By Anton Zverev
(Reuters) – A Kremlin official involved in what international prosecutors call the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia was associated online as a teenager with white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements, Reuters has found.
The material posted online by Alexei Petrov between 2011 and 2014 remained on his social media account until late July this year when, following questions posed by Reuters, he deleted some videos, unsubscribed from two far-right online groups, and made one of his accounts private.
Petrov is a 27-year-old advisor in the office of Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Lvova-Belova, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on charges of committing a war crime by forcibly deporting hundreds of children from Ukraine and taking them to Russia.
Lvova-Belova has denied committing any war crime. She has said vulnerable children were taken to Russia to shelter them from violence and protect them from a leadership in Ukraine that she has described as “Fascists” who have allowed “the virus of Nazism” to make a comeback.
Reuters found that when Petrov was aged between 16 and 19 he made at least three posts on social media containing videos, images or messages from a far-right organization that originated in Russia and promotes white racial supremacy, as well as three images and slogans associated with neo-Nazism.
Petrov’s Skype handle incorporates the name of the white supremacist organization, Wotanjugend, and his Instagram handle contains a coded reference to Adolf Hitler widely used in far-right circles.
He had not changed his Skype handle as of July 31 this year. His Instagram account was disabled but Reuters was able to discern the handle because Petrov linked to it from his account on the VKontakte social media app. He deleted that link the day Reuters submitted its questions about his online activity to his employer.
A London-based private intelligence service called Molfar disclosed publicly in a Jan. 3, 2023 report about Russia’s removal of children from Ukraine that Petrov’s Skype handle is wotan_jugend8989. His other online associations to far-right and white supremacist movements have not previously been reported.
While Petrov posted content from or related to white supremacist and far-right groups, in none of the posts seen by Reuters did Petrov explicitly endorse them.
In a statement responding to Reuters questions, Petrov said: “Unequivocally, I never had, nor do I have, any links to neo-Nazi organisations. I have never been a member of, and did not have social network accounts linked to or relating to, Nazi organisations.” He said it was impossible for him to remember what he reposted years ago, and since then groups on social networks could have changed their names, their activities, and their orientation. He did not specifically address any of the online posts or account handles that Reuters found.
The office of Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights did not respond to Reuters questions. A Kremlin spokesman also did not respond.
A Dec. 16, 2022 European Union decision imposing sanctions on Petrov said he is “involved in the illegal transportation of Ukrainian children to Russia and their adoption by Russian families.”
Petrov did not reply to Reuters’ questions about the sanctions. He said in his statement he was helping children in need.
When Russia gave a presentation on April 5 this year to the United Nations Security Council to rebut allegations about its treatment of Ukrainian children, Petrov was among the speakers.
In a video shared during that presentation, Petrov was shown alongside children at a Russian-organised camp for Ukrainian children. He said in the video the aim of the camps is that: “through friendly communication, the kids will find their childhood dreams which will in the future become a reality for them.”
His employer, which organizes the camps, say they prepare youngsters for life in Russia. Ukraine says they strip children of their national identity by making them sing the Russian national anthem and learn Russian history, as well as teaching them classes on Russian patriotism.
Reuters couldn’t independently establish the activities at the camps nor Petrov’s precise role in them.
Reuters was able to link the Skype account wotan_jugend8989 to Petrov because he used an email address associated with him to set it up. Reuters also found around a dozen online forums – from soccer fan sites to car enthusiast sites – which Petrov joined using variations on “wotan_jugend8989” as his handle. In addition, in 2013 and 2014, Petrov’s VKontakte social media account posted Wotanjugend videos, and he shared an announcement about a Wotanjugend festival.
In response to Reuters questions, an administrator for the Wotanjugend online community said he did not know Petrov and it was unlikely Petrov had ever been a member. The administrator said the group promotes a right-wing world view, and many of its followers back Ukraine in its war with Russia because they want to overthrow the Russian state.
Petrov’s Instagram account had the handle “fanat1k8814.” The numbers 88 are commonly used by neo-Nazis because “H” – for “Heil” and “Hitler” – is the eighth letter in the alphabet. The number 14 is associated in far-right circles with “the Fourteen Words,” a slogan originated by David Lane, a member of U.S. white supremacist group The Order, according to U.S.-based anti-extremism campaign group the Anti-Defamation League. The slogan relates to protecting the purity of the white race.
Petrov in 2013 posted this comment on his VKontakte account: “The Roman salute, from the heart to the sun.” The phrase has been used among neo-Nazis to describe a Nazi-style salute.
Petrov also posted on his VKontakte account on Sept 16, 2012 a picture showing a T-shirt with a variation of the Celtic cross. The symbol is associated with neo-Nazis, according to the Fare Network, a civil society group that monitors extremism in soccer. The same picture shows a baseball cap with the numbers “88” printed on the front.
Petrov unsubscribed from more than 150 VKontakte groups after Reuters submitted its questions, according to a publicly-available list on his account of the groups to which he is subscribed. One, called “Stay White,” describes itself as a group for Slavs who want to revive “Great Russia.”
(Reporting by Alexei Zverev; Editing by Christian Lowe and Daniel Flynn)