Yevhen’s story: how a father from Ukraine rescued his children from the Kremlin clutches

Published by Tortoise (30th May, 2023)

The Polyany sanatorium is a two-storey brick building in verdant grounds about an hour’s drive west of Moscow. It is a hybrid hospital and holiday resort, which on its website displays pleasant images of dormitories with patterned bedspreads. It claims to be a place for children to “improve their health” on medical rehabilitation courses but also somewhere that they can “relax, have fun and make new friends”.

There are many such sanatoriums in Russia, set up in Soviet times for the families of workers in factories and industrial firms. But this one is different: it’s under the direct control of the Office of the President of the Russian Federation, and last summer a special group of 31 children was delivered there after a tiring journey of almost 1,000 miles by bus and plane from occupied Ukraine.

Some of these children were in their late teens. Some were much younger – just seven or eight years old. Many had survived the hell of Russia’s bombardment of Mariupol. Others had been torn from their families at military checkpoints. They were sent to this supposed place of rest and relaxation before being despatched for adoption, although they did not learn of their impending fate until a few days after their arrival.

The group were victims of arguably the most sinister of the war crimes unleashed by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine: the abduction of its young as part of his systematic attempt to destroy the nation he invaded. Government officials in Kyiv say they know of six different tactics used to seize children, including killing their parents; separating them at checkpoints; luring them to summer camps; and – in a new and sickening twist – pretending they need urgent medical treatment in Russia after carrying out tests. They are aware of about 20,000 confirmed cases, but fear as many as 300,000 children may have been kidnapped by the Kremlin.

Let me put this astonishing figure in perspective. If the upper estimate is accurate it is as if the entire population of a city the size of Sunderland was taken from the UK. Bear in mind that many adults are also being forced into Russia, while almost a fifth of Ukraine’s land is under occupation. Often the stolen children are flown to far-off regions such as Siberia, where they are given new identities and handed to families paid a monthly stipend to take them. This makes them far harder and more expensive to retrieve; many may never be found again.

These horrors are among the most heartbreaking aspects of Putin’s war, which I have covered since it began in 2014. I first heard of such abductions last year from a mother escaping occupied territory, who fled after being told her three children would be taken from her if she refused to send them to a Russian-run school for indoctrination. Yet in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Kremlin propaganda, this huge state-run scheme is dressed up in the garb of child protection. Officials claim to be saving “orphans” in the “special operation” forced upon them by the supposed fascists in Ukraine and their Nato friends – even when they are grabbing infants from cities being flattened by Moscow’s bombs and missiles.

Such lies are shredded when confronted with reality. Take the group of 31. Among them were the three children of a single father called Yevhen Mezhevoy – two girls aged seven and nine, with their older brother Matviy, 13. They became separated after their “evacuation” by Russian soldiers from Mariupol when Yevhen was arrested due to serving previously in the military. He was locked in Olenivka, an infamous prison run by Putin’s stooges in Donetsk. There he was beaten, forced to run a gauntlet of baton-wielding guards, crammed with 28 others into a two-person cell and starved of food. The thought of his beloved children kept him going in this hellhole, but when released after 45 days detention, he was told they had been taken into Russia.

Later Matviy managed to call his dad, and warn him that in five days’ time they were being sent for fostering by a new family or into an orphanage. So this indomitable Ukrainian set out on a remarkable journey into the heart of Russia to take them back from Polyany. Social workers tried to encourage the boy to dissuade his father from coming. Then Yevhen had to plead with officials to get his children back from the enemy that had destroyed his home, wrecked his life and locked him up. Finally, the children were made to ask in writing to be reunited with their father.

Yevhen’s mission to save his children succeeded with the help of a secret underground network of volunteers in Russia. This stocky 40-year-old man told me his story, which began with the badly-timed opening of a new cafe in Mariupol two days before the launch of Russia’s full-scale attack, and ended in Riga, the capital of Latvia that is now their home. We talked for almost five hours beside a huge photograph of the family on the wall, showing the two girls on pink scooters and Matviy on a bike. Yet for all Yevhen’s delight that this family is together again, he worries that something strange might have been done to their minds while in the Kremlin’s clutches.

So why did the Kremlin take such special interest in this group of children? The answer lies with an elegantly-dressed woman who visited them soon after their arrival at the sanatorium. She seemed nice to the children, asking if there was anything they needed and even on one occasion taking them for an outing for ice cream. Yet she was not their friend. Her name is Maria Lvova-Belova, and she is wanted by the International Criminal Court. As Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, she is charged alongside Putin with the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.

Lvova-Belova is 38 and married to a priest in the Russian Orthodox church, which has been a key cheerleader for Putin’s regime and its war. She has five biological children, five adopted children and guardianship over a further 13 children with disabilities, who live in care homes. She meets Putin regularly. Since the ICC issued its arrest warrant, her profile has soared on social media and state television. She is shown greeting Ukrainian children she claims are orphans, giving them soft toys and hugs before handing them to new families. And it seems that she wanted to add to her own collection of children from the group of 31.

Lvova-Belova took one of them for herself. She has adopted a teenage boy called Philip, claiming he was found in a group abandoned in a basement in Mariupol, even though he had a legal guardian in Ukraine. She has described how these youngsters spoke negatively about Putin and sang Ukraine’s national anthem – and how after being handed over to new families, their negativity melted into a patriotic love for Russia. “Now I know what it’s like to be the mother of a child from Donbas,” she gushed to Putin before the television cameras. “It’s hard, but we love each other very much.”

At one point as we talked in Riga, Yevhen paused to show me two sheets of paper. These were the official documents from occupied Donetsk consenting to the “temporary departure” of children “for the purpose of rehabilitation” at Polyany. There was a list of 31 names, alongside their dates of birth. He pointed out Philip Holovyna, the teenager adopted by Lvova-Belova, along with those of his own three children who so nearly disappeared into Russia’s child abduction machine. Then he disclosed how after their escape to Latvia, his son was called by a friend in the group of 31 and told the rest of them had been adopted.

Then Yevhen read out another name. This was Bogdan Yermokhin, a 17-year-old friend of Philip who is also thought to be from Mariupol. His adoptive family was shown on Russian television, saying how well this teenager had settled in, even telling viewers how he had befriended Russian soldiers. Yet in reality, Bogdan had secretly contacted a Ukrainian lawyer, saying that his papers had been taken from him but he wanted to return home. He managed to flee more than 600 miles to the Belarus border with Ukraine, only to be caught within sight of his homeland and handed back to the authorities. Next time Bogdan was seen on Russian television, he had dark circles under his eyes and a new military haircut. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

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