The SOS Children's Village in Kandalaksha was built with Norwegian money. Now it houses kids deported from Ukraine
It was a unique initiative aimed at helping the major number of orphans in the Murmansk region. In a spirit of people-to-people cooperation, the SOS Children’s Villages in Norway reached out to its sister organization in neighboring Russia.
Ordinary Norwegians were more than willing to support. Big sums were collected among people in the country, first for the building of the village and later for its management.
Among the donators were thousands of Norwegian school children, many of them from northern Norway, that collected money as part of a school fundraising effort.
“Peace and friendship”
In 2003, the Children’s Village in Kandalaksha stood ready. It included 12 brand new buildings with space for up to 90 kids. The children were offered care and followup, schooling and kindergartens.
At the time, it was the fourth village of the kind in Russia, and the first in the Russian North. Later, several more SOS Children’s villages were built in the country, many of them supported by donations from abroad.
An opening ceremony took place in Kandalaksha in August 2024. On site was the regional Russian governor and Norway’s general consul, and a big number of Norwegian guests. Among them was Märtha Louise, the Norwegian princess.
“I’m confident that peace and friendship between our two nations will continue to prosper and flourish,” the Princess said in her speech. “And we should keep in mind that peace starts with the children. If we give our children love and care, there is a much greater chance that they will become tolerant, peace-loving members of society,” she continued.
Over the years, the Children’s Village in Kandalaksha helped hundreds of kids. But something soon started to look dubious in the Russian branch of the international organization.
In 2009, Mikhail Barannikov was appointed President of SOS Children’s Villages in Russia. Barannikov was also Editor of the Pionerskaya Pravda, a children’s newspaper that promotes Soviet-style patriotic upbringing.
The latest edition of the newspaper published on the 9th of June 2023, has a long story about Artek, the patriotic summer camps for kids held annually on the south coast of the Crimea.
Later, several controversial people were included in the organization board. Among them was Filipp Voronin, also known as adviser in the federal Ministry of Labour and Social Protection and project director at the Agency of Strategic Initiatives (ASI).
The ASI is closely associated with the Kremlin. It was founded by the Russian government and Vladimir Putin is Chairman of its supervisory board.
In the board is today also Lev Yakobson, the economist and professor at the Higher School of Economics. In 2020, Yakobson was awarded the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky by Vladimir Putin.
As Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine in early 2022, pressure increased on the Russian SOS Children’s Villages. It soon became clear that several of them were involved in caregiving for Ukrainian children deported from occupied territories.
Among the villages involved is the one in Kandalaksha.
Photos and video made available by Alevtina Andreeva, the Children’s Ombudswoman in Murmansk, show how she herself visits a foster family with four kids from the Donetsk region.
Murmansk Ombudswoman for Children Alvetina Andreeva visits kids from Donetsk in a foster family in Kandalaksha together with representatives of the regional Investigative Committee. Video by the Murmansk Investigative Committee.
The visit was made in connection with the International Day for Protection of Children and the kids were given presents.
Ombudswoman Andreeva made the visit together with representatives of the Murmansk regional Investigative Committee, a body that reportedly has gotten a special responsibility for following up the deported children.
Regional Governor Andrei Chibis has himself been actively involved in getting the Ukrainian children to Murmansk. In December 2022, Chibis was put on the EU’s sanctions list for the deporting of kids to his region.
Also Norway soon joined the sanctions against the regional leader.
End of support
Norwegian funds continued to support the Kandalaksha SOS Children’s Village until late 2022.
In a comment on the 28th of February 2022, four days after the start of the full-scale attack on Ukraine, leader of SOS Children’s Village in Norway Sissel Aarak underlined that her organization intended to continue to support the Russian kids.
“It is important to underline that the support for the SOS Children’s Village’s work for Russian kids and families is no way is a support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
“No child has ever started a war, but they are always the ones that are hardest hit by war and conflict,” she said.
But the position of the Norwegians ultimately changed. In late 2022, the organization announced that it was freezing its funds for Russia.
The halt in cooperation came after news that 13 Ukrainian kids had been moved to SOS Children’s Villages in Russia.
Shortly later, the international mother organization started suspension proceedings against the Russian member association.
“It has recently come to our attention that SOS Children’s Villages Russia has been awarded state funding to support further children and families from Ukraine, currently in Russia,” a statement reads.
As of the 18th of March 2023, all international funding to SOS Children’s Villages Russia was frozen.
The Barents Observer has tried to reach out to the Children’s village in Kandalaksha, but leader Andrei Dorofeev has not responded to a request to comment on the Ukrainian children and the organization’s future without Norwegian support.
According to Sigurd Skjefstad, press spokesman for the SOS Children’s Villages in Norway, all transfer of funds for the Russian orphanage was halted in October-November 2022. In a comment to the Barents Observer, he explains that some of the the private donators decided to quit their support, but that most of them agreed to move their support to children in other countries.
Until before the war, there were about 2,500 people in Norway that on a regular basis donated money to the orphanages in Russia.
It is unclear exactly how many Ukrainian children that have been deported to Russia. According to Children’s Ombudswoman Andreeva from Murmansk, a total of 125 Ukrainian kids were by late September 2022 in Russian foster care.
According to a report issued by the OSCE in March 2023, there is uncertainty regarding the exact number of Ukrainian kids displaced from their home country. But the fact of a large-scale displacement of Ukrainian children is not disputed by either Ukraine and/or Russia, the organization concludes.
The report that is based on comprehensive fact-finding efforts, also underlines that Russian authorities actively hindre the return of the kids,
“The Russian Federation does not take any steps to actively promote the return of Ukrainian children. Rather, it creates various obstacles for families seeking to get their children back. To date, neither this Mission nor the Ukrainian authorities have been able to establish even a list of the children concerned, let alone their whereabouts, despite having approached the Russian authorities with such requests.”
In certain cases, there are grave breaches of the Geneva Convention IV (GCIV) and war crimes, the OSCE informs.
“Holiday in Russia”
At the same time, Russia continues to move children from occupied lands to Russia. Representatives of Murmansk Government confirm that 230 kids from Primorsk, the occupied Ukrainian town that Murmansk has been given responsibility for, will leave for summer holiday in Russia.
Similarly, the Governor of the far northern Yamal Nenets AO confirms that more than 1,500 local Ukrainian school kids from the occupied town of Volnovakha will be sent to summer camps in Russia.
Russian children at risk
Ultimately, it is the children that are the biggest victims of war. And the future of the Russian kids that now are abandoned by the international community is uncertain.
The SOS Children’s Villages in Norway appeared to be confident that the Russian youngsters will be taken well care of without international support.
“The national organization in Russia has funding to continue to provide care for children in their programs in a good way,” the Norwegians informed in November 2022.
But the international part of the organization appears more uncertain.
“SOS Children’s Villages International has serious concerns about SOS Children’s Villages Russia’s cooperation with the state childcare system, while that same state is accused of massively violating children’s rights,” it reported in March 2023.