Exclusive: We Interviewed the Russian Woman Accused of ‘Stealing’ 20,000 Children

In an exclusive interview with VICE News, Russia’s children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova denies illegally deporting or brainwashing thousands of Ukrainian children.

MOSCOW – Only two Russians have been charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court in relation to the invasion of Ukraine. One is Vladimir Putin, and the other is Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights. 

When VICE News asks her if she’s a war criminal, in what is an exclusive interview with an international news outlet, she smiles. “It’s funny. I’m a mother. That says it all. A war criminal? What are you talking about?” 


Following the recent arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, on baseless charges of espionage, most if not all American journalists have left the country. So we were surprised, and apprehensive, to receive approval for our request to sit-down with the woman allegedly at the heart of some of the most egregious crimes in the war so far. 

Will Vladimir Putin Be Arrested in South Africa?

Alongside Putin, Lvova-Belova stands accused of the mass abduction of Ukrainian children. As many as 19,544, according to the Ukrainian authorities. Lvova-Belova has been placed on a sanctions list by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. 

Lvova-Belova was well prepped for our interview. We had spotted her team filming us with cell phones in the days leading up to our meeting. 

She sits poised and answers our questions with a polite demeanour. She says she has nothing to hide, and denies any wrongdoing.

“Firstly, Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court,” she says via a translator. “By the way, I do not fully understand what they are accusing us of – there was no official document.”


Lvova-Belova’s ICC arrest warrant says she is accused of bearing “individual criminal responsibility” for the “unlawful deportation and transfer of children” from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation. She herself acknowledges that several thousand children were brought to Russia to escape the worst of the conflict – that began when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year – from areas like Mariupol, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Kharkiv. 

Inessa hugs her son Vitaly after the bus delivering him and more than a dozen other children back from Russian-held territory arrived in Kyiv on March 22, 2023. Photo: SERGEI CHUZAVKOV / AFP via Getty Images

Inessa hugs her son Vitaly after the bus delivering him and more than a dozen other children back from Russian-held territory arrived in Kyiv on March 22, 2023. Photo: SERGEI CHUZAVKOV / AFP via Getty Images

From there, they were placed in what was meant to be short-term summer camps spanning from Russian-occupied Crimea all the way to eastern Siberia. Some parents in Russian-controlled areas allowed their children to go, fearing for their safety at home. Some say they were deceived or coerced into parting with their kids. 

“The situation was tense,” says Lvova-Belova, “The children did not go outside, the children were constantly in a very difficult psychological state … And when the parents were offered to send them on vacation for free, of course, everyone immediately agreed with joy.” 

But under the Geneva Conventions, of which Russia is a signatory, children can only be deported on humanitarian grounds temporarily, and it should be to a third party country – not the warring aggressor. 


Since the front lines shifted, many children have found themselves stuck in territory annexed by Russia, subjected to pro-Russian propaganda in camps, and are fast-tracked for Russian passports. 

Lvova-Belova rejects the accusation of deportation, and brainwashing outright. “These are children from those regions that have recognised themselves as Russia … These are Russian-speaking children, these are children and parents who have expressed a desire to become one big Russia.” 

But the children's rights commissioner does admit that 380 children from what she calls Russia’s “new territories” have now been fostered by Russian families, after she asked President Putin to sign a decree last year that streamlined the process for Ukrainian children to obtain Russian passports. 

She herself has fostered a 16-year-old boy, Philip, from Mariupol, the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war so far. The city was virtually razed to the ground during a sustained bombardment last year, with hundreds of thousands trapped inside. Russian bombs rained down on a maternity hospital. A theatre housing hundreds of civilians, including countless children, was hit by an airstrike. Humanitarian corridors failed to be secured. 


“My heart called me to him – he was in the Mariupol group, which we evacuated after the actual active hostilities - they were found in the basements,” Lvova-Belova says. “It was a group of 31 children, mostly teenagers… We talked to them, and you know, my heart skipped a beat and I realised that this was my child.”


Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Maria Lvova-Belova at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence, outside Moscow, on February 16 this year. Photo: Mikhail METZEL / SPUTNIK / AFP

News reports and videos featuring Ukrainian children enjoying life in Russia regularly appear in state media. In a huge ceremony in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium a year after the invasion, a tearful 13-year-old, Anya, was encouraged to hug a Russian soldier. “Thank you, Uncle Yurii for saving me, my sister and hundreds of thousands of children in Mariupol.”

According to Lvova-Belova, “these are ordinary human sincere emotions and there is no question of any propaganda.”

“We don't use children for politics. There [in Ukraine], unfortunately, it happens … I saw this press conference, where three of them [Ukrainian children] were interviewed and commented on their presence in the camp as a time when they were beaten, when they were not fed, when they were not given water.”

Her comments refer to statements made by Ukrainian children who have returned home after extended stints in camps in Russia, which made headlines around the world. Kids claimed to have been beaten with sticks for expressing pro-Ukrainian views, and said they had been denied food and bedding.


The children’s commissioner says she is looking into those claims, although she also dismisses them as “absurd” “fake accusations”. 

“Everything about these children and everything about our actions that were taken at the moment I can say with absolute certainty that there was not an ounce of politics. There was only empathy, only love, there was only a desire to protect and protect those children who got into this or that situation, and therefore I can say for sure that I am not ashamed of any of my actions because this is all for children and for children's sake.”

Lvova-Belova says she’s in close contact with Putin, who she says is pleased with her efforts so far. The accusations of war crimes only hardens her resolve to continue her work, she says. 

She’s continuing to work to remove children from conflict areas, she says. Now, they’re being taken from the city of Bakhmut, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the war where Ukrainian troops are clinging on in the face of an onslaught from Russian forces.

When asked if she would personally be fostering any more children from Ukraine, she laughs. “No, I'm not planning to take anyone away. You're making me out to be some kind of predator who thinks, ‘how many children do I need to eat for lunch today?’. Yesterday it was 20, today I need to up my intake.”

CORRECTION 01/05/2023: This article has been amended to specify that Crimea is occupied by Russia. Russian forces occupied Crimea in 2014 and it was annexed shortly after. Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine.