On the eve of the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, Maria Lvova-Belova stood before Vladimir Putin and thanked him for giving her another child to raise.
Russia’s smiley ombudswoman for children’s rights had just briefed the president on how many Ukrainian children had been “saved” since the war started.
Among the estimated 750,000 young people who had “arrived in Russia” was Filipp Golovnya, a 17-year-old boy from Mariupol – now her adopted son.
Filipp has become something of a poster boy for Russia’s programme to “rescue” children of war.
He had – the story goes – been found among the rubble in his coastal city flattened by two months of Russian bombing, and had nowhere to go.
But friends and relatives have now told The Telegraph that the boy was likely taken by Russia against his will, casting doubt on the official account broadcast on Russian television.
Thousands of Ukrainian children are thought to have been forcibly taken into Russia and adopted or fostered in a campaign of “Russification”.
Lvova-Belova, 38, and Putin, 70, are wanted by the International Criminal Court for the “unlawful deportation of children” – a war crime.
State television claims that the Russians saved Filipp after he was kicked out of his home during the invasion.
He was living with his mother’s ex-husband and new wife, who were appointed guardians following his mother’s death from cancer in 2017.
The foster parents, now living under tightly controlled Russian occupation, have never publicly contested the official Russian story.
But they are unlikely to be able to speak freely, said friends and family of Filipp.
Vitaly Golovnya, a brother of Filipp’s guardian Sergei, rejected the Russian claims about Filipp.
“There is no way they could have just thrown him out,” said Mr Golovnya, who fled into Ukrainian-held territory during the siege of Mariupol.
“We were all in Mariupol together when it was captured,” he said.
“Filipp was simply forcibly taken away like many children.”
Mr Golovnya, who now lives abroad, said he was separated from his brother during the Russian invasion and has not spoken to him since Christmas.
Friends and relatives often avoid direct communication across the front lines, as they fear being associated with the enemy.
Many details about Filipp’s story are almost impossible to verify. It demonstrates prosecutors’ challenges in collecting evidence to bring Putin, Lvova-Belova, and other potential suspects to trial.
The Russian story of Filipp is told through This is My Child, a half-hour documentary broadcast on an ultra-nationalist television channel, complete with dramatic footage of war-ravaged Mariupol and interviews with him and his new foster mother.
He says that Ukrainian troops at some point “entered Mariupol” and threw Molotov cocktails at civilians – claims that run counter to well-established facts about one of the bloodiest chapters of Russia’s war.
The bespectacled teenager fidgets nervously with a ring on his index finger during the interview. He explains how he was sheltering in a basement of his block when the building caught fire.
“I went home,” says Filipp.
“My guardian said: ‘What are you doing here? Go back to where you came from.’ He shut the door. I knocked again. I asked for my documents. He gave them to me and I walked away.”
The documentary then shows archive footage of scorched cars at a bombed-out location in Mariupol.
The Telegraph’s requests for telephone interviews with the boy’s guardians went unanswered.
But a friend of Irina Kalatalova, Mr Golovnya’s wife, also dismissed suggestions that the couple threw the boy out in the middle of a war.
“It’s just impossible,” Olga Tulainova told The Telegraph.
“I’ve known her most of my life. She’s not the person to do something like this.”
Ms Tulainova fled to government-controlled areas in Ukraine and has not kept in touch with Ms Kalatalova, a recurrent pattern between Ukraine’s now divided south and east.
An unnamed teacher of Filipp told Radio Free Europe’s Ukrainian this year she also doubted that Filipp’s guardians abandoned him.
The woman, who asked to be anonymous out of fear for her safety, said the boy was well taken care of in Mariupol and his foster parents were involved in the school.
This is My Child portrays Lvova-Belova, a blonde petite woman with a penchant for floaty dresses, as a saviour.
She is shown to give up her comfortable life in Moscow – where she is filmed entering a black Mercedes saloon in a white fur coat – to rescue children from smouldering Mariupol.
Filipp was taken from Mariupol to Russia-controlled Donetsk and later to a resort outside Moscow last spring, along with an unspecified number of other children.
Both Filipp and Lvova-Belova describe their meeting there as a kind of love at first sight.
“That moment I spoke to him I realised he’s mine: this is my child,” she said, while Filipp called her “the most wonderful person I’ve ever met”.
In the documentary, Lvova-Belova, a mother of 10 children – five biological and five adopted – is interviewed in front of a fireplace, sitting next to her husband Pavel Kogelman, an IT engineer-turned-Orthodox priest.
Over the past 17 months of the war, the Kremlin has tried to use the young and likeable role model as a human face for Russia’s deportation campaign.
Lvova-Belova is from Penza, a city 400 miles east of Moscow. She took over as ombudswoman for children’s rights in 2021 from her old friend and co-worker Anna Kuznetsova – another young mother with multiple children and an Orthodox priest for a husband.
Both were heavily involved in charity work, helping orphans and children with disabilities.
Oleg Sharipkov, a well-respected charity worker in Penza who met them in their 20s, described the pair as “just ordinary girls”.
Other former colleagues described her as a “charming young woman and a good fundraiser” who had a gift for getting people involved in her work.
Both Lvova-Belova and Kuznetsova did not appear to be devout Christians until the mid-2010s, when Putin’s third term in power ushered in an era of conservatism with a focus on “traditional values”.
The women became “a spin doctor’s dream” for the Kremlin, said Mr Sharipkov.
Lvova-Belova’s charity began receiving generous donations from Penza’s regional government and businesses that relied on the government for lucrative contracts.
Mr Sharipkov said that colleagues from other NGOs warned her of the risk of being drawn in too close to the Kremlin.
But Lvova-Belova soon started mingling with the governor and top local officials. She appeared to be competing with Kuznetsova on “who’d have more kids, who’d be more pious”, said Mr Sharipkov.
Mr Sharipkov, whose NGO was declared a “foreign agent” over his apparent refusal to toe the Kremlin line, said he was stunned by the transformation of Lvova-Belova.
“I think she does believe in what she says,” he said.
“She used to be someone who genuinely wanted to help others. Then apparently something clicks in your head – and before you know it you turn into a little monster.”
Exact figures on deportations vary, but Lvova-Belova herself reported in April that more than 730,000 children had “arrived in Russia” since the start of the invasion in February 2022.
Ukraine has identified at least 11,000 children deported to Russia and about 400 children who were put into foster care.
That would include Filipp, who joined Lvova-Belova’s family “all thanks to Putin”, as she told the Russian president himself in February.
Rights activists have condemned Russian officials for placing Ukrainian children into foster care without proper background checks. Russia insists it is saving children from the misery of war.
Ukrainian minors in foster care in Russia are trapped and face brainwashing, said Mykhailo Savva, an expert at the Nobel Prize-winning Centre for Civil Liberties in Kyiv.
“Those kids are the most vulnerable,” she told The Telegraph.
“They are not able to leave on their own. Those kids are at a particular risk – for them, the likelihood that they will lose their identity is very, very high. They are not old enough to have formed a worldview or resist attempts to impose a new one on them.”
The Telegraph contacted Mrs Lvova-Belova but received no response.