Recently at a school graduation in Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine, a teacher raped a student. The school administration offered to arrange a settlement and wedding between the rapist and the girl. Her classmates accused the girl of wanting to cause a fuss, stating that “He couldn’t even get it up.” Zaborona journalist Alena Vishnytska spoke with the victim, her sister—also a sexual assault survivor—and several experts. She told us what happened and why this nightmare will happen again.
Part One: Olya
Olya’s graduation was much like any other in Ukraine: lots of alcohol, adult chaperones spread throughout the venue, and teenagers jubilantly celebrating the end of high school. At some point, Olya realized she had too much to drink. Everything went blurry, and her classmates were constantly dragging her somewhere, either into the street or to dance. Suddenly, Olya felt someone embracing her and a male hand all over her body: Anton, her dance teacher, stood behind her. “Now I will go and get the room ready,” he said.
Soon Anton returned and silently led Olya to a dressing room, locking the door behind them, before she had a chance to sort out where she was. She does not remember much of what happened next. At some point she realized she was standing naked in front of her teacher, who was also naked. And then he raped her.
“I’m not a pervert. Although…”
28-year-old Anton taught dance in several schools, one of which was Olya’s. He would say things to high school girls like “Oh, such curvaceous forms! I love it.” He would lift a girl’s skirt and say, “Oh, you have shorts [under] there. Fine.”
“I heard all these stories from other girls,” said Olya. We called her in the evening and despite the exhaustion and everything that happened to her, Olya spoke calmly about the events of that evening. A classmate recalls that Anton had called out Olya to dance, and she came to him without wearing a bra. He also approached another classmate who simply remained seated and did not even look in his direction. He pushed the classmate’s hair behind her ear, smiled, and walked away.
Olya herself had never spoken to Anton, not even a “hello.” A classmate, however, says that Olya crossed paths with him frequently. At one rehearsal during dance class, students had to spin and huddle up towards the teacher. Anton once said, “Don’t be afraid, snuggle up to me, I’m not a pervert. Although…anything can happen.”
Other teachers were not made aware of Anton’s behavior. Olya offered to cooperate with her classmates and discuss his behavior, but they refused. Some were even flattered by Anton’s attention. At rehearsals, Olya recalls, Anton often said, “Be like whores, be sexy, more sex!” There was even another teacher at one of these rehearsals, but she didn’t react with any sort of concern. She just laughed.
“Baby, calm down”
On graduation day, Olya came to the school with her mother. Classmates took photos together, walked across the stage, and watched a concert and fireworks. After the official ceremony, there was a banquet. Olya’s mother didn’t participate. There were already so many other adults and teachers, and the principal assured Olya’s mother that she would watch over the girl.
The graduates were seated in groups of four. Olya said that in previous discussions there would only be one bottle of wine on each table, but in fact there were two bottles of wine and vodka. Some had cognac instead of vodka, while others had champagne.
“We started drinking, and at some point, I just lost track of time,” she recalls. I looked at my phone but did not understand what time it was. Everything was blurred in front of my eyes. The room was stuffy. I was running around all evening and someone was constantly tugging at me. At a certain point, anyone could have called me somewhere and I would have followed simply out of inertia.”
At around 2am, Anton came up to Olya. By that time, the other teachers had dispersed elsewhere. They were on the premises, but not with the students. Anton hugged Olya, and apparently said, “I will arrange the room,” and left. Olya did not understand what he meant, and did not think that any intimacy was implied. After a while, Anton returned and quickly led her away.
“I didn’t even immediately realize it was him. It all happened so quickly. I was drunk. Everything was blurry, but I remember that we used the staircase to reach the first floor. I was stumbling. We entered the corridor, where there was a men’s bathroom and some dressing rooms. He takes out his keys, opens one of the dressing rooms, takes me inside, locks the door, and does not turn on the light,” Olya recalls.
She can only vaguely recall what happened next. She says there are only flashes of memory: in one frame he closed the door, but in the next Olya is standing next to him naked. Anton is also completely naked.
“Because I was drunk, I was just a ‘body.’ He did what he wanted. At some point, I could only say that I couldn’t do this without a condom. He replied with something like, ‘Baby, calm down, everything is fine.’ He hurt me a lot. I started to scream and moan, but not with pleasure. It just hurt like hell. I heard someone approach the door and the handle jiggle. He covered my mouth with both his hands, and he kept going. I said that I was in pain, but he shut me up. He only quit after he was pleased.”
Anton asked several times if Olya was a virgin. It turned him on. The girl told Anton several times that she did not want sex, but he did not listen to her. How long this went on, Olya cannot say. When it was over, she found her clothes, dressed, and stumbled towards the door.
“He insisted on a second time. I said, ‘No, no.’ At some point, his phone rang. He addressed a woman by her name and patronymic and said, ‘Okay, I’ll come right now,’ opened the door and we finally left.”
Olya does not remember where she went later. She says that everything was in a fog. She just left and was somewhere on the premises. At around 4am, she went outside. She felt a little better in the fresh air. She needed to call her mother to be picked up. Her classmates met up at dawn and Anton was with them. He was smoking when he saw Olya. He went up to her and pressed her tightly to him. “He was physically holding me. I was still drunk. I just stood up and waited for him to let me go,” she said.
Her mom arrived. On the way home, Olya disassociated, and once at home, she fell asleep without even taking off her underwear. Only in the morning when she woke up did she realize what had happened: she had not wanted sex, had not given her consent, and Anton had taken advantage of her. In the evening, Olya called her brother and told him what happened. Talking to her mother was terrifying.
“My mom has health problems. I was afraid that she would either die or choke. I understood that if I told her, she would begin to blame herself and feel bad. This is what actually happened later. She still believes that she is to blame. I was also terrified. Maybe it was my own fault for what happened to me? I understood that I hadn’t given my consent, that I couldn’t understand what was happening at all, but still this feeling remained,” says Olya.
The decision to go to the police was difficult, largely because of the fear of condemnation and fear for her mother’s health. In the end, Olya’s brother convinced her that she was not to blame for anything, that there were people ready to support her, and she would not be alone. Most importantly, her report to the police could save someone else from similar violence.
“As a man, I understand him”
“Try to detach yourself and think that this did not happen to you,” Olya’s mother said to her before visiting the police station.
At the police station, the mother and daughter were met only with giggles after disclosing the rape. There were only men in the office and not all of them introduced themselves as expected. There was no psychologist or any other person there to explain the proper procedure for reporting rape either. Olya’s mom was asked to leave. “I am sitting there with no support. I am in an office with two men over 40,” she said. The men smoked and cursed, and then one of them began to ask how it all happened.
“Well listen, you did not experience a classic rape,” said a police officer from the criminal division. “Was the sex natural or not?”
“In what sense?” Olya asked, not understanding how rape, in principle, can be natural.
“Yes, and then he made me do a blow job, held my head down, and said, ‘Make me feel good.’”
“Yes, to pleasure him? Well, as a man, I understand him.”
The conversation lasted two hours. Everything that Olya said was interpreted as if she wanted it. The police did not believe that the girl was a virgin, asking her: “You never did anything with anyone before? With no one at all? Nothing at all?” They asked about the smallest details: What were the poses she made and where he had finished, for example. The investigator repeated that he “understood him [Anton] as a man.” Olya’s mother tried to stay with her daughter, but she was not allowed. “Viktorovna [Olya’s mother], sit. Don’t go anywhere.” The police never addressed Olya by her name. In the end, they let her mother in, but they seated them in such a way that they could not see each other: “Viktorovna, look at the wall, don’t look in the direction of your daughter.”
After a while, a social worker from the school came to the police station.
“Not that I needed her support or sympathy, but it seemed to me that adults would understand that this was serious, and I felt awful,” says Olya. “And this woman sits and looks at me with condemnation…that made it even worse.”
Judgement from the police, Olya says, only lessened after they talked to the gynecologist after her examination.
“They left her and for the first time looked at me like a real victim because they learned about the evidence and injuries from the rape. Before that, they treated me as if I had raped someone, and not vice versa. I understand that I’m the kind of girl who gets drunk at graduation. I don’t expect to be trusted, but why would I go and lie about this? Only after the examination did they decide to collect material evidence like my underwear that had traces of semen. This was after five hours at the department,” says Olya.
“He couldn’t even get it up”
Olya decided to tell her classmates everything in a group chat. Mainly, so they could recall Anton’s harassment towards them and openly discuss it, but they didn’t believe her. They thought Olya was trying to stir up trouble and Anton was too drunk to “even get it up.” Of the twenty girls she messaged, only one asked Olya personally how she and her mother were feeling. Olya left the chat group with her classmates.
“I was in great pain and started to shake. I wanted to burst into tears, go outside and scream. I understand. It can be difficult to accept that your dance teacher turned out to be a rapist, but it’s hard for me too. I didn’t expect my first time to be rape either. I had a boyfriend for four years, and the most we did was kiss. If I wanted to have sex, I would do it with someone I trust, someone I know that would stop if it hurt.”
Then the principal called Olya’s mother. She blamed Olya for what had happened and asked to accept a settlement with the teacher so as not to ruin his life. They said the accusations would have a bad effect on him and he would suffer.
“You just killed me with this call,” Olya’s mother said to the principal.
“Well, Olya killed me too. I didn’t expect her to do this,” the principal replied.
“The most absurd thing is that absolutely everyone drank,” says Olya. “But I got the impression that either everyone was sober, and I was the only drunk person, or that everyone else was drunk, and I was the only sober person. When everyone said that I was to blame, it started to seem that perhaps I was.”
While investigating this story, the father of one of the graduates, who was also at the party, contacted us. He said that Olya was lying. According to him, there were lots of parents in the room who were constantly monitoring everything. The teacher was practically in sight the whole time. The man shared a photo with Anton from that evening. In the photo, a group of celebrating parents, teachers and Anton are raising their glasses.
The man added that they were going to defend “this guy” as a parental team. If necessary, “they will help with a lawyer. We don’t want his life ruined, especially since he has a pregnant girlfriend.”
According to the parent, Anton is not a bad teacher, and he is a “positive” person.
“We have people who completely disagree with the girl’s statement. Moreover, she has an unflattering reputation among her classmates. In general, why was the incident not announced immediately? The age of consent is 16 years old. Maybe she seduced him herself.”
We tried to contact Anton, but with no success. The principal also refused to talk to Zaborona, and the headmaster did not pick up the phone. The school administrator informed the family that it would not issue a new contract with Anton for the next year and would not make any public comments to the media while the investigation was underway.
We contacted several classmates but did not receive a response. The police have already visited some of them. Several more girls did not want to talk out of fear their parents would find out about their drinking at graduation. From the audio messages and screenshots of messages that Olya sent, we learned that several other classmates knew of Anton’s inappropriate sexual behavior, especially during rehearsals.
Now a criminal proceeding has been opened against the teacher under Article 152, “Rape of a Minor“. He faces seven to twelve years in prison if found guilty. The investigation is currently focused on collecting depositions. Medical forensic and psychological examinations of Olya are scheduled in the next few days.
“The investigators seem to be doing something, but I do not have a clear understanding of what will happen next. I tried to talk to the prosecutors about the case, but they wouldn’t let me into the prosecutor’s office. According to the security guard, one prosecutor works in another area and the second is on vacation. It’s a very interesting situation when one person is on vacation, and another does not work here, are both appointed as prosecutors. This is a red flag and I will prepare a complaint so that the investigation will be transferred from the district office to the central one. Perhaps this is how things really start to move. Time in these cases is very valuable,” says lawyer Tamara Bugaets.
The lawyer also plans to initiate an internal investigation into the police department regarding the police officers’ behavior during Olya’s initial interview, which had numerous ethical lapses in how it was conducted.
In addition, the lawyer plans to initiate an outside investigation of the incident at the school.
“Adults at the graduation should be responsible for the safety of the children—in particular, what and how much alcohol they consume. I have questions about why such large volumes of strong alcohol were on the tables. Why was it allowed by the administration?” she asks. According to her, the school’s reaction to the incident was predictable given the amount of alcohol they allowed at graduation.
Part Two: Katya
There are no exact statistics on how many children and adolescents in Ukraine experience sexual violence. Mainly because the victims do not go to the police and do not talk about their experiences out of fear of possible condemnation, shame, guilt, and accusations against them.
According to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, between January and August 2020, 147 children became victims of rape, and their perpetrators were issued charges under the criminal article “sexual intercourse with a prepubescent person” in sixteen of these cases.
Often, children do not talk about their experiences immediately or choose not share them at all.
Katya, Olya’s sister, decided to talk about her own rape twenty years later, after what happened to her sister at graduation. Katya is now 33, but was raped by a stranger when she was 12 years old.
“I have never told anyone about this except my mother,” Katya said to Zabororna. “It’s like I buried this memory. I didn’t want it to negatively affect my life in any way. Although it hurt me in other ways.”
It was an ordinary weekday. After lessons, Katya and Igor, a friend at the time, went out to the schoolyard. An adult man was sitting on the monkey bars. He ran up to Katya’s friend as if he knew him. They talked about something, and the man left.
“Igor says to me: ‘Come to my yard because my parents aren’t at home. Sit with me on the bench and wait because I don’t have keys.’ We arrived and sat. Time dragged on. I was thirsty and hot. I said: ‘Okay, I’m going home,’” recalls Katya.
For some reason, the friend did not want to let her leave. He offered to bring her water. He knocked on the door next to them. The man whom they saw at the schoolyard opened the door. Igor asked for some water, and he allegedly followed Katya inside the apartment.
“I won’t hand it [the water] over from the doorway,” the man challenged, inviting Katya to enter.
As soon as she crossed the doorway, he locked the door. Igor closed the door from the outside.
“The man began to pinch me. I didn’t scream. I don’t know why, but I was in shock,” Katya says. “To be honest, I didn’t even understand what they wanted to do with me. At the time I knew there are weddings, and couples have children, but I did not even suspect that this arises from sex. The only thing I remember from that day is I had his tattooed body on me. I also remember that I tried to push him away, but he covered my mouth.”
When it was over, she saw Igor through the window. He watched everything that was happening in the room through bars of the window. A few years later, he approached her at school, explained that this man allegedly said to him that he liked Katya and asked Igor to lure her to him. They were neighbors and the boy periodically ran errands for the man, like delivering weed to someone. Igor apologized to her.
“God will heal you”
After what happened, Katya spent a year at home. She only went to school but had stopped studying. She even quit gym class, which she used to love.
“I didn’t want to seem unstable. I didn’t want it to affect me, but I was depressed all the time. I was constantly thinking about something that I wanted to forget. I blamed myself for why I went there at all. Although, I could not have anticipated this at all,” says Katya.
A year after the rape, Katya started going to church.
“It helped me to an extent: Bible study, ‘Jesus saves,’ and all. At church they say you cannot take pills, that God will heal you, and I believed in it,” says Katya.
When Katya grew up, she got married. She quickly divorced her first husband. “I could not sleep with a man at all. He would touch me, and I would start to panic, even though he was a good man. He treated me well and we had known each other for a long time.”
In her next relationship, Katya was the abuser. She pressured the men who happened to be around.
“I was asked a minor question and I perceived it like the world was unfair to me. I began to be defensive and attacked,” recalls Katya. “At the time, I constantly thought that I wanted someone that I would obey.”
After some time, she found this exact person. Her second husband was an abuser who beat and mocked her. Relatives thought that they were doing well. Katya was ashamed to admit that she “screwed up for a second time.”
She knew that her husband beat previous partners, but she was sure it wouldn’t happen to her because he truly loved her.
“He beat me and punished me for everything. I shouted, but none of the neighbors ever reacted. We lived in a house where you could hear everything. I screamed at 1am, but no one at all came. He would cry and apologize, and then get drunk and disappear. I sat alone, without internet, in a foreign country.”
A few months into the marriage, Katya borrowed money from friends and ran away.
“Perhaps only a few years ago, after an abusive relationship, I realized that I could say no. Since childhood, there was always a feeling that my body does not belong to me,” says Katya.
Katya says if it were possible to turn back time, she still would not tell others about the rape, just as Olya did not want to at first. How can you want to talk about your trauma if you are later accused and condemned?
The feeling of guilt is usually the hardest for a rape victim to get over, says psychologist Karine Harutyunian.
“Society dictates that the victim is to blame, that she provokes [an attack]. Moreover, everything can be considered a provocation, a skirt or even makeup.”
The second thing that is difficult to deal with is the feeling that your body does not belong to you. “It’s as if anyone can use it at any moment,” says the psychologist.
Harutyunian says it is often easier for people to forgive the rapist and understand him, rather than the victim. If, say, the rapist is a relative, it is easier to explain his actions.
“They are trying to justify [the actions of] the rapist, but are hanging all the responsibility on the victim,” says the psychologist. “This tremendous sense of shame does not allow victims to go to the police. They are afraid of what will happen when others find out.”
This reaction come from the fact that women are still considered the “weaker sex” in many societies and religions.
“They say that a woman is the weaker sex who seduces a man. The man is therefore justified by the fact that he succumbed to temptation. What absolves a woman? She’s a seductress. If we study religions where women pray separately from men, this is because a man needs to concentrate and not be seduced,” says Harutyunian. Consequently, women are accused of being unable to control themselves.
Any reaction during or after rape is normal, Harutyunian explains. The first reaction of trauma is shock. The person needs anesthesia in order to cope with the situation. Anesthesia works in different ways. During times of stress, a person can have three reactions: fight, flight, or freeze. “What does it mean ‘to freeze’? This means ‘don’t live, don’t exist’ and everything taking place just passes by,” says Karine.
It is this reaction that makes rape victims often doubt their own self-worth. Why didn’t I cry, why didn’t I do anything, why did I react wrongly? However, it is important to understand that any reaction is the norm.
The psychologist also notes that the rape victim can experience pleasure during the act, which also causes feelings of guilt. “This is physiology. There should be no shame, but this often becomes another reason why victims are silent. Jokes are widespread in society that if you are being raped, you should relax and have fun. Unfortunately, even the police often joke like this.”
Translated by Sameera Ibrahim from Respond Crisis Translation