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Diplomat: The story of deported Ukrainian children must not be forgotten

Margus Laidre and Arnold Sinisalu.
Margus Laidre and Arnold Sinisalu. Source: "Pealtnägija"

Former ISS Director Arnold Sinisalu, as co-author of the end-of-year special of "Pealtnägija," interviews Estonia's last ambassador to Moscow Margus Laidre.

Next to news of war regularly coming out of Ukraine, a different front line has received somewhat less attention. I'm talking about the mass kidnapping and brainwashing of Ukrainian children by Russia. That is the reason why the ICC also issued an arrest warrant for Russia's Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, next to Vladimir Putin.

As someone who only has access to public sources, I've gathered that the kidnappings started soon after the war did, in March or April and mostly in territories where Russia managed to enforce its occupation. We also know that a lot of children were taken from orphanages. They are likely the most vulnerable, having no parents, and brainwashing them, so to speak, is also the easiest. What might be their fate should they not return from Russia?

From Russia's point of view, they were moved away from a dangerous zone to Russia where they will be offered a so-called safe future. But the flip side of that future in safety is, as you rightly pointed out, indoctrination. Brainwashing to turn the children from Ukrainians to Russians if they stay in Russia.

Some children have managed to return to Ukraine, been reunited with their parents. If their stay [in Russia] was short-term, the trauma can be overcome and possibly healed so to speak, while the process might be irreversible if they stay for long years. The ugliest aspect of it is robbing people of their true self, turning them into someone else.

The fact that while Russian and Ukrainian are not very closely related, they are still more similar than some other languages also plays a role, allowing this process to be greatly accelerated.

Yes, cultural environment is important and affects us all. But moving away from children, it is quite remarkable that despite the relative closeness of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples, Moscow's war has managed to create a situation where there can be no reconciliation between the two for decades to come.

I read a study by the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) that relied on Ukrainian statistics according to which the country's children's commission or ombudsman said that 167,000 children had been abducted by March of 2022, which had grown to over 250,000 by June. An indescribable scale. A British documentary found that by the end of 2022, allegedly, fewer than 400 kids had been returned. It is possible we will never know the accurate figure. But these are terrible numbers.

Are such abductions and deportations of children national policy and has it happened before? Is it a frequent or rare occurrence?

Unfortunately, deportations, abductions, including kidnapping children are as old as mankind. The phenomenon goes back not just centuries but millennia.

The first known case of deportation took place in the 6th century BC. when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II deported the Judean leadership to his country. Alas, examples of how this method has been used to affect, put pressure on and subjugate peoples run all the way to the 21st century.

Therefore, we are not talking about anything new, and it has been a widespread method historically?

Yes, it is a widespread historical phenomenon. But it is also clear that using something like that in the 21st century is quite heinous.

Viewed from Tallinn, has the deportation of Ukrainians and especially the abduction of children been a conscious policy for the Kremlin or has much of it been random and rather a side-effect of occupying certain territories?

Unfortunately, we cannot even speculate as to what they may be thinking in the Kremlin to which we have no access. But I would dare guess that it was not the original plan to abduct children. The military-political situation that developed presented it as an additional measure of how to put pressure on Kyiv. An opportunity they took.

Arnold Sinisalu. Source: "Pealtnägija"

I believe everyone living in Estonia more or less knows and remembers the deportations of 1941 and 1949. Has Russia, in whichever form and under whichever name, done something like that in Estonia before the 1940s?

Yes, it is a new old phenomenon in our history. Moving chronologically, the German citizenry, from city councilors to small boys, were deported when Tartu fell to Russian troops in 1558. They were only deported to Pskov and could soon return, while a more widespread deportation of German citizens followed in 1565. That action involved more than a thousand people, including six women who had given birth the previous day who were loaded onto barges with their newborn babies and their cribs and taken first to Pskov and then deeper into Russia.

We must also recall the Sheremetev incursion through Estonia and Livonia in 1701-1702 of which eyewitness reports say that the saddest sight was how several hundred small children were put on wagons like geese and moved to Russia. Of course, the apocalyptic deportation of Tartu citizens in 1708, which fate also befell Narva. But it also happened to the Finns during the Great Northern War. The Finns have said that an estimated 20,000-30,000 people were moved to Russia.

Cynically speaking, it seems to be a tool of imperial politics, an instrument of foreign policy and war.

You have spent a long time working as ambassador to Russia and longer still on matters pertaining to the country – how many Russians truly understand what has been done to the Ukrainians and what is happening to their children? Do they realize it is a crime?

I'm afraid that a lot of Russian residents do not realize there is a problem to begin with. Why do I dare make such a claim? Thinking about their media environment, which is centered around television, which is in turn dominated by state-controlled information, a large part of the Russian population is likely not aware of this aspect, of what is happening to children. But I'll add that when I worked in Moscow, I maintained contacts with civil society activists and organizations, which will go unnamed for obvious reasons, who not only realized the problem but also did their best to try and help Ukrainians and children abducted from Ukraine. This assistance ranged from two apples and 100 rubles to a lot more. Therefore, it was known in certain circles, while I'm afraid the population at large remains oblivious.

We both remember the period of Soviet occupation, what was said officially, what was said in someone's kitchen and what was said between good friends. Listening to you, one gets the ill feeling that most people don't understand, but perhaps they are simply hiding it. Perhaps they do realize what is happening but are only saying what the state wants to hear them say. They expect they are being watched and not free in their opinions. Or is this interpretation too optimistic?

Depends on what we are talking about. In terms of the war in general, I believe you are largely correct. That people know there is a war going on, while it is something unpleasant and something they don't want to remember. The general attitude is that the leaders know better, which is what started this war. Whereas the focus of the war has changed completely. The initial excuse has morphed into the attitude that the West is out to get Russia, wants to rip Russia to pieces, which must be opposed.

But coming back to recent Estonian history, there are examples of middle-aged people who have been raised in and as Russians, while we later learn that their identity has been stolen and that they are actually Estonian children who were orphaned in Siberia and only find out they are someone else in their old age. For me, acknowledging something like that is psychologically so terrible as to be difficult to imagine.

Every such incident constitutes such a deep tragedy for the person, their relatives and loved ones that we can only imagine the extent of uncertainty and worry or the trauma this will visit on the whole of Ukrainian society. But moving closer to the matter of responsibility, will anyone be held responsible or even go to prison for these abduction in Russia?

I would very much like to hope there will be responsibility. But the questions of when and how are immediately raised. I do not see it being within reach today.

Where do you stand, as a historian, regarding the claim sometimes made by historians and political analysts that the evil emanating from Russia is largely the result of the fact that while the crimes of Nazism were put on trial after World War Two, no one has really been held responsible for communist offenses. And now we are seeing history repeat itself. Is there some truth to this or is the current situation something else entirely and we should not look for manifestations in history?

People always want clarity and reasons for why things are what they are. But I think the answer to this very complicated question is very simple or trivial even. It boils down to the winners, losers and the fact the former are not put on trial. Russia needs to lose for its crimes to be put on trial.

It is too soon to say who will win and who will lose. There will be more losers in the end. There can only be one winner – Ukraine restoring its territory in the borders of 1991. /.../ Is a positive outcome possible?

The relevant question is how to define the end. But I would answer with an open-ended question of my own. I believe it is another major dilemma where a Ukrainian victory might not necessarily constitute a Russian defeat. This is to suggest that Ukraine being able to restore its territory, which we are all rooting for, might not constitute the Kremlin's defeat but rather the grand game being paused.

But perhaps what is currently happening in Russia's war against Ukraine is one part of the wider global situation, the changing world order which we find difficult to grasp, as there are many explosions going off at once in different corners of the world. The question of what will the world look like once the dust settles very much remains.

Margus Laidre and Arnold Sinisalu. Source: "Pealtnägija"

I'm a fan of Ukrainian journalist Vitali Portnikov's opinion articles. He is active on YouTube, as a writer. He has also been to Estonia on numerous occasions and is an erudite person. He explained to a Ukrainian journalist in one of his shows a few months ago how he sees the war, painting a relatively depressing picture. He believes Russia is doing all it can to destroy Ukraine. The initial aims of the war have changed, as you suggested, and the idea now is that we need to destroy as much as possible of what we cannot get.

One of the possible results of the destruction Portnikov described was that pessimistic forecasts suggest Ukraine could have fewer than 30 million residents in a decade's time, due to casualties of war, people who have been abducted, unborn children, those who have been injured and refugees who will not return. His conclusion was that Russia will have achieved its goal also in that case because there is a big different between having a country of 30 million or one of over 40 million on your borders.

I would lean on brilliant Dutch historian Johan Huizinga from his book "Homo Ludens" for my answer. His theory is that not just sports but also war is a game where two sides meet. And looking at the sports analogy, we know of plenty of examples of very weak participants going up against strong ones only to come out on top as a result of being underestimated.

We can also give two military examples, especially in the context of it having been suggested that a nuclear power cannot lose a war. There are two examples to the contrary. The first such example is the Vietnam War where the Viet Cong were much weaker than the U.S. And yet, they ended up winning the war. The same fate befell the Soviet Union in Afghanistan where the balance of power was clearly in Moscow's favor. Therefore, I would refrain from too much pessimism and let the events unfold. I believe another factor is becoming increasingly important. It is willpower. The will to defend oneself and defeat one's enemy is what will prove decisive.

I agree that we should ward off pessimism, and the Ukrainians have shed so much blood that I cannot imagine them pulling the plug, recognizing the de facto boundary line and calling it a day. It is likely impossible. We know that the Armenians and the Turks still have a very difficult relationship based on what happened early the previous century – the Armenian genocide or however people want to call it. The relationship is still poor, and we have no reason to believe the relationship between the Ukrainians and Russians will improve any time soon either. But do you think Russia is capable of change? That its future leaders will condemn the war, admit that it was criminal, also condemn the deportations and do it sincerely?

First, life is constantly moving. We all know what Heraclitus said about it being impossible to step in the same river twice, whereas we often forget that in addition to the river, the observer will also have changed. Russia is also changing.

But my life experience, as someone who lived in the conditions of Soviet occupation for over 30 years, tells me that Russia will never become like the occident or the West. Such hope would be misplaced.

What could we do as Estonians and the Estonian state about these deportations and especially the abduction of children?

We can do one thing which might seem simple but could turn out otherwise. We need to tell the story, we must not allow it to be forgotten. We must offer these Ukrainian children a platform, the chance to tell their story and take it to the international public, to show what tragedies they have fallen victim to. For the occidental person living in comfort to realize that such things are still happening in the 21st century and are unacceptable.

Do people living west of us even grasp the magnitude of these deportations? Has the fact that children are being abducted even been acknowledged? Or is it just a kind of episodic knowledge, something someone has said, while its scope hasn't been realized, which is how these things seem to me?

I'm afraid they might not. The sheer volume of daily news buries us under its weight and a new layer is added every day. It is the scope that matters.

When I served as ambassador to London, I explained deportations in Estonia in terms of relative importance in population or how many people would have been deported from the U.K. That worked. If you tell a Brit that 80,000-90,000 people were affected, the figure sounds relatively modest, while if you say it would have been two or three million people, that has an entirely different effect.


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Editor: Kristjan Pihl, Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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