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From “The New York Times,” I’m Sabrina Tavernise, and this is “The Daily.”
As Vladimir Putin makes his case for the war in Ukraine to the Russian people, he’s using an unexpected tool — Ukrainian children. Ukraine says thousands of them, mostly orphans, have been relocated to Russia, where they’re placed in Russian families and paraded on Russian television. Today, my colleague, Emma Bubola, tells the story of one of those children.
It’s Friday, March 3.
So Emma, usually, when we talk about the war in Ukraine, we talk about battles, and weapons, and military strategy. But you’ve been reporting on a very different kind of campaign by Russia, and this campaign involves children. Tell me about this reporting.
Yes, so I was covering the news about Ukraine last summer, and I started seeing this pretty shocking allegations by Ukrainian authorities that Russia was taking Ukrainian children without their parents to Russia, and sometimes placing them in Russian families and giving them up for adoption.
And Emma, to be clear, the accusations were that Russian soldiers were taking Ukrainian children back to Russia?
Now, at that time, the accusations were really vague. So it was, Russia is taking Ukrainian children. But we did not know exactly where they were taking them to, where they were taking them from, how they were being taken, and who was taking them. And that’s what I wanted to figure out — to identify at least some cases, to report if this was happening and how.
And when you started looking into it, what were you seeing?
So Sabrina, it looked like there was a pattern of systematic removal of Ukrainian children, many from group homes that are very common in Ukraine — orphanages or institutions that care for children who are not necessarily orphans. And they were relocating them to Russia with the plan to give them Russian citizenship and placing them in Russian families.
And Ukrainian authorities say that while the majority of these children who have been forcibly taken to Russia were orphans, there were many who were also taken from their parents, separated from their parents at filtration points, or who have relatives or family who would be ready to take them back in Ukraine.
So essentially, not all of these children were necessarily abandoned? In some cases, Ukraine is actually saying Russia separated them from their parents?
Yes, they’re saying that in some cases, their parents were imprisoned and the children were taken to Russia.
Wow. What’s the scale? How many children are we talking about?
Yes, so from the beginning, it seemed like a pretty serious problem because both Russia and Ukraine did not deny that it was at least a thousand children, probably many more. But Ukraine says that Russia has taken 16,000 children.
Oh, wow, that’s a lot of children.
Yeah, this is just the number that Ukraine has been able to verify — they know exactly the name of these children, where they were from, where they are. And they say these children are mostly orphans.
So Russia says it’s at least a thousand. Ukraine says it’s more like 16,000. So at the very least, we can say this is thousands of children?
Yeah, but I wanted to understand what was the actual experience of one of these children. Because Russians, they agreed that this was happening and on a big scale, but they were portraying what was happening in very different ways. So to Ukraine, these were stolen, kidnapped children, and to Russia, these were rescued children. So I wanted to speak to one child and to understand what was their actual experience of this.
Interesting, because both sides essentially did not disagree that this was a big thing that was going on, but they totally disagreed about what it that was going on.
Yeah, exactly. So I started reaching out to children who had had some experience with this transfer to Russian-controlled areas. And as I interviewed them, many of them seem to point me in the direction of one girl who was still in Russia, Anya. And with my colleague Alina Lobzina from the Moscow Bureau, we managed to find Anya on social media. And slowly, over weeks, she told us her story.
Tell me about Anya.
So Anya is a 14, now 15-year-old girl. And to reconstruct Anya’s story, we spoke to her over months. But we also spoke to her friends, and we had access to some court documents. And so her story is the story of a child from Eastern Ukraine who, some months before the war started, was actually flagged to Ukraine social services as living in a family in which parents avoided fulfilling parental responsibilities.
And what does that mean?
According to court documents, they describe her house as being unfit to welcome children. Her mother was disabled and she was out of work. So they moved her to this sanatorium. This is something that is very common in Ukraine.
So before the war, more than 90,000 children were living in institutions. This is a heritage from the Soviet era in which there was a kind of idea that the state can care for the children of families who cannot afford to care for them. Or, if the child is disabled or has other issues, the state can care for them better than their family.
And so Anya was among those 90,000 Ukrainian children who were wards of the state or were living in institutions for some other reason?
Yes, so Anya was living in a group home in the city of Mariupol. And so children who were with her in this group home described her as a shy girl with a passion for drawing and for reading fairy tales, either by herself or to a younger child that she was kind of being like an older sister for. And she was like really caring with her and affectionate.
So what happens to Anya when the war breaks out? I mean, we know that Mariupol was just pummeled by Russian forces.
Yes, so some children managed to reconnect with their parents and leave this group home in Mariupol. But Anya, who had had sporadic contact with her mother, does not manage to make contact with her or get picked up by her. So together with about 16 other children, she hides in the basement of this group home. And that actually turns out to be a smart idea because shells fall near some of the buildings of this group home.
And after some days of hiding, one volunteer from Mariupol finds the children in this group home and decides to evacuate them, to bring them away, because it was extremely dangerous at the time. And so he puts them on an ambulance and wants to take them to Zaporizhia. It’s another city in Ukraine that was considered safer then.
But as they head out of the city, they get stopped at a checkpoint because Mariupol was already under Russian siege. And they are not let through.
So as the children wait for a decision to be made about what’s going to happen to them, everyone whom I spoke to who was there described the group of pro-Russian officials storming in and kind of deciding that these children are going to go into Russian-controlled territory instead of going to a safer part of Ukraine.
And Anya and the other children were put on a bus headed deeper into Russian-controlled territory.
So these kids who were in a vehicle headed toward Ukrainian territory were actually taken out of that vehicle and put on a bus headed to Russian territory?
Yes, exactly. From there, Anya is taken to Russia. So Anya told us that no one really asked her if she wanted to go to Russia. And she called a friend and she cried because she didn’t want to be there. So first, she spent some time in some camps or rehabilitation facilities, as they call them. And then, she gets moved into a foster family.
And what was that foster home like?
Yes, so in her foster home, there are six more children, four dogs. Anya shared her room with two boys, which she says is fun and not scary because she says she’s often scared to be alone. She called her foster parents aunt and uncle. She said they treat her nicely, they do crafts together, they go to parks, walk the dogs in the evenings. But when we spoke to her last fall, she still very much wanted to go back to her home and be reunited with her family.
So on the one hand, Anya has been forced to go to Russia, a place she didn’t want to go in the first place. But on the other hand, it’s a less dire and desperate picture than I was imagining. I mean, she likes her foster family.
Yeah, I mean, they’re not bringing children to prison camps. They are very much placing them into families. And many times, these families are very well-meaning. They have a mix of patriotism and love for these children.
And does she go to school?
Yes, at the same time, she told us that she went to school and that she had these classes, that are basically patriotism classes, called “Conversations about Important Things,” that were recently introduced in Russia. And they’re given — in these classes, they teach topics like the geopolitical situation or traditional values. It’s basically to teach children how to be proud of Russia.
The geopolitical situation as in the war in Ukraine?
Yeah, they do talk about the war, and they are given virtual tours of Crimea, for example.
And what did they tell her about the war in Ukraine?
So we don’t know this from Anya, because it was really hard to get information from her about these classes. But what we do know is that when she was at one of these centers where she was staying in Russia before she went into the family, she told us the teachers knew more than I do about Ukraine. They tell me that Ukraine is really bad. But she said, I don’t believe it. For me, Ukraine will always be good.
So they’re really trying to teach her that her own country is a bad place and she should be glad she’s in Russia?
Yeah, for sure. I think the purpose is to integrate her completely into Russian society. And I mean, the, maybe, strongest evidence of that is the fact that she was given Russian citizenship. So she has the Russian passport now.
So she was given Russian citizenship. Is that usual?
Yeah, there is a clear intention by Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, to give citizenship to orphans from Ukraine. And he did a decree to streamline this procedure in May. And so this is just another indication of how systematic Russia wants this Russification of Ukrainian children to be.
So it’s not just Anya. It’s all of these other children, and it’s directed by Putin himself. But why is Russia doing this? Like what’s in it for them?
I think a lot of the answer to this question might be in the way that Russia is not hiding the transfer of at least more than a thousand children from Ukraine. That kind of shows that Russia is using these children as part of a propaganda campaign to portray Russia as saviors of Ukrainian children and of Ukraine.
We’ll be right back.
So Emma, before the break, you were telling me that there had been thousands of Ukrainian children taken to Russian territory, and that this act by Russia was largely for propaganda purposes. You said that they were trying to frame their war as a humanitarian mission. Who, exactly, is Russia talking to here, and what is it trying to sell?
So this relocation of Ukrainian children fits really nicely into a propaganda targeted at domestic audience in Russia because this war is premised on the idea that Ukraine doesn’t really exist and that Ukraine is just a part of Russia, that Ukrainian identity isn’t real, and that all Russia is doing is correcting a historical mistake by making Ukraine a part of Russia again. So the message is that these children are Russian and going back to where they belong.
So this is something that Putin has been arguing all along — that, essentially, there is no Ukraine, that it’s just Russia — and that it has these strange habits, but it really is Russia and belongs to Russia.
Yeah, I spoke to a mother who told me that she took into her family four children from Ukraine. And she told me we’re not taking anything that is not ours. And she even likened what her family did to what Russia is doing because Russia annexed four territories, and our family took in four children. So it’s there is really like a parallel between this broader idea of a war in which Russia is rescuing Ukraine, and these families are rescuing these children.
And I think that these children are actually a very effective way of doing this because, often, they were not torn from perfect families. Many of them were orphans or living in state-run facilities before the war. So they have even a stronger case, arguing that Russia is giving a family — and a loving family — to children who would otherwise have none.
So then, Russia really is using these kids to make an argument to the Russian people about why their war is just and right. What forms does that take? What are they saying exactly, and where are they saying it?
Yes, there is an abundance of videos and articles and state media that show how the children are arriving to Russia and placed in Russian families. So often, these children arrive by train or by airplane and are received by TV cameras. They’re given Teddy Bears.
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They’re interviewed saying how happy they are to be in a Russian family.
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And they even did like a series of documentaries that was widely circulated.
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Especially in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine, that —
Documentaries about the kids?
Yeah, it’s a series of videos about several kids that were taken into Russian families.
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They describe their daily life and how, again, happy they are to be in a Russian family.
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And in this video, there is a lot of emphasis on the trauma that these children have been through. And for example, there is, in one of these videos —
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— some foster parents or adoptive parents take these children from Ukraine to — it looks like a war simulation, like a playful war simulation. But the children get really scared. And like —
— the video shows the children crying. And it projects black and white images of war and destruction —
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— to advocate, maybe, what these children might be thinking about. And the Russian parent promptly comforts them.
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So it kind of feels like they want to emphasize the fact that Russian families are finally providing a safe, comfortable environment to these children.
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I think that Russia forgets to say that while helping these children a few months before, like in the case of Anya, it was bombing the homes where they were staying.
I mean, it’s just very deeply cynical use of these children.
One of the, I think, egregious examples is this Russian official who has coordinated this relocation effort by Russia. And she herself adopted a child from Mariupol. And she talks about him a lot on state media.
And she detailed how this child in the beginning was talking about the fact that he went to pro-Ukraine protest, and how in the beginning he was sitting alone, missing his home and his friends from Mariupol. But then, how with time, he came to appreciate his new home in Russia.
And in July, when the first batch of Ukrainian children obtained Russian citizenship in the Moscow region, and officials posed in these photo ops with them, the Russian official, in an official statement, she said, I didn’t recognize these kids from when we traveled in April on the train. Now they’re our little fellow citizens.
It just seems like fundamentally, it’s bringing the whole mythology and thrust of the war and why Putin started it full circle, right? Ukraine isn’t a place that exists at all. Ukrainians don’t exist. They’re actually Russians. And look what we have here — we have a bunch of little Russians.
Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s quite interesting how she herself illustrates what Russia wants to do with these children, which is basically cut them off from their original nation and just turn them into Russian citizens. And actually, that’s something that Ukrainian officials consider as a way in which Russia can make it even harder for them to claim them back because they’re saying, oh, they’re Russian now. Why are you asking for them? Why are you trying to get them back?
So given that many of these children didn’t have guardians when they were taken to Russia, it probably complicates the effort to have them returned to Ukraine, right? So I guess I’m wondering, what are the Ukrainians doing to get these kids back?
It really depends. The Ukraine authorities are urging parents, guardians, family members to show up and to make appeals, because to start this process to return children, it usually starts from an appeal from a family member or someone who’s looking for this child. So children who don’t have anyone, of course, it’s much harder to return them because no one is actively looking for them.
And how many kids are in that category — I mean, who have a parent or guardian step forward and claim them?
I don’t know in total how many have parents looking for them, or guardians. But what we know is that 300 children have already been returned out of a total of 16,000 that the Ukrainian authorities have identified. So this number is very small.
So Emma, stepping back here, I mean, these were children, for the most part, like Anya, who were taken from group homes and orphanages and placed in families in Russia. And you know, yes, they’re being fed this Russian propaganda about their own native-born country and about Russia. But it seems like, just to play devil’s advocate here for a second, they’re in potentially better and safer environments than they were before, even if it’s not necessarily what they themselves would have chosen.
What do you make of that?
Yeah, I think it’s very complicated. And yeah, we did speak to a child who was happy to be in Russia. But I think, yeah, I think it’s really not for me or for Russia to decide what’s better for Ukrainian children. The fact that some of these children might be placed in nice families is not a justification to remove masses of children from a national group to another and have them change nationality, erase their heritage, grow up in a country that, in some cases, has bombed the homes in which they were living.
And adding to that, I think that we actually don’t know much about the family situation or potential family ties of these children. And we actually have the Chief of the UN Refugee Agency said that in a situation of war, you cannot really know if a child has a family. And until that is verified, you cannot give them another nationality or have them adopted in another family because it goes against the fundamental principles of child protections in situations of war.
Emma, is this a war crime?
Well, yeah. The United States recently said that this unlawful transfer of children is a breach of the Geneva Convention and constitutes a war crime. And in general, more widely, the international community has really condemned this practice. And this Russian official who has been coordinating, organizing these transfers was put on the sanctions list of several Western countries.
But prosecuting war crimes is really hard and takes a lot of time. And in the meantime, these children might grow up. And for now Stephen Rapp, the former US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, told me that for now, there is not much that Ukraine can do to legally compel Russia to return these children.
And what about Anya? What’s happened to her? Does her mother know where she is?
Yes, so Anya’s situation is very different and very difficult. So I was able to connect with her mother last fall, and she had no idea that Anya was in Russia. And even after I told her, she still couldn’t really believe it. Also, Anya’s mom is out of work. She doesn’t really have internet at home. And for her, just fathoming a trip to Russia to get her back would be like going to the moon.
But despite this, in the meantime, Anya’s mom was also officially deprived of parental rights, meaning that the government has taken away her custody. So I mean, I think she doesn’t have even much of a claim at this point. So yeah, it looks like the odds of her returning are not very high right now.
Emma, thank you.
Thank you, Sabrina. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you should know today. In an unexpected meeting on Thursday at the Group of 20 conference in New Delhi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confronted his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and demanded that Russia end its war against Ukraine. It was the first private face-to-face exchange between a US Cabinet member and a top Russian official since the invasion last year.
The meeting happened at Blinken’s request suggesting that the Biden administration wants to keep lines of communication open with Russia. It came as the White House prepares to announce another round of military aid for Ukraine when President Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday. And —
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The defendant will rise.
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The State versus Richard Alexander Murdaugh, Defendant, indictment for murder, guilty verdict.
Alex Murdaugh, the fourth-generation lawyer whose family long exerted influence in small-town South Carolina courtrooms, was convicted on Thursday of murdering his wife and his son. The verdict sealed the dramatic downfall of a man who had substantial wealth and powerful connections, but who lived a secret life in which he stole millions of dollars from clients and colleagues and lied to many of those closest to him.
The guilty verdict in Walterboro, South Carolina followed a closely-watched trial that lasted nearly six weeks and came more than 20 months after the June, 2021 fatal shootings of Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and their younger son, Paul.
Today’s episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson with help from Mooj Zadie. It was edited by MJ Davis Lin and was engineered by Chris Wood. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly
“The Daily is” made by Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Stella Tan, Alexandra Leigh Young, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, MJ Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Sydney Harper, Michael Benoist, Liz O. Baylen, Asthaa Chaturvedi, Rachelle Bonja, Diana Nguyen, Marion Lozano, Corey Schreppel Anita Badejo, Rob Szypko, Elisheba Ittoop, Mooj Zadie, Patricia Willens, Rowan Niemisto, Jody Becker, Rikki Novetsky, John Ketchum, Nina Feldman, Will Reid, Carlos Prieto, Ben Calhoun, Susan Lee, Lexie Diao, Mary Wilson, Alex Stern, Dan Farrell, Sofia Landman, Shannon Lin, and Diane Wong.
Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Paula Szuchman, Lisa Tobin, Larissa Anderson, Julius Simon, Sofia Milan, Mahima Chablani, Des Ibekwe, Elizabeth Davis-Moorer Jeffrey Miranda, Renan Borelli, Maddy Masiello, and Isabella Anderson.
That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Sabrina Tavernise. See you on Monday.