KIEV — It all began from one personal story about sexual harassment told by a Ukrainian, whose beauty may have played a part. Nastya Melnychenko’s almond-shaped eyes seem to appraise and challenge the readers of her Facebook page. And there, earlier this year, Melnychenko was the first woman publicly to declare in Ukraine a story whose outlines are, in fact, all too common.
She had been molested at age 6 by a relative; when she was 12 a man—a passer-by—grabbed her between her legs right on Kiev’s central avenue. At age 21 her former partner violently forced her onto a bed, undressed her, and took photographs, threatening to post the pictures on the internet if she did not stay with him.
Until this month Melnychenko did not dare to admit that she was a victim of such sexual violence; she was terrified that the homemade porn would appear on the internet. “But I grew out of it,” she wrote as she launched a growing flashmob group called #Iamnotafraidtosayit in Ukrainian. She stopped worrying about blackmail, she said. “I am not afraid to speak, I do not feel guilty,” she wrote.
Melnychenko tells The Daily Beast that she “had not the slightest idea” that in a few weeks the movement she inspired would draw in 93,666 Ukrainian and 96,868 Russian Facebook users.
And here is what was even more shocking: About one third of all the flashmob’s “confessions” were told by people who said they are rape victims. Even experts dealing with issues of sexual violence in post-Soviet countries, where the problem is known to be extreme, were amazed to see the scale of the movement.
“I knew that in some regions almost every third woman had experienced rape, but when I saw that even among your friends there are victims of incest, sexual violence, rape, as if they were norms of life, I felt shocked,” Irina Kosterina, a sociologist studying gender issues in Russia, told The Daily Beast.
And now we are hearing from the men who’ve been victims of rape as well.
Zoryan Kis was 17 years old when a group of men, who he thought were his friends, raped him at a party in somebody’s apartment, humiliating him while he was drunk and helpless. Kis tried to heal his wounds alone and kept the rape a secret from the entire world.
“I buried my pain deep inside for 16 years,” said Kis, who is now a Kiev based human rights defender and LGBT activist. “Until this month, when I saw brave confessions by thousands of women telling their rape stories in the internet movement called #Iamnotafraidtosayit.”
He saw that some of those who responded to the posts on Facebook felt intimidated by the feminist zeal and suggested that men should write about the times when they were rejected or ditched by women.
That idea angered Kis: “I thought that men should hear from a man, what it feels like to be raped.” Looking back at his life, Kis realized he saw violence around him from an early age. “My father, the most intelligent philosopher, often grabbed my mother when they argued and threw her against the wall,” Kis recalled. “She fell on the floor, but he would grab her again and smash her against the wall again and again, until she divorced him.”
The flashmob turned out to be a litmus paper for tolerance in Ukrainian and Russian society. How to explain that these huge countries in Europe were full of rapists, full of violent men?
“In both Ukraine and Russia, generations suffered from militaristic rule, from endless wars, political repression, and domestic violence, that led to such a high level of rape,” said Kosterina. If in the West a potential rapist might be stopped by a “rape button” and legal procedures that, ostensibly at least, encouraged the victim to tell the truth, “In Russia raped women have to collect the evidence themselves, while cops laugh and humiliate them.” Children, teens, young women, and men stayed silent.
Two years ago, during pro-European protests in Kiev, the Maidan Revolution’s activists put up “I am not afraid” signs in the Ukrainian capital’s central square.
Last year the Moscow region AIDS Center began a campaign—#don’tbeafraidwearewithyou—in which celebrities and ordinary people with HIV negative results of blood tests published their photographs in support of HIV patients. But getting rid of fear became an avalanche.
In recent months, women have talked of their complexes, of losing the sense that their bodies belonged to them, with many of them telling their stories on Ukraine’s Hramadske TV as well as on the social media.
One of the star reporters at Hramadske, Ekaterina Sergatskova, also wrote on Facebook about a few episodes in her life—but not everything.
“I also have a story, but I am not ready to share it, as I am not sure if I did not cause the violence myself,” Sergatskova said.
Russians and Ukrainians are still learning, it seems, that while relationships are complicated, violence is not, and they should not be afraid to say that.