“You wanted it yourself.” What are the victims of violence by Russian military afraid of and what do they remain silent about?

Russian soldiers, having occupied part of Ukraine, use all available methods to terrorize the civilian population. They rob, intimidate, and torture people, trying to break their will to resist. One of the most heinous crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine is sexual violence.

As of today, law enforcement officials are investigating 178 cases of violence committed by Russian soldiers. The age of the victims ranges from 4 to 83 years old. Russian troops spare no one — they commit rapes in the presence of family members, threaten to kill loved ones, and subject people to starvation. As a result, the very fact of violence goes beyond the boundaries of a particularly serious crime against an individual and takes on the characteristics of genocide.


On March 8th, Russian military occupied the village of Bohdanivka in the Chernihiv region. The next day, a group of Russian soldiers entered the yard of resident Oleksiy Zdorovets and shot his Alabai dog. The commander of the group, who introduced himself as Mykhailo Romanov, first started harassing Oleksiy’s wife, then saw the camouflage jacket, got angry and started shooting over Oleksiy’s head. That day, Russian soldiers managed to convince themselves that the camouflage was equipment for airsoft, and Romanov left with the soldiers.

In the evening, he returned with a fellow soldier, killed Zdorovets and went to look for his wife, who was hiding in the boiler room with their three-year-old son. Romanov ordered the woman to come out of the shelter, and when she asked where her husband was, he replied that he was no longer there: “He was a Nazi, so I shot him.”

The soldier threatened the woman that he would kill her in front of her child, ordered her to undress, and raped her. Then his fellow serviceman did the same. Russians came to the house of Zdorovets’ family several times. During one of such “visits,” Russian soldiers were so drunk that they fell asleep on chairs where they sat to rest. The woman took advantage of the moment and escaped. She told The Times and Amnesty International what had happened to her.

Soon it became clear that this was not an isolated incident —  the more populated areas were liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces from Russian troops, the more shocking stories the Ukrainian and international community learned. Initially, journalists still tried to contact the families of identified rapists and call for the response of their parents or wives. In April of last year, the Security Service of Ukraine published another intercepted conversation of a Russian soldier, in which his wife “allows” her husband to rape Ukrainian women. The questions gradually exhausted themselves.

A large number of incidents quickly pointed to gaps in the system for investigating sexual violence. A separate specialization for such types of crimes began to form as early as 2021, according to Iryna Didenko, a prosecutor in charge of sexual violence cases at the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, as reported by RBC-Ukraine.

The new system, which started working according to the principles of the Istanbul Convention (Convention of the Council of Europe on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence), aimed to implement completely different approaches to investigating such cases. With the onset of full-scale war, it became clear that changes were needed now and universally — from the top to the local level.

“The system understood that it had a problem. Before, it didn’t even realize it. The attitude towards [violence – ed.]is the problem. Some people were summoned by subpoenas. Some were called for forensic examination. This is an old approach that needed to be eliminated,” said Iryna Didenko.


After the liberation of Ukrainian territories, prosecutors and investigators began to travel to the liberated villages and talk to residents. Didenko’s task was to find out to what extent violence was a widespread phenomenon.

“A signal came to us —  a woman reported that she had been a victim of violence, and we roughly understood where her house was located. And it turned out that I entered the wrong house. Another woman was standing in the yard. I asked her how she was doing, and she started crying. I asked if there had been violence, and she looked down. This is a sign that it had occurred,” the prosecutor recounted.

On the liberated territories, people were not always willing to communicate with law enforcement officers and were much more willing to engage with volunteers and doctors. “What do people want after the liberation? They want to eat and cover their windows with film. We realized that we couldn’t handle it ourselves and started to unite others around us,” said Iryna Didenko.

Prosecutors started traveling together with teams of doctors and volunteers. While they provided necessary aid to people, investigators carefully interviewed residents. The authorities developed special brochures with necessary information and contacts for those who didn’t want to speak at the moment. Potential victims had the opportunity to study the booklets, dial a phone number, or leave their contact information.

See also:  In the trap of silence, queues, and thousands of pieces of paper. How does the state test the families of fallen soldiers?

Karyna (name changed for victim’s safety reasons) did the same thing. When Russian military came to her village in the Kyiv region, she was 20 years old. At first, Russians walked the streets and took away the locals’ phones. Then they started taking women.

“There were no words or explanations. Just ‘undress’ and that was it. Everything was under the pretext of ‘talking about the phone’ that they took from me,” Karyna said in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

When her village was liberated and various services appeared in the city, Karyna passed on her phone number through an acquaintance. Investigators call this a “signal”, make contact with the victim and wait for her readiness. Sometimes it never comes — women and men who have suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers are afraid to reveal themselves, preferring to solve the problem with a psychologist.

Experts name several factors why victims do not want to talk about their experiences in public. Many are afraid that Russians will come back and take revenge. Some end their cooperation with law enforcement at the stage of working with local police. According to psychologist Natalia Potseluyeva, who works with the Andreiev Family Charitable Fund, changes in the work with victims are already noticeable, but so far they are at the top of the law enforcement vertical. The situation in the regions is somewhat different.

“A few days ago, a psychologist from Chernihiv who we invited to our educational project called me. They were transporting a woman after sexual assault, and the investigator from the juvenile police of law enforcement agencies said: ‘You wanted this yourself, that you were showing off. Show how you struggled, show the traces of torture, show how you fought,'” says Natalia Potseluyeva.

There were cases when investigators accidentally published full information about the victim — the details of the case instantly became public, and the victim of violence ended up working with law enforcement.

International Standards

The sensitive issue of sexual violence during military conflict required fundamentally new approaches for Ukraine, and they were quickly found. In the summer, employees of the Prosecutor General’s Office reported to newly appointed prosecutor Andriy Kostin. Iryna Didenko spoke about what needs to be changed, and the Prosecutor General decided to create a separate department that would be fully responsible for investigating sexual violence during military conflict.

“The first thing we did was to gather all the cases that exist in the regions and simply ask them to stop. Just do nothing, so as not to harm. Now we have two pilot regions that are working according to the new standards — Kherson and Kharkiv,” said Didenko.

The Prosecutor General’s Office began to cooperate with international partners and learn from psychologists who have practiced in countries affected by war and occupation. The first and most important new standard is trust in the victim. Investigators do not question the words of the victim — they do not force her to undergo a forensic examination and do not summon her to the authorities.

“Previously, it was like this — you had to prove that something happened to you. Now it’s the opposite. It’s my duty to prove what happened to you,” said Iryna Didenko.

Every action is carried out only with the consent of the victim, who can say “stop” at any moment. Each interview with the victim takes place in the presence of psychologists. The main rule of international protocols is not to harm.

See also: Ukraine is not Vietnam: why Russians are willing to kill “their boys” endlessly

“We have seen this in the ICC, where psychologists provide conclusions for the prosecutor and judge about the state of the victim and witness, about prohibited things or phrases that cannot be used when questioning a witness or victim because they can trigger a negative response,” says the prosecutor.

The protocol includes a large number of additional conditions, down to the color of the clothing worn by investigators who enter the occupied territory or communicate with the victim. In the future, the Prosecutor General’s Office plans to scale up the unit that investigates sexual violence to a division that includes not only prosecutors but also social workers, psychologists, and other experts involved in the investigation.

“Now it has become clear that we need to launch this. The first and only emotion is the desire to protect our people. To do everything to make them feel better because they are great, they bravely went through these events,” added Iryna Didenko.

However, one of the main factors why victims do not seek help lies outside the scope of law enforcement work. Firstly, people do not want to speak up about themselves because they fear condemnation from society.

“It’s her own fault”

The 178 cases of sexual violence against civilians in the Office of the Prosecutor General are called the “tip of the iceberg”. In reality, there are many more, as stated by psychologists who victims of violence turn to for help. The victims do not want to disclose their names and speak publicly about it, despite the fact that each individual case is a particularly serious war crime, and the occupiers must be punished.

“I work with two victims, but at the same time in my village, my patients know of 4-5 other women [victims – ed.]. They don’t talk about it because they don’t see the point. They don’t want people to say: ‘She’s to blame for walking on the street, she should have stayed in the basement,'” said the psychologist.

In the liberated villages, some locals write insults to the victims on the fence, as reported by the Prosecutor General’s Office. The victim of the violence is accused of having been seen walking alone to a house occupied by Russians. Facts of threats and blackmail by Russian military are not considered as arguments. Mostly young women fall under the general “rink” of condemnation. The main “accusation” in such cases is “provoked by herself”.

“In our society, many people confuse and for some reason believe that sexual violence is about pleasure. But it’s not about pleasure, it’s about destruction. People are confused and don’t understand what war and its context are. Our victims range from 4 to 83 years old. What are we even talking about?” says Iryna Didenko, a prosecutor in charge of sexual violence cases at the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.

Karyna, a girl who suffered at the hands of Russian military, notes that criticism most often comes from those who either left before the occupation or used the “green corridor.”Those who witnessed how Russian soldiers behave are not so actively ridiculing victims of violence.

According to psychologist Natalia Potseluyeva, stigmatization is a problem of the whole society in general and arose long before the Russians invaded Ukraine.

“The society itself needs to become more empathetic. One of my clients is in seventh grade at a rural school. Her health education tests sound like this: ‘If a woman is dressed in a short skirt and a blouse with a low neckline, then it means: a. she wants sex; b. she doesn’t want sex; c. it doesn’t mean anything.’ At first, I didn’t even believe it. And some teachers say that the correct answer is ‘a’,” said Potseluyeva.

Meanwhile, the actions of Russian military towards the civilian population have all the signs of genocide. It’s not just about sexual violence —  Russian soldiers are primarily exerting psychological pressure, committing acts of violence against a child in the presence of their parents, or wife in front of the husband’s eyes. In addition, according to the testimony of victims, the violence is often supervised by the commanders themselves.

“There were cases when the commander gave an order to do so. In another area, the commander said: “I have the right of primacy as the main one, and you are after me,” Didenko said.

The more victims speak out about what happened to them, the more military crimes will be considered by the ICC. Consequently, the likelihood that the perpetrators will be punished increases exponentially. In addition, by reporting violence, victims receive qualified assistance, and the system is “calibrated”, gaining experience and adapting to the needs of victims of violence.

“There is actually a lot of condemnation, but I don’t pay attention to it. It’s important to understand that the victims are not to blame,” Karyna says.

To combat stigmatization, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine decided to meet with stakeholders and representatives of the local government. Heads of village councils and mayors of cities, in turn, should conduct a kind of education — explain to people what sexual violence is and why the victim, by definition, cannot be to blame for what happened to him or her.

Ukrainian law enforcement officers are actively collaborating with international colleagues, collecting numerous testimonies against the aggressor country and leaving the Kremlin with no room for maneuver. They recognize rapists, find direct evidence, and their names become known.

At the same time, it is important to understand that it is not only law enforcement officers who need to change but also society as a whole. The international community shows that it is ready to help Ukrainians punish Russian military and the arrest warrant for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is a vivid confirmation of this. So, the more crimes are recorded, the harder it will be for Russia to avoid fair punishment.

Originally posted by Yulia Akymova on RBC-Ukraine. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

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