Before his country invaded Ukraine, Russian priest Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko volunteered in jails with Ukrainian political prisoners accused of pro-Ukrainian activism. Today his work focuses on a different kind of alleged detainee: Ukrainian children.

“It is not just Ukrainians trying to reunite children with their families,” the Apostolic Orthodox Church cleric from St Petersburg told i. “There are volunteers all around Russia – thousands working with Ukrainian refugees including children.”

In recent weeks the Ukrainian government highlighted the plight of at least 16,226 children it accuses the Kremlin of deporting. Ukrainian officials have verified these cases, but believes the real figure could be as high as 150,000. However, Russian Federation sources cited by Ukraine’s National Information Bureau claim the total is as many as 738,000. Only 308 have returned.

On Tuesday President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted a video about the cases created by the government’s official media platform United24. It includes clips of Ukrainian under-18s being forced to sing Russian patriotic songs, claims Russians are changing deported children’s names and ages, and states Russia is fast-tracking children for adoption.

Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba told a UN Security Council meeting on 24 February the situation was “probably the largest instance of state-sponsored kidnapping of children in history of our modern world”.

Details of cases where occupying forces persuaded Ukrainian parents to send their children to so-called holiday camps in Russia came into global view last month, with the publication of an investigation by Yale University. Researches suggested Russia had moved at least 6,000 children to its territory under this guise.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko’s organisation, the Ukrainian-Russian Bilateral Contact Group on Humanitarian Issues, is responding to such cases. Last summer he began receiving calls from Ukrainian mothers in Kherson asking for assistance to travel to camps in Crimea refusing to return their children.

“The camp authorities said the children cannot make the journey themselves, it is necessary for the parents to come and get them,” he said.

Crimea is only 100km from Kherson. But since Russian forces currently occupy the land separating the two, mothers were forced to travel through Poland, the Baltic States, into Belarus and through Russia to reach the peninsula.

“It’s expensive,” says Mikhnov-Vaitenko, who adds that Russian donors fund his work. “We help the mothers organise the relevant documents, transport and accommodation. If they have been fighting in the war for Ukrainian, it is too dangerous for them to go.”

Russian priest Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko volunteers to help reunite Ukrainian children with their families (PHOTO: Supplied/Gabriella Jozwiak)
Russian priest Grigory Mikhnov-Vaitenko says many other Russian volunteers are helping to return Ukrainian children to their families (Photo: Gabriella Jozwiak)

The group has helped return 20 Ukrainian children since March 2022. Mikhnov-Vaitenko says it operates openly and cannot be prosecuted according to Russian law. But he admits the efforts are risky. “The law and Russia are two separate things,” he said.

Similar rescue missions are also organised from Ukraine. Charity Save Ukraine has so far helped three cohorts of parents into Russia along similarly long routes and claims to have reunited 44 children with their families.

Next week 30 more mothers will leave on a fourth mission to face Russian camp authorities. Founder Mykola Kuleba says with each trip the task becomes harder.

“During our last rescue mission with families of 16 children, border guards at two crossing from Russia to Belarus blocked us when we tried to return,” he said. “They told the families it was forbidden to take the children back. On our third attempt we managed to cross the Russian-Latvian border.”

Mr Kuleba believes Russian authorities want to “brainwash” Ukrainian teenagers to turn against Ukraine and “militarise our children”. He says this happened to minors Russia took from Donetsk after its 2014 invasion. “We have young men who are now Russian troops fighting against Ukraine,” he said.

Yale researchers found evidence of Ukrainian 14 to 17 year olds receiving military training. These included instances of camps where children could “handle military equipment, drive trucks and study firearms”.

Mr Kuleba’s organisation does not work with Russian volunteers. “You never know if a person works for the Russian government,” he said. However, he recognised some Russian volunteers were “putting themselves in danger to help Ukrainian families”.

Mikhnov-Vaitenko said he would carry on assisting families for as long as needed. “Somebody must do this,” he said, adding that other volunteers were “peaceful people”. “They don’t want to take part in any sort of war,” he said. “They want to show they are against it.”

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