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Russia’s children’s rights commissioner builds “boarding house” for disabled Ukrainians, claims 75% of their pensions

Cover photo: Sofia Lvova-Belova (left), head of the Kvartal Lui charity and sister of Russia's Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova

The Russian authorities are not only kidnapping children from Ukraine, but also disabled citizens — people whose property and money they can dispose of freely by acting on their behalf in court, according to a report by the independent investigative outlet Important Stories (IStories) and The Reckoning Project. The journalists spoke to one of those displaced, who confirmed that no one had asked for his consent about being “relocated” to Russia.

The Russian Presidential Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, supervises the deportations. The displaced are housed in a district in the city of Penza called “Novye Berega” (lit. “New Shores”) — a place for people with disabilities and for others with physical and mental disabilities who became too old to remain in orphanages. The displaced disabled are quickly issued Russian citizenship and a disability pension, after which the institution claims 75% of this support payment for the right of residence. (This is a standard practice for such institutions in Russia, and it also happens in care homes for the elderly.)

The “Novye Berega” complex in Penza
The “Novye Berega” complex in Penza
Photo: Kvartal Lui, IStories

“Novye Berega” is the most ambitious project of the Penza-based charity Kvartal Lui (lit. “Louis’ Quarter”), which was created by Lvova-Belova. IStories journalists discovered that the construction of “Novye Berega” cost more than 208 million roubles ($2.25 million).

The state, oligarchs, and local business all pooled funds to support the large-scale construction project. Donors included former Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich, billionaire nickel magnate Vladimir Potanin, “Orthodox oligarch” Konstantin Malofeev, and Vladimir Putin’s close personal friend Gennady Timchenko, as per the organization's financial reports. According to IStories’ calculations, Kvartal Lui’s projects received a total of almost 160 million roubles from Russia’s presidential grants fund, ranking it as the second-largest recipient in the “social protection” category since 2017.

Russia's Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova in the occupied Kherson Region
Russia's Children's Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova in the occupied Kherson Region

Initially, “Kvartal Lui” and “Novye Berega” were headed by Maria Lvova-Belova herself. At different times, almost all her relatives managed to work in the organization: her father Alexei Lvov-Belov, husband Pavel Kogelman, and brothers Pavel and Fyodor (both of whom work in Kvartal Lui’s branch in Krasnodar). The official’s youngest sister, Sofia, was the architect and designer of the project. In the spring of 2023, she came to head the foundation, becoming its executive director. She personally welcomed the boarding school wards who were displaced from Ukraine.

Shortly before the grand opening of Novye Berega, Russian propaganda reported that “residents from [the] new regions” — euphemism used to refer to the Russian-occupied Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions of Ukraine — were brought to Penza: six from the Shakhtarsk orphanage located in the occupied Donetsk Region and four wheelchair-bound children from the Kherson Region in southern Ukraine. The Russian media wrote about their arrival as a solemn event, and the so-called “authorities” of the annexed territories thanked the Russian leadership and promised to show the children “how interesting it is in Russia.” Russian state-owned media also claimed that the children themselves expressed no desire to return to Ukraine, stating that they are satisfied with their current situation.

However, these Kremlin media claims are contradicted by firsthand accounts. Oleksandr Danylchuk, a 27-year-old who was among those displaced to Russia, told reporters that no one had actually inquired about their willingness to relocate:

“On the 15th [of November 2023], I didn't know yet that we were going [to Russia]. And on the 16th we were already told — they came to my room and told me to pack. And where [we were going] — no one said anything. Alla [Barkhatnova, the “head” of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Kherson Region] came in and said: ‘You, my dears, are going to Penza, to Russia.’ [...] [Already in Penza] I told them that I wanted to leave. And Sonia [Sofia Lvova-Belova] said, ‘Well, maybe you'll get used to us?’ I said, ‘Sonia, well, how old am I? What am I, 10 years old? How can I get used to it? I have friends there, my foster parents are there.’”

Oleksandr added that while still in the occupied territories, they began receiving Russian passports and were issued bank cards for allowances. “By making these documents, they think we will live in Russia. They think we belong to them,” he wrote to his former tutor.

IStories and The Reckoning Project found only eight cases in which relatives managed to get back the children taken from the Oleshky boarding school — this was the boarding school where all those taken to Russia had lived before. It was very difficult to return the abducted persons. Those recognized as disabled are forcibly granted Russian citizenship, and their families are informed that repatriation is impossible without a Russian international passport. The families then have to navigate the bureaucratic process of issuing the passport on their own.

IStories cited a woman named Oksana as saying that she was unable to bring her daughter home for over a month due to the bureaucratic requirement that she obtain an international travel document after being forced to accept Russian citizenship:

“[My daughter] was brought from Oleshky to Skadovsk, and from Skadovsk to Strilkove. There they gave her a Russian passport and told her that to leave now she needed a Russian foreign passport. We had to wait for a month while it was being issued.”

In one case, the parents of an abducted boy were required to undergo a DNA test to prove their relationship, as the grandmother was informed by a court that her documentation had errors, preventing the child's return without this verification.

Forced displacement is a war crime

Gleb Bogush, an international law expert and University of Copenhagen researcher, told The Insider that the forced displacement of civilians without just cause may constitute a war crime and, under specific conditions, could also be classified as a crime against humanity.

Maria Lvova-Belova has already received one such accusation. On March 17, 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both officials were accused of the same crimes: “the war crime of unlawful deportation of population (children) and that of unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes, (i) for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others, and (ii) for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control,” read a press release issued by the ICC.

Lvova-Belova herself said she perceived the ICC decision as a positive assessment of her work. She called the displacement an “evacuation” and justified it by her alleged concern for the children's interests. Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly stated that these actions are classified as deportation and genocide from the point of view of international law.

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