How Russia has used rape as a weapon of war

First, a warning for those of a sensitive nature, there are some upsetting descriptions in the paragraphs ahead…

“Russian soldiers loot, rape and kill. 10 y.o. girls with vaginal and rectal tears. Women with swastika shaped burns. Russia. Russian Men did this. And Russian mothers raised them. A nation of immoral criminals.”

So tweeted Ukrainian politician Lesia Vasylenko on Monday, April 3…

As Putin’s forces withdraw from towns and suburbs around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, reports are beginning to emerge of widespread rape suffered by Ukrainian women at the hands of Russian soldiers

In times of war, it is not only land that is invaded. Rape is the ultimate, brutal act of incursion and domination, and it seems it’s happening in this war, too.

Acts of rape, murder and pillage are things we associate with barbarous abuses of previous centuries, not things being conducted in a modern society, but they’re being visited upon Ukraine’s female population as I write.

The group Human Rights Watch has noted several cases of Russian military committing war crimes in Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, including a case of repeated rape, and the summary execution of six men.

“The cases we documented amount to unspeakable, deliberate cruelty and violence against Ukrainian civilians,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Rape, murder, and other violent acts against people in the Russian forces’ custody should be investigated as war crimes.”

A woman told HRW that a Russian soldier had repeatedly raped her in a school in the Kharkiv region where she and her family had been sheltering on March 13. She said that he beat her and cut her face and neck with a knife. The next day she fled to Kharkiv, where she was able to get medical assistance.

Meanwhile, UK newspaper The Guardian reported that investigators were collating testimonies of gang-rapes, assaults at gunpoint, and rapes committed in front of children.

“We have had several calls to our emergency hotline from women and girls seeking assistance, but in most cases it’s been impossible to help them physically. We haven’t been able to reach them because of the fighting,” Kateryna Cherepakha, president of La Strada Ukraine, a charity that supports survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault, told the paper.

On March 31, a Polish website reported how a Ukrainian woman from the southern city of Mariupol had died after being repeatedly violated by Russian soldiers in front of her six-year-old child.

And there is more… tale upon sordid tale of vile abuse.

MailOnline reported similar brutal acts in which drunk Russian troops kicked down doors to loot their houses and pulled women out to rape them.

One grandmother, 63-year-old Anna Schevchenko, who lives in the town of Irpin, 13 miles north of Kyiv, told how she witnessed several soldiers – ‘animals’ is how she described them – rape a mother and her 15-year-old daughter.

Hers is one of a growing number of testimonies. In Bovary, east of Kyiv, another resident, 58-year-old Olga Bundarov, told MailOnline: ‘They dragged women out when they were drunk. Sometimes old women too. I had to hide as I was so scared.

‘One of my neighbours saw several women who had been hung after being raped.

‘I don’t know if the Russians had done it or they killed themselves after what they had done.’

The barbarity of it all is truly shocking, but one only has to look to the past to see that such behaviour is not unique. To put it plainly, when it comes to rape and pillage, Russia’s troops have form.

The rapes perpetrated by Putin’s marauders are history repeating itself… a type of history most people supposed had been left behind in the dark days of World War II.

Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, a photograph taken during the Battle of Berlin on 2 May 1945 (Wikimedia.Commons)
Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, a photograph taken during the Battle of Berlin on 2 May 1945 (Wikimedia.Commons)

Based on hospital and abortion clinic records, historians estimate that during that conflict, two million German women were raped, in the most part by Soviet troops.

Out of these brutal assaults approximately 200,000 children were conceived by native German women and Russian soldiers.

Those figures come from research conducted by Dr Phillip Kuwert, a senior physician at the University of Greifswald’s department of psychotherapy and psychiatry, who interviewed 35 elderly German women who were raped by Russians in 1945.

One of those he spoke to was then 83-year-old Ruth Schumacher, who recalled being 18 years old and sheltering, wounded, with dozens of other in an abandoned mine in Halle-Bruckdorf, in eastern Germany, when her nightmare began.

“I was immediately gang-raped by five Russians. The memories come back to you over and over again; you can never forget something like that,” she told interviewers.

Such abuses are also chronicled in the 2009 German film A Woman in Berlin, which is based on the diary of an anonymous German journalist, and how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Soviet soldiers in the spring and summer of 1945 in war-ravaged Berlin. 

And then there are the World War II diaries of a Jewish lieutenant Vladimir Gelfand, ironically from Central Ukraine, whose writings have an uncanny echo of the reports we are currently reading about Russia’s current invasion force.

Vladimir Gelfand (Wikimedia.Commons)

Gelfand described the disarray of battalions, their lack of rations, and how they had to resort to theft to offset their meagre supplies.

In one passage from his diary, dated April 25, 1945, once he had reached Berlin, he tells how he encountered a group of German women carrying their belongings.

He asked them where they were going and why they were fleeing their homes.

He writes: “With horror on their faces, they told me what had happened on the first night of the Red Army’s arrival.

“They poked here,’ explained the beautiful German girl, lifting up her skirt, ‘all night. They were old, some were covered in pimples and they all climbed on me and poked – no less than 20 men,’ she burst into tears.

“‘They raped my daughter in front of me,’ her poor mother added, ‘and they can still come back and rape her again.’

Such stories were far from unique, as confirmed by historian Anthony Beevor. In an interview with the BBC for his 2002 book, Berlin, The Downfall, Beevor claimed that he found documents relating to sexual violence in the state archive of the Russian Federation.

According to Beevor, the papers had been sent by Russia’s state police, the NKVD, to their chief, Lavrentiy Beria, in late 1944.

“They report on the mass rapes in East Prussia and the way that German women would try to kill their children, and kill themselves, to avoid such a fate,” he said.

Of course, Russian troops weren’t the only sex abusers during World War II. Allied soldiers raped, too, but nowhere near to the same scale. Soviet soldiers may have seen their actions as revenge for the mass rapes perpetrated in The Motherland by Nazi invaders.

It is something of an eerie echo of the past that in their spurious claim of ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, Russian troops now feel it necessary to rape the women, too.

Speaking to The Guardian about the emerging sexual atrocities and the psychological impact on the survivors, Sasha Kantser, from the Lviv chapter of Feminist Workshop, said: “When a woman gets away it looks like she’s safe, she’s far away from the guns and the man who raped her.

“But the trauma is a bomb inside her, that follows her. The scale of what is happening now is heart-breaking.”

As Ruth Schumacher said in her testimony to the University of Greifswald’s Dr Phillip Kuwert: “You can never forget something like that. Sometimes after I talk about it, I sleep for a few hours and then wake up crying, screaming. You can never ever forget.”

The destruction wrought upon Ukraine is unbearable to watch, but there will come a time when the guns finally fall silent and the debris of war is swept away. Ukraine will rebuild itself.

As great a struggle as that will be, one can only wonder how that nation’s population, and in particular its raped women, will cope with the truly monumental task of clearing up the devastation within.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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4 Responses to How Russia has used rape as a weapon of war

  1. M.K. Tod says:

    Thank you for this, David. It’s very difficult to read, but necessary to do so in order to know of the atrocities being committed by the Russian people. Not just the Russian soldiers but the people behind them. What is it about men and rape? Is it power? Is it war lust? Is it some sense of entitlement? Is it revenge, the anonymity of random assault, the inability to recognize the common bond of humanity, a warped belief that somehow these women deserve their fate for they collectively are the enemy? Is it the inability of soldiers to stand up to their comrades who initiate such action, like those who follow bullies? Is it plain and simple evil? I know what I would like to do to each and every one of these soldiers who have raped a Ukrainian woman – and it wouldn’t be pretty.

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    • I think it’s subjugation and them buying into a belief that the people they violate are somehow of less value than themselves. Someone just sent me a link to the Mai Lai massacre. Unfortunstely, this type of behaviour is universal given the ‘right’ circumstances It could be Russians one day, Americans the next, and Irish on another. Give someone a uniform – I would say men but then I’m reminded of those odious female camp guards in Nazi concentration camps – but give some people a uniform, a gun and free reign in a foreign land… anything goes.

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    • Atrocities commited by the Russian people? Seriously? I did not know that the 150 milion inhabitants that Russia has were out in force in Ukraine raping people. Rape has sadly been used as a weapon in war and women used as war booty. Russia is not an exception. Constantly and only highlighting when Russia does it is the same the Nazis did, not only with Russians but with all slavs. Constantly and only talking about their negative things. Demonizing them. Given the fact that you sheltered Nazis after World War II, I am not surprised that Americans, or people from any country which had an high number of collaborationists, do echo the same thoughts and doctrines. Like Ukraine. But in their paranoid hate against Russia, some people has sanctified the nazis.

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      • It’s an unfortunate truth that where there is war, there is rape – so, in that regard, you’re right, Russian troops are not exceptional. The exception lies in the number of rapes that they have committed in these conflicts. It is the actions of the Russian army that leads to its own demonisation. I don’t see anybody sanctifying Nazi atrocities. It is true, some Nazis lived in Ireland for a period (I’ve heard of two – and that’s not something I’m happy about), but that doesn’t mean that the Russian army’s actions are somehow exempt from criticism because of that. What Russia has done in its invasion of Ukraine is just plain wrong – no matter what excuses are used. It’s interesting to note that the ‘de-Nazification’ narrative used by Putin and Lavrov seems to have fallen buy the wayside -even they couldn’t keep spinning that line in the wake of the brutality being meted out to the Ukrainian civilian population.

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