“Masha”, as 38-year-old Maria Lvova-Belova prefers to be called, has a media image modelled on traditional Russian values. The mother of five biological and 18 adopted children wears feminine dresses, dyes her hair blonde, and has a reputation for being a hugger. She is married to a Russian Orthodox priest.

But Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights stands accused of war crimes. Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for the former charity worker and President Vladimir Putin, for allegedly deporting thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia.

Associates of Ms Lvova-Belova told i she is not child-snatcher but a genuine advocate for disadvantaged children whose judgement has been thwarted by the Kremlin. But over the course of the war, Ms Lvova-Belova’s public profile has become more sinister. Her smiling face fronts updates on Mr Putin’s presidential website about the government’s campaign to evacuate children from “dangerous” former Ukrainian territories.

In September 2022, she was pictured holding hands with a small boy stepping off a jet under the title “Russian families to adopt 125 orphans from the Donetsk People’s Republic”.

“All the children have already received Russian citizenship and adoption or custody is conducted under Russian law,” the report stated.

Ms Lvova-Belova horrified Ukrainians in February in a televised meeting with Mr Putin, when she said she had adopted a 15-year-old boy from Mariupol. “Now I know what it means to be a mother of a child from Donbas,” she said. “It is a difficult job but we love each other, that is for sure.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights Maria Lvova-Belova at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia February 16, 2023. Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Pool via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Ms Lvova-Belova, pictured with Russian President Vladimir Putin, horrified Ukrainians in February when she said she had adopted a 15-year-old boy from the war-ravaged city of Mariupol (Photo: Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik/Reuters)

Ukraine’s government says these reports are evidence of illegal deportations, and the adoptions unlawful. Ukraine’s National Information Bureau has verified 16,226 cases of illegally deported children. It estimates that 744,000 have been taken to Russian territory since the war broke out, using open source data from Russia.

In February, Yale University published a study claiming at least 6,000 Ukrainian children aged between four months and 17 years were living in Russian camps.

Once a school guitar teacher in the western city of Penza where she was born, Ms Lvova-Belova dedicated her career to charitable work in the Volga region. She took over orphanages and founded charities to help disabled children before receiving her first public office as a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation in 2017.

“At the time I considered her a very credible person,” said Oleg Sharipkov, director of Penza community foundation Civil Union. He worked alongside Ms Lvova-Belova in the charity sector for a decade. “She had an excellent reputation,” he said. “She was passionate about her projects, and really brought people together.”

Mr Sharipkov calls the Louis Quarter, founded by Ms Lvova-Belova in 2019, “a very creative and kind project” unique to Penza. Russia has a poor record on supporting childhood disability. Human Rights Watch estimates almost 30 per cent of disabled children in the country live in substandard state orphanages, from which the state often transfers them to adult institutions. Ms Lvova-Belova aimed to prevent this by providing training for disabled children to achieve independent living. She named the project after the singer Louis Armstrong, who she described as “an African American and a social orphan, just like my guys”.

But Ms Lvova-Belova’s political ambitions led her to abandon her previous organisations, Mr Sharipkov believes. After joining United Russia, the country’s largest and pro-Putin political party, he claims she received funding from “sources that could be influenced by the authorities”. She had to resign from her charitable positions when Mr Putin appointed her as commissioner on 27 October 2021. “Without Maria, the projects will die,” said Mr Sharipkov, adding that the children they support would end up being returned to poorer institutions.

Speaking anonymously for security reasons, a Russian journalist covering social problems in the Volga region confirmed to i they also suspected Ms Lvova-Belova received “payments for keeping quiet” from government sources. She was “afraid” of independent media, the reporter said, and turned down repeated requests for interviews.

Ms Lvova-Belova appears regularly on state media. This week she made several appearances, boldly denying the ICC accusations. “Ukraine did not worry before about their condition, about the fact that the children were in bomb shelters, that they were sitting in basements,” she said on TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov’s Live show. She stated that Russia had not separated any children from their parents.

Jade McGlynn, author of Russia’s War, said Ms Lvova-Belova’s actions should be understood in the context of how Russians view the conflict. “This woman is definitely responsible for actions that by any definition constitute genocide,” she said.

But McGlynn argued that Russians have a different interpretation of the war. “They genuinely think they are fighting Western-controlled Nazis,” she said. “I’m entirely unsympathetic to these arguments, but I can understand them.” McGlynn pointed to the fact that Ms Lvova-Belova adopted disabled children. “This has stigma in Russia,” she said. “She’s actually somebody who is weirdly quite progressive in terms of her attitudes.”

But those who know Ms Lvova-Belova have their doubts. “In the beginning, it was her genuine desire to help children and disabled people,” said Mr Sharipkov. “But she compromised her conscience. In all likelihood, Maria will spend the rest of her life in prison.”

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