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'I Wanted To Die' -- In Russia, A Woman's Life Unravels After Trip To Kyiv


Natalya Romanenko directed a Ukrainian choir in the far-eastern Russian city Khabarovsk for two decades.

Natalya Romanenko directed a Ukrainian choir in the far-eastern Russian city Khabarovsk for two decades.

Up until last year, Natalya Romanenko was a highly regarded musician in her hometown of Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East.

The award-winning Ukrainian choir she directed for 20 years was a source of pride for the city, earning her official accolades and the esteem of fellow Khabarovsk residents.

All this came to an abrupt end in 2014, as Romanenko's life unraveled amid Ukraine's bitter standoff with Russia.

The Russian-born musician, who has Ukrainian roots, is now jobless, reeling from a vicious attack, and battling fraud charges. Her choir has been evicted from its premises and stripped of state funding.

"Suddenly no one remembered my awards," she tells RFE/RL. "When I was fired, no one defended me."

WATCH: Natalya Romanenko's award-winning choir


Romanenko says her troubles began after she traveled to Kyiv in February 2014 at the height of the Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine's Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych.

"I came under huge pressure the moment I returned to Khabarovsk, which took me by surprise," she says. "I had not expected relations to be so damaged that I would feel the repercussions, 9,000 kilometers away from Kyiv."

FSB Interrogation

Romanenko, a mother of two, was detained upon arrival at the Khabarovsk airport and taken to the offices of the Russian federal security service (FSB), where she says she was questioned for almost 15 hours over her trip.

"They yelled at me, they threatened me, it was awful," she says.

Shortly after her detention, a video emerged online in which Romanenko accused the West of orchestrating the Kyiv protests and described Yanukovych's removal as an "unconstitutional coup."

The video was then broadcast on local state-run television.

WATCH: Natalya Romanenko denounces the 'Kyiv coup'


Romanenko, who now professes sympathy for the Euromaidan protesters, claims she was pressured into making the statements.

"They gave me a text and told me to recite it as faithfully as possible," she says. "My mind was so paralyzed that I said these things in front of the camera, I was like on automatic pilot. When I saw the television report, I just wanted to die."

Romanenko says her choir, Batkyvska Krinitsya (Fount of the Motherland), soon stopped receiving invitations to concerts and festivals.

She maintains the group has no political agenda and has refrained from commenting on the events in Ukraine.

Fired And Evicted

The House of Culture in the town of Gorky, where the choir was formally registered, then fired her and barred the ensemble from using its hall for rehearsals.

House of Culture officials deny their decision was connected to Romanenko's ties with Ukraine.

Director Irina Dekhnich says Romanenko was let go because her choir had failed to appear at her institution for several months.

Romanenko's contention that the choir had opted to rehearse in other halls closer to Khabarovsk failed to appease culture officials.

Dekhnich argues that she had not granted Batkyvska Krinitsya permission to rehearse in other locations and that she was unable to "control" Romanenko.

The choir director managed to be reinstated twice in court after being fired twice.

She is now formally on sick leave and will be dismissed on April 3 as part of what Dekhnich calls a "staff redundancy plan."

Romanenko has also lost her job at the Interior Ministry, where she was employed as a soloist in the police's local song and dance ensemble.

She was accused of breaching the rules of service by working with another choir, although she insists her employment at the Gorky House of Culture was allowed by her contract. She has filed an appeal.

The musician's woes with the police don't end here.

Prosecutors have since leveled criminal charges against her for alleged "fraud in obtaining payments."

Romanenko believes the FSB is behind the case -- noting that, according to legal documents, FSB officers, not Interior Ministry officials, conducted the probe into her activities.

Because the investigation is still under way, she is barred from leaving the city.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian choir continued losing its partners in Khabarovsk.

In August 2014, it was evicted from the social center Sodruzhestvo (Community), where it had had its office for four years. The center simply said the cooperation agreement had "expired."

"The center's director was pressured into kicking us out, we were told we had two hours to leave," Romanenko recalls. "The director got very scared because the word 'Ukraine' triggers a certain phobia, and my name is directly associated with Ukraine."

In February 2015, the choir was denied access to its last available rehearsal hall, at a veterans' center in Khabarovsk -- allegedly for financial reasons.

The Assembly of People of the Khabarovsk Region, an organization representing the region's ethnic minorities, has since stepped forward and put a hall at the group's disposal.

Slurs, Threats, And Attacks

The latest blow came earlier this month, when Romanenko was doused with "zelyonka" -- a bright-green, topical antiseptic once thrown at Yanukovych's opponents in Ukraine.

The attack, which took place in broad daylight as she strolled in downtown Khabarovsk, has left her deeply shaken.

"I raised my eyes because a person was blocking my way, then another person came very close to me from the left side," she recalls. "Zelyonka was sprayed over me. At first I didn't realize it was zelyonka, I touched my cheek and I thought: 'Could it be acid?'"

Her assailants also called her a "banderovka," a slur commonly used in Russia to describe Ukrainians loyal to the new Western-leaning government in Kyiv.

Romanenko's plight bodes ill for the large ethnic Ukrainian community living in eastern Russia. The Khabarovsk region is home to some 25,000 ethnic Ukrainians, and the neighboring Primorsky region to about 50,000.

The embattled musician receives much-needed moral and material support from her few remaining friends in Khabarovsk.

"They call it humanitarian aid," she half-heartedly jokes.

But were it not for her ban on traveling and the desire to clear her name, Romanenko says she would seriously consider leaving Russia for good.

"I am disgusted by my country," she says. "I am disgusted by the way I was treated, the way they wiped their feet on me."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


     

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