As we celebrate the return of four children, it is essential that we do not forget the others 20,000 According to Kiev, the children are being held captive by Russia – kidnapped from the razed towns of eastern Ukraine, from orphanages and institutions for mentally and/or physically disabled children.
Some were separated from their parents during the fighting, others were orphaned by the Russian invasion. Still others, called “children of the state,” were already orphans or had no parents capable of caring for them.
Some brave Ukrainian parents managed to get their children back through terrifying visits to Russia, passing through filtration camps and war zones. However, while it is tempting to dwell on the joy that a child must feel when a parent or grandmother comes to wake them from their nightmare, such cases remain aberrant: according to the Ukrainian government, only 400 children were returned this way.
Instead, reality calls us to contemplate the desperation a child must feel to realize that he is alone, in a friendless place that wants to destroy everything he calls home and that no one will come for him.
The longer children stay in Russia, the more likely they are to become untraceable, with their names changed and their records expunged. Those who have parents are being told that their families no longer want them, that Russia saved them, and that they are being given new identities, supposedly to protect them from the hateful Ukrainians. They are settled with Russian families registered on a government-approved register, who receive up to $1,000 for each Ukrainian child acquiring Russian citizenship.
The Russian government also runs specialized summer camps and schools for children from the occupied territories and those already kidnapped. Patriotic education classes spew brutal Putinian propaganda to indoctrinate children to hate their own country. Some schools are guarded by armed Russian Cossacks, against whom allegations of child abuse have been made.
Once the Russians break the children, they are used as propaganda.
Russia’s leading child thief, Maria Lvova Belova, boasted of indoctrinating abandoned children from Mariupol. Speaking to Russian state television, she explained how these children first sang the Ukrainian anthem, even in Russian captivity. But after months of experimental psychological pressure, they broke down and declared their love for Russia.
Many children traumatized by their experiences with Russian bombs, shells and torture will likely be sent to “institutions for mentally retarded children” in Russia. When I worked in one of these orphanages in the Pskov region of Russia, it was clear that many of the little ones did not have mental disabilities, but rather understandable mental health problems due to their situation. The Soviet legacy meant that child psychiatrists viewed normal reactions to neglect and cruelty as anomalies against which “normal society” needed to be protected.
Like their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian children sent to such institutions will not have their own toys or clothes, they will be “taken care of” by underpaid and uncaring “nannies”. In the worst cases, their trauma will see them sent to specialist units for months or even years. Of the children I knew, those with the most severe conditions were sent to a cruel place called Bogdanovo (literally: “God-given place”), where they were drugged and chained to beds. The children who returned from Bogdanovo were not the same as those who arrived there.
This is the current and future fate of hundreds of Ukrainian children living in captivity in Russia. And the deportations continue. Just recently, 300 children from the occupied Zaporizhzhia region were reportedly sent to Russia as part of an educational program. Previously, children sent on such journeys had never returned. Alongside this highly publicized trip, parents in occupied Zaporozhye had until the end of October to force their children to take Russian citizenship or risk having them taken away. We are already at the point where parents must choose between their nation and their children. The choice is obvious, but it is also a choice that parents in unoccupied Ukraine do not have to make.
The Russian-Ukrainian war is a long war. Kind people, who are not directly affected, cannot bear the pain and therefore turn away. Calls to pressure Ukraine to concede territory are often part of this understandable desire to put an end to the suffering, to make it stop. But that wouldn’t stop the horror. Such calls ignore the reality of life under Russian occupation: it’s not just about ceding territory, but about children becoming even more terrified, knowing that no one can find them.
Dr Jade McGlynn is a researcher in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His latest book, “Russia’s War,” was published in March