A key political ally of Vladimir Putin has adopted a detained child from a Ukrainian orphanage, according to documents revealed by BBC Panorama.
Sergei Mironov, the 70-year-old leader of a Russian political party, is listed in the adoption records of a two-year-old girl kidnapped in 2022 by a woman he was married to.
Records show the girl’s identity was changed in Russia. Mr Mironov did not respond to a request for comment.
The child, initially named Margarita, was one of 48 people who went missing from a Kherson regional children’s home when Russian forces took control of the city.
They are among about 20,000 children the Ukrainian government says have been captured by Russian forces since the full-scale invasion began in 2022. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for President Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for allegedly illegally deporting Ukrainian children to the region.
Territory controlled by Russia, with a view to permanent expulsion. Surname of their own country.
The Russian government said it did not deport Ukrainian children but evacuated them to protect them from war.
The BBC worked with Ukrainian human rights investigator Victoria Novikova to find out what happened to Margarita and the other children.
Ms Novikova prepared a new dossier of evidence for the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine to forward to the ICC.
The 10-month-old was receiving treatment for bronchitis at Kherson’s children’s hospital in August 2022 when a woman wearing a lilac dress appeared. This is when the mystery surrounding Margarita started.
Margarita was the youngest inhabitant of the nearby children’s home, which provided care for kids with health issues or whose parents had passed away or lost custody.
Margarita’s father was absent, and her mother had relinquished custody soon after the child was born.
Her paediatrician, Dr. Nataliya Lyutikova, described her as a happy baby who cherished person cuddles.
The woman in the lilac shirt introduced herself as “the person incharge of children’s affairs in Moscow,”Dr. Lyutikova recalled
Kherson – now back under Ukrainian control – was then in its sixth month of Russian occupation.
Immediately after the woman left, Dr. Lyutikova said she received several phone calls from a Russian-appointed official who had just been put in charge of the nursery. The manager asked to take Margarita home immediately.
Within a week, Margarita was discharged from the hospital. The next morning, nursery staff were asked to prepare the girl for the trip.
“We are very scared, everyone is scared,” said Lyubov Sayko, a nurse at the home.
She described how Russian men – some wearing military-style camouflage pants, another wearing dark glasses and holding a briefcase – came to pick up the girl.
“It feels like it came out of a movie,” she said.
Seven weeks later, Igor Kastyukevich, a Russian military deputy, arrived at the house and with other officials began organizing the deportation of the remaining children, including Margarita’s half-brother, Maxym.
“They took them away from us and executed them,” Ms. Sayko said The video – posted by Mr Kastyukevich on Telegram – shows children dressed in outdoor clothing being carried onto buses and ambulances, then driven away.
“The children will be safely taken to Crimea,” Mr. Kastyukevich said as the children were loaded into the car. Crimea was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. Mr Kastyukevich described the event as a humanitarian mission.
Midnight train For five months, the BBC tried to find Margarita and 47 other children in collaboration with Victoria Novikova.
Finding lost children in a large country like Russia, a country with an area of more than 17 million square kilometers, is not an easy task. The first task is to identify the mysterious woman in a lilac shirt who visited Margarita in the hospital last August.
Victoria discovers a Russian document authorizing Margarita’s transfer to a Moscow hospital for medical examination. A woman is named in the document: Inna Varlamova.
A search on social media confirmed her as the mystery woman in the lilac suit. We then showed Ms. Varlamova’s photo to Dr. Lyutikova and she identified her as the woman who had visited Margarita in the children’s ward.
After further research, we discovered that Ms. Varlamova works in the Russian Parliament, although it is unclear what position, and that she owns a property in Podolsk, near Moscow.
We have solved part of the mystery. But there are still questions.
“Margarita did not need any special examination,” Dr. Lyutikova said of the night the child was taken away. “Why take a child so far. ”
Panorama looks into the fate of around 40 kids who were abducted by Russian authorities from a Kherson children’s home. Collaborating with Ukrainian journalists, the filmmakers unearth proof of a covert adoption, forged birth certificates, and a trail of evidence that reaches the Russian parliament.
With Inna Varlamova’s name in hand, Panorama then obtained train records from Russian sources. These programs show her arriving in occupied Ukraine on the same day witnesses say Margarita was taken from the nursery.
That evening, at 12:20, Ms. Varlamova took the train back to Moscow, bringing with her a return ticket. Margarita, according to evidence, was in high spirits on that midnight train.
A Russian source then provided another important piece of information: a document showing that Ms. Varlamova had recently married political party leader Sergei Mironov.
Mironov, a former paratrooper, is a member of the Russian opposition, leader of the Just Russia Party and a supporter of President Putin.
It has been endorsed by several Western countries, including the UK and the EU.
Then came the big reveal.
I obtained the birth certificate of a 14-month-old girl named “Marina” written last December. The boy’s parents were Inna Varlamova and Sergey Mironov.
The registration was irregular and there were no original documents to confirm the birth of the child.
“Marina’s” birthday is set for October 31, 2021, the day Margarita was born.
“I knew it was ‘Bingo’ when I saw that Marina’s birthday was the same as Margarita’s,” Victoria said.
Our team received information about Margarita’s adoption from anonymous Russian sources. Margarita Prokopenko was renamed Marina Mironova after her stepfather Sergei Mironov.
His birthplace is called Podolsk.
The Russian government said it was not aware of the Margarita case and could not comment.
Earlier this year, when the International Criminal Court indicted President Putin and his children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, the court alleged that hundreds of Ukrainian children had been illegally deported from orphanages and orphanages.
This is beyond “target”.
Deport these children forever from their countries.
This happened after President Putin decided to issue a decree making it easier for Russians to adopt Ukrainian children.
Ms. Lvov-Belov said that Russia only places children in foster care or guardianship.
“We don’t adopt,” she said last month.
“This is a very important fact, because adoption means that the child is completely indigenous. You can change his surname, first name, patronymic [middle name], you can change his place of birth.”
However, in response to our inquiry, the Russian government said it was “wrong” to think that Russia was preventing the adoption of Ukrainian children from newly declared Russian territories. It says that much of Ukraine is now considered part of Russia and that people living there, including children, are Russian citizens.
We have written to Sergey Mironov and Inna Varlamova and asked where Margarita is now, but they have not yet responded.
Almost all other children taken from their homes are believed to remain in Russian hands.
According to Russian authorities, at least 17 people are in Crimea.
Viktoriya Novikova said that everyone had relatives in Ukraine.
Ukraine said it had confirmed that 19,546 children had been taken to Russia.
Fewer than 400 people are reported to have returned.
Russia disputes these figures.
Moscow says it will help reunite children with family or friends if a legal claim is made and the children are recovered. But many parents do not know where their children are, and the process of finding and retrieving them is difficult and complicated.
As far as is known, only one child from the Kherson orphanage was brought to Ukraine.
Last month, three-year-old Viktor Puzik was taken from Crimea by his mother, Olha, while he was awaiting surgery due to his health condition.
She said it was painful to wait for him to be safe.
“I keep thinking where is he, how is he doing? Is he still alive or dead? Everything ran through my mind.”
Victoria hopes to find all the other missing children from the Kherson orphanage, but fears that they will soon be discovered.
“Time is not on our side,” she said.
“The problem is that (Russian authorities) are trying to erase children’s identities by issuing Russian birth certificates and even passports.”
At the same time, she did not give up hope of returning Margarita to Ukraine.
She has not found any relatives to take Margarita in with, so the Ukrainian government has appointed her as the little girl’s legal guardian and plans to petition the Russian authorities for deportation.
“The world needs to know that Margarita exists. They wanted to erase him. We have to bring her back.”