According to Ukrainian officials, since the onset of the full-scale war, Russia has deported a minimum of 20,000 Ukrainian children, of whom more than 4,500 are categorized as orphans or deprived of parental care.
Russia’s reported figure, though unconfirmed, is even more staggering: according to Russia’s so-called children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, over 700,000 Ukrainian children were deported to Russia. Lvova-Belova, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was issued an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, alleging they are guilty of the war crime of unlawful deportation and transfer of children from Russia-occupied territories of Ukraine to Russia.
Abduction, worse yet, is frequently followed by brainwashing. Ukrainian human rights experts examined at least five scenarios of children’s abduction and brainwashing, gathering first-hand accounts from victims. These accounts vividly portray the hunger, homesickness, and violence that abducted children endure at propaganda centers, where they are indoctrinated to embrace Russian identity.
The practice of abducting and erasing Ukrainian children’s identity is not new for Russia. In 1945, five-year-old Maria, and 12-year-old Yuriy Shukhevych, daughter and son of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) Commander-in-Chief Roman Shukhevych, were forcibly taken from their mother to an orphanage on the other side of the country in Stalino (today’s Donetsk). Their identity documents were falsified to state that they were Russians whose parents had been killed by Nazis.
While Yuriy managed to escape from the orphanage on his third attempt, Maria only found out that she had a mother when she was 15. Since then, she slowly began to learn her true story.
In the autumn of 2023, now residing in Lviv, near the newly established cemetery where Ukrainian soldiers are laid to rest each day, Maria shared her story for the The Face of Independence documentary project.
Why and how were two children taken from their mother?
Maria’s legendary father, Roman Shukhevych, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. When the Soviet regime arrived in Lviv in 1939, they began persecuting Shukhevych, so he fled to Krakow (today’s Poland). Afterwards, his wife Nataliya, and little son Yuriy, were also able to illegally cross the border and join them. Their daughter Maria was born in Krakow.
In 1941, after Germany invaded USSR, the Shukhevych family returned to Lviv, and Roman went off to fight. When he was returning from the war, he learned that the Nazis might arrest him too, because they had already imprisoned his associates. He did not go all the way to Lviv by train but got off at an earlier stop and walked the rest of the way, 100 kilometres, on foot. From 1943 on, he was hiding from the Nazis and could only see his wife and children in secret. The Nazis would periodically search his wife’s apartment.
In 1944, when the Soviet Army re-occupied Lviv, UPA liaisons warned Shukhevych’s wife that they might imprison her too, so she and the children left for a distant village, near Lviv. Unfortunately, someone betrayed their location and in 1945, the secret police arrested the woman and her two young children. The children were soon separated from their mother and taken far from Lviv, first 500 km away to an orpanage, in Chernobyl, near Kyiv. Nataliya was sentenced to 10 years and later deported to Siberia.
Maria, who by her teenage years, had grown up speaking Russian, did not understand the language back then. She remembers: “They were speaking to me in Russian, asking me questions, but I couldn’t understand any Russian or answer them. They were laughing because I was almost five years old but couldn’t speak. But I simply didn’t understand them.”
Maria’s brother tragic fate
In the orphanage, her brother Yuriy could think of nothing but how to escape.
“Yuriy kept going on about how we should escape. He said there was a river there and he had a plan to take a boat and float down closer to Kyiv and then get on a train to Lviv. I got sick there with measles so he had to wait,” Maria recalls.
A liaison of Roman Shukhevych travelled to the orphanage in the Chornobyl woods in order to rescue the children from there. However, when he arrived, they were no longer there. “There were woods [in Chornobyl], some UPA units were hiding out there, and of course the KGB figured out that someone might try to abduct us, so they took us away and transported us to an orphanage in Stalino (now Donetsk),” over 1,200 km from home.
In the Donetsk orphanage, 12-year-old Yuriy wrote a letter in order to let his family know where they were. But the letter was intercepted and the person who had intended to pass it on was arrested. Separating children from their parents and preventing them from communicating was a deliberate policy of the Soviet regime.
“Yuriy understood that it would be even harder to get from Donetsk to Lviv – first you’d have to cross the Dnipro River somehow, and the bridges were guarded. And if two of us fled, we could be detected more easily. He was set on escaping – that idea wouldn’t leave him,” Maria says.
The boy ran away a couple of times but Soviets caught him and brought him back each time. In 1947, when he was 14, he finally managed to get away for good. A year later, he tried to abduct Maria from the orphanage but he was arrested. From this point, Yuriy’s 34-year-long story of Soviet arrest begins.
At that time, Maria didn’t get to see her brother, she only caught a glimpse of his back as two policemen were walking him away over a railroad bridge. A caregiver told her it was her brother they were leading away. Seven-year-old Maria remembers she cried bitterly over not getting to see her brother. “At that point, it became firmly fixed in my mind that I had no parents – I no longer knew what had happened to my mother, I had no idea whatsoever about my father. I only had my brother; I knew perfectly well that I had an older brother named Yuriy,” Maria recounts.
For a time, Maria was adopted by a woman named Zadorozhnaya. But when “someone” tried to abduct Maria, the woman returned Maria to the orphanage out of fear.
Orphanage as a place of identity erasure
From then on, Maria grew up in the orphanage, in a Russian-language environment, immersed in Russian culture, cut off from any connection with her relatives. Her identity documents were falsified and stated she was Russian.
“One day, I was called in to see the director and there was a man there who I now understand was from the KGB. He asked me questions – how I was doing in school, what living there was like, did I remember anything about my father or mother. He asked questions about how I felt towards the Soviet government. I said everything was fine. Apparently my answers satisfied him because he had no complaints,” Maria relates.
In 1949, Maria was transferred to another orphanage in Sloviansk, also in Donetsk Oblast.
“In the seventh grade, some officials came and said, ‘If you did well in your studies, you need to join the Komsomol [All-Union Leninist Young Communist League].’ Unfortunately, I studied well, so they required us to memorize some kind of statute or oath, and after doing so, we were accepted into the Komsomol,” Maria recalls.
Maria receives letter from her mother
That same year, Maria received the first letter in her life from her mother, who had finally discovered her daughter’s address. To achieve this, Natalia had to go on a hunger strike. Maria recounts how her very religious mother was shocked to learn Maria had joined the Komsomol.
“I wrote her that I had become a Komsomol member. I thought believing in God was for backward, uneducated people. But here was my mother turning out to be religious,” Maria relates. “In the orphanage I had absorbed all the propaganda about Pavlik Morozov [Soviet child informant] and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya [Soviet war martyr] and the Young Guard – there was quite a decent library there and I read a lot. But suddenly, here was my mother being religious.”
The year Maria got the letter from her mother, after leaving the orphanage she enrolled in a construction technical school in Dnipro (then called Dnipropetrovsk). She managed to visit Lviv for the first time on her winter break in her first year of studies, but her mother wasn’t there – she had been sentenced to a labor camp in Chernihiv.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1957 that Maria first met with her mother during a prison visit. “We hadn’t seen each other for over 12 years and they gave us two hours for the visit. Everyone asks what we talked about. What did we talk about? We cried. Both of us cried and cried and cried,” Maria says.
Her mother told Maria about herself and about Yuriy, whom she met with sometimes during deportation. “You cry and want to hug her but at the same time feel wary – I couldn’t believe this was really my mother. Although I remembered when I was little I would cry for my mother at night, wishing I had a mother like all children do. But I knew I didn’t have a mother – the Germans had shot her. All I had was Yuriy; I would grow up and be sure to find him, he was my only close person. And suddenly here was Mama,” Maria recounts.
How Maria began to doubt Soviet propaganda
During this time, Maria also began corresponding with her brother, who was then in exile in Kazakhstan. He told her a lot in his letters but never revealed the surname Shukhevych. Besides, all their letters were reviewed by the Soviet authorities so they had to be circumspect in what they wrote. Yuriy gave hints in his writing.
“Yuriy wrote me very warm letters but he couldn’t be explicit because all our letters – mine to him and his to me – were inspected. There were instances where if he wrote some phrase that they didn’t want reaching me, it would be blotted out in the letter. Yuriy would tell me to look around me. I was a Komsomsol member with patriotic Communist convictions, meanwhile he told me to look around. Indeed, these were the 1950s and 60s, people were going hungry, lining up for food, the stores were empty. He constantly wrote me to analyze what I saw,” Maria recounts. “Yuriy contributed a great deal towards changing my thinking.”
It took time to alter her previous beliefs. In Lviv, Maria met relatives and acquaintances of her mother and farther and learned her father was the UPA leader. As a Soviet indoctrinated orphan she believed in the Soviet system.
Once in Lviv, at her aunt’s apartment, she came across a Soviet newspaper portraying Shukhevych and the UPA members as murderers and criminals. She didn’t dare ask her aunt about it so she went to her aunt’s roommates and asked if it was true they were killers?
Her aunt’s friends responded by saying it was the Soviet regime that engaged in murder and torture. “They would tell me they were tortured and also about the 15-year-old girl who was raped by soldiers, one after another. And I would say no, that can’t be, the Soviet authorities are wonderful, they do so much for people. And they would respond by saying look, you were completely innocent but they took you from your mother when you were five years old. Who do you believe – what kind of good or loyal government separates small children from their mothers? And so, bit by bit, I began to meet more and more people like that,” Maria explains.
In answer to the question of whether there were arguments, Maria replies: “I wouldn’t call them arguments, but rather me saying things like look, I was raised in an orphanage where they fed and clothed me, then they sent me to technical school where I also lived at state expense – we were given vouchers for clothing and food. And I would say, look how well they treated me. And the others would respond, ‘Would your mother not have taken good care of you? With her, you would have had a family, people close to you. But here, the wonderful Soviet authorities snatched you away from your mother when you were tiny.’ ”
Between her mother and Soviet secret service
The KGB kept watch over Maria while she was still in technical school. “When I was attending the technical school, KGB agents would visit me and have talks, asking how I was doing in school and did I know who my father was. I would reply that I was still just learning, reading up on things. And they would respond, ‘Why don’t you try to influence your brother Yuriy? After all, he’s done time in prisons, battled at the front lines, suffered through all kinds of provocations and been put in solitary confinement. Why don’t you try to influence him?’ ” Maria relates.
“I would tell them I couldn’t influence him but if he were here with me, perhaps I could, but as things stand, he’s far away.”
“When they asked if maybe my mom will influence him … Mom won’t have an impact on him, I would say, because mom herself went through that.”
So during each school break, while studying at the technical school in Dnipropetrovsk, Maria would travel to Lviv and spend long hours talking with her mother. Her mother still had to sleep in the Roman Catholic church because apartments were denied to her. Mother and daughter spent their days together.
Life was hard for Maria’s mother in Lviv. Her apartment had been confiscated and she was continually harassed. Soviet police would come in the middle of the night to intimidate the people whose place Maria’s mother stayed in overnight.
“Is she registered as living here? No? Then why is she residing with you? Do you want your apartment to be taken away?” As a result, acquaintances became afraid to take Maria’s mother in. She always carried two bags with her – one contained clothing and pajamas, the other documents. Catholic priests allowed her to sleep in the church at night. Sometimes it was easier for her to stay overnight with Polish women – Maria guesses the authorities kept less close watch over Poles.
One time, her mother secretly worked as a nanny in a town near Lviv but when Soviet officials found out, the man who had hired her – the head of a district department of education – lost his prestigious job. However, Maria’s mother stubbornly insisted that under no circumstances would she leave Lviv even though the authorities wanted to force her out.
The greatest misunderstanding between mother and daughter concerned religion. Nataliya was deeply religious; Maria says she prayed so much in her life that she developed calluses on her knees. As for Maria herself, raised in Soviet institutions, religious awareness came with great difficulty over a lengthy period.
Maria’s Lviv life in 1960s and today
When Maria took a job after finishing technical school, once again she was “invited” in for questioning – “that’s what they called being summoned.
“And again the same interrogations took place. Maybe you could write something – an article say, an example of a happy Soviet person? I would answer no, I don’t know how to write, I won’t attempt anything like that.” Even in Lviv, during her holiday visits, Maria was called in by the KGB. “They were pressuring to have me influence Yuriy somehow,” she recalls.
Maria decided to move to Lviv. To do so, in 1963 she enrolled at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute. She was apprehensive about never having studied in Ukrainian before. But by the end of her university studies, Maria relates that she had begun to think in Ukrainian. Later she became enthralled by the “Sixties generation” of Ukrainian poets and patriotic verse.
At one point, while at university, Maria told some fellow students that her father was Roman Shukhevych. Afterwards, the dean called her in to rebuke her: “We did you the favor of allowing you to study here in Lviv but here you are trumpeting that you are Shukhevych’s daughter.” In fact, no one had done Maria any favors – she had simply passed the entrance exams fair and square like anyone else.
Today, Maria lives near Marsove Pole, in Lviv, where Ukraine’s war dead are brought for burial nearly every day.
“I can’t even convey how hard it is for me to deal with the fact that nearly every day the funerals of more Ukrainian soldiers take place right near my building – first there was one, and now there are three or four in a day being buried. This is so painfully hard for me to take, although we have no choice. Our generation too has to stand and fight its battle. Primarily youth perished both in the First World and Second World Wars. My grandfather and one of his brothers fought in the First World War, then my father was actively involved in the Second World War. We have no way out,” Maria comments.
Although Maria and her husband live very modestly on their pensions, she says they still have enough to get by and can even afford to donate to Ukraine’s armed forces. She regrets how little known her father is and hopes that one day Roman Shukhevych will be honored in Ukraine’s National Pantheon of Heroes – if only with a simple plaque commemorating him. “He deserves it, he really does. I would like very much for this to happen,” Maria declares.
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