Castration, gang-rape, forced nudity: How Russia’s soldiers are using sexual violence to terrorise Ukraine

Warning : this article describes appalling and dreadful atrocities.

Viktoria Martsyniuk was a victim of rape by a Russian soldier in her home. Investigators say sexual violence by Russian soldiers was on a ‘systematic level

The Kremlin has been accused of terrorising Ukrainians with sexual violence systematically – and known reports are the ‘tip of the iceberg’

GLOBAL HEALTH REPORTER AND VIDEO PRODUCER 28 November 2022 •

Since Russia’s soldiers first stormed Ukraine, women have been gang-raped, men castrated, children sexually abused, and civilians forced to parade naked in the streets, according to the United Nations.

The Kremlin stands accused of terrorising the Ukrainian population with sexual violence in a systematic and unsparing manner. It is thought that the full-extent of this barbarism will not come to light until years after the war.

The allegations come ahead of a major international conference for preventing sexual violence in conflict, held in London on Monday, during which dozens of survivors from around the world will speak out about their abuse.

“In Ukraine, an alarming number of reports are coming in from areas illegally controlled by Russia. The UN has begun to document them, and they are chilling,” James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, wrote exclusively in the Telegraph ahead of hosting the conference. More than 50 ministers from around the world will join him.

Last month, a UN Commission documented what it described as “patterns” of rape and sexual violence inflicted on Ukrainians throughout the war. “Victims range from four to over 80 years old,” it said, detailing a series of appalling accusations in October’s report.

One Russian soldier forced a four-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him in the presence of her parents, according to the report. The 22-year-old mother was raped, her husband sexually violated, and the pair were also forced to have sexual intercourse in the presence of the armed forces.

A 83-year-old woman described how, while her village was occupied by Vladimir Putin’s forces, she was raped by a Russian serviceman in front of her physically disabled husband.

In the summer, a video circulated showing a Russian soldier with blue surgical gloves castrating a Ukrainian prisoner. 

The Telegraph could not independently verify these accusations, but these reports have been described as the tip of the iceberg by lawyers, aid workers and sexual assault experts we interviewed. Cases will be underreported for years to come, they say, because it can take years for survivors to speak about such violence.

“Even in Bosnia we still get women stepping into support services saying they were raped 30 years ago. It has taken 30 years to feel confident to disclose this. We anticipate a similar situation may happen in Ukraine,” said Jaime Nadal, a UN representative in Ukraine.

One Ukrainian victim told the UN Commission: “This experience is very shameful for me and I am extremely scared and intimidated”. 

It has taken years for sexual assault survivors of Russia’s earlier invasion of eastern Ukraine, in 2014, to speak out.

Alisa Kovalenko, a Ukrainian film director aged 34, was interrogated, forced to strip naked and bathe in front of a Russian commander in 2014. The commander later tried to rape her. 

Alisa Kovalenko, a Ukrainian film director aged 34, was interrogated, forced to strip naked and bathe in front of a Russian commander in 2014
Alisa Kovalenko, a Ukrainian film director aged 34, was interrogated, forced to strip naked and bathe in front of a Russian commander in 2014CREDIT: Natalie Thomas/Reuters

“It took more than a year for me to say anyhing about the sexual violence,” she told the Telegraph. “I gave all the other details [about the captivity] except this. It was very painful. I didn’t want to traumatise my family.”

“I hid deep inside myself,” she added.

Iryna Dovgan, 61, was also captured and sexually assaulted in 2014 by Russian soldiers. She described how she was interrogated, denied food and water, and sexually abused twice. They soldiers threatened to rape her 14-year-old daughter.

“They tortured me and humiliated me,” she said. “I was taken to the town centre and tied to a pole. They put a sign on my breast. It said I killed kids and helped the Ukrainian army to kill civilians. People came and beat me. Everything that happened to me in those five days is beyond human understanding.”

Sexual assault on a systematic level

Sexual violence can be used against all members of a community as a tactic of war, torture, terrorism, reprisal, and political repression. Today, it is used in at least 18 conflicts around the world, including in Afghanistan, Syria and South Sudan. 

It intends to humiliate and destroy families. It can propel forced displacement, punish and persecute targeted populations, and serve as an instrument of “ethnic cleansing” and social control. It also condemns survivors to a lifetime of trauma.

Sexual violence against men in war is hidden and ignored

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s office said Moscow’s war on Ukraine “is aimed at exterminating the Ukrainian people” and that Russia’s use of sexual violence intends “to spread a state of terror, [and] cause suffering and fear”.

Dr Ingrid Elliott, MBE and one of the UK’s Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict experts, said that the Russians have two methods of sexual violence – the first of which is staged during an attack on a village. 

“People are dragged out to the streets and paraded, men and women,” Dr Elliott said. “There are circumstances where the man would be killed and the woman would face sexual violence afterwards. Sometimes the women are rounded up, and held in basements, where repeated sexual violence is inflicted upon them, for days of even weeks.”

The second pattern of abuse happens in detention centres in occupied territories. While it is hard to document this abuse, people who have fled or been liberated have come forward with information. 

“What we see then is sexual torture against men,” Dr Elliott said. This can take the form of genital electrocution, castration or sodomy. 

This week, Reuters news agency reported that some Russian commanders have encouraged and ordered sexual violence.

Russian soldiers have been accused of committing war crimes and lashinng out with drunken violence, including in Bucha
Russian soldiers have been accused of committing war crimes and lashinng out with drunken violence, including in Bucha CREDIT: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

British lawyer Wayne Jordash told Reuters that in around the capital of Kyiv some of the sexual violence reported involved a level of organisation by Russian armed forces that “speaks to planning on a more systematic level”. 

The Kremlin has denied these allegations. 

Increasing hate speech during attacks

There has been an increase in hate speech accompanying the sexual assault since February, according to Kateryna Busol, a Ukrainian lawyer who has been working on the documentation of crimes perpetrated in Russia since 2014.

“What we have seen since the full-scale invasion is the increase in the hate speech and potentially genocidal speech that accompanies these crimes,” said Ms Busol. “Cases of visibly pregnant women who have been beaten in detention, [being told] there was nothing bad about a small dirty Ukrainian dying.”

There have also been more attacks perpetrated in front of family members, she added, and sexual attacks on children. “This is the new sad phenomenon,” Ms Bustol said. 

New survivor centres have now been built in Kyiv, Lviv, and Zaporizhzhia by the UNFPA, equipped with rape management kits. Most of the centres constructed throughout the last decade were destroyed by bombing or looted by the Russians, the agency said.

At the Zaporizhzhia centre, Mr Nadal said one man recently sought help along with his two sons, all of whom had been sexually assaulted.

“Sexual violence against men in conflict is much more prevalent than we think,” said Dr Elliott. However, she cautioned that such attacks often never come to light.

“Men will disclose torture but not necessarily describe it as sexual violence. It gets labelled or characterised as other forms of violence. There’s a lack of understanding, fear of stigma and fear of being seen as less maculine,” she said. “This is what drives it in the first place – the dishonouring.”

‘Impunity is the norm’

Sexual violence in conflict has long been used as a weapon of mass destruction, yet the first prosecution of rape as a war crime did not occur until 1998.

Despite that landmark ruling, by the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda, it can still take decades for perpetrators to be brought to justice, and in most cases they never are.

“Efforts to hold perpetrators accountable are few, and prone to failure. Impunity is the norm: the number of successful international prosecutions for sexual violence in conflict remains in the low single digits,” said Baroness Arminka Helic, a former Foreign Office special adviser. 

Nonetheless, at the Hague last week, a representative for the Office of Prosecutor General in Ukraine said it is already working on 100 criminal proceedings relating to sexual violence during the conflict. 

“I want justice for those who made those Russian soldiers come to my city, and tortured me, and killed other people,” Ms Dovgan said. Since February 2019, Iryna has been leading the Ukrainian sexual abuse survivor network, called SEMA Ukraine.

While efforts for justice are underway, psychological support is considered a more urgent task. 

Lilia Sidun, a child psychologist in Zaporiththia, spoke to the Telegraph about young patients struggling to understand the sexual violence they have witnessed.

“It is very hard for them to open up,” she said. “It won’t be until the end of the war that people will really talk about these times.”

2 comments

  1. “One Russian soldier forced a four-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him in the presence of her parents, according to the report. The 22-year-old mother was raped, her husband sexually violated, and the pair were also forced to have sexual intercourse in the presence of the armed forces.”

    I’m afraid I stopped reading after that.
    I don’t know what to say except: this cannot be allowed to go on any longer. The putinazis have to be denazified, put completely out of harm’s way or destroyed.

  2. There are too many stories like those above. It is past due time to kill the ruskie army, each and every cockroach must be jailed or eliminated!

What is your opinion?