After Russian strikes on the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, rescue workers free a family from under the rubble of their destroyed home. Video / AP
Olga Lopatkina paced around her basement in circles like a trapped animal. For more than a week, the Ukrainian mother had heard nothing from her six adopted children stranded in Mariupol, and she was going out of her mind with worry.
The kids had spent their vacation at a resort in the port city, as usual. But this time war with Russia had broken out, and her little ones — always terrified of the dark — were abandoned in a besieged city with no light and no hope. All they had now was her oldest son, Timofey, who was still himself just 17.
The questions looped endlessly in her head: Should she try to rescue the children herself — and risk being killed, making them orphans yet again? Or should she campaign to get them out from afar — and risk them being killed or falling into the hands of the Russians?
She had no idea her dilemma would lead her straight into a battle against Russia, with the highest stakes of her life.
Russia’s open effort to adopt Ukrainian children and bring them up as Russian is already well underway, in one of the most explosive issues of the war, an Associated Press investigation shows.
Thousands of children have been found in the basements of war-torn cities like Mariupol and at orphanages in the Russian-backed separatist territories of Donbas. They include those whose parents were killed by Russian shelling as well as others in institutions or with foster families, known as “children of the state.”
Russia claims that these children don’t have parents or guardians to look after them, or that they can’t be reached. But the AP found that officials have deported Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories without consent, lied to them that they weren’t wanted by their parents, used them for propaganda, and given them Russian families and citizenship.
The investigation is the most extensive to date on the grab of Ukrainian children, and the first to follow the process all the way to those already growing up in Russia. The AP drew from dozens of interviews with parents, children and officials in both Ukraine and Russia; emails and letters; Russian documents and Russian state media.
Whether or not they have parents, raising the children of war in another country or culture can be a marker of genocide, an attempt to erase the very identity of an enemy nation. Prosecutors say it also can be tied directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has explicitly supported the adoptions.
“It’s not something that happens spur of the moment on the battlefield,” said Stephen Rapp, a former US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues who is advising Ukraine on prosecutions. “And so your ability to attribute responsibility to the highest level is much greater here.”
Even where parents are dead, Rapp said, their children must be sheltered, fostered or adopted in Ukraine rather than deported to Russia.
Russian law prohibits the adoption of foreign children. But in May, Putin signed a decree making it easier for Russia to adopt and give citizenship to Ukrainian children without parental care — and harder for Ukraine and surviving relatives to win them back.
Russia also has prepared a register of suitable Russian families for Ukrainian children and pays them for each child who gets citizenship — up to $1,000 for those with disabilities. It holds summer camps for Ukrainian orphans, offers “patriotic education” classes and even runs a hotline to pair Russian families with children from Donbas.
“It is absolutely a terrible story,” said Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the Mariupol mayor, who claims hundreds of children were taken from that city alone. “We don’t know if our children have an official parent or (stepparents) or something else because they are forcibly disappeared by Russian troops.”
The picture is complicated by the fact that many children in Ukraine’s so-called orphanages are not orphans at all. Ukraine’s government acknowledged to the UN before the war that most children of the state “are not orphans, have no serious illness or disease and are in an institution because their families are in difficult circumstances.”
Nevertheless, Russia portrays its adoption of Ukrainian children as an act of generosity that gives new homes and medical resources to helpless minors. Russian state media shows local officials hugging and kissing them and handing them Russian passports.
It’s very hard to pin down the exact number of Ukrainian children deported to Russia — Ukrainian officials claim nearly 8,000. Russia hasn’t given an overall number, but officials regularly announce the arrival of Ukrainian orphans in Russian military planes.
In March, Russian children’s rights ombudswoman Maria Lvova-Belova said more than 1000 children from Ukraine were in Russia. Over the summer, she said 120 Russian families had applied for guardianship, and more than 130 Ukrainian children had received Russian citizenship. Many more have come since, including a batch of 234 in early October.
Lvova-Belova has said these children need Russia’s help to overcome the trauma that has left them sleeping badly, crying at night and drawing basements and bomb shelters. She acknowledged that at first, a group of 30 children brought to Russia from the basements of Mariupol defiantly sang the Ukrainian national anthem and shouted, “Glory to Ukraine!” But now, she said, their criticism has been “transformed into a love for Russia”, and she has taken one in, a teenager.
“Today he received a passport of a citizen of the Russian Federation and does not let go of it!” she posted on Telegram on Sept 21, along with a photo. “(He) was waiting for this day in our family more than anyone else.”
Lvova-Belova has been sanctioned by the United States, Europe, the UK, Canada and Australia. Her office referred the AP to her reply in a state-owned news agency that Russia was “helping children to preserve their right to live under a peaceful sky and be happy.”
In August, a post from a senior official at the Moscow Department of Labor and Social Protection thanking the Russian foster families declared: “Our Children…Now they are ours.”
As Lopatkina agonised over what to do, her teenage son’s childhood came to an abrupt end in Mariupol.
Suddenly, Timofey had become the father to all his siblings. Three had chronic illnesses or disabilities, and the youngest was just 7.
As intense shelling broke the glass around them, they cowered in a basement. When the younger ones were scared, Timofey carried them in his arms. After one airstrike, they moved their beds closer together next to the thickest wall.
But no wall could keep out the war. Every day, Timofey awoke at 6 am in the bitter cold and chopped wood for a bonfire to cook food. All he wanted to do was to finish his work and sleep — only to have to wake up and do it again.
Calluses built up on his hands. His skin grew thicker in other ways. When aeroplanes rumbled overhead, he no longer ran for shelter.
“When you walk and see brains of people on the road, right on the pavement, nothing matters,” he recalled.
He promised his mother he would look after the younger children. But then the power went out, and he lost touch with her completely.
A friend who had joined the fighting offered to take him out of Mariupol. He refused. He knew he would never forgive himself if he left his siblings behind.
Finally, a local doctor from Mariupol arranged an evacuation to elsewhere in Ukraine. But pro-Russia forces at a checkpoint refused to recognize the children’s documents, photocopies of official papers identifying them and their parents. Timofey’s pleas went nowhere.
Instead, the children ended up in a hospital in the Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, a separatist Russian-controlled area in Ukraine. Timofey was only months away from turning 18 — the age when he would be drafted into the DPR army against his homeland.
“For the DPR, I would never go to fight in my life,” he said. “I understood that I had to get out of there one way or another.”
At least, Timofey thought, he could tell his mother he had kept the children safe. He was close to his mother, and they were alike, he and she — both tough survivors who would stick it out to the end no matter what.
Or so he thought until he reached her.
“It’s great that they are alive,” she replied. “But we are already abroad.”
Timofey was utterly devastated. His parents had fled Ukraine without him. He felt they had thrown him away like garbage, along with five children he hadn’t asked for and couldn’t know how to protect.
“Thanks for leaving me,” he wrote back, furious.
The children of Mariupol aren’t the first Russia has been accused of stealing from Ukraine.
In 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, more than 80 children from Luhansk were stopped at checkpoints and abducted. Ukraine sued, and the European Court of Human Rights found the children were taken into Russia “without medical support or the necessary paperwork.” The children were returned to Ukraine before a final decision.
Kateryna Rashevska, a human rights defender, said she knows of about 30 Ukrainian children from Crimea adopted by Russians under a program known as Train of Hope. Now, she said, some of those children might well be Russian soldiers. Since 2015, the Young Army Cadets national movement has trained youth in Crimea and Russia for potential recruitment into the military.
This time around, at least 96 children have been returned to Ukraine since March after negotiations. But Ukrainian officials have tracked down the identities of thousands more in Russia, and the names of many others simply aren’t published.
“We cannot ask the Russian Federation to return the children because we don’t know who they should return,” said Rashevska, with the Ukrainian organization Regional Central for Human Rights.
Kira, a 12-year-old girl who saw her father shot and killed, was evacuated from Mariupol to Donetsk with shrapnel wounds on her ear, leg, neck and arm. Kira was reunited with her grandparents only after the office of Ukraine’s deputy prime minister got involved.
Her grandmother, Svitlana Obedynska, said Kira had become withdrawn and lost interest in everything, and negotiations were “very difficult.”
“It was not decided at our level,” she said. “She wants to be with her family. After all, she has no one else.”
Russia justifies the deportation of children by saying it has annexed four territories in Ukraine, but the UN and the rest of the world called the move in late September a sham. The governor of one of those territories, Serhiy Haidai of Luhansk, has accused Russian officials of drawing up documents that deprive Ukrainian parents of their rights. He too fears that Ukrainian children will be enlisted in the Russian military.
Other officials in occupied territories loyal to Moscow have a more benign view of what Russia is doing. Olga Volkova, who heads an institution for children in Donetsk, had 225 kids evacuated to an area near the Russian seaside city of Taganrog, and 10 were taken in by Russian families in April. After DPR and Russian officials make a list of suitable candidates, her boarding school secures citizenship for them and sends them to new families in Russia.
If there are Ukrainian relatives, they can stay in touch, call and perhaps eventually meet, Volkova said. In the meantime, while the war is ongoing, she noted, the children now still have families of a sort.
“Everyone wants to have a mother, you see?” Volkova said.
Olga Lopatkina was a teacher of music and the arts who had lived a hard life. Now a middle-aged woman with red and pink streaks in her hair fading to white, she lost her mother as a teenager. In 2014, when fighting with Russian-backed forces broke out in Donetsk, she also lost a home.
But this nightmare with her children, she thought, was the hardest thing yet. Although Mariupol was less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) away from her home in Vuhledar, it was impossible to reach safely because of bombardment. In the meantime, her 18-year-old biological daughter, Rada, was at a boxing competition near Kharkiv, another front-line city.
She told herself every day that the war would end fast. It was the 21st century, after all. Instead, it edged closer.
Lopatkina took in two refugee families from a city near Mariupol, who confirmed her worst fears. One woman said her husband was killed in front of her, and she had to step over his corpse.
Lopatkina hounded Ukrainian officials, the local governor, social services, and anybody who could evacuate her children. In calls, Timofey told his mother he was looking after his younger siblings. She was proud and slightly reassured.
Then, on March 1, their connection was lost. She thought her kids were going to be evacuated to Zaporizhzhia, so she and her husband went there, with books of fairy tales and other treats. But two days after they arrived, the state ordered Zaporizhzhia itself to be evacuated instead.
Lopatkina had to make yet another painful decision. Should she wait for an evacuation from Mariupol that might never happen? Or should she go to collect her oldest daughter before losing contact with her too?
“Let’s go,” she told her husband, Denys.
Lopatkina escaped with Rada to France. In one final plea, she wrote to the governor of Donetsk: “Don’t forget my orphans.”
When she received the message from Timofey accusing her of deserting them, she was stung but not surprised.
“I can’t even imagine,” she said, her voice breaking as she started to cry. “If I were him, I would have reacted the same way, and maybe even worse.”
Lopatkina continued to push Russian and Ukrainian officials incessantly. She sent them photocopies of Ukrainian documents proving her guardianship. She told them some of the children were sick and worried that nobody had even asked about their medication.
The children were paraded on Russian television and told she didn’t love them. It broke her heart.
“Every day they turned the children against us,” she said. “‘Your parents abandoned you … We will transfer you to the best families. Here you will have a better life.'”
She got a job in a garment factory in France and bought furniture, clothes and toys for children who might or might not return. She chose their bedrooms in her small duplex in the northwest, in Loue. She planned celebrations for missed birthdays.
Then, much to her dismay, she found out that other Ukrainian orphans who were with her children had been issued new identity documents for the DPR. The Donetsk authorities dropped a bombshell. She could have her children back — if she came through Russia to Donetsk to get them in person.
Lopatkina feared a trap. If she went to Russia, she might never be allowed to leave.
“I will sue you,” she threatened Donetsk officials in an email on May 18th. “You took my kids. That is a crime.”
For some Russian families, taking in Ukrainian orphans isn’t a crime. It’s a gift.
One professional foster mother was called in by the Moscow social services to “come and look” at the eastern Ukrainian kids who had recently arrived. She already had six Russian foster kids under her roof, some with disabilities. She took in three more from Mariupol.
“We still have love untapped,” she said. “There are children who need to be given affection, love, care, family, mom and dad. If we can give it, why not?”
She said she had reached out to the children’s Ukrainian foster mother, who didn’t mind the arrangement.
The AP couldn’t reach the Ukrainian mother. But the children didn’t hide their resentment of her, described life with her as constrained and made no effort to call her.
They said she had dropped them off at a bunker in Mariupol. The Russian military got them out, and they had to choose between adoption by a Russian family and life in a Russian orphanage.
After a guardianship trial in now-occupied Mariupol, the Russian mother has custody of the children. They have become Russian citizens and call her mom, she said.
“We don’t talk about the war,” she said. “Politics remains politics. This is not our business.”
At her house with a courtyard and inflatable swimming pool, the children said they felt welcome and accepted. The 15-year-old girl is eager to start a new life in Russia — but in part because returning to her old one is impossible. Her school was bombed, one of her classmates died and almost everyone has left.
“Trying to start on a new page is never bad,” she said.”Why not?”
Her 17-year-old foster brother interrupted. Two of his friends had died also, he said.
He thinks starting his life anew will give him experience, and he looks forward to seeing Russia. But he is also worried about not being accepted as a Ukrainian. He will give it a go for a decade to try and make a fortune, and then return to Ukraine.
“My friends are there, they can support me,” he said. “I was born there … I know everything there, I’m just used to it.”
Hundreds more orphans from Ukraine were housed in a leafy seaside camp near Taganrog, an upscale facility with a large dining room and playgrounds.
Yaroslava Rogachyova, 11, had been evacuated from a children’s institution in Donetsk and was waiting to be sent to a foster family in Moscow with her two sisters. She said she will miss the sea, Donetsk and her biological parents back there, but she didn’t explain why she didn’t or couldn’t go back to them. She is now thinking ahead to her new life.
“I’m going to Moscow, I’ve already seen the family and everyone,” she said. “I liked the mom from the very beginning.”
In the DPR, Timofey didn’t want a new life —he wanted his old one back. Angry and miserable, he argued with officials and ate almost nothing.
His only escape was reading a book he never finished, and sneaking out to see a girl. One day he returned with a tattoo of three daggers on his legs, which could symbolise protection, bravery or power.
The new reality in a new place terrified Timofey, eclipsing his anger at his mother. On a call, she explained what had happened. He was deeply relieved.
“I missed my parents,” he said. “It was very difficult for me without my mother and father’s support … I constantly cried like a girl, ‘Mom, it’s hard for me, I’m tired.'”
The little children repeatedly asked when they could go home to their mother. They were badly fed, slapped and cursed, Timofey said.
Then they heard hospital officials wouldn’t let them go home at all. Timofey’s 13-year-old foster brother, Sasha, was so furious that he slammed his hand on a slide and broke a finger.
“I really missed my parents,” Sasha said. “I didn’t need anything but my parents.”
Two officials pulled Timofey aside and told him a court in the DPR would strip Lopatkina and her husband of their guardianship. His younger siblings would go first to an orphanage, and then to new families in Russia. Timofey would go to school in Donetsk.
He was enraged. “That can’t be done,” he said. “It is illegal.”
The officials replied that parents who didn’t come to collect their children didn’t want them. Timofey stormed out.
“I was so disappointed, I didn’t believe in anything,” he said. “I was terrified.”
He was determined to keep together the only family he had known, and he worried that his siblings would end up with Russian families who wanted them only for state aid. He told his mother he could marry his new girlfriend and adopt his siblings when he turned 18.
Then Lopatkina’s efforts finally paid off.
She was working with Darya Kasyanova, the director of the nonprofit SOS Children’s Villages, who already had helped to negotiate the release of 25 Ukrainian children from Russia. Sending the children in the first place to Russian territories instead of Ukraine was “a violation of the rights of the child,” Kasyanova said.
After two months of negotiation and an initial objection from a senior Russian official, DPR authorities finally agreed to allow a volunteer with power of attorney from Lopatkina to collect the children. They asked Timofey if he and his siblings wanted to go back to his foster family or stay in Donetsk.
“Now that I have a chance, I will, of course, go home to my parents,” he told them.
A document was drafted and signed. At last, they were going to France.
After a delay because of shelling, they finally left on a three-day bus trip through Russia and Latvia to Berlin.
They were grilled at the Russian border and panicked. Timofey texted his mother. But the volunteer got them through.
Timofey met his father at a bus stop in Berlin. He couldn’t quite believe it. They drove to France, where Timofey went to pick his mother up from the garment factory as a surprise.
Lopatkina was sewing frantically, replaying the moment her kids were stopped at the border a dozen times in her head. She had already begun thinking of what new plan she could hatch to get them back.
When Timofey arrived, she was in shock. For him, the euphoria was wild, a high like nothing he had ever experienced before.
Back at the house, the other children were waiting. They ran toward their mother, losing their shoes, and jumped into her arms. She ruffled their hair and held their faces. It was all happening faster than her brain could process.
“Let me see you!” she screamed.”Aaaaah!” The two dogs joined the party, barking.
It took Timofey a couple of days before he could believe he was back with his parents. No resentment was left, he said. He erased the angry message he had sent his mother from his phone and his mind.
“I kept my promise,” he said. “The burden of responsibility was gone. I said: ‘Mother, take the reins, that’s all … I’m a child now.'”
Lori Hinnant, Cara Anna and Erika Kinetz contributed to this report.