Russia’s ‘most hidden crime’ in the Ukraine war: rape

The Russian soldier taunted her: “Your friend,” he taunted, “lying raped and naked and dead on the ground.”

S., a Ukrainian writer and government worker in her early 60s, froze at his words. Her neighbor Tetiana, a plucky, dark-haired 37-year-old widow, had quickly attracted the attention of Russian soldiers, who, within days of the February 24 invasion, captured and occupied the small town of Makariv, some 30 miles west of the Capital Kyiv.

“She would defy them,” S. said, still shaken and sad as she described the harrowing events of five months earlier, before late winter cold gave way to spring and then midsummer. “She would tell them, ‘I’m not afraid of you.'”

S. holds the door of her home, which was kicked in by Russian forces

S. holds the door of her home, which was kicked in by Russian forces.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For the Time)

Weeks would pass before the outside world learned of the horrors unfolding in the streets, basements and backyards of these once-quiet suburbs and satellite towns, which were occupied for about a month before Russian forces called off a failed attempt to capture the capital in early April.

City dwellers, unable or unwilling to flee, endured the first wave of what Western governments and Ukrainian officials would later describe as a systematic campaign of atrocities by Russian forces against civilians: torture, execution killings, starvation.

And rape.

Little by little, month after month, investigators have laid the groundwork for what are now more than 25,000 active war crimes allegations cases, covering a variety of offenses.

Investigators piece together narratives from eyewitness accounts, from forensic examinations of mutilated bodies that still turn up regularly — a body was recently found hidden under a manhole cover outside of Kyiv — from intercepted communications from Russian soldiers describing their own actions, or from surveillance cameras monitored traffic and deterred shoplifters after the war.

However, as the war nears the six-month mark, sexual assault cases are proving particularly resistant to documentation.

A woman on a bicycle rides past a brown house

A woman on a bicycle passes the house of S.’s dead neighbor in Makariv, Ukraine.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For the Time)

The Attorney General’s Office said last week that “several dozen” criminal cases related to sexual violence by Russian military personnel were pending. But police, prosecutors and advisers say the true number is likely much larger, in part because they are reluctant to report such attacks.

“Sexual violence in this war is the most hidden crime,” Ukrainian civil society activist Natalia Karbowska told the UN Security Council in June.

A complex tangle of reasons underpins this silence. Some, like Tetiana, did not survive to tell their stories. Some fled the country, joining a massive exodus and have no contact with Ukrainian authorities. Others feel ashamed and cling to the belief that somehow they could have prevented what happened to them. Or a sexual assault could have occurred in the context of a separate, overwhelming loss during the war: a home destroyed, a loved one killed.

Still others look to the near-industrial scale atrocities occurring elsewhere – daily bombing of civilian areas; the deaths last month of dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war in what is evidenced to be a premeditated mass execution by Russian forces; Reports of torture, imprisonment and kidnappings in currently occupied territories – and telling themselves to put their private torment behind.

“They think others have suffered more,” says Nadiia Volchenska, a 32-year-old Kyiv psychologist who co-founded a network that connects victims of sexual assault with counselors. She said people who have been raped or sexually abused in the course of this conflict — most are women and girls, but many are men and boys — are often reluctant to speak privately to a therapist, let alone to the police or other investigators go and create a detailed invoice.

A fallen fence in a residential building

A fence damaged by Russian forces stands in front of S’s house in Makariv, which was under Russian occupation at the beginning of the war against Ukraine.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For the Time)

“Quite often after making initial contact with us,” she said, “people just disappear.”


Rape as a weapon is as old as war itself. The goal, say those involved in such cases, is to humiliate and degrade, to break the spirits of the defenders, to fracture families and communities, to create a sense of to convey hopelessness and despair. It often leaves debris too deep to repair.

“Of course, it’s not about sexual gratification,” said Natalya Zaretska, a trained military psychologist who currently works as a volunteer with the Territorial Defense Forces, working with people in the formerly occupied areas of Kyiv Oblast or province. “Rape is a tool used to attempt to achieve this goal of submission.”

Ukrainian officials believe a Russian terror campaign targeting civilians has been sanctioned at the highest level, rather than the work of rogue troops. The Kremlin has derided well-documented atrocities in occupied territories as fabrication, so it is considered vital for Ukraine to gather evidence and proceed with prosecutions, even if such reckoning takes many years.

“Evil must be punished, otherwise it will spread,” said Andriy Nebytov, the police chief of the Kyiv region.

Authorities are cautious about the details of the sexual assault cases being investigated, but in a statement in response to written inquiries from the Los Angeles Times, the attorney general’s office cited some representative examples.

In the city of Chernihiv, north of the capital, a commander of a Russian unit used “physical and psychological violence” on a 16-year-old girl, threatening to kill family members if she opposed his sexual advances or hand her over to others instead being raped in a group. In Brovary, east of Kyiv, a soldier was charged in absentia for repeatedly raping the wife of a killed civilian. In another case in the same district, soldiers singled out a woman for assault and herded others into a locked basement. Another, Ukrainian officials say, was raped with her young child nearby.

Using carefully crafted language, prosecutors identified obstacles investigators faced, including the need to protect the privacy of minors and avoid re-traumatizing survivors. However, sheer stigmatization was described as the overriding factor.

“Women who have been raped,” the statement said, “do not want to spread such information about themselves.”


Those who lived under Russian occupation at the start of the war describe a sickening sense of constant fear.

A house is damaged

A damaged house in Makariv, Ukraine.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For the Time)

S., who declined to give her full first name because some of the troops who occupied Makariv in March are still in Ukraine, is working with authorities to try to identify those involved in Tetiana’s attack and death . Some of the occupiers addressed each other by name or nickname and assisted in this process.

On her smartphone, S. showed photos of individual soldiers sent to her by prosecutors who have been following the unit’s activities for months and have sourced images of the suspects from social media and elsewhere. She recognized several, including those who regularly came to her house and Tetiana’s simple brick house next door to loot, carouse, and threaten. She feared one in particular, a Chechen whose erratic behavior led her to believe he was on drugs.

When the Russians arrived, S. was taking care of her 90-year-old mother, who was in poor health and vehemently refused to leave. But in the weeks that followed, the violence and fickleness of the soldiers convinced them that they must seize any chance to escape.

A neighbor was shot dead by soldiers, eventually dying of his wounds, and S. was told his wife had been sexually abused. (This woman refused to speak to journalists about what had happened.) One day, a young soldier came to S’s own house and tried to get her to go upstairs with him. Fearing he would rape her, she tried to dissuade him by noting the 30-year age difference.

Meanwhile, other soldiers came into the house and told the suspected attacker that he was needed elsewhere, and he eventually went with them. S. felt a wave of horrified relief.

The day she, her mother, Tetiana and a house nurse were promised to drive to safety with a neighbor, her friend was nowhere to be found. Troops again burst into S.’s house, one of them behaving strangely and demanding a bandage for an injury. After downing a shot of vodka, he blurted out news of her friend’s fate.

S. looks out of a broken window

In Makariv, S. still often thinks of her neighbor Tetiana, of her sense of humor, her quirks, her determination. S. looks at the house where her friend once lived and tries to picture her vividly and vividly.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For the Time)

Soldiers refused to see Tetiana’s body, S said. Eventually, a soldier she believed to be an ethnic Buryat from Siberia offered to let her speak to someone who he said knew the full story. This soldier told S. that Tetiana had been raped by several others and that the Chechen was the one who stabbed and killed her. When ordered to bury the naked body, the soldier told S. that they had first wrapped the body in a blanket.

“I was ashamed that she’s dead and I’m alive,” she said months later on a hot summer afternoon, while brewing tea for visitors and keeping an eye on her mother dozing in a chair nearby. “I have this guilt.”

Rape counselors say that with many cases of assault taking place early in the war, some of these people may have regained their balance enough to talk about what happened to them.

“Sometimes we see that about six months later, the beginning of a willingness to open up,” said Volchenska, the Kiev therapist. “But now we are expecting a wave of similar cases from Kherson” – a southern city captured by Russia early in the invasion and which Ukrainian forces hope to retake.

“The problem is that you have to feel confident about speaking,” she said. “And really, nowhere in the country is safe.”

In Makariv, S. still often thinks of Tetiana – her humor, her quirks, her determination. Every day she looks at the now empty house where her friend once lived and tries to picture her alive and alive. She remembers Tetiana telling her about a dream she had during the scary days of occupation.

“In it she was on the cloud and flying,” said S.. “It was so peaceful. It was so good.” Russia’s ‘most hidden crime’ in the Ukraine war: rape

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