Invisible Children: How the media has failed to draw attention to one of Russia’s most pernicious war tactics

Ukrainian children are fleeing Russian aggression. Przemysl Poland 27 02 2022 51913859595

This essay won an Honorable Mention in the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Contest for its response to the following prompt: “What is a current issue in international relations or world affairs that does not receive enough attention in global media?”


I didn’t want to go.”

These were the words of 14-year-old Anya, a Ukrainian girl who was staying in a home for tuberculosis patients when Russian troops swept through Mariupol.1 The troops took Anya from the home and placed her with a Russian foster family, forbidding her to contact her mother in Ukraine. Anya is one of over six thousand Ukrainian children that are known to have been taken by Russian troops and relocated to “filtration” camps or Russian orphanages.2 The kidnappings are part of a larger propaganda campaign to portray Russia as a “charitable savior.”3 In reality, they represent a campaign of ethnic cleansing which intends to strip Ukrainian children of their national identity.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, 2022, millions of Ukrainians have been displaced within the country and many more have become refugees in Western Europe. Up to this point, global media has prioritized reporting on developments in the war — as of April 23th, 2023, there were at least 354,000 total casualties as a result of the fighting.4 This essay, however, calls attention to a seriously underreported dimension of this conflict. Russia seeks to eradicate Ukrainian statehood, and kidnapping Ukrainian children has become one tactic to undermine national solidarity and reassert the supremacy of Russian identity.

Once in Russia, kidnapped Ukrainian children become fodder for Russian state-run media. The transfer and adoption of Ukrainian children is publicized “with patriotic fanfare.” The New York Times reported that “officials offer teddy bears to new arrivals, who are portrayed as abandoned children being rescued from war.”5 The Ukrainian children up for adoption are often orphans; in some cases, Russian troops killed or imprisoned the children’s parents before taking the children to the “filtration camps” where they are subject to harassment and abuse. From these camps, Ukrainian children are matched with Russian families in disparate parts of the Russian Federation. Raised in Russian households, these children quickly lose their Ukrainian language and identity to eventually assimilate into Russian culture.

The deportations of Ukrainian children are not unprecedented in Russian history. Historian Timothy Snyder identified the kidnapping of Ukrainian children as one method of “Russian eugenics,” drawing parallels between what is happening today and ethnic cleaning policies during the Soviet Union. From 1930 to 1952, Joseph Stalin forcibly transferred the populations of various groups to undermine their national identities. The Crimean Tatars suffered one of the highest mortality rates during their deportation in 1944. Nearly 8,000 Crimean Tatars died during the deportation itself, and thousands more perished in exile elsewhere in the Soviet Union.6 Today, the deportation of Ukrainian children follows the same logic as Soviet ethnic cleansing: Ukrainians are simply “proto-Russians, unaware of their true identity, who can be remade with force.”7 The Yale Conflict Observatory writes that the “primary purpose of the camps appears to be political re-education” in Russian language, history, and society.8 Eventually, Snyder concludes that these children will grow up to marry ethnic Russians, raise Russian children, and ultimately give up their allegiance to Ukraine.9

On March 17th, 2023, the U.N. Commision on Ukraine found that Russia had repeatedly violated international law, including the forced transfer and deportation of Ukrainian children within and outside of Ukraine.10 Their decisions were based on reports published by the Yale Conflict Observatory, which suggested that the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child provided the necessary legal guidelines to prosecute Russia.11 While there is little that can be done to enforce the U.N. findings, there are several non-profit organizations that are working with Ukrainian families to locate and reconnect with their children who had been taken. Save Ukraine is one such organization that helps Ukrainian families locate and reconnect with their children. With their help, the mother of 16-year-old Anastasia was able to find her daughter after she was taken by Russian troops during a vacation to Crimea. Today, they live in a shelter in Kyiv operated by Save Ukraine.12

Meanwhile, there is a noticeable lack of coverage on this issue in international media. One potential explanation for the lack of attention is that photographs of damaged infrastructure or Russian troops constitute easily digestible content for foreign audiences. Cities in shambles quickly communicate the implications of the war while preserving the psychological distance between the media consumer and the actual conflict. The kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children, however, is both a psychologically troubling and historically complex issue. It requires a deeper knowledge of Soviet history and the tactics of war. But more importantly, the prospect of losing one’s children hits close to home. Therefore, it makes sense that the media has focused on simpler, more digestible topics.

Currently, the most harmful action that society and the media can take is censoring this issue. It is our commitment, as ethical beings, to confront the reality of what occurs during times of war and show compassion for the families who have not yet reconnected with their children. When we think about war, we tend to imagine soldiers, death, firearms, bombings, and devastation. This is because this is what we are least familiar with, and something most of us have not had to witness directly. I implore that you closely trace this issue, and stop ignorance once and for all.

References

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Ukrainian children fleeing Russian aggression in Przemyśl, Poland | Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

  1. Bubola, Emma. “Using Adoptions, Russia Turns Ukrainian Children Into Spoils of War,” The New York Times, last modified October 22, 2022, accessed April 30, 2023.
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  2. Russia’s Systematic Program for the Re-education and Adoption of Ukraine’s Children,” The Conflict Observatory, last modified February 14, 2023, accessed May 1, 2023.
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  3. Bubola. “Using Adoptions,” The New York Times.
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  4. Faulconbridge, Guy. “Ukraine war, already with up to 354,000 casualties, likely to last past 2023 – U.S. documents,” Reuters, last modified April 12, 2023, accessed May 1, 2023.
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  5. Bubola, “Using Adoptions,” The New York Times.
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  6. Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Lost Empire (Armonk, NY: M.E Sharp, 1994), 67.
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  7. Snyder, Timothy. “Russia’s Eugenic War,” Substack, last modified January 8, 2023, accessed May 1, 2023.
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  8. “Russia’s Systematic,” The Conflict Observatory.
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  9. Snyder, “Russia’s Eugenic,” Substack.
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  10. War crimes, indiscriminate attacks on infrastructure, systematic and widespread torture show disregard for civilians, says UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine,” United Nations, last modified March 16, 2023, accessed May 1, 2023.
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  11. “Russia’s Systematic,” The Conflict Observatory.
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  12. Julian E. Barnes, “The Group That Searches for Missing Ukrainian Children,” The New York Times, last modified April 25, 2023, accessed May 1, 2023.
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Author

  • Michelle was a Junior at Horace Mann School in Manhattan, New York when she submitted this piece to the 2023 YRIS High School Essay Competition.