Ukrainian Woman's Rape Stirs Public 'Vendetta': Leonid Bershidsky
On March 10, a passer-by in the Southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv, population 500,000, heard faint moaning from a construction site and alerted a cop. The policeman climbed through a hole in the fence and found a sight he is likely never to forget: a naked girl somebody had tried to burn alive. Oksana Makar, 18, was barely hanging on to life: Doctors later estimated that her burns affected 55 percent of her body. She had also been raped and half-strangled.
Police acted quickly, and three suspects, all local men in their early 20s, were apprehended the next day. Among them was Maxim Prisyazhnyuk, the adopted son of a local government official. The police apparently let him go, along with another one of the young men. But news spread quickly, and in a matter of hours, the entire city, a center of the sagging Ukrainian shipbuilding industry, seemed up in arms. The suspects were promptly taken into custody again -- now they needed protection from an angry mob.
A local website, Novosti N, leaked a police video of one of the men, Yevgeny Krasnoshchok, giving matter-of-fact testimony on how the three of them took Makar home, got her drunk, took turns with her, and then tried to strangle her and dispose of what they believed was a dead body. The video was watched 40,000 times on the local site and 300,000 times on YouTube.
On March 15, about 2,000 people -- an enormous crowd by Mykolaiv standards -- gathered in the city's main square, demanding justice for the rapists and threatening to lynch them. Pickets and rallies were held in the nation's other cities, from Lviv in Western Ukraine to Kharkiv in the east. On social networks, a drive to collect money for Makar's treatment quickly gathered momentum, producing a hefty sum of 1.5 million hryvnyas ($187,500) in less than a week -- probably the most successful crowd-funding effort in Ukrainian history.
Crimes of this kind aren't exactly rare in Ukraine's depressed industrial areas. But the rape and attempted murder of Makar became a national issue because of one of the rapists' ties to the ruling elite.
Prisyazhnyuk, apart from being the son of an official, was reported to be a former member of the governing Regions Party's youth wing. In recent years, Ukraine has watched in dismay as members of the nation's “golden youth” have gotten away with highly public criminal acts.
One of them was Sergei Demishkan, the son of the top official at the national highway agency, who received a suspended five-year sentence for brutally killing a businessman. Roman Landik, the son of an influential Regions Party legislator, was captured on camera beating up a woman in a restaurant -- and also escaped with a suspended sentence. The children of local officials, judges and prosecutors -- "mazhory," as they are collectively known -- have walked free after causing fatal car accidents. Many Ukrainians saw the Mykolaiv situation as a last straw.
Odessa politician Alexey Goncharenko wrote in his blog:
The beasts who let off two of the three rapists and murderers … are the real criminals in this situation as far as I am concerned ... In the past 20 years the law-enforcement agencies and courts, society's immune system, have found themselves in a sorry state. They have been afflicted with the viruses of corruption, indifference and impunity.
Ukrainian political commentator Andrei Okara warned of a possible “vendetta against the government” if more cases like that surface. “Every time the children of officials are declared innocent and the blame is put on the victims,” Okara said. “This is a powerful detonator of public anger and discontent which can create grounds for a revolutionary situation in Ukraine.”
The public outcry has caused the nation's top officials, including President Viktor Yanukovich, to declare their personal interest in the Makar case. Ukraine's richest man -- the metals tycoon and Yanukovich supporter Renat Akhmetov -- helped transfer Makar to the Donetsk burn center, a modern medical institution with an international reputation, and paid for a Swiss surgeon to come over to operate on her.
Despite an initial prognosis that gave Makar a .5 percent chance of survival, she is still alive. Her right arm has been amputated and she is not likely to have the use of her legs if she does recover.
In another widely watched video, Makar says she hopes her assailants get raped in jail. Sympathy for her is still widespread in Ukraine -- but less so since March 19, when "Let Them Speak," a Russian tabloid TV show, interviewed the bartender who saw Makar meet the three men on March 9. The woman described Makar as a “loose” girl who had frequented the bar, always trying to pick up men and get them to pay for her drinks. It has also been revealed that Makar's mother had a criminal record.
The tone of many comments in Internet discussions of the case has since changed abruptly. “I just don't understand why a slut is being made out to be an innocent victim,” a Mykolaiv woman commented on Novosti N recently.
Ukraine is a highly traditional society, and it is not a universally held view that a rape is entirely the rapist's fault. Many people tend to attach equal blame to the victim. Makar's alleged character flaws make her a less credible cause celebre. There are no more rallies in Makar's support. Moreover, the authorities who have enjoyed, along with their children, a culture of immunity, may yet turn the situation to their advantage, switching public attention from the crimes of the mazhory to calls for tougher laws.
Or there is another possible outcome. The Communist faction in parliament has used the Mykolaiv case to advance a bill reintroducing the death sentence, abolished when Ukraine joined the Council of Europe in 1995. Last year, polls showed 45 percent of the nation backing such a measure, and the case of Makar may just drive that number higher. If that happens, the ruling Regions Party could easily jump on the bandwagon and push through the legislation.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is the Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com