers and a teddy bear.
Compassion drips from the stories and that is exactly what Lvova-Belova wants to radiate to the outside world. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the 38-year-old children’s ombudsman has set herself up as a ‘saviour’ for children affected by war violence. In line with that role, she also cultivates an image as a devout Christian. She is married to a Russian Orthodox priest, with whom she has five children. The couple also have five adopted children, and Lvova-Belova is the guardian of another thirteen children with disabilities.
In the eyes of the Kremlin and the Church, she is therefore an exemplary mother, the personification of Mother Russia herself. An image that she shows with full dedication on her Telegram channel and in the Russian state media. For example, when she told in a TV interview about the moment she first saw her adopted son Filip, who came to her house last spring from the Russian-besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Her heart skipped a beat, she recalled. “I realized that I could not live without this child.”
Thousands of Ukrainian children have been sent to Russia by Moscow
Behind the flawless appearance, however, lies a deliberate policy of deporting Ukrainian children from the Moscow-occupied territories to Russia. Although there are no independently verifiable figures, it is clear that thousands of Ukrainian children have been sent from Moscow to Russia since the beginning of the Russian invasion. As of early December, Kiev claimed there were 13,000 deported children, while Moscow maintains a total of five million Ukrainian refugees, including more than 720,000 children.
The majority of these children end up in Russia with their parents, assures Laura Mills of Amnesty International, which published a report in November on the deportation of Ukrainian citizens. “The most difficult cases are the unaccompanied children who are forcibly put on buses to Russia. The exact numbers are unknown, but we know that Russia is systematically trying to prevent them from fleeing to the West.”
According to Moscow, it only brings orphans to Russia, but according to Mills, this is not the case. “Maybe their parents are dead, but they still have an aunt or grandmother. Under international law, children would then be in the care of these relatives – or at least they would have to be adopted by Ukrainian families. Children also have the right to their national identity, and Moscow is taking it away from them through the deportations.”
‘An attempt to erase children’s Ukrainian identity’
This so-called de-Ukrainization follows from official policy. For example, since President Putin issued a special decree to this effect in May, Russian families have been able to ‘adopt’ Ukrainian children more quickly, and minors can more easily obtain a Russian passport. “It’s an attempt to ‘Russify’ children and erase their Ukrainian identity,” says Mills.
Moscow does not hide how this ‘Russification’ works. On her Telegram channel, Lvova-Belova speaks candidly about the deportations, or, in Kremlin jargon, “evacuations.” Children often arrive from occupied territory to one of the three central reception centers in Russia. In these ‘rehabilitation centres’, the first ‘assimilation’ of children takes place in their new homeland. They receive ‘tailored care’ and ‘daily lessons in Russian language and history’ before being placed in orphanages or nursing homes.
The children’s ombudsman knows from personal experience that integration can sometimes take a while. For example, her adopted son Filip initially showed ‘a certain negativity’. For example, he regularly sang the Ukrainian national anthem, insulted President Putin and couldn’t stop talking about how he participated in pro-Ukrainian demonstrations. His behavior has since changed, assures Lvova-Belova. The teenager’s negative attitude has been “transformed into love for Russia.”
Similar stories about children from the occupied territories regularly appear on state television. Each and every one of these reports fits seamlessly into the state propaganda, which proclaims that the invasion of the neighboring country aims, among other things, to save the children of the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. This is one of the main reasons why the Kremlin expels children, Mills believes. “Russia tells stories with them. It uses them as propaganda pawns.”