Amid massacres, rapes, execution-style murders, reported torture, and now an apparent on-camera sexual mutilation and murder of a prisoner of war perpetrated by Russian troops in Ukraine, the deportations of Ukrainian civilians to Russia almost pale as a human rights violation. Nonetheless, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted in a press statement last month, such forcible transfers are “a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians” and constitute a war crime. While the exact numbers are difficult to assess, the scope of the problem is horrific. And, especially in the case of children, Russian actions seem to be an ominous part of a deliberate—if haphazard—strategy aimed at destroying Ukrainian national identity.
Reports of the deportations began fairly early in the war. In late March, about a month after the February 23 invasion, authorities in besieged Mariupol began to say that civilians were being forcibly relocated to Russia under the guise of evacuation from the war-torn city. “Over the past week, several thousand Mariupol residents were deported onto the Russian territory,” wrote the Mariupol City Council on its Telegram account on March 19. March 24 brought an update: “Russian occupiers are forcing people to get onto buses”—as many as 15,000—and “taking away their passports and other Ukrainian identity documents.” Explicitly comparing these deportations to actions taken by the Nazis, the city council claimed that Russian troops were blocking attempts to organize the evacuation of residents to Ukrainian-controlled areas, where the overwhelming majority of them wanted to go.
By March 30, officials were saying that the number of deportees from Mariupol had gone up to about 20,000; patients and staff from at least two of the city’s maternity hospitals were reportedly among the deportees. The Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledged the relocations in its own Telegram post on March 29, but (naturally!) presented them as a humanitarian effort to save Ukrainians from “the violent mayhem unleashed by the [Ukrainian] nationalists.” The Russian post also stated that 19,247 people had been “evacuated to Russia” just in the past day from war zones in Ukraine as well as the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”—among them more than 4,000 children—and that a total of 108,802 people from Mariupol had been “rescued” since the start of the siege “with no help whatsoever from the Ukrainian side.”
By now, in early August 2022, the total number of deportees may be around 1.6 million, according to the State Department; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken of as many 2 million, including “several hundred thousand children.”
Have some people from war-torn areas in Ukraine gone to Russia voluntarily? That’s very likely, considering that large numbers of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia and that, at least in the south and the east, many Ukrainian citizens of Russian ancestry, especially older people, have pro-Russia sympathies (though these are reportedly waning rapidly since the invasion). In an interview on Czech radio, Daniela Kolenovská, assistant professor of Russian and East European Studies at Charles University in Prague, estimated that perhaps 200,000 Ukrainian citizens currently in Russia are voluntary refugees while the rest have been taken there against their will.
Yet in many cases, the line between choice and coercion can be blurred. Refugees who end up in Russia typically flee to the separatist-held “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) because that’s the only escape route available; after a “filtration” process many describe as degrading and even brutal, they are then bused to towns in southern Russia such as Taganrog. According to the Ukrainian news site Liga.net, some are able to either return to Ukraine or move on to other countries; but many remain trapped, especially if they have no money and no identity papers. Many apparently accept Russian authorities’ offers of work and housing, often in distant towns in economically depressed areas, with an instant bonus of 10,000 rubles (about $163, but better than nothing if you’re completely destitute). Many are traumatized and disoriented, having recently survived weeks of heavy shelling, lost everything they had, and perhaps watched neighbors, friends, and relatives die. Under such circumstances, “voluntary” resettlement may be an offer they can’t refuse. Some, according to Irina, a Latvian-Russian volunteer who spoke to Liga.net, may not even realize that they legally have a right to refuse.
“Dmitry,” a 31-year-old Mariupol man interviewed by Deutsche Welle, was one of the lucky ones: After he and his wife fled to the DPR with their infant child, they were able to avoid forced transport to Russia by falsely claiming a family member in the DPR town of Novoazovsk—an elderly woman who agreed to pose as their relative—and then found a smuggler who undertook to transport them to Poland via Russia and Latvia. Even so, Dmitry’s experience was often harrowing, particularly at the filtration camp in the Bezimenne village: He was forced to strip to his underpants so that Russian soldiers could inspect him for tattoos related to Ukrainian military service, fingerprinted, repeatedly questioned about his political views, and asked if he knew any Azov regiment fighters; his cell phone was also inspected and all of its contents downloaded. (Dmitry also noted that a “badly beaten guy” was sitting by the wall in the tent where his first interview took place.) While the DPR identity documents given to Dmitry and his wife allowed them to cross into Russia, the next challenge was avoiding transit to a distant Russian city: Dmitry recalls that the checkpoint had a poster on the wall saying, “Russia’s Far East is waiting for you.” On the smuggler’s instructions, they claimed to be going to Moscow to stay with friends and had to give the border guards a number to call to verify that claim. (Other refugees who got out also report being warned not to tell anyone that they were going back to Ukraine.)
Another Mariupol refugee interviewed by DW, 67-year-old Anna, recalled humiliating and frightening experiences during filtration in the DPR city of Torez, where she and her husband were openly mocked when they said they wanted to go back to Ukraine: “There’ll be no such country,” a DPR policeman told her. After filtration, the couple was told to board a bus headed for the Russian city of Rostov, but were able to talk their way out of it: “We came up to the senior guy who was there and started crying, saying we didn’t want to go to Russia because we supposedly love this so-called DPR.” (In fact, Anna and her husband wanted to go to Bezimenne to find their nephew, who was there for filtration.) Eventually, they did go to Rostov in the hope of boarding a train to Belarus and getting back to Ukraine:
However, it turned out that only citizens of Belarus and Russia were allowed travel on that train, and the conductor said that he would drop us off at the border. I went to the chief engineer to ask him not to do that. Eventually he called a border guard who asked how old we were. I think we were very lucky to be old, because we were allowed to go. In Minsk, we were picked up by friends and taken to the Ukrainian border.
Albina Grebenyuk, who lives in the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, told Ukraine’s Free Radio that her cousin from Mariupol with whom she had lost contact during the siege had finally called from the city of Astrakhan in northern Russia. According to Grebenyuk, the cousin and her family—husband and two children—were taken from the DPR to Taganrog “in a car with windows covered with black tape” and were never told where they were headed. In Grebenyuk’s words:
“I have no choice,” she said. “They told us we’re going beyond the Arctic circle. We’ll go—what else is there to do? As long as we don’t have to listen to things blowing up all the time. The dorm where we lived in Mariupol has burned to the ground. We have no papers.”
Another lost relative, Grebenyuk’s sister-in-law Natasha, was at the Bezimenne filtration facility and likely facing unwanted transfer to Russia with her daughter; even more shocking, Grebenyuk says that Natasha’s her 23-year-old son is being forcibly recruited to fight on the Russian side.
To their credit, a number of Russians—including expatriates such as Georgia-based journalist Anastasia Zavialova—have created volunteer networks to assist Ukrainian refugees in getting back to Ukraine or at least out of Russia. But in the current climate in Russia, such work is not for the faint-hearted. A long feature published in May on Meduza, the independent Russian news site currently operating out of Latvia, chronicles the efforts of one volunteer group in Penza which helped dozens of Ukrainian refugees travel to St. Petersburg and then cross the border to Estonia. Then, the project had to be discontinued: After word of their work got out, the volunteers were targeted for intense harassment that included having their car tires slashed and having their front doors vandalized with graffiti calling them Nazi sympathizers. One woman, Irina Gurskaya, was detained by the police for no apparent reason; after being questioned, she was released but not given back her identity papers. Badly shaken, Gurskaya cut off all contact with fellow volunteers, either because she was told to do so or because she was too scared.
The deportations of refugees are at least taking place behind the smokescreen of rescue. But some Ukrainian civilians end up in Russia as a result of far more brazen abductions, documented by both Ukrainian and Western media.
One victim, Red Cross volunteer Volodymyr Khropun, told his story to BBC News after being released in a prisoner exchange. Khropun was detained at a Russian military checkpoint while trying to evacuate civilians in a school bus, and was taken to Belarus and then to a Russian prison, where he says dozens of other Ukrainian civilians, both men and women, were being held—and where he says beatings and other forms of abuse were common. BBC News reporters have interviewed the families of more than a dozen Ukrainians “taken hostage by Russian troops,” most of whom have yet to return.
The missing may number in the hundreds, if not more. Ukrainian officials say they have documented at least 765 “forced disappearances,” some with multiple victims. The United Nations mission in Ukraine told the Washington Post this past June that it had recorded 210 such cases. One abductee, 25-year-old schoolteacher Viktoria Andrusha, was seized in the village of Staryi Bykiv, about 60 miles from Kyiv, in late March; according to her parents, Russian soldiers who inspected her phone found her text message to her sister saying that Russian troops had “just passed down the street” and accused her of spying for Ukrainian intelligence. Apparently, the men were also angered by the young woman’s defiance: Andrusha refused to speak Russian while being interrogated and told them, “We are on our land, you’re not welcome here.”
In many cases, the abductions are clearly meant to terrorize the populace or neutralize potentially troublesome locals. But the deportations may also be part of a larger agenda. In late May, Sergei Dvornik, advisor to the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the U.N., told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that “the kidnapping of at least 230 thousand Ukrainian children . . . is a crime aimed at destroying the Ukrainian nation by robbing it of its younger generations.” A few days later, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned a decree signed by Vladimir Putin facilitating the granting of Russian citizenship to orphaned Ukrainian children as a de facto legalization of kidnapping.
This may sound like hyperbole—until you listen to the Russian political establishment’s own rhetoric. On August 1, a guest on Vladimir Solovyov’s highly rated talk show on Rossiya-1, the state television channel, suggested that one top priority should be to send Ukrainian “kiddies” from occupied areas to Russian military academies and other schools in order to undo their “brainwashing” by “Banderovite scumbags.” The man making this proposal was not some unhinged ultranationalist blogger but Andrei Kartapolov, head of the State Duma Defense Committee. “We need to do this,” he concluded, “because then people will believe that Russia is serious, that Russia is there for a long time—forever.”
It’s not every day that a high-level politician openly advocates a war crime on television. But it’s all in a day’s work in Putin’s Russia in 2022.