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After posting her comments on the orphans video, Tolstokorova received a phone call from Alexey Gazaryan, an aide to Maria Lvova-Belova who lists his title on Linkedin as the president of Foster Aid Development Fund in Moscow. Gazaryan invited her and her husband to Moscow to watch the rough cut of the original video she had seen online in full length and high quality, Tolstokorova recalled. She explained she couldn’t leave Mariupol, and after a long conversation, they found a solution: Two lifelong neighbors who were in Moscow would go to the Russian administration and watch the video on her behalf.
“These people knew Nastya from birth,” Tolstokorova said. “She used to run to them a lot because they gave her Chupa Chups.”
The neighbors confirmed that the girl on the video was not Tolstokorova’s granddaughter. Nastya and Arina are around the same age, with similar hair and facial features, but the former had blue eyes and the girl in the video had brown eyes, a difference barely visible on the video released. Russian officials also showed them documents stating that the girl’s name was Arina and that she had arrived in Russia from the Amvrosiivka orphanage four days before the war.
Tolstokorova passed on the information that Nastya was missing to Magnolia NGO, the Ukrainian partner of the larger Missing Children Europe network. They registered all the information she was able to provide and are currently investigating the case.
Magnolia has received reports of 2,367 missing children as of July 2022, 10 times more than last year.
Most of them, over a dozen sources suspect, are part of the 121,000 institutionalized children in Ukraine, which is one of the countries in Europe with the highest rates of children deprived of family care. It’s the heritage of a Soviet system where low-income families put the children they couldn’t support into orphanages and public boarding schools. Half of the institutionalized children have disabilities, many related to fetal alcohol syndrome, and around 80% of them have what UNICEF calls “traceable families.”
One problem is it’s hard for the Ukrainian administration to keep an accurate count of children in orphanages: When the Russian invasion started, children whose living relatives could be contacted were sent back home, but, at the same time, other children came in as they lost their families to the war.
For Nastya, for example, even if her parents are not found, her grandmother will always have priority to claim guardianship over any potential adoptive family.
Arina’s fate, however, was different, as she was considered an orphan. She was part of a group of 234 children and teachers that were taken from Amvrosiivka General Education Boarding School No. 4, the only orphanage in the town of 18,000 in the Donetsk Oblast. They were put on buses and driven along a route that, prior to the war, would have taken up to 12 hours. Their destination was Kursk, Russia.
“We evacuated everyone. It was, of course, a long trip, but we convinced the children that it was safe, such an excursion for them. We were received very cordially and we did not expect that,” said Oksana Plotnitskaya, director of the boarding school in Ukraine, who traveled with the children under her custody, according to local media.
Marina Lypovetska, responsible for project implementation and a cornerstone of Magnolia NGO, disputes the word choice:
“Evacuation is an official word, which means that our [Ukrainian] government organized it. Our government can’t organize evacuations to Russia because we are at war with them; you know, it is impossible,” she said.
Upon their arrival, children were split into groups going to four different centers, as reported on Feb. 20 by the press secretary of the Kursk governor, Anastasia Gurina. 106 of them were placed in the Klyukvinskaya boarding school, while 35 of them, including 12 with disabilities, were placed in the Kursk Rehabilitation Center. The rest are currently split between boarding school No. 4 in Kursk and Dmitrievskaya boarding school.
But orphanage groups can’t be separated while outside of their home country and can’t be adopted, according to Magnolia NGO. 108 of the children originally placed in the Russian boarding schools were given up for adoption on July 14.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine passed a moratorium on intercountry adoptions at the beginning of the war. But in May, Putin signed a decree to simplify the procedure for orphans from the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics to obtain Russian citizenship. Heads of orphanages will also be able to apply for citizenship for children.
“We can’t put a child up for adoption when the parents will say, Wait, where are my children? There’s such a high risk of trafficking,” Rebecca Smith, global head of Child Protection Programmes for Save the Children, told BuzzFeed News.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported on July 14 that orphaned children are being transferred to Russia. And the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, noted concerns about Russian authorities dismissing steps for family reunification.
On principle, all unaccompanied and separated children in a zone of conflict are presumed to have living relatives or legal guardians, according to UNICEF.
But Russian families volunteer to participate in unverified adoptions, according to three sources.
“A lot of Russian NGOs are using that propaganda and saying ‘we are saving them’ [Ukrainian children]. And so that makes it very hard for us to work with those organizations,” Smith said of her work with Save the Children.
There are two categories of adoptive families, according to the Russian Administration, each entitled to different kinds of benefits: “guardians” receive a one-time payment that can be up to 100,000 rubles ($1,684), plus a monthly allowance of 29,000 rubles ($480) and the reimbursement of utilities. The second kind, “adopting parents,” receive all of the above as well as a monthly salary from the state. Some families shared online how they took up to nine siblings: that total monthly stipend would equal 34 times the minimum wage in Russia.