KIEV—The last time Irina Nozdrovskaya was seen alive was on the night of Dec. 29. Thoughtful and serious, she was smoking a cigarette outside her office on Bankova Street, near the administration building of Ukraine’s president. Nozdrovskaya, 38, worked for the opposition and was known as a fearless human rights lawyer and a tireless fighter against corruption.
At 6:18 p.m. her mother, Katerina Duniak, called to ask when to expect Irina home. Irina’s answer sounded unusually abrupt: “I cannot talk right now.” When her parents called back half an hour later, the phone did not answer.
On Jan. 1, police found Nozdrovskaya’s naked body in the shallow, narrow Kozka River near her home village of Demidov outside of Kiev.
Irina’s clothes, fur coat, two broken phones and the knife that stabbed her were scattered around the river’s banks.
Nozdrovskaya’s family lawyer, Anatoly Khudiakov, told The Daily Beast after inspecting Irina’s body that there were 15 stab wounds in and around her neck. “Two of them were especially deep, the stabs broke bones in her neck.”
Even now, a week after the murder, the victim’s aged mother does not know the truth about what had happened to her daughter: nobody dared to break the horrible news to her.
In 2015 Duniak’s younger daughter, Nozdrovskaya’s 26-year-old sister Svetlana, was killed by a car while she was walking on the grass on the side of an unpaved road in her village. Irina Nozdrovskaya was left to be the only provider for her sister’s 4-year-old son, as well as her own daughter and her parents.
Police investigators were working on four different versions of Irina’s murder, but some things were already clear to her family’s lawyer Khudiakov: “She made life uncomfortable for many people, some saw her as their enemy; her murder was a well-plotted crime, scheduled for a Friday night, before the New Year weekend, when local police were slower than usual.”
Irina was a small woman of outsized courage. Her friend and colleague Mikhail Krivoruchkin remembered the first time he saw her back in 2014. “I was amazed to see a tiny beautiful woman, coming to our anti-corruption committee to be a witness against a Rada [parliament] deputy, Anton Yatsenko,” Krivoruchkin told The Daily Beast on Friday. Nozdrovskaya worked investigating state tenders for contracts. She knew everything about corruption in that area, Krivoruchkin said. “She hated to see criminals go unpunished, just because they had powerful relatives or friends.”
A week before she got killed, Nozdrovskaya asked Krivoruchkin for help. For the last two years of her life Nozdrovskaya had struggled to convince the Kiev courts that Dmitry Rossoshansky, the drunk driver who had killed her younger sister, had a rich criminal record but always managed to escape punishment because his uncle was a judge. She needed a supporter at the upcoming hearing.
Acting as a private detective and lawyer for her late sister, Nozdrovskaya collected enough documented evidence to prove to the court and investigative reporters that Rossoshansky’s criminal record included a vehicle theft, a robbery and driving on drugs. But every time police caught him Rossoshansky walked free, either supported by his influential uncle, Judge Sergei Kuprienko, or by some other powerful connections.
“If only police took away his driver’s license in accordance with Ukraine’s law, my sister would have been alive,” Nozdrovskaya said in one of the interviews in 2015. She swore an oath to find each individual backing up Rossoshansky.
It was a dangerous fight. Nozdrovskaya complained to her friend Krivoruchkin about multiple threats she had received from Rossoshansky’s supporters. On Dec. 27, the Kiev court held a hearing about Rossoshansky’s future. A few of Irina’s friends came to support her.
But the man in the dock, Rossoshansky, had many more supporters. “They had the faces of criminals who had served years in prison, they behaved as if that was their court and their country,” Krivoruchkin recalled.
But even that did not slow down Nozdrovskaya. “Irina insisted that back in 2015 Rossoshansky’s blood test had been taken 8 hours after the accident instead of two hours, stipulated by the law; she told the court that the test had been falsified and she had enough evidence to prove it,” Krivoruchkin recalled. On that day Ukraine saw what seemed a miracle: the court decided the case in Irina’s favor, kept Rossoshansky in jail, and renewed the investigation.
By winning that hearing, Nozdrovskaya demonstrated to Ukraine that the old post-Soviet system could be overcome—her victory, widely covered in the press, was a symbol to many of what could be done with enough grit and determination to see that justice has at least a chance to prevail. "She was a tiny woman of huge stamina and she went up against a judge made of stone, an investigator made of stone," says Anna Maliar, an expert on criminal justice. "She named those involved in falsifying evidence. She made too many people mad."
In the meantime, police summoned Irina’s boyfriend Vitaly Sergeyev and questioned him for nine hours. “Look, whatever it takes to find the killers, I know police will find them,” Vitaly Sergeyev told The Daily Beast. “Nothing in the world could stop Irina in her struggle for justice, she did not care what price she would pay.”
Vitaly’s romantic plan, he said, was to give Irina her presents for the New Year and then on Jan. 27, his birthday, propose marriage. Instead, Vitaly, his father Victor and Irina’s father Sergei spent the New Year weekend looking for Irina in the wet snow that covered here village and its outskirts.
Irina’s murder has become one more symbol of Ukrainians’ ongoing struggle for dignity. On Jan. 2 dozens of protesters gathered outside the National Police office in Kiev. People collected signatures calling for the interior minister’s resignation. A Ukrainian filmmaker, Zhanna Maksymenko-Dovhych, joined the protest together with her husband. “My good friend Timur was killed by a car but the driver has never been punished; I admire Irina,” Maksymenko-Dovhych said. “Her murder has shaken all those people who have been so disillusioned. She represented dignity.”