Voices in the Ukrainian Wilderness
Story by Marichka Melnyk
Illustrated by Olenka Zahorodnyk
On the afternoon of January 1, 2018, I was on my way home from Kyiv, where I had rung in the New Year with some friends, back to the village in Kyiv oblast where I live. Halfway home, on the outskirts of the village of Demydiv, the local marshrutka (a minibus packed with passengers shuttling them from Kyiv past the suburbs and stopping at villages dotting the countryside) braked to slow down to a crawl. I pushed aside the yellow-tasseled blue curtain, wiped away the condensation on the window, and peered out: just ahead, through the grey drizzle hanging in the air, and the thick mist blanketing the ground like a fresh snowfall, I spotted the bridge we were slowly creeping towards in the caravan of cars. The area to the right of the river crossing was cordoned off with white and red striped tape, and the roadside was lined with police cars.
“Oh! They found her…” a muffled female voice reached me from one of the seats behind me.
“They must have drowned her,” came a whisper in response.
Everyone was glued to the windows except me. Unaware of what this was all about, I pulled out my phone and after a minute of Googling, found the story about the missing local woman. When she failed to return home a few days ago, and stopped answering her phone, her worried daughter and parents sounded the alarm. Now, she’d been found dead.
I followed the story closely while it was in the news. But as time passed, it received less attention, and I (like most other people) simply forgot about it.
Two-and-a-half years later, I attended a protest outside the Shevchenko District Court in Kyiv where Serhiy Sternenko’s (a local Ukrainian activist) self-defense trial was taking place. There, amongst the crowd of mostly young people, I noticed an elderly woman. She was dressed all in black, as if in mourning, and was holding up two photos. Her face seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I couldn’t remember where I had seen her before. When she moved closer, I could more clearly see the photos she was holding, and with a jolt recognized one of them: it was the girl who had disappeared a few years back and was found in the river in Demydiv. I later discovered the second photo was of her sister, who had also died a few years prior. The elderly woman dressed in black was their mother, Kateryna Dunyak, who was wandering amongst the protesters, looking for anyone willing to listen to her heartbreaking story.
I was confused. “This tragedy still hasn’t ended?” I thought.
Ever since that day, this story has refused to let me go. It’s a story about two sisters who were murdered, and their family who has fought for years, and continues to fight, for a just punishment for their killers. Because in Ukraine, as it turns out, it is far more difficult to put actual murderers behind bars than it is to jail a person like Sternenko, who, while defending his own life in a series of assassination attempts, mortally wounded one of his assailants in self-defense. Yet, the malevolent cynicism of Ukrainian justice is not news to me.
As of today, verdicts have been issued in the two crimes which resulted in the deaths of the women not far from my own hometown in Kyiv oblast. And though everything is clearcut and understandable with the first murder, the second is much more complicated. To this day, no one knows for sure exactly how the victim died, and whether the right person was convicted for the crime. But does anyone else really care, beside the family of the dead women?
In the former Soviet Union, a cult was built upon the anonymity of death, with nameless dead and missing soldiers born of two world wars as its foundation. Unexplained circumstances, disappearances, and the collective nameless guilty continue to plague Ukrainians like a wicked joke turning injustice into another routine pedestrian event. We do not ask questions. We don’t try to get to the bottom of the matter. We either do not know or dare not say aloud the names of the actual criminals. Nor do we demand the punishment they deserve.
Demydiv is located 40 kilometers north of Kyiv. Kateryna Dunyak’s family lives here on Sonyachna Street, which means “sunny” in Ukrainian. It was formerly known as Sovietskaya Street and was only renamed in 2015. Theirs is a small house made of yellow brick topped with a red metal roof and surrounded by a green fence, jokingly nicknamed “the mitten” by its inhabitants. Three generations of one family used to live there together: Iryna Nozdrovska and her daughter Nastya, whom she was raising on her own following her divorce; Iryna’s younger sister Svitlana Sapatinska with her husband Maksym and son Matviy; and Iryna and Svitlana’s parents, the ones who actually own the home.
The retirees Kateryna and Serhiy Dunyak still live there, but now it’s just the two of them. Occasionally, about two or three times a month, their granddaughter Nastya, who lives and works in the city, continues to visit her grandparents on weekends.
The village of Demydiv, until recently, was relatively unknown. Today it is famous, for it was here Kyiv was saved from Russian occupation in February 2022. On the second day after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian army demolished the bridge over the Irpin River in Demydiv to stop the advancing boundless columns of invaders and military equipment from Belarus. Later, the army also demolished the Soviet-era built dam where the Irpin River flows into the Kyiv Reservoir. The detonation of 500 kilograms of explosives on February 25, followed by a few tons more on March 5, created an unstoppable deluge of water which flooded the surrounding terrain, creating a major obstacle to the plans of the “second greatest army in the world” to conquer Ukraine in a matter of a few days.
Another river flows nearby and joins with the Irpin River near the Kyiv Reservoir. A blue road sign identifies it as “Kozka,” although someone has de-russified the sign to read “Kizka,” the Ukrainian word for goat. The person who did this possesses admirable perseverance, since it’s not the first time the “O” has been replaced by an “I” with the help of a can of white spray paint. On Google Maps, both rivers surround Demydiv with their tributaries, as if cradling the village in their arms. The bridges across them demarcate the boundaries of the village, where it starts and where it ends, while driving along Route P-02 connecting Kyiv with Ovruch, one of the checkpoints at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border.
After the dam was demolished, Demydiv was flooded from three sides. The water broke the banks and flooded the yards and gardens along the Kizka, which had, in recent decades, shrunk to a narrow and shallow stream half a meter at is deepest, overgrown with bushes interspersed with bubbling rapids, never having been dredged. This tributary of the Irpin River normally looked more like a ditch than a free-flowing river before February 2022, and a year after the de-occupation of Kyiv oblast, it still looked like a sea.
Despite the property damage, local residents graciously accepted the Ukrainian army’s decision. You can even sense pride in many of their voices, pride for what was, quite literally, a turning point in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Submerging Demydiv defended Ukraine’s capital from invasion. Restoring normalcy to life here after the expulsion of the Russian invaders is, of course, a slow and difficult process, but the locals have their ancestors’ historical experience of rebuilding to bolster them. “One of the oldest villages of Ukraine,” as Wikipedia notes in its Demydiv entry, has had to rebuild from scratch more than once: after the Mongol invasion of 1240, after the Tatar raids of 1576, and after Nazi occupation, which lasted from August 24, 1941, through November 4, 1943.
“One of the oldest villages” is no hollow claim. In the early 1970s, archaeologists from the Academy of Sciences, while conducting a survey of sites west of the Dnipro River, documented the remnants of the ramparts of a medieval Rus’ settlement on the northeastern outskirts of Demydiv at the confluence of the Kizka and Irpin Rivers. The Rus’ settlement’s existence has been known since the close of the 19th century. There was even a hypothesis the settlement might be the location of the historical Horodets mentioned in the chronicles, a place where the princes of Rus’ held meetings and negotiations. But by the time the archeologists were ready to conduct further research in the 1980’s, all they could do was shrug their shoulders: the site has been destroyed over the course of the previous decade.
In the 1970s, the lands encompassing the medieval settlement belonged to the “Vasiliev” sovkhoz, a Soviet state-owned collective farm.
This Vasiliev fellow (nobody remembers his full name today) was the local school principal, and simultaneously an activist in the Soviet collective farm movement. At a village meeting in the spring of 1931, while describing the benefits of Soviet collectivization to his fellow villagers, he was shot twice to his own surprise and that of the local Bolshevik Party leaders. It was said the attempt on his life was the work of the kurkuls, wealthy farmers, who were desperately resisting the Soviet state’s seizure of their private property. Vasiliev, a staunch ally of the communists, died from his wounds soon after the shooting. To preserve the memory of his “heroic sacrifice,” the Demydiv collective farm, which was called Peremoha or Victory at the time, was renamed in his honor.
In the late 1950s, the authorities decided to officially nationalize the collective farm. That is how the “Vasiliev” sovkhoz, or radhosp, as the compound word is often Ukrainianized, came to be. It was the location of a research-and-exhibition farm specializing in potatoes, various vegetables, and milk. Its territory was expanded to more than 3,000 hectares by expropriating the natural floodplain between the Irpin and Kizka Rivers, where a network of channels connecting the two rivers was built after the Second World War. According to the laudatory odes sung by the compilers of the “History of Towns and Villages of the Ukrainian SSR” (1971), 5,000 tons of produce were harvested here annually, and 1,500 head of cattle were kept by the state farm. In other words, there was enough work for everyone in the village, whose population stood at 3,210 back then.
Scarce evidence of the state-owned enterprise remains in the village today: two rusty metal arches holding up the letters left from the original sign “RA*O*P *m VAS**IEVA” will catch your eye as you head down Kyiv Street, Demydiv’s main drag (the spaces marked with asterisks are the letters that fell off a long time ago); the abandoned sovkhoz buildings hidden in the depths of the village; and the ditches in the fields delineating the boundaries of the farm, no longer visible after they were flooded in February 2022.
Around 3,700 people live in Demydiv today. Most of them work in the city, just like the women in the Dunyak family. Fortunately, Kyiv is a stone’s throw away. It’s only half an hour’s drive by car, a little longer if you take the marshrutka. But this is still far better than what the people who commute to the capital from as far away as Chernihiv, Zhytomyr, and Cherkasy must face every day.
It is here in 2015 in the village of Demydiv in Kyiv oblast, that the story begins; a story which turned the villagers’ quiet and uneventful lives upside down, and which probably cost Iryna Nozdrovska her life. She was the woman who had disappeared a few days before the end of 2017, and it was her body which was found on the outskirts of the village near the bridge where our paths initially crossed on the first day of the new year in 2018.
On Wednesday, September 30, 2015, around 8 AM, 26-year-old Svitlana Sapatinska said good-bye to her husband Maksym and young son Matviy. She put on a bright red jacket and left her home to make her way to Kyiv to work. She had long blond hair and a magical smile full of honesty and goodness. Svitlana worked as a dilovod, a clerk, at the Roshen candy factory. She turned right at the first intersection, on the corner of Sonyachna and Verbova Streets. From here, she had a 12-to-15-minute walk to traverse the 800 meters to the nearest bus stop located on the Р-02 highway, just outside the village on the other side of the Kizka River.
Svitlana path was safe as she walked past her fellow villagers’ homes situated on both sides of the street, where she traversed a quarter of the way to her destination. Further on, the street took her past an empty field laden with ditches and overgrown with tangles of weeds; the field was divided by the asphalt roadway lined by trees and bushes on either side. The tops of the poplars and maples intertwined here-and-there to form a living wall, coming together to form archways and tunnels overhead and casting a shadow on the roadway in the morning sun. The woman was walking off to the side of the road, because where the homes ended, so did the sidewalk.
She never reached her destination, her life cut short beneath the tires of an olive-colored Daewoo Lanos.
There were no skid marks at the scene of the accident to suggest the car had braked. The driver did not flee and stopped his car a little way down the road. The car’s right headlight was broken, the hood was dented, and the windshield was cracked. According to the victim’s family, neither the driver, nor the woman sitting beside him in the front seat bothered calling for an ambulance or the police, or attempted to administer first aid. The driver’s first phone call was to his father, while the passenger called work.
According to the coroner’s report, the collision with the car was so strong, the young woman died from her injuries at the scene of the accident from a ruptured right kidney, a torn spleen, hemorrhaging in the brain and lungs, and primarily from the damage done to her neck and spinal cord.
The first person from the victim’s family to arrive at the scene was Serhiy Dunyak. One of his neighbors had mistakenly told him his wife had been hit by a car. Kateryna Dunyak worked as a nurse’s assistant in a Kyiv hospital and was due to be coming home from her shift right around that time. Fortunately, the body lying on the roadside was not hers. But much to his chagrin, Serhiy recognized the dead woman: it was his younger daughter, Svitlana.
Statistics show in 2015 there were 138,538 motor vehicle accidents, or DTPs according to the Ukrainian acronym, on Ukrainian roads, resulting in the deaths of 4,003 people and injuring 31,600 more. Nearly a third of the victims were pedestrians. Year after year, the city of Kyiv and Kyiv oblast rank near the top of the rating of Ukraine’s most accident-prone regions. According to information from the World Health Organization, DTPs are currently the leading cause of death for people aged between five and 29.
The perpetrator of the fatal accident in Demydiv in the fall of 2015 was not a native of the village, but not exactly a stranger among the locals. Although Dmytro Rossoshansky lived in Kyiv, he often came to the village to visit his parents, Olha and Yuri. A few years before the accident, they had moved from the capital to the suburbs after inheriting a house from Dmytro’s grandmother. As fate would have it, the Rossoshanskys became the Dunyaks’ neighbors. Their yards on Sonyachna Street are separated by just a few hundred meters. However, there was no real relationship between the two families; all they had in common was the proximity to one another and the street on which they lived.
“We had no conflict with them. Everything was just fine. But he [Dmytro Rossoshansky — author’s note] was known to drive far too fast down the street… People would hide behind fences whenever he drove by. So… the conflict began after he killed my child,” noted Svitlana’s father, Serhiy Dunyak, in an interview for the “Politseysky Rezonans,” the “Police Resonance” program posted on the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine’s official YouTube channel on January 16, 2018.
Court documents indicate at the time of the crime, Dmytro was officially unemployed, and did not have any source of income. At the same time, however, he was known in the village as a person who liked to have a good time with booze and drugs.
There were also rumors among Demydiv residents that Dmytro, whose triangular bald patch on his forehead and sinister frowning demeanor peering out from under black furrowed eyebrows reminded them of Mephistopheles as performed by legendary Russian actor Fyodor Shalyapin (minus the goatee), was repeatedly in trouble for violating the law. Yet, he was somehow always able to come out dry from any hot water he had gotten himself into.
For example, six months before Svitlana’s tragic death, he was charged with driving his car (the very same Daewoo Lanos) while under the influence of drugs. But the Obolon District Court of the city of Kyiv, where his case was heard, merely issued Dmytro Rossoshansky a fine. The fact they did not take his driver’s license away right there and then is one of the Dunyak family’s greatest regrets; they still cannot come to terms with the loss of their “Sunshine,” whose smile dispelled the darkest clouds overhead.
Information on that incident, as well as on other alleged crimes Dmytro had previously gotten away with, including stealing a car in 2005 (while intoxicated) and gang-related robbery with bodily harm in 2010, were later unearthed by the deceased Svitlana’s older sister Iryna. She was a light-haired, delicate woman, ten years older but with a smile no less friendly than Svitlana’s; a smile which disappeared from her face for a very long time following the accident that had taken her younger sister’s life.
Seeking just punishment for the murderer of the person closest to her became Iryna Nozdrovska’s sole purpose in life. At the time of the accident, she was employed by the City of Kyiv’s Main Territorial Department of Justice, but she quit her job after realizing it was far too difficult and exhausting to keep track of the progress of the investigation and simultaneously hold a full-time job. The woman was spurred on by her legal education, her knowledge of the Criminal Procedural Code of Ukraine (which she had practically memorized), and her firm conviction the person who had committed the crime should be punished.
The circumstances of Svitlana Sapatinska’s death were investigated for seven months before the indictment was submitted to the courts in the spring of 2016. The village of Demydiv is situated in the Vyshhorod District, so the case fell under the jurisdiction of the Vyshhorod Police Department for the investigation as well as the Vyshhorod Court for the trial.
The Dunyak family had concerns about the work of both of these law enforcement institutions.
The first thing which alarmed and outraged the victim’s family was the sluggishness of the local police reaction: the team of investigators arrived at the scene of the accident at noon on September 30, 2015; that is, four hours after the fatal collision had taken the young woman’s life, even though the journey from the district center to Demydiv should take no more than 30 minutes. Ukrainian legislation stipulates in the event of a DTP where there are fatalities or injuries, the driver must be examined for intoxication, not by the police who answered the call, but by a doctor at a health care facility, where the driver must be taken no later than two hours after the accident. Svitlana Sapatinska’s killer was sent for his blood test to check for alcohol and drugs eight hours later.
Why this radical deviation from the protocol? Bearing in mind the homicidal driver’s reputation, the relatives of the deceased began to suspect the late arrival of the police at the scene of the crime, and their delayed investigation of the incident, were not merely an unfortunate coincidence caused, for example, by the heavy workload of the Vyshhorod police department, but rather, pointed to a pattern of behavior, deliberately planned to protect the culprit once again.
“People began telling us we won’t get anywhere, that this Dmytro Rossoshansky… has committed numerous crimes, but has never been held responsible for any of them,” said Svitlana’s father, Serhiy Dunyak, in an interview with “Pravda Hromady,” the “Community Truth” YouTube channel on June 3, 2019.
Unfortunately, integrity is not one of the Ukrainian judicial system’s strong points. Those working in Soviet times for the “on demand” judiciary, who, on orders from the KGB, handed down guilty verdicts to political dissidents and Ukrainian freedom fighters, continued working in the judicial system long after independence, became entrenched in it, and even founded family dynasties. Like, for example, the judge of the Court of Appeals of the Volyn region Boris Plakhtіy who, in October 1987, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, sentenced the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) soldier Ivan Honcharuk to death. He was executed by firing squad in Kyiv on July 12, 1989. Or when the District Administrative Court of the city of Kyiv hands down politically motivated decisions for money or other perks for its head, Pavlo Vovk. Or the nepotism flourishing in the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, where judges shamelessly appoint their colleagues’ close relatives as their assistants. Thus, you can’t expect compliance with ethical standards. Is a system based on such warped moral principles and authority capable of ensuring justice? No, this system is more inclined to protect those whom it should punish, and vice versa: punish those whom it should protect.
But the sober acceptance of Ukrainian realities, and disappointing forecasts for justice from everyone around them, did not compel the family of the deceased to give up; on the contrary, they only added determination and persistence to the family’s campaign for the truth, even after they learned about Dmytro Rossoshansky’s influential connections. It turns out his great-uncle Serhiy Kuprienko had worked at the Vyshhorod District Court for about 20 years. He started as a judge, and eventually came to be the head of the court. The ethically blind and unprincipled servants of Ukraine’s Themis did not see any conflict of interest in these family ties. With this revelation, the victim’s family’s eyes were opened to the probable source of the young man’s impunity for previous alleged crimes.
Aware of the difficult struggle they were facing, as well as of the unwritten rule that “without the proper paperwork, you’re an insect, but with it, you’re a man” (another Soviet “principle” Ukrainian society seems incapable of shedding), Iryna Nozdrovska became an assistant to People’s Deputy Tetyana Chornovol, a Member of Parliament from the Narodny Front, or People’s Front political party. The two women met during Ukraine’s 2013–2014 Revolution of Dignity, while Chornovol, then a journalist, was investigating the monopolization of the public procurement process by People’s Deputy from the Party of Regions Anton Yatsenko. Iryna, who had previously worked with Yatsenko, volunteered to help expose his corrupt practices. So, two years later, when Iryna asked for a favor, Chornovol agreed to help her.
“In reality, she was not my assistant as much as I was her assistant in the case of seeking justice for her sister’s killer,” Chornovol made clear in an interview for the Ukrayinska Pravda news website.
Nastya Nozdrovska, Iryna’s daughter, would later confirm her mother’s parliamentary assistant ID helped her open doors typically closed for ordinary people.
Dozens of requests for information; statements; petitions to the police, the court, the prosecutor’s office, medical institutions, etc.; searching for witnesses to the accident; hundreds of hours of open-source research; studying laws; consulting with lawyers and talking to other victims who had also lost relatives in traffic accidents — these were all the things Iryna Nozdrovska did in preparation for her sister’s killer’s upcoming trial. She collected almost all the evidence which would be presented at trial because the investigators did not show much enthusiasm for the case (one of the policemen conducting the investigation was popularly known by the moniker Kasyr, the Cashier).
During one sleepless night, while she was studying the case files, Iryna noticed in the requisition for the driver’s blood alcohol test and medical examination, the investigator had entered a driver’s license number belonging to a completely different person, not Dmytro Rossoshansky. Moreover, the Vyshhorod Central District Hospital, where the blood test had taken place, did not require the driver to provide any identification: his identity had been confirmed verbally. That’s when she realized the negative test results could have been falsified by taking blood from a different person. She requested investigators submit the blood sample for DNA analysis. However, while the samples were in transit to the Main Bureau of Forensic Medical Examination, some unknown person had tampered with the two vials containing the blood. One of the vials now contained six milliliters of blood, instead of the five indicated in the medical report.
Any doubts Iryna and her parents had harbored before this discovery were dispelled and they became firmly convinced the irregularities committed during the investigation were not accidental. The victim’s family was certain the police investigators and court prosecutors were deliberately obstructing the investigation by providing cover for the killer.
Dmytro Rossoshansky pleaded “not guilty.” During the court hearings, he testified he saw a person about 150 meters in front of his car walking along the side of the road in the same direction he was driving, but did not reduce his speed as he approached her. Thus, he reacted slowly when “the person suddenly bounced onto his [car’s] hood.” He said he had no malicious intent, and the woman could have accidentally tripped over something on the road. He requested the case be dismissed on the grounds of his health problems and family status (on February 27, 2016, he married Anastasia Manchenko, a girl from Demydiv whom he had been dating and planning a wedding with prior to the accident).
The witnesses for the defense included the passenger sitting beside him in the car and the defendant’s father, with whom Dmytro spoke over the phone immediately after the accident. They repeated the same line: Dmytro must have been blinded by the sun.
Iryna wasn’t going to let Dmytro Rossoshansky evade justice this time, so she turned to the media for support. She gave numerous interviews, went on all possible live TV shows, and invited media to attend the trial. The woman would later recall that without the journalists’ attention, the case would have certainly been buried.
People who knew Iryna Nozdrovska personally note she was a real fighter, and her dedication, perseverance, and resilience were truly impressive. She pushed forward like a tank against all the obstacles she faced, simultaneously fighting on multiple fronts: aside from seeking a just punishment for the person guilty of causing her sister’s death, she also sought retribution for the dishonest police officers. But her claims were ignored, and she was shown the door, time and time again.
“If I go down on my knees and beg, it still won’t help! How long will you continue to cover up this lawlessness? How long will you cover for these people?! And then you call me ‘unhinged’! I have zero patience for this nonsense, this lawlessness! How much longer will these people remain free?” asked Iryna, head wrapped in a black scarf, breaking down in tears as she registered yet another complaint about the violations committed by the officers involved in the pre-trial investigation. She demanded the information be entered into the Unified Registry of Pre-trial Investigations (URPI), as provided for by Ukrainian law. “The Prosecutor’s Office does not see or hear anything; their eyes and ears have been sealed with money! How many more people must knock on your door?! How many more have to submit appeals to you?! How long will this lawlessness and arbitrariness continue in Ukraine?! You are worse than Yanukovych! Worse!!!”
It was as if the woman knew what the future held. She could no longer contain her emotions, and people began accusing her of being “crazy,” “unhinged,” and an “aggressive scandal monger.” “Few people are truly nuts… Ira really was,” wrote someone who did not shy away from leaving a posthumous comment on her Facebook page.
“Iryna couldn’t tolerate any and all manifestations of injustice. Her emotions ran high whenever she encountered injustice, because she had come to realize despite her good education, extensive knowledge, and operating within the law, she was unable to achieve justice,” recalled journalist Volodymyr Tymofiychuk, who provided some of the most comprehensive reporting on the developments in the case of the fatal road accident in Demydiv.
At the very first hearing in May 2016, Iryna Nozdrovska realized she couldn’t count on any impartiality from the Vyshhorod District Court where Dmytro Rossoshansky’s great-uncle worked. At the bail hearing for the defendant, despite the facts of undue pressure on witnesses, threats to the victim’s family, and the theft of the killer’s car (which had been regarded as evidence in the case) from the impound lot, Judge Maryna Balycheva (who was, prior to December 27, 2014, a judge of the Krasnodon City District Court of Luhansk Oblast) opted for house arrest. However, the “scandal monger” did not give up. Eventually, after 2 months, Iryna managed to get the case transferred to another court: the Obukhiv District Court. It reviewed the Vyshhorod District Court’s decision and ruled the defendant should be kept in custody. Dmytro Rossoshansky tried to appeal the amended pretrial disposition to the Kyiv Oblast Court of Appeal, but it was in vain: he was denied permission to launch his appeal, as it was not provided for by the Criminal Code of Ukraine. So, from July 2016, the driver who rammed Svitlana Sapatinska to death with his car was remanded to the pretrial detention center in Kyiv.
Against the backdrop of this scandal, Serhiy Kuprienko resigned as a judge of the Vyshhorod District Court in September 2016. The High Council of Justice accepted his resignation in May 2017. In the required disclosure of assets on the eve of his dismissal, the judge declared 81,600 UAH in severance pay and three recently registered land lots in the village of Demydiv, with a total area of 2.47 hectares. Additionally, the lifelong pension for Judge Kuprienko costs Ukrainians 147,807 UAH per month.
Such an important, albeit interim, victory in her sister’s case encouraged Iryna to continue her fight. But Ukrainians have an appropriate folk saying: when jumping over an obstacle, “don’t say ‘I did it’ until you’ve landed on the other side.” The late Svitlana’s husband, Maksym Sapatinsky, one of the four named aggrieved parties in the case, stunned the audience gathered for the first court hearing with his “victim impact statement” to the court. He stated to have no claims against the accused.
“They paid him off…” the Svitlana’s parents and sister sighed bitterly, referring to their son- and brother-in-law.
They believe that to be the case after Maksym submitted a written statement dated February 25, 2016, which read in part: “I confirm receiving reimbursement and attest to the absence of any further material or moral claims against Rossoshansky Dmitry Yurievich…” His statement was witnessed by the Dunyaks’ svakha, their in-law, Maryna Savenok, who wrote, “I confirm the authenticity of this statement, which was written by my son, Maksym Anatoliyovych Sapatinsky,” and signed her name at the bottom of the document. Even more eloquent evidence supporting the suspicion of bribery was where the widower chose to sit in the courtroom — beside the defendant’s parents, Olha and Yuri Rossoshansky, and not next to his late wife’s family.
Up until then, Kateryna and Serhiy Dunyak, as well as their eldest daughter Iryna, had been puzzling over why Maksym moved out of the house on Sonyachna Street so soon after learning about the accident. Finally, everything fell into place. Their son-in-law, who had never held a job for more than two or three months, gave in to easy money. The most offensive thing about the situation was the man did not leave alone. He also took his son, four-year-old Matviy, along with him. From that moment, the grandparents and aunt did not have access to the boy who had grown up before their eyes. They had to turn to the courts for the opportunity to communicate with their grandson and nephew. Soon after, Maksym Sapatinsky moved to another village, Stari Petrivtsi, where he remarried, and the new mother claimed guardianship of the boy. Their former son-in-law was in no hurry to comply with the court’s decision to allow Svitlana’s family to see her child twice a week.
Iryna reported all the tribulations of the court trials on her Facebook page, where she called her sister’s killer, Dmytro Rossoshansky, a “bastard” and “beast” at every opportunity and described her sister’s ex-husband, Maksym Sapatinsky, and his family as “Judases.” Understandably, not everyone agreed with her. Her posts attracted many supportive comments, such as: “Good luck, my dear… May God help you… We will keep our fingers crossed and pray for you…” But there were also those who responded by terrorizing her in the middle of the night: phone calls with curses wishing evil upon their entire family, and the salvos of what sounded like gunfire from firecrackers periodically thrown into the Dunyaks’ yard.
An impenetrable darkness had descended upon the skies over Sonyachna Street.
“Six months ago, 16-year-old Nastya Nozdrovska from the village of Demydiv, Kyiv oblast, became severely agitated and has been unable to sleep. The girl began having nightmares which drove her mad. Her relatives are worried and frightened by what Nastya described to them. She began having more frequent panic attacks because of the nightmares. And then the girl narrowly avoided catastrophe… ‘They want to take me to the next world,’ she said with conviction, and desperately asked us for help…”
This was the on-air promotion of two episodes of the “Psychic Investigations” project broadcast on Ukrainian television in 2016. The show was pseudo-scientific, but popular, where the “detectives” were
magicians, werewolves, vampires, clairvoyants, and witches, psychics who use their supposed paranormal abilities to help solve crimes the police were unable to figure out. The television program’s most receptive audience was among people living in Ukrainian villages and small towns, especially older people (but not only) who were still stuck in a more traditional society and were thus more inclined to subscribe to folk beliefs and superstitions; in other words, the people who were more inclined to think supernaturally, rather than critically.
“Let’s write in or call them to come out here. Maybe they can help us, maybe they will tell us something,” Kateryna Dunyak practically begged her eldest daughter after watching another psychic investigation on the STB television channel. Iryna initially refused, but finally succumbed, after relentless insistence from her mother, who, after Svitlana’s death, was unable to overcome her grief and was desperately looking for any help, even if it was “supernatural.” Iryna dutifully filled out the form and submitted it through the channel’s website.
The production crew filmed on Sonyachna Street in Demydiv for two or three days. Each of the family members was interviewed in-depth, and after ascertaining all of the details of the Dunyaks’ youngest daughter’s death, the producers went back to their studios to edit the materials they had gathered for their investigative report.
To date, the episodes featuring the late Svitlana Sapatinska’s family have a combined total of over 1.5 million views on YouTube. They can’t be called anything other than a disservice to the victim. This show is a glaring example of how for financial gain, the mass media not only clouds viewers’ common sense, but also parasitizes the pain of a family who has lost a loved one forever.
“We watched the programs when they were broadcast, and we were… a little shocked,” Nastya Nozdrovska, who wound up being the focus of the show, recalled in a conversation with me six years later.
The cause of Nastya’s nightmares was quickly and definitively identified by “clairvoyant” Elena Kurylova and “witch” Zhanna Shulakova (both past winners of the “Battle of the Psychics,” another paranormal TV show which was broadcast onto television screens from Russia in order to brainwash Ukrainians). The cause, they determined, was a recent tragedy involving a young woman who was dear to Nastya. But it was much more difficult for them to figure out exactly how her Aunt Svitlana had died.
The show began with a discussion of whether or not Svitlana Sapatinska had committed suicide. The paranormal “investigators” suggested she may have thrown herself in front of a car. Surprisingly, their theory coincided with the testimony given by the driver who had caused the fatal accident. They further explained the woman may have decided to take her own life due to her husband’s adultery; relatives confirmed just a few days before her death, Svitlana had caught her husband Maksym with another woman, and was upset over it.
Another explanation for the accident presented in the program matched the narrative Dmytro Rossoshansky’s defense team had put forward to explain the fatal incident. According to the psychics’ “visions,” the driver could not see the person in his path because he had been blinded by the morning sun. The show’s host then confirmed, “According to the man whose car hit Svitlana, and according to the passenger who was in the car with him at the time of the accident, they did not see Svitlana walking on the road that day.”
Next, it was the witch Zhanna’s turn: “After the girl’s death, Svitlana’s family began to literally hate everyone around them. They put a curse on and wished death upon the driver, the witness, and many other people who support the driver, who became a killer by accident.” To illustrate the family’s aggressive behavior, the show included a hidden camera video of Kateryna Dunyak and Iryna Nozdrovska angrily arguing with a local, and then in the final moments of the first episode, showed an elderly woman saying: “I’m scared. I’ve already put an axe on my porch, because if anyone comes by, I’ll get them…” (It is unclear whether these videos were commissioned for a fee, or whether they simply captured the right moment, but it is hard to shake the idea the videos were filmed by people who were motivated to be loose with the truth.)
“You need to let go of the hate,” the witch shared her wise advice with Iryna. Next, she rolled up her sleeves and, together with her fellow clairvoyant, continued looking for the “real” cause of the accident. In the end, they determined the family had been “hexed” by an old lady who had lived nearby and had died shortly before the show was filmed. This was the focus of the second episode of “Psychic Investigations.”
The psychics determined an elderly neighbor had used black magic to marry the now dead Svitlana to her own late grandson, who had fallen in love with the girl while he was still alive, but it was a love she did not reciprocate. They even found irrefutable “evidence” this was the case: icons adorned with embroidered wedding towels, a book of spells (with a bookmark in the right place), and a fork with a personalized engraving. The neighbor who had cast the spell planted the items instilled with black magic in the car belonging to Svitlana’s husband, Maksym Sapatinsky. He inadvertently contributed to his wife’s death when he drove the car to their house on Sonyachna Street.
After “solving” the crime, which had proven to be too difficult for the professional detectives of the Vyshhorod Police Department, the psychics decided to destroy all the items infused with black magic. The spell book, specifically, was torn into pieces and thrown into the Kizka River on the outskirts of the village, not far from the place where Svitlana’s accident occurred. This, in their “expert” opinion, would bring an end to the Dunyak family’s suffering as well as protect them from any further threats in the future.
Prior to the program’s broadcast, the residents of Demydiv had been divided into two camps: those who supported the victim’s family and those who sympathized with the accident’s perpetrator. The show only added fuel to the fire. Some of the locals accepted the explanation it was suicide. Some sincerely believed the sun was to blame for the accident, and not the driver, who was probably under the influence of drugs. Some were outraged the blame for the young woman’s death was pinned on their late neighbor, who had now been posthumously branded a witch. Some thought the Dunyaks had decided to make money from their daughter’s death. Others questioned whether the family had any common sense left if they went to psychics for help. As a result, the victim’s family lost far more than they gained.
It took a year and no fewer than twenty court hearings before a guilty verdict was finally handed down for Dmytro Rossoshansky in May 2017. The sentence was lighter than the family members had hoped for: 7 years in prison and a 3-year suspension of his driver’s license, despite the family’s demand for the maximum punishment. Article 286 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, under which the crime was classified, provides for a maximum of 8 years in prison for the perpetrator. However, the family members were unable to prove the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident. Iryna Nozdrovska and her parents blamed the National Police officers who had conducted the pre-trial investigation for that omission.
Although the court’s decision did not bring one hundred percent satisfaction, it did bring partial relief and hope the darkness which had enveloped the Dunyak family after losing their loved one would gradually dissipate over time. In an interview, Iryna noted:
“I did not believe this would happen until the very last moment. But the judges of the Obukhiv District Court held a firm position, and I am grateful to them for that. I am grateful they were not corrupted by money and ignored the killer’s connections.”
The story could have concluded with the pronouncement of the verdict. However, Dmytro’s lawyers filed an appeal. Their client was eligible for amnesty. Indeed, according to the 2016 Amnesty Law, which came into force in September 2017, a person found guilty of a crime of not particularly serious negligence may be released from imprisonment under certain conditions. In his particular case, it was the fact the guilty party had a small son (while married to Anastasia Manchenko) and still had parental rights.
Prisoner amnesty has been practiced in independent Ukraine since 1991. Since then, full or partial amnesty and suspension of sentences for certain categories of perpetrators convicted in criminal cases has been declared more than 20 times. Initially, prisoner amnesties were granted by decrees of the Presidium of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) and the President. After the Constitution was adopted in 1996 and the Verkhovna Rada passed the Law “On the Application of Amnesty in Ukraine,” amnesty was granted according to individual decrees. These sometimes coincided with significant dates, such as the tenth anniversary of Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence in 2001, and the 60th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War in 2005. But not always. The lawmakers’ motivation, however, remained the same each time: the legislators granted amnesty on humanitarian grounds.
“Guided by the principle of humanism,” read the amnesty law which People’s Deputies of the Parliament’s eighth convocation voted on in 2016, and President Poroshenko signed. But if you dig a little deeper and look at the explanatory note from the bill’s sponsors (the head of the Committee on Legislative Support of Law Enforcement, Andriy Kozhemiakin, and seven other parliamentarians), you will see the real reason for granting amnesty is not necessarily as highly moral as it is generally proclaimed to be: freeing prisoners will help the state budget save money.
Iryna Nozdrovska, who had just spent two years of her life fighting for a fair sentence for her sister’s killer while sacrificing her career and personal relationships, could not accept the fact Dmytro Rossoshansky had a completely legal way of escaping fair punishment once again. (Did anyone, who automatically copies the word “humanism” from one law and pastes it into the next, ever consider amnesty for criminal offenders is actually inhumane to their victims and their relatives?) Together with her parents, Iryna filed a complaint with the Kyiv Regional Court of Appeal. Perhaps this was her fatal mistake.
In her appeal, Iryna Nozdrovska asked for the Obukhiv District Court’s verdict to be overturned, and a new, more severe sentence be pronounced, taking into account the aggravating circumstance of the defendant being under the influence of drugs. Although it was no longer possible to confirm this intoxication via medical examination, Iryna had five witnesses willing to testify the driver’s behavior after the accident was erratic and inappropriate to the situation. Common sense would suggest this proof to be sufficient, but in a justice system operating according to the twisted logic of financial gain instead of defending the truth, the victims were left with nothing other than hopeless expectations.
In this latest round of the legal battle, Svitlana’s ex-husband betrayed her family once again: Maksym Sapatinsky asked the court to dismiss her parents’ and sister’s appeal, noting:
“The arguments of the other aggrieved parties in this case about the need to recognize the aggravating circumstances of the accused being in a state of alcohol or drug intoxication are unconvincing… I have never, and under no circumstances, asked for a more severe punishment to be applied to the accused Rossoshansky D., other than the one determined by the verdict of the Obukhiv District Court…”
“I didn’t write anything… Prove that I did. I didn’t write anything at all,” Maksym, the widower, vehemently denied when journalist Volodymyr Tymofiychuk asked him directly about the written statement he had submitted during the previous court proceedings indicating he had no claims against his wife’s killer. Iryna posted a video of this interview on social media on October 22, 2018. “What kind of punishment are you asking for?” asked the man holding the microphone emblazoned with the 2+2 TV channel’s logo.
“The maximum,” said Maksym Sapatinsky sharply, fumbling with his keys as he hurried to jump into his car and escape the annoying reporter.
“Do you know that he [Dmytro Rossoshansky — author’s note] is a drug addict?” Tymofiychuk continued to question him.
“All I know is… he has cirrhosis. And he’s in treatment. That’s all I know.”
On December 27, 2017, citing the procedural violations committed during the investigation, the Kyiv Regional Court of Appeals did not release Dmytro Rossoshansky from custody, and ordered a new trial in the case of Svitlana Sapatinska’s death in the court of first instance. At the close of the hearing, Yuri Rossoshansky, the defendant’s father, addressed Iryna with the words: “This will end badly for you!”
After the emotionally exhausting day, Iryna Nozdrovska wrote on Facebook: “Tired, tormented, with bags under my eyes from round-the-clock lack of sleep and malnutrition, barely able to stand, I am trying to gather my thoughts to express my sincere gratitude to all those caring people who have done such a tremendous job… This is one of the extremely rare fair decisions.”
And then two days later, on Friday, December 29, she disappeared.
That evening Iryna was returning home to Demydiv from her job in Kyiv. She had been working as a lawyer at the Motor Pool of the Verkhovna Rada’s Office of Affairs from autumn 2016 until the summer of 2017, when she took a job with the NGO “Movement Fighting Against Corruption” which had an office in the capital city’s government district. The last time Iryna had contact with someone was with her mother, Kateryna Dunyak. Iryna had called her at 6 PM on December 29 to say she was passing through Novi Petrivtsi, the first of three villages on the way home from Kyiv to Demydiv. Half an hour later, she was no longer answering her phone. Two hours later, Iryna’s daughter Anastasia reported her disappearance to the police. On December 30, 2017, the National Police opened criminal proceedings under Article 115 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine “premeditated murder” with the note “missing person” and put out an all-points bulletin for Iryna Nozdrovska:
“She is between 35 and 40 years old, 152 cm tall, medium build, blond with shoulder-length hair, blue eyes, with a mole above her upper lip on the left side. The woman was wearing a brown sheepskin coat, black winter boots, an orange sweater, navy blue pants, and was carrying a red handbag.”
To be continued…
Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk
Other stories illustrated by Olenka Zahorodnyk