Russia’s ‘Most Hidden Crime’ in the Ukraine War: Rape

A woman who gave her name only as S. sits in a chair in her home in Makariv, Ukraine, a town that had been under Russian occupation. She says a Russian soldier taunted her after her neighbor was raped and killed.

(Kyrylo Svietashov / For The Times)


AUG. 21, 2022 5 AM PT

MAKARIV, Ukraine — The Russian soldier taunted her: Your friend, he sneered, is lying on the floor, raped and naked and dead.

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

“She would defy them,” said S., still shaken and sorrowful as she described the harrowing events of five months earlier, before late-winter chill gave way to spring, then high summer. “She would tell them: ‘I’m not afraid of you.’”

S. holds the door of her home, which was kicked in by Russian forces. (Kyrylo Svietashov / For The Times)

Weeks would pass before the outside world learned of the horrors that occurred in streets and basements and back gardens of these once-tranquil suburbs and satellite towns, which were occupied for roughly a month before Russian forces in early April broke off a failed bid to seize the capital.

Townspeople who were 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-style killings, starvation.

And rape.

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

Investigators compile narratives from witness testimony, from forensic examinations of mutilated corpses that are still regularly turning up — outside Kyiv, one body was recently found stuffed beneath a manhole cover — from intercepted communications by Russian soldiers describing their own acts, or from surveillance cameras that before the war monitored traffic and deterred shoplifters.

As the war nears the six-month mark, however, cases involving sexual assault are proving particularly resistant to documentation.

A woman on a bicycle passes the home of S.'s slain neighbor in Makariv, Ukraine. (Kyrylo Svietashov / For The Times)

The prosecutor general’s office said last week there are “several dozen” criminal proceedings underway involving sexual violence committed by Russian military personnel. But police, prosecutors and counselors say the true number is likely far larger, in part because of reluctance to report such attacks.

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

A complex tangle of reasons underpins that silence. Some, like Tetiana, did not live to tell their stories. Some fled the country, joining an enormous exodus, and are not in contact with Ukrainian authorities. Others feel ashamed, clinging to the belief that they could somehow have prevented what befell them. Or a sexual attack might have taken place in the context of separate, overwhelming wartime loss: a home destroyed, a loved one killed.

Still others look to the near-industrial-scale atrocities occurring elsewhere — daily bombardment of civilian areas; the deaths of dozens of Ukrainian POWs last month in what evidence suggests was a deliberate mass execution by Russian forces; reports of torture, detention and abductions in currently occupied areas – and convince themselves that they ought to quietly put their private agonies behind them.