"Find What You Love and Let It Kill You." Domestic Violence in Ukraine is Killing Women
14 April, 2020

Last summer, Nastia Kovaliova, from the Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya, died after her boyfriend poured gasoline on her and set her on fire. Krystyna Kovaliova lost her only daughter but agreed to talk to hromadske about the tragedy to help prevent women in Ukraine from being killed due to domestic violence.

On that day, on July 2, 2019, Krystyna Kovaliova was in Poland – she and her husband worked there. Around 6 a.m., Krystyna had her usual chat with her 22-year-old daughter from her first marriage, who lived in a residential neighborhood in Zaporizhzhya with her boyfriend Vitaliy.

"Nastia went to the beach with her friend that day," told Krystyna. "‘And Vitaliy’, I asked? ‘He didn’t go, he refused’, she replied. I understood perfectly that this would be a scandal at home. Because he was jealous, he didn’t let her go anywhere."

READ MORE: “Domestic violence is a pandemic within a pandemic” - UN Women Ukraine Rep on Coronavirus Impact

A few hours later, a neighbor from Zaporizhzhya called Krystyna. "Nastia's boyfriend set her on fire," he said.

“How Much Is Ahead”

Nastia Kovaliova had been dating Vitaliy Tchaikovsky for a year and a half. Her Instagram page is peppered with photos of the couple – and as people put their best foot forward on social media, the couple is always smiling. Half a year before the tragedy, Nastia wrote that she had "became a complete homebody,” and had “found her happiness", although "she would certainly like to change some things." Two months before the tragedy, Nastia posted about how Vitaliy sought her parents’ permission to marry her, how he had offered her flowers and expensive gifts.

“We did not see each other for a total of three days, otherwise [we were together] 24/7. When we quarrel, we destroy half the apartment, when we make up, the other half suffers. I am ready to love him to bits and give him happiness as he gives me every day. There is a long way to go, but every night I catch my breath when I realize how much is ahead,” the girl wrote.


A post shared by Настасья 🌺 (@nastya_ukrain_zp) on

On July 2, 2019, while Nastia was on the beach, Vitaliy was drinking beer in the park.

"A couple of days before it happened, she had already kicked him out because of a bender. But he came back saying that it would not happen again,” said Krystyna. “And on July 2, the same situation happened. He was drunk again, and she asked: 'Well, Vitaliy, nothing will change between you and me. You should probably pack your things and go home to mom and dad'. And he went.”

READ MORE: 2 Years After #MeToo: Domestic Violence in Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan Through Artists’ Eyes

Initially, Vitaly returned to the park. Then he went to the nearest gas station and bought two liters of gasoline in a plastic bottle. At about 9 p.m., he came to the porch of the house where they lived with Nastia, called her and asked her to come down. Nastia came out. For a while, they just talked, but then started quarreling. Vitaliy poured all the gasoline on Nastia.

“She didn’t understand what was going on. She said, ‘Vitaliy, what are you doing, let's go home,’” said witnesses, according to Maryna Shchaslyva, a lawyer for Krystyna Kovaliova. Immediately after the tragedy, Kovaliova’s company offered to provide her with a lawyer free of charge.

“And then he picked up a lighter and started flicking it and, of course, she started burning instantly. She literally just flamed up, she flamed up,” said Shchaslyva.

Immediately, neighbors ran into the yard. Someone extinguished Nastia with water and blankets, someone called an ambulance, police, and firefighters, someone filmed everything on video, someone started beating Vitaliy.

Emergency Situations Officer Serhiy Karpiuk, who responded to the call, told the court that the girl was lying on the road "black, burned": "She didn’t explain anything, only asked how her face was."

A neighbor called Krystyna, and Nastia's mother left for Ukraine immediately.

Nastia was admitted to the hospital with 85% of the body burned. Doctors performed several surgeries, citizens donated blood and money for treatment. But eight days later, on July 10, 2019, Nastia Kovaliova died – her heart gave out.

The porch of the house where Nastia lived with Vitaliy, Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, February 22, 2020. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske

Why Women Are Being Killed

The murder of Nastia Kovaliova by her boyfriend is a so-called "intimate femicide," says Olena Kochemyrovska, a psychologist and a United Nations Population Fund counselor on the prevention and counteraction of gender-based violence.

Femicide, or feminicide, in general, is a deliberate murder of women because they are women. In intimate femicide, a woman is killed by her intimate partner – a husband, a boyfriend, or an ex-husband or ex-boyfriend, or a neglected potential lover. This kind of femicide is the most widespread in the world.

READ MORE: Ukraine’s Need for Gender Equality in Government and Beyond

The term "femicide" was coined by feminist writer Diana Russell in 1976. According to her definition, it is about the murder of women by men, but other researchers use this term for the murder of women by women as well, particularly intimate partners of the same sex.

In the second half of the 2000s, Ukraine was among the 25 countries with the highest levels of femicide. The prevalence of violence against women, according to Kochemyrovska, is related to patriarchal conditions in society and stereotypical understanding of the roles of men and women.

"Often, a couple is not about building partnerships, but about 'he must' and ' she must'”, said Kochemyrovska. “It is necessary to create an understanding of the concept of domestic violence, that it is not a feminist delusion, and of the inadmissibility of violence - in schools, through mass media and information campaigns. Religious organizations can take part as well, just like organizations of Donbas war veterans, etc. As a result, some will start considering this, some will learn something new, and some will continue to disseminate this information and become active ambassadors of the atmosphere of non-violence."

To counter the patriarchal discourse, we need to work with specialists in the social sphere, in education, medicine, and law enforcement, says Kochemyrovska. An educational course is currently being developed by the United Nations Foundation. A more generalized course was launched by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in  Europe.

There is little data on femicide worldwide, and often countries do not report gender differences in these statistics.

The term "femicide" is not used in Ukrainian law, nor is the concept of gender-based violence spelled out in the Istanbul Convention. This Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence was presented in May 2011. Ukraine signed it in November 2011 but has not ratified it yet.

However, Ukraine does have the concept of violence on the basis of sex, which, according to Kochemyrovska, is almost identical to the concept of violence against women, even though it requires further clarification.

"To introduce the term 'femicide' separately is to confuse people," Kochemyrovska said. “Legislative changes are not a panacea. Let the current laws work so it will be clear what we should improve, what is necessary and unnecessary, and what is missing.”

"I Wanted to Intimidate"

At first, the relationship between Nastia and Vitaliy seemed perfect to Krystyna Kovaliova – her daughter “was in seventh heaven”.

The problems began, Krystyna recalled, when she and Nastia's stepfather went to Poland for half a year, and Nastia and Vitaliy began to live together in their Zaporizhzhya apartment.

Prior to meeting Vitaliy, Nastia worked as a waitress. "She enjoyed it, she loved talking to people," says Krystyna. But for Vitaliy, it meant a lot of attention. “That’s why she had to stay home.”

When Krystyna suggested that her daughter go to a computer academy, she also refused: "Mom, Vitaliy won't allow it." 

Nastia no longer met her friends – Vitaliy let her meet with only one of them and only to drink coffee near the building.

READ MORE: “I’m the Change”: What It’s Like to Be Feminist in Moldova, Armenia, Ukraine, and Russia

One day, when Krystyna and her husband were in Poland, Nastia sent a photo with a bruise on her face:

"What is it, darling?” I asked. “Oh, mommy, can you imagine, I got up at night and a bottle fell on my eye. Mommy, that’s true."

The next time Nastia called and said that Vitaliy was running after her around the apartment with a knife.

“But I’m in Poland, what can I do?! I started calling her dad. I could not reach either her dad or uncle. And then I started calling her again and again. I made around 25 or 30 calls continuously. I was sitting there, shaking. And then she picked up the phone saying 'Mommy, everything is fine'. 'Honey, how could it be fine,' I replied. 'Tell me what’s fine? If he’s running after you with a knife.' And she began to defend him again, to make excuses for him. 'Mom, actually, I went too far,' she said. I told her numerous times: 'Leave him. Please, leave him. You’re a pretty, young girl. You have your whole life ahead, come on.'”

Krystyna and her husband were to return from Poland to Zaporizhzhya on July 15. “She was very much waiting for us to arrive. She hoped to kick Tchaikovsky out and stay with us, to be alone." But tragedy struck too soon.

Vitaliy Tchaikovsky was charged with premeditated murder with particular cruelty, which carries a potential sentence ranging from 10 years in jail to life imprisonment. Vitaliy agrees with the course of events, but not with the criminal qualification.

“He is saying he didn’t want to kill her, he wanted to intimidate her,” says Maryna Shchaslyva. “Well, it’s obvious that even a small drop of gasoline burns. And here you have two liters doused on a person with whom you have been living with for a year and a half, with whom you have a relationship. This was obviously not just a threat to [her] life, this was a purposeful, premeditated murder." 

Nastia was still conscious for three days. She was even interrogated by the investigator. Krystyna tried not to torture her daughter with interrogations, but she couldn't ask why she didn't run away when Vitaliy poured gas on her.

“'Mom, I couldn’t believe that he would do it,' she replied. 'I just couldn’t believe that he would do it.' That’s why she did not run away. He understood perfectly that physically he would not overcome her. She is a strong girl, she was engaged in MMA, in boxing. That is, he had no chance of beating her, for instance."

In court, Vitaliy asked Krystyna’s forgiveness: "Please, forgive me, I didn’t mean to." And at one of the final court hearings, he presented her with a homemade figure, reminiscent of the scales of justice.

Krystyna Kovaliova with a photo of her murdered daughter, Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, February 22, 2020. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske

How Ukraine Is Dealing With Domestic Violence 

According to Kochemyrovska, the domestic violence legislation currently in place in Ukraine is in line with the spirit and principles of the Istanbul Convention. The expert believes that there is a public consensus in Ukraine – except for radical groups – that domestic violence should be combated. This topic has been in the public discourse for almost 20 years. In 2001 Ukraine became the first Eastern European country to adopt a law intended to prevent domestic violence.

In January 2019, another new law came into force in Ukraine that criminalizes domestic violence. A person can be sentenced to 150-240 hours of public work, arrest for up to 6 months, restraint of liberty for up to 5 years, or imprisonment for up to 2 years. Under this law, police officers can issue an urgent restraining order to a person who commits violence to leave the place of residence and to not communicate with the victims. 

In the half a year since the mechanism was launched, police have issued almost 9,000 orders. Failure to comply with them provides for a fine of 170 to 340 hryvnias ($6 to $12).

Another new regulation is the aggravating circumstance in the Criminal Code for crimes committed against loved ones.

In 2017, a National Police project, named “Polina”, was launched – mobile domestic violence response teams were created in Kyiv, Odesa, and Severodonetsk. In 2019, there were 45 groups across Ukraine.

“Inside the police, the attitude has changed tremendously,” says Kochemyrovska. “Four years ago it was: ‘Oh, don’t bother with domestic violence, they will sort it out, our officers are overloaded with work’. And now: ‘Yes, we understand that about 80% of the calls are about domestic violence, and if we don’t respond right now, they can end up with rather unpleasant things’”.

The police, prosecutors, and judges are now taking courses on domestic violence.

"The amendments to the Criminal Code came into force only a year ago, and the first cases are reaching the courts. If an investigation does not include an article on domestic violence, the judge has no right to offer it, so part of the cases goes by – not everyone has understood how to qualify these cases", Kochemyrovska explained.

According to her, courts, prosecutors' offices, and social institutions are now listed among those bodies and services responsible for reducing domestic violence.

Learn Not to Be Afraid

A few weeks after the death of Nastia Kovaliova, another high-profile incident occurred in Zaporizhzhya. Early in the morning, while 25-year-old Nastia Shapovalova was sleeping, her partner and the father of their two children, 33-year-old Dmytro Mezhebytskyi, boiled four liters of water. He then brought the pot of boiling water to the bed and poured it on her. When she jumped off the bed, he poured more water over her, then grabbed her and cut her hair. Shapovalova ran out of the building, and her partner fled in a taxi that he’d ordered in advance.

He went into hiding for two weeks, but then appeared on the “Ukraine Speaks” TV show. He said that he’d attacked his wife because she was allegedly disappearing and betraying him. After the show, Dmytro was detained by the police.

Nastia Shapovalova was hospitalized with burns covering 21% of her body.

“The head of the Zaporizhzhya City Hospital burn ward called me and said that a girl, an orphan was admitted and that there isn’t even anyone to bring her food and medicines,” says Zlata Nekrasova, co-founder of the charity foundation "Emotion" in Zaporizhzhya.

Initially, the charity dealt with children deprived of parental care. But in the summer of 2019, they began to help adults who found themselves in difficult circumstances – first, Nastia Kovaliova, and then Nastia Shapovalova.

After these two cases, other women who were experiencing domestic violence began to address Nekrasova, asking what to do and where to go. In September 2019, volunteers, together with lawyers, psychologists and representatives of centers receiving victims of domestic violence, held a conference in Zaporizhzhya to tell women what rights they have and where they can get help. According to Nekrasova, 35 people out of 120 registered came to the conference, and most of them were not suffering themselves, but saw violence in the families of relatives and wanted to help them.

“Still, girls are scared to attend such events. We have come to the conclusion that the next time we should address this issue not as 'combating domestic violence', but, more veiled, as a 'crisis in the family'", says Nekrasova.

According to Nekrasova, for women who grew up either in orphanages or in disadvantaged families, it is harder to combat domestic violence.

"It's harder for them to break up. They haven't seen any examples, they don't know how to do it," she says. "There may have to be some kind of curriculum for these children for them not to get trapped into this. Don't be silent, believe in yourself and, first and foremost, think about your children’s safety – these are the main rules for those who suffer from domestic violence,” says Nekrasova. “There must be a support to constantly explain that you will cope with it, you can, you must. Because practice shows that aggressors put on their masks and say that this is the last time, and it will not happen again. And it doesn't matter if this is the first, second, third, tenth, or even the twentieth time, a woman believes these words.” 

Kochemyrovska also notes that support is very important. “Often, the family cannot deal with the issue of domestic violence because the victim cannot leave – relatives do not accept her or the couple cannot divide the home after a divorce, or because of the idea that the child needs a father. And so they are left to stew in this. So a person needs an outside perspective: 'Listen, something's wrong, you should contact this organization'".

People who are prone to violence often had abusive childhoods, so they do not view violence as a bad thing, Kochemyrovska explained. Another characteristic is low self-esteem.

"The abuser gives the victim the feeling that she will not manage to live without him, even though he is the more dependent one," explained Kochemyrovska. “Because of self-doubt, the abuser begins to insult, humiliate, ridicule, coerce, check, and persecute her. And gradually mental violence develops into physical violence."

After a nervous breakdown, a "honeymoon" period comes with apologies and gifts. But over time, the "honeymoon" becomes shorter and the disruption becomes more traumatic, says Kochemyrovska. "At first it may seem to the person that bans and controls are care and protection. And because it happens gradually, the person rationalizes such behavior towards oneself. In addition, the abuser always finds excuses for himself."

Without Nastia

A few months after Nastia's death, Krystyna sold the apartment where her daughter lived with Vitaliy. They bought a new one in the same area, just a few streets away. The door keys have keychains with hearts and inscription “To the best mom”.

A large photo of Nastia in the frame is on the table. She’s in Vitaliy’s shirt. "The shirt of the man is the best thing I have worn in my life," says the caption to the same photo on her Instagram page. 

The caption to another photon might have served as uneasy foreshadowing: "Find what you love and let it kill you." 

Next to the photo on the table are Nastia’s things: toys, perfume, a bag with an embroidered kitten, albums with childhood photos. A flag of Ukraine with autographs and short wishes hangs off the table – a souvenir from a military-patriotic camp in the east of Ukraine.

"I begged her: ‘Daughter, please do not go, how young you are!’”, Krystyna said. “She turned 18 at the time. And she replied, ‘Mommy, we have a war in our country. I have two sisters (the daughters of Nastia's father from his second marriage – ed.), I have you and dad, I want to protect you all”.

Krystyna Kovaliova's door keys have keychains with hearts and inscription “To the best mom”, Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, February 22, 2020. Photo: Andriy Novikov / hromadske

Because of Nastia's desire to help everyone, Krystyna jokingly calls her daughter an "advocate." And still sometimes talks about her in the present tense.

“Three months after it happened, we left for Poland. Usually, when we were at work, my daughter used to message me. So when we left, when I understood that there will be neither a call nor a text message, nor this “Mommy, where are you”, you understand, but you still wait. I see that the topic of domestic violence is now actively raised on TV, in the news, everywhere. If our case has led to this, then, honestly, I am very glad, so that no one else will have such a situation, so that no mother will lose her child,” told Krystyna.

During the week that Nastia was in the hospital, the Emotion charity managed to raise 500,000 hryvnias ($18,000) for her treatment and transportation to another clinic. After Nastia died, Krystyna decided to spend this money for two special beds and other equipment for burn patients in Zaporizhzhya City Hospital – when Nastia was admitted to the ward, there was only one bed – a relic from the Soviet era – and it was occupied.

"We could have chosen a particular child to help but the idea came to buy these beds and, as far as I know, they have already rescued five people," says Zlata Nekrasova.

For another Nastia – the one burnt by boiling water – the Emotion charity paid for all her treatment and rehabilitation, helped get and outfit the dorm room where she now lives with her children and even found her a job.

However, someone who knows Nastia says that she seems to be in close contact with her abuser, who is still accused of attempted murder but has already been released from house arrest.

/ by Liza Siviets, translated by Vladyslav Kudryk

/With support of the Russian Language News Exchange