By Wendell Steavenson
Kostya Ten (pictured above) was 13 years old when Russian troops entered his village of Kosatske on the banks of the Dnieper in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. He was a tearaway kid from a complicated family. His mother died when he was tiny; his father, who was ethnically Korean, used to grow watermelons but was bedridden following a stroke. He had five older sisters and was treated as the baby of the family. At the age of 11, Kostya began running around with a gang of older boys who stole scrap metal. At first, he served as a lookout. Then they told him to nick some metal from his own home, promising to split the proceeds with him. Instead, they kept the money for themselves.
For two weeks after the full-scale invasion, Kostya and his family slept in the basement of their house. Then the Russian soldiers arrived and set up checkpoints. All the shops were looted and helicopters whirred overhead –?they were “so cool”, said Kostya. He got talking to the occupying soldiers, many of whom were Ukrainians from Donetsk and Luhansk, eastern regions of Ukraine where Russia backed a secessionist takeover in 2014.
“Are you afraid?” a few of the friendlier soldiers asked Kostya. They were not much more than teenagers themselves. Kostya was hesitant. “Don’t be afraid,” they said and told him they had been forced into the army. They bought biscuits for the local kids and sometimes they let them hold their guns. “One showed me how to load it,” said Kostya. “The gun was really heavy, I almost fell over.”
One night, Russian soldiers banged on the door of Kostya’s house. His sisters refused to answer it. They noticed that their brother was mysteriously absent, not for the first time. Had he been talking to the soldiers, like some of the neighbours said? Had he led them to their house? The next day, Kostya found everyone gone.
His eldest sister Masha, who lived in the house with her young son, was scared –?her boyfriend was in the Ukrainian army. She led the family to a nearby town, also in Russian-occupied territory.
Maybe, Masha had thought, it would be better if her brother stayed in Kosatske. She arranged for a neighbour, whom they called Auntie Valya, to look after him. Valya was a practical woman who did not suffer fools. She often helped the family, tending their kitchen garden and offering advice on how to raise five daughters and a wayward son. “A very interesting boy,” said Valya of Kostya, “but…he always wanted to make money on one thing or another.” In wartime, she said, his entrepreneurial spirit led him astray. “He would tell on the neighbours for money – say that they had grenades or something and they would be searched and beaten.”
The local school was closed because most of the teachers had left the village. Kostya hung out with his friends, went fishing and grumbled about having to chop wood for Valya. He was, like many boys in war zones, fascinated by weapons. When a rocket fell into a neighbour’s garden, he and his friends watched the Russian sappers dismantle it. One night partisans burnt a Russian armoured personnel carrier. “Afterwards we crawled inside and I was surprised how small and cramped it was,” he said.
At the beginning of summer, the Russian occupiers offered local teenagers places at holiday camps in Crimea and southern Russia. Kostya’s father had never let him go to summer camp. Valya had doubts about sending him but thought that some structure might do him good. Kostya went to a camp in Krasnodar in the south of Russia for two weeks in June 2022. He loved it: there was painting, volleyball, roller-skating, competitions with prizes. Kostya had his face painted and got transfer tattoos. His only regret was that “there weren’t any motorcycles.”
Children from all over occupied Ukraine attended the camp. One group of kids had T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Stalin; another group wore black hats like gangsters. Some kids raised a Ukrainian flag at the disco one evening, and the camp guards ordered them to get rid of it.
Kostya’s best friend at the camp was Nikita, a boy from Kherson. He gave Kostya a flag. On it was the Russian slogan, “We don’t abandon our own”, and the pro-war “Z” insignia. Kostya said he threw it away. Generally, though, he tended to keep his head down.
Over the course of the summer, Kostya’s family crossed the front line to reach unoccupied Ukrainian territory. After Kostya returned from the camp to Valya’s house, communication with his father and sisters grew increasingly intermittent. Kostya didn’t have his own mobile phone and, when the telephone network was destroyed in the autumn fighting, he lost all contact with them.
In August 2022 Ukraine started a counter-offensive to retake the city of Kherson and the western bank of the Dnieper. Russian soldiers were billeted at Kostya’s family home and the bombardments grew more intense. By October the Russian authorities were encouraging people to leave. Buses were arranged to take children to camps in Krasnodar. Kostya was keen to go back; Valya, worried for his safety, relented. He packed a small bag of clothes, his army knife, four prized pieces from his shrapnel collection, a bullet casing that a Russian soldier had given him and a pile of documents he found in the safe at his house. They included his birth certificate and vaccination records, his mother’s death certificate and a copy of his father’s passport.
Around one in five Ukrainian children is living under Russian control, either in occupied areas or Russia itself. No one knows how many have been taken to Russia since the war began. In February researchers at Yale University counted over 6,000 Ukrainian children in 43 institutions across Russia (they suspect the real number is much higher).
The Ukrainians say the children have been kidnapped. Russia maintains that it is sheltering children from the war, just as it has taken in hundreds of thousands of adult Ukrainian refugees. But Russia has refused to provide information about the Ukrainian children it harbours or work with a neutral intermediary, such at the International Committee of the Red Cross, to register and repatriate them. Mykola Kuleba of Save Ukraine, a Ukrainian NGO that helps families bring their children home, said that Russia plans to “absorb Ukrainian children and to re-educate them, indoctrinate them, brainwash them”.
The children have been taken under different circumstances. Some were left parentless by the fighting or separated from family members who were detained as they fled east into Russian-held territory. Others were transferred from children’s homes in occupied areas: some of these are orphans; some have parents or relatives unable to care for them. One orphanage director in Kherson hid children with local families to stop the Russians from taking them away. In the Kharkiv region, schoolchildren were forced onto evacuation buses as the front line moved closer. There are also 2,000 or so children whose hometowns were retaken by Ukraine last year while they were away at holiday camps in Russia and Crimea, and who have been unable to cross the front line.
Whatever the Kremlin says, it is clear that the Russian government is orchestrating a policy of child deportation. Regional authorities are given funding to take in Ukrainian children. Russian TV broadcasts footage of Ukrainian teenagers in holiday camps undergoing “rehabilitation” and “military and patriotic training” – singing the Russian national anthem, clambering over obstacle courses and learning how to shoot on firing ranges. On March 17th the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants for Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, his commissioner for children’s rights, alleging that they were responsible for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children.
In May 2022 Russia simplified the process for Ukrainian children to get Russian citizenship. Once they have a Russian passport, Ukrainian children can be adopted by Russian families and their names changed. Then it becomes nearly impossible for Ukrainian relatives or authorities to trace their children or legally return them to Ukraine. Lvova-Belova has herself adopted an orphaned teenager from Mariupol. “He admits he was yearning for the house in which he grew up, his friends and his hometown,” she wrote on Telegram last August. “He was not familiar with the traditions of Orthodox Christianity. He has not seen Russian films and books. And with [my] younger children, he doesn’t have a common language. We are finding ways to compromise and learn to trust each other.”
Kostya took a bus back to camp in Krasnodar. It was piled with luggage and full of families – probably those who had worked in some way with the Russians. No one used the word “evacuation”. Excited though he was about returning to camp, Kostya also worried about events back home. “I was always trying to find out what was happening in Kosatske,” he said. “I remembered my father and my family, and I fell asleep thinking of them.” Nikita, Kostya’s friend, travelled with him. They sat together on the train to Anapa, a resort town on the Russian coast of the Black Sea, scrolling through Telegram channels on Nikita’s phone, looking for news of the war, until a ticket inspector caught them. “That’s Ukrainian news! What are you doing looking at that?” he exclaimed. They switched the phone off.
The children were taken to a different holiday camp from the one they had stayed in before. This one wasn’t as much fun, but Kostya recognised a number of the kids. After a few weeks, some of the children were moved from the camp to dormitories in a sports complex. On November 12th 2022 the Russians pulled out of the city of Kherson. Kostya learned from the Russian news that the villages on the west bank of the Dnieper, including Kosatske, had been retaken by Ukrainian forces, but didn’t know whether to believe it or not.
Nikita’s mother arrived in Krasnodar. She was put up in a flat and given the standard Russian handout for Ukrainian refugees of 10,000 roubles (about $100). Kostya watched as mothers came to get their children; some, like Nikita’s, opted to settle in Russia, where they were given free accommodation and a monthly stipend.
After a few weeks, Kostya was moved to a hotel in Anapa called the Marina. By that stage, he was one of only a handful of children who hadn’t been reunited with their parents. The counsellors told him that if his family didn’t fetch him he would probably be sent to a children’s home. He began to worry, since he had no way to contact his sisters and father and didn’t even know where they were.
In Anapa Kostya was placed in one school, then another, never settling. He said he asked one of his teachers why Russia had attacked Ukraine. “The teacher said, ‘I can’t answer that question, I’m not Putin’s secretary.’” He often felt under threat and isolated: his precious army knife was stolen from his hotel room and friends told him he would end up being adopted by drug addicts. Eventually, one of the cleaning ladies gave him her grandson’s old phone. Just before new year he found his sister Katya through social media and sent her a message. “You have to come and get me,” he wrote. “They are going to place me with a foster family.”
Ukrainian parents trying to get their children back find the process stressful and confusing. Russian authorities don’t provide any lists of children and there is no standard procedure to follow. Teenagers are able to use social media to get in contact with relatives and friends in Ukraine. Younger children, who are sent to live with foster families, are more difficult to trace. Russian bureaucrats can be corrupt and obtuse, and the ease with which families are reunited varies wildly depending on who is handling the case. Sometimes parents are required to collect their child in person and the prospect of entering enemy territory is frightening. If children used to live with their grandparents or other relatives, documents proving legal guardianship must be provided and translated into Russian. Sometimes Russian social services claim it is not in the best interests of the child to return to Ukraine.
Kuleba of Save Ukraine said it cost between $3,000 and $5,000 to rescue each child. Inevitably, cash lubricates matters. “It’s thanks to Russian corruption that we can find the children, because we can buy information and we can buy people who can do things for us,” said Kuleba, almost laughing. He reckons that many Russian bureaucrats “think, ‘Maybe what’s happening is wrong, but it’s not my responsibility, I am just a staff member, I am just doing what I was told.’”
Ukrainian martial law dictates that most men can’t leave the country, so the quest to track down lost children is largely undertaken by women. The trip from Ukraine through Poland, Belarus and into Russia is expensive, long and potentially dangerous. In some instances mothers don’t have passports or struggle to arrange care for their other children. For those serving in government posts or the army, the risk of travelling to Russia may be too great. Those who do make it can be subject to invasive interviews with FSB agents before they can see their children. They are sometimes obliged to thank Russian authorities in front of TV cameras.
Many teenagers have returned with stories of harassment and intimidation. Some were told that their parents had signed away their parental rights and the Ukrainian authorities would punish them if they returned. Others said they were housed in prison-like barracks, slept on mattresses on the floor, and were assaulted and humiliated by their guardians. Kuleba told me that the Russians specifically targeted kids like Kostya from dysfunctional families. He acknowledged that troubled teens might not be totally forthcoming about their experiences in Russia. Some, he said, might cover up sexual assault; others might feel ashamed of having been complicit with the enemy.
After Kostya got in touch, his sisters began to communicate with the Russian authorities in Krasnodar about his return, though they found themselves overwhelmed with requests for documents. They wrestled with who should make the journey. Their father was too ill. Masha was now eight months pregnant. Tanya was working in Poland. Katya, just 18 years old, said she was too scared. Her twin Lisa volunteered to go.
Lisa left with a group of mothers on March 12th. She was nervous answering questions on the Belarus border. “They said I was lying and would have to take a lie detector. I was so scared and freaked out. I told them I felt sick and eventually they let me through.” On their journey, which took almost a week, the group stayed with sympathetic activists in Belarus and Russia. These networks are often organised through churches at serious risk to the participants.
Meanwhile, in Krasnodar, Kostya had been sent to a foster family. Yura and Lilia, his foster parents, had a nice house on the outskirts of town and two teenage children of their own. “They also had a really cool grey cat,” Kostya remembers. They had already taken in four Ukrainian teeangers and adopted two of them – orphaned brothers. “Even if they came back to Ukraine,” Kostya observed, “they would have nowhere to go.” Kostya found Yura “very positive [and] easy going”. He told Kostya the family would be happy to adopt him too. Kostya was tempted to stay. “I was afraid to go back. Everyone said that everything was ruined in Ukraine, that a loaf of bread cost 500 hryvnia ($13.50), and there were bombs.”
Kostya’s foster parents worried people would call him a traitor, that he might be safer in Krasnodar. Maybe Kostya could bring his family here and his father could get treatment in hospital? They even offered to host them all. The local mayor, a friend of his foster parents, told him he would give the family a four-bedroom house. “I didn’t know if it was true or not,” said Kostya. Still, he found it hard to resist the offer. “I knew that my family couldn’t afford an apartment in Ukraine. Plus I had bad marks in school which meant I wouldn’t be able to have money for an apartment when I was grown-up either.”
When Lisa finally arrived, they hugged. “He had grown up,” Lisa remembered. “His face looked older and his voice had broken.” She also noticed that, after six months of Russian propaganda, “his opinions had all changed.” “It was effective,” she told me. The first thing he said was that he didn’t want to come home. “He liked where he was. It was near the sea.”
They had the weekend to make a final decision. Lisa went to the child-services bureau in Anapa with her documents, where officials tried to persuade her to bring the rest of the family to Russia. “I played the game,” Lisa told me. “I said, ‘It’s true that it’s dangerous [in Ukraine]. Well, let me go home and talk to my family about it.’”
Kostya turned the matter over in his mind. “It was such a hard decision,” he said. “I felt my nerves. The pressure felt physical.” He told me he understood that neither side was “snowy-white perfect”. He had seen the Russians using Ukrainian civilians for cover and neighbours change their allegiances depending on who was in charge. “I couldn’t decide,” he said. “I would look at my foster mother and think that I didn’t want to go. And then I would look at my sister and I wanted to go.” He and Lisa spent a lot of time walking around the park (“Lisa took a lot of selfies,” he said).
In the end it was Yura, his foster father, who convinced him that he needed to go back for the sake of Kostya’s own dad. “He told me I could always come back if I wanted.” So he and Lisa began the journey back to Ukraine. The border between Belarus, an ally of Russia, and Ukraine is formally closed, but there is one place where returning Ukrainians are able to cross on foot. “When I saw the Ukrainian flag,” said Kostya, “It was like the oxygen in the air was different. It was a feeling of freedom. Russia is beautiful and nice but your homeland is better.”
Kostya is now living with Masha and her two children in a town near the Russian border. I met him there in May and we talked over coffee and cake in a café. When the air-raid sirens sounded, the café closed and we went down to the basement shelter. Kostya tended to speak in torrents of detail, with the enthusiasm of a kid recounting a grand adventure; sometimes he was more circumspect and parried my questions with shrugs and ellipses. He was intelligent and charming: qualities that helped him survive his ordeal. He had a talent for making friends easily and the ability to tailor what he said to his audience.
Kostya has started karate lessons and set up a TikTok account where he posts patriotic Ukrainian videos. He remains in touch with his foster parents in Krasnodar. He also messages Nikita and his other friends from the children’s camps, most of whom are still living in Russia, but they avoid talking about the war. Once he posted a picture of himself in front of a destroyed building and one of his friends said it had probably been shelled by the Ukrainians. “She’s been brainwashed,” said Kostya.
I asked Mykola Kuleba what would happen to the many thousands of Ukrainian children taken to Russia, who had no parents or guardians, or who were too young even to know who they were. He took a long pause. “We don’t know,” he said, “And maybe we will never know.”?■
Wendell Steavenson has reported on post-Soviet Georgia, the Iraq war and the Egyptian revolution. You can read her previous dispatches from the war in Ukraine for 1843 magazine, and the rest of our coverage, here
Portraits: Christopher Occhicone
Additional images: Getty, imago, Redux / eyevine
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