Cover by IMI
Russia accusing Ukraine of "festering Nazism" with no evidence to support these claims is no surprise to anyone. The aggressor country has been pushing this rhetoric since 2014, when the Russian Federation started a war in the Donbass and occupied Crimea. Despite everything, Russia still remained quite welcome on the international political arena, and Western politicians and representatives of international organizations have been making visits to the Kremlin every now and then. At one such meeting in July 2014, the Russian President declared that fighting Nazism was important and immediately called the Third Reich's ideologist, Joseph Goebbels, a "man of talent." All because, in Putin's opinion, he knew how to "get his way." Therefore, it is unsurprising that echoes of Hitlet's Germany can be seen in the Russian government's methods of propaganda and warmongering against Ukraine. One of such echoes is the way Russian propaganda targets the minds of children and teenagers.
In order to indoctrinate its people into Nazi ideology from an early age, the Third Reich created multiple youth organizations at once: the Hitlerjugend, the Jungfolk, and League of German Girls. It is worth mentioning that the campaign of burning "books of an un-German spirit" which swept through various cities of the Reich in 1933, saw active involvement of students. Goebbels himself spoke at a Berlin rally where more than 20,000 "undesirable" books were burned in the Opera Square. The Minister of Propaganda was urging the students to get rid of "garbage" and "clear the way for truly German works."
Russia is currently following in the steps of Hitler's Germany not only to brainwash its own citizens, but also to commit genocide against the Ukrainian people, in particular by way of systematic and deliberate crimes against children and teenagers. A February 2023 report by the Yale Humanities Research Laboratory (YHRL) mentions at least 43 facilities established by Russia after the start of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 to hold Ukrainian children. YHRL investigators managed to collect information on at least 6,000 children from Ukraine, aged 4 months to 17 years, who were being held in these institutions. The researchers have found that the main purpose of such institutions, which are often disguised as recreational summer camps, is so-called "political re-education".
Ukrainian children are undergoing academic, cultural, patriotic, and military education oriented towards Russia. In addition, at least two such institutions are used to distribute Ukrainian children (allegedly orphans) to foster families in Russia. Some children who end up in the Russian foster care system are put up for adoption by Russians. It is worth noting that the aggressor country is engaged in forceful Russification and "reconditioning" of underage Ukrainians not only on the territory of the Russian Federation, but also on the Ukrainian territories temporarily occupied by Russia, in particular in Crimea.
After Russia occupied the peninsula, all Ukrainian schools were de facto liquidated, and after Russia's full-scale invasion, the speaker of the Kremlin-controlled Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, called to "denazify" Ukraine out of school textbooks. In the temporarily occupied territories, the Russian armed forces and affiliated paramilitary groups have repeatedly destroyed Ukrainian books, in particular history textbooks. Dame Melinda Simons, the British ambassador to Ukraine, once commented on these actions as follows: "Burning Ukrainian history books is not denazification. It is the opposite." To replace Ukrainian books, Russia offers textbooks that contain information about the sham "referendums" in the temporarily occupied territories and a chapter on "the heroes of the SMO."
Russian crimes against Ukrainian minors come in all forms: forced deportation, illegal adoption, sexual abuse and torture, camps for "political re-education", Russification and militarization of children and teenagers, forced labor, child exploitation in numerous propaganda videos and campaigns. For instance, the ruling party United Russia once initiated an action called "Knitted With Care", where children from Crimea and Donetsk oblast were forced to knit socks for the Russian occupiers. Furthermore, at a "special operation" anniversary propaganda concert at the Luzhniki Stadium, a girl "rescued" from Mariupol was brought on stage.
Read more about Russia's crimes against Ukrainian children and teenagers, which come as part of the genocide of the Ukrainian people, in the followin article by the Institute of Mass Information.
What is wrong with Russia's rhetoric of "rescuing" Ukrainian children?
According to the Prosecutor General's Office, as of February 22, 2023, 461 children have been killed, and another 926 injured, by Russia's aggression since the start of the full-scale invasion. Moreover, according to the National Police of Ukraine, 345 Ukrainian children are considered missing. According to the state platform "Children of War", the exact number of Ukrainian minors injured due to active hostilities and the temporary occupation of part of Ukrainian territory is impossible to evaluate. That is, the real numbers of war victims may significantly exceed those currently available to law enforcers.
The Kremlin's propaganda machine often predicates the attack on Ukraine on the supposed necessity to defend themselves (theses such as "if we didn't kill them, they would kill us" / "we were left with no choice." – Ed.), which is a sign of genocidal rhetoric. As for forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, which is a hallmark of genocide in and of itself, according to Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Russian authorities and state media employees present it as "rescue" or "evacuation" from the dangerous regions of Ukraine. Spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, insists on this, in particular. She has said that all accusations of forced deportation and abduction of Ukrainian children are "cynical", because, allegedly, 150 children were killed by shelling in the Donbas in eight years of the war. This is a manipulation technique which is typical for Kremlin propaganda – justifying war crimes and painting the aggressor as the "peacekeeper". The moment someone accuses the Russian occupiers of unlawfully moving underage Ukrainians to the Russia-controlled territory, they start talking of the "titanic efforts" it had cost them to get the children out of the "hot spots". However, the officials and pro-state media fail to mention that, if it were not for Russia, Ukrainians would not have been in danger in the first place. In in a September 2022 report, the international organization Human Rights Watch stresses: the displacement of civilians cannot be justified as being on humanitarian grounds if "the humanitarian crisis triggering the displacement is itself the result of unlawful activity by those in charge of the transfers." The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union notes: deportation and forced transfer of civilians in the occupied territory are prohibited by international humanitarian law and may be considered war crimes or crimes against humanity, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Humanitarian causes are the alleged grounds for deporting Ukrainian children to Russia, and the Deputy Speaker of the Russian State Duma, Anna Kuznetsova, who regularly travels to the occupied territories, has said: "We couldn't tolerate it any longer: these children were like hostages. Not only the children of the Donbas – the children of Ukraine were being held hostage." Incidentally, Russian propaganda often uses the "hyped-up" term "children of the Donbas" when talking about Ukrainian children as a callback to the Kremlin's alternative reality, where the Donbas is not a part of Ukraine. When it comes to underage Ukrainians from other regions under Russian occupation, the Russian Federation often uses the term "our children", appealing to the Kremlin's narrative, according to which Ukrainians and Russians are "one people". In an interview with the pro-government Lenta.ru, the Russian President's Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, limited herself to slogans in the Soviet spirit, such as "Isn't it patriotism when there are no other people's children and all children are ours?" Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church goes further, however, indulging in religious speculations. At a meeting in Moscow in July 2022, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church did not waste an opportunity to make a short "political education" lecture for the children who had been taken away from the Donbas by Russians:
"For me, all Orthodox people in 60 countries of the world are all children of the Russian Orthodox Church, and I, as the Patriarch, am aware of my responsibility for their spiritual life. Therefore, I am glad to have an opportunity to meet you. [...] Everything that concerns the Donbas, Luhansk and Kharkiv oblasts, where people are suffering now, worries me and pains my heart. All the Orthodox people living there are children of the Moscow Patriarchate. Some recognize this and confess gladly, participate in the life of the Сhurch, and some followed the path of unlawful schismatic separation from our Church."
But let us go back to the topic of forced deportation of Ukrainian children. The exact number of victims of such deportation is unknown. According to the National Information Bureau of Ukraine, as of February 22, 2023, there were over 16,000 Ukrainian minors illegally deported to Russia. The statistics cover the verified cases of deportation, but the actual number of deportees may be much higher. Since access to the occupied territories is limited, law enforcers are currently unable to collect all the necessary evidence. Meanwhile, the Russian state news agency TASS, citing an anonymous source in the Russian security forces, reports that 738,000 children have been deported over the year, starting February 2022. The Ukrainian President's authorized adviser on children's rights and child rehabilitation, Daria Herasymchuk, considers this number to be a tool for pressure and propaganda on the part of the Russian side, intended to highlight the global scale of the crimes. The Russian Federation's data on the number of deportees are not confirmed by any reports or lists, Herasymchuk notes, which, of course, does not diminish the scale of Russian crimes.
It follows from publications in Russian media that Ukrainian children in the Russian Federation are "refugees" who had left for the aggressor country voluntarily together with adults. However, it is never mentioned that some children are separated from their parents during the unlawful procedure of "filtration" which civilians undergo, or that the parents of some Ukrainian children are forced to sign papers allowing their children to be taken to "rehabilitation camps" in Russia and occupied Crimea (see Paragraph 6 of the report by the Yale Humanitarian Laboratory of research. – Ed.), or that some children are simply kidnapped or taken away from Ukrainian care institutions illegally.
The Ukrainian media has published multiple reports featuring testimonies by parents and relatives of the children who have been abducted or taken away by the Russian occupiers or transferred to the temporarily occupied territories through deception, as well as testimonies by minors who managed to come back to Ukraine. For example, Nastya, 15, from Kherson, who had been in a camp in temporarily occupied Crimea, said that the camp's staff threatened to deport her to the Urals or send her to an orphanage. Moreover, the Ukrainian children had Russian national anthem played for them to sing along: if they didn't, the children would be reprimanded by the Russians and accused of being ungrateful.
Getting underage Ukrainians deported by Russia back home is a complex process. According to the National Information Bureau, as of February 23, 2023, 307 children have been returned to Ukraine. According to Daria Herasymchuk, no definite mechanism for returning Ukrainian children exists as of today, and an individual algorithm is created for almost every case. The situation is made worse by the fact that Russian families who adopt the children deported from Ukraine forcefully change their first names, patronymics, and last names. Director of the Institute of Strategic Research and Security, Pavlo Lysyansky, has mentioned this, citing the report prepared by the Institute. The fact that Russia's primary objective is erasing the Ukrainian identity is confirmed by the fact that adult Ukrainians are being forced to get a Russian passport and the procedure for granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainian orphans and children left without parental care has been simplified – the relevant bill was adopted back in April 2019. The fact that the Russian Federation may call some minors "orphans" and "unaccompanied children" while that is not true, and illegally give them away to Russian families for temporary foster care or adoption, will be discussed in more detail below.
Meanwhile, the Russian state television, pro-Kremlin media, and anonymous pro-Russian Telegram channels are making new "national heroes" out of child kidnappers. All the while traditionally blaming the Ukrainian army for the war crimes against children, which are in fact being committed by the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. For instance, the Russian state TV company RT produced a propaganda film (which it calls a "documentary", however) about the events in Mariupol after Russia's full-scale invasion. RT also distributes the English dub of the movie "Donbass. Children" in order to mislead foreign audiences about the war in Ukraine. This is very dangerous, because the content of this Kremlin mouthpiece, despite the sanctions, is still available on YouTube. A February 2023 report by the American disinformation research group NewsGuard states that even after being blocked, RT has been uploading its "documentaries" to over 100 YouTube channels, often blurring their logo to hide the video's origin. The stories of children, particularly children allegedly facing inhumane treatment by the enemy, are popular on Russian propaganda resources: they are the best way to affect the audience's feelings, to play on their emotions, to contribute to the growing hatred towards the enemy and rapid dehumanization of him. The Russian media space is full of propaganda reports, articles, and films about the atrocities and cruelty of the mythical Ukrainian "Nazis". Such content includes not only fakes alleging that Ukraine has been carrying out a "genocide of the people of the Donbas" or torturing the civilian population in the combat zones, but also fakes such as "evil Ukrainians" purportedly calling Russian children and asking them to turn on the gas in their apartments and leave it. By the way, the last fake is accompanied by an audio recording which has actually been circulating on Qazaqstan's social media since 2018.
In addition to fakes smearing Ukrainians, propaganda simultaneously tries to instill the image of a "heroic" Russian soldier in the minds of Russian citizens so that they have vivid positive associations whenever "peacekeeper soldiers" are mentioned. This is a technique that has been used even by the USSR. There is a reason why the soldier chosen to play the symbol of Russian "heroism-virtue-mercy" has a recognizable name-surname – Yuriy Gagarin (if these are his real passport data, of course, and not another product of the propagandists' whimsy). For "heroically rescuing" Ukrainian children from the combat zone, Gagarin was given the nickname Angel. Multiple propaganda videos featuring the Russian soldier have been filmed, and propagandist Andrey Malakhov dedicated an entire episode of his program "Malakhov" on the state TV channel "Russia-1" to him. In less than an hour of airtime, the program covered a number of "basic" pro-Kremlin narratives. Namely, the one about Russia waging a full-scale war on Ukraine to protect Russian children, who would have been victimized by the "Nazis" today or tomorrow otherwise. Among other things, the propagandists resorted to religious manipulation: to applause and director-commanded crying of the audience, the hosts marveled at Gagarin-Angel's "mercy", saying that he is such a staunch believer that he prays for everyone he kills. Finally, let us speak briefly about the "moderator" of this drivel. Andrey Malakhov has long moved away from just entertainment. Now his program, named after him, covers issues such as the heroes of the so-called "SMO", "touching" stories about the families of Russian soldiers and even a shaman who's supportive of Russia's armed aggression. Earlier, Malakhov had praised the Russian army's "heroic deeds" in Syria. However, Malakhov has not been sanctioned yet, and the content he produces is freely available on YouTube. What's more, some episodes can even be watched without a VPN.
"Now I know what it's like to be a mother of a Donbas child!"
Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the occupiers have given at least 400 underage Ukrainians to Russian families for adoption. Kateryna Rashevska, a lawyer at the Regional Center for Human Rights, reported this on January 16, 2023. It is worth noting that the story of Russians illegally adopting Ukrainian children started back in 2014, after the occupation of Crimea. Back then, Russia initiated a project called "Train of Hope" on the peninsula, transferring Ukrainian children to Russian adoptive parents. There is no information on the number of underage Ukrainians adopted since 2014.
Just as in the case of forced deportation, Kremlin propaganda presents the illegal adoption of Ukrainian children by Russians, which happens to some children after they are taken to the Russian Federation, as a "great boon" for underage Ukrainians and a "noble humanitarian step" on the part of the aggressor country. Since the Russian authorities deny separating children and teenagers from their parents and relatives, they claim that the only children taken from Ukrainian territories to Russia are those who were left without a guardian or orphans. For her part, Lvova-Belova, the Russian President's Commissioner for Children's Rights, assures that adoption has never been prioritized as a form of distributing children to Russian families. The Russian Commissioner claims that preliminary guardianship is more common, "the children's possible further reunion with their blood relatives in the event they are identified being one of the reasons."
In reality, though, using a different term for it does not change its meaning. Both the guardianship procedure and the adoption procedure are unlawful. Russia, as a signatory of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, undertakes to seek permission from countries where the child comes from in the event of adoption. Moreover, if the Russian Federation had not taken it upon itself to deport underage Ukrainians with the purpose of keeping them in Russia, "re-educating" them and, ultimately, stripping them of their Ukrainian identity, it would not have made systematic amendments to its own legislation. In addition to the aforementioned President's decree issued on April 29, 2019, which made it easier for Ukrainian children left without parents or a guardian to acquire Russian citizenship, on March 5, 2022, Ukrainian citizens were also allowed to enter the Russian territory with any identity-confirming documents available, namely expired ones. On March 9, 2022, Putin announced that changes would be made to Russian legislation that would allow Russians to adopt orphans from the so-called "DPR" and "LPR" who do not have Russian citizenship. And as soon as August 2022, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation allowed adopting children found after natural disasters and in other emergency situations without the consent of their parents. While the RFAF website does not clearly state whether the ongoing hostilities fall under the "emergency situations" category, this permission seems extremely worrying given the fact that Russia has held fake "referendums" in the occupied territories of Zaporizhia and Kherson oblasts, declaring those regions "theirs". For their part, American law enforcement bodies emphasize that, 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. Ukrainian human rights activists also note that most of the children kept in Russian orphanages have biological relatives. That is, there are people in Ukraine whom one could contact and hand the children over to. Finally, the highest degree of cynicism is shown in the cases when Russians first kill the parents of underage Ukrainians, and then classify them as orphans and "gift" them the opportunity to become part of a Russian family.
Sometimes Russia deports and illegally gives Ukrainian children to Russian families even with no quasi-legal grounds. Thus, the investigators of the American news agency Associated Press learned that the aggressor state's officials deport Ukrainian children to Russia or move them to territories under Russia's control without any consent from their parents, relatives, or guardians. Children are simply told that no one wants them.
Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian President's Commissioner for Children's Rights, and Andrey Vorobyov, the Governor of the Moscow Region, are the ones doing most of the PR around the Ukrainian children adoption and guardianship procedure in the Russian media space (thus PR-ing themselves, too). The Russian Children's Rights Commissioner actively advocates for "political re-education" of Ukrainian children and literally leads by example. The fact is that Lvova-Belova herself has illegally adopted Philip, 15, from Mariupol. The boy became the 23rd child in Belova's family! Before adopting him, the Commissioner already had five children of her own, four foster children, and was a guardian for 13 disabled children. According to Lvova-Belova's story, Philip's mother died of cancer in 2017, his stepfather allegedly did not want him, and the teenager was handed over to the Russian military by his godfather. In July 2022, the press office of the Russian Commissioner reported on over 30 children taken out of Mariupol basements and to a Moscow boarding house: "All of them had been left alone for various reasons." Thus, the aggressor country yet again paints itself as the "savior" and the "peacekeeper". In February 2023, at a personal meeting with Putin, the Children's Rights Commissioner thanked the Russian President for the adopted boy: "Now I know what it's like to be a mother of a Donbas child, it's difficult, but we definitely love each other." Lvova-Belova did not specify exactly what difficulties she was facing while raising a teenager from Mariupol. However, earlier, talking about minor Ukrainians deported to Russia in September 2022, the Commissioner complained to journalists that the children "talked negatively about the President (of Russia, in this context. – Ed.), said all sorts of obscenities, sang the Ukrainian anthem, shouted 'Glory to Ukraine' and all that." It is also known that Lvova-Belova has an agreement with Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov about the "re-education" of "difficult" teenagers.
The governor of the Moscow region, Vorobyov, also cooperates with Commissioner Lvova-Belova and regularly comments on Ukrainian children "rescued" by adoption to pro-state media resources. And on April 23, 2022, Vorobyov's YouTube channel held a one-hour stream on the occasion of 27 children being deported from the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to Russia.
Sexual violence as a warfare tactic and part of Russia's planned genocide of Ukrainians
Another type of crimes committed by the Russian military against Ukrainian civilians, in particular children, are sexual crimes. Such crimes were recorded in all Ukrainian territories that had been under Russian occupation: in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Kherson oblasts. Anna Sosonska, an investigator at the Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine, spoke about this in her interview with The New York Times. These crimes include rape, forced nudity, sexual torture of women, men, and children. The facts of Ukrainians suffering sexual violence and torture at the hands of Russian soldiers have also been confirmed by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. According to UN data from September 2022, the age of sexual violence survivors ranges from 4 to 82 years. Iryna Didenko, a prosecutor at the Prosecutor General's Office who heads the sexual crimes investigation department has opened 154 cases for sexual violence related to the war. These data are very far from the real scale of the crimes. It is currently impossible to determine exactly how many people have become victims of sexual violence. First, nobody knows what is happening in the territories of Ukraine that are under the temporary control of the Russian Federation. Second, some survivors may not be reporting what happened to them, because having gone through such a traumatic experience, they may feel scared, ashamed, fear being judged, etc. The main thing that Pramila Patten, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, emphasizes is that the international community should not delay helping victims and combating crimes while waiting for hard data. "An active battleground is never conducive to accurate ‘book-keeping’," Patten said.
Human rights activists, representatives of Ukrainian state bodies and international organizations consider Russian sexual crimes to be part of the Russian military strategy and of their planned genocide against the Ukrainian people. This is confirmed by the fact that rape is not merely the perpetrators' misbehaviour. Wayne Jordash, a British lawyer advising the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office, said he had evidence of Russian commanders being aware of the war crimes committed by their subordinates. Moreover, some Russian commanders encouraged the soldiers to commit sexual crimes or even gave such orders. This is also confirmed by witnesses of the occupiers' crimes and representatives of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies. Therapist Oleksandra Kvitko, who works with sexual violence survivors, in particular underage ones, notes that war rape is different from domestic rape, because it is not so much a perverse way to achieve sexual pleasure, but a way for the criminal to feel power over the victim. Therefore, one can assume that sexual crimes would not be so commonplace in the occupied territories if the Russian servicemen were not sure of their own impunity and if such actions were not part of Russia's planned strategy of exterminating Ukrainians.
Sexual crimes should be regarded precisely as genocide for multiple reasons. In particular, the "JurFem" think tank singles out the following consequences of sexual violence that should be considered when thinking of genocide: infliction of severe physical injuries on the survivors, mental disorders caused by the violence, acts designed to prevent childbirth by the survivors', and mutilation of the survivors' genitals and reproductive system.
Another kind of Russia's of war crimes against children is detaining them in special torture chambers. Dmytro Lubinets, the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights, reported on such torture chambers in December 2022. "I saw two torture chambers in Balaklia, one boy was there for 90 days, they would take him out pretending they would kill him by firing squad. There are 10 torture chambers in Kherson, one of which has a separate cell where children were kept," the Commissioner noted. According to Lubinets, the children in the torture chambers were starved, only given water every other day, and subjected to torture. Moreover, the occupiers would assure the children that their parents had abandoned them.
The Russian Federation often tries to "whitewash" the crimes it commits against Ukrainian children and teenagers, hiding behind "humanitarian" causes. However, the diverse range of the crimes against underage Ukrainians, their systematic and pre-planned character indicates that they are a part of Russia's genocide against the Ukrainian people. Moreover, they are sometimes discussed openly in the Russian media space. For example, at one of the projects by the Patriot Media Group, a guest quoted the now dead Russian mercenary and propagandist Mangushev: "We should just kill off those who are fighting us and raise their children in the Russian spirit..."
Author Alena Nesterenko. Source IMI (Institute of mass information). The article was prepared for publication by volunteers from the Res Publica - The Center for Civil Resistance.