“I closed my laptop. The next time I opened it was a month and a half later.”
Produced in part by Netflix, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is a 2015 documentary that takes to the streets of Kiev and follows activists during Euromaidan. The intensity of the raw footage led to the film’s nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Despite ultimately losing out to Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Winter on Fire is a powerful illustration of what can be accomplished when people come together to demand change.
“The people came out and showed that we have the power.”
On November 21, 2013 the Ukrainian government, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, halted proceedings to sign the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. The Agreement would have incorporated Ukraine within the European Union and, as many Ukrainians believed, lay the groundwork for a path to greater economic prosperity. Outraged, scores of Ukrainians gathered in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square of the capital city of Kiev.
Hopes of a peaceful protest ultimately disintegrated days later as the riot police—Berkut— closed in on Maidan. On November 30, armed with iron batons Yanukovych’s Berkut brutally beat the peaceful protesters in an effort to crush dissent; men and women, young and old, nobody was spared their wrath.
However, the protesters were not intimidated, their numbers intensified as word of the regime’s egregious attack on unarmed activists spread throughout Ukraine. Their anger intensified as Yanukovych further moved Ukraine away from the EU when he signed the Ukrainian-Russian Action Plan on December 17; Ukraine was to cede the strategic Kerch peninsula to the Russian navy in exchange for the purchase of Ukrainian Eurobonds and a reduction in the price of natural gas. Riots continued throughout December, and what started as an isolated demonstration ultimately evolved into a full-blown revolution.
“We all came here to fight for one thing—for our freedom, our dignity.”
In an effort to quell the demonstrations, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a series of ludicrous anti-protest laws on January 16. Among other provisions, the legislation included a ban on helmets, masks, and driving in a group of more than five cars (directly targeting the AutoMaidan—the automotive contingent of Euromaidan).
The reaction from activists? Outright defiance. Masked Ukrainians took to the streets of Kiev in absurd uniforms and homemade armor in far greater numbers than ever before. Helmets, plastered with profanity or other decorative features, became standard. Protesters were fed up, and they weren’t afraid to show it.
Frustration with the new laws culminated three days later on Hrushevskoho Street, as thousands of activists marched towards the Verkhovna Rada—the Ukrainian Parliament. Chaos ensued as violence erupted between protesters and Berkut riot police. Activists slung rocks and Molotov cocktails as they dodged rubber bullets, water cannons, and stun grenades. Smoke continued to billow into the sky as things took a turn for the worse when Berkut forces began firing live ammunition into a sea of their fellow countrymen, resulting in at least two dead. On January 28, Parliament repealed all but two of the eleven anti-protest laws following the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
“It didn’t matter anymore how much money and effort would be needed to achieve the aim. The point was human dignity.”
Once again, panic swept Maidan as Berkut forces swarmed the Trade Union Building the night of February 18. Flames rose to the skies and the revolution’s headquarters began to burn, trapping wounded activists inside the makeshift hospital. “They did everything to burn the building down because it was the headquarters of the revolution,” one protestor proclaimed. “Many people died in this building.”
As the sun rose the following day, Berkut riot police once again converged upon the square. Machine gun fire rang out throughout the crowd stirring confusion amongst those present, each side believing the other to be responsible. The violence continued, prompting Yanukovych to declare February 20 a day of mourning. The Berkut tested the courage of priests, medics, and protestors alike as snipers continued to fire indiscriminately into the crowd despite the cease-fire agreement.
“They could just as easily kill a holy man the same as everyone else they killed on Maidan.”
On February 21, the Ukrainian Parliament voted unanimously to restore the Constitution of 2004 and hold new presidential elections. The votes came in at 386 to zero. Security footage captured Yanukovych fleeing Kiev before dawn on February 22. Hewas ultimately granted asylum in Russia, and the new Ukrainian government signed the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement.
“For 23 years, we only had our independence on paper. But now, so many people sacrificed their lives that it has become real.”
In the months following, Russian forces assisted pro-Russian separatists to annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine’s newly formed government, causing tensions with the freedom seeking Ukrainians. Since spring 2015, over 6,000 have died in the conflict that has occurred in eastern Ukraine as a result.
Today, the conflict continues as both Russia and Ukraine claim the region as their own. The unrest is particularly taxing on the inhabitants of Crimea; the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights recently stated that the populous is plagued with “a terrible sensation of physical, political, social and economic isolation and abandonment.”
“We are not afraid to die for freedom. Freedom is for us. Freedom is ours.”
For many, films are a blissful escape from the trials and tribulations of reality. For many, that reality is set within the confines of a democratic republic and those trials and tribulations do not include the outright oppression of their fundamental human rights. Unfortunately, this is the reality for far too great a number of the world’s population. Winter on Fire serves as a chilling reminder that freedom is not free for those who live under a pseudo-democratic regime. While this film may not offer an escape from reality, perhaps it offers a different kind of escape: an escape from the fiction that human prosperity lies in anything other than liberty.
Yoko Ono once wrote that “winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.” After 93 days of fighting left 125 dead, 63 missing, and 1890 injured, winter passes and Ukraine remembers…
“No one can make a free person kneel.”