The 2015 Netflix documentary film, by filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, Winter on Fire is a prism of the personal. It is an imagery of unity, patriotism, a worm’s eye view of the Ukrainian revolution and a real-life nostalgic celebration, captured through a simple camera lens. It showcases these Euromaidan protests in Ukraine from 21 November 2013 to 23 February 2014.
November 21st 2013, the start of the Euromaidan, the internal public protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, Ukraine. The decision made by the Ukrainian government to not sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, and instead choosing closer ties to Eurasian Economic Union and Russia sparked these protests. A “widespread government corruption” and “violation of human rights in Ukraine” fed these protests which led to the Revolution of Dignity, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Ukrainian activists and protestors poured into the central square of Kyiv, the Maidan to protest the repressive measures in the country which led them to oust an autocrat, President Viktor Yanukovich. People, together from different cities in Ukraine, huddled in the frost, were doing a peaceful protest. Some of them painted posters, some wrote “Europe Starts With You” in banners, sang, lighted bonfires, not a beer bottle in sight. People were there to purely fight for their human rights, every single one of them, till the end.
For the people, the protests were more than a demand for closer ties with the European Union, it was also a way of saying no to abuse of power, a rejection of injustice for the Ukrainian people. They took to the streets to denounce the corruption and unfairness, done by the government. The men, women, children of Ukraine followed a peaceful protest as violence delegitimized their movement, but the police was violently dispersing crowds and used brutal force on the protesters, which resulted in over 100 deaths.
On December 11th, the Berkut (riot police of Ukraine) showed up and surrounded Maidan to clear it. Berkut, fully armed were pushing the unarmed civilians and it was slowly breaking up the hand chain that the Maidan protesters had made. At this point, the people were singing the Ukrainian national anthem and hearing it was somehow making their grip stronger. This night showed the Ukrainians how strong unity can be.
On the 57th day of this peaceful protest, new laws were passed from the parliament. These stated that if someone wore a helmet they will be jailed, if someone congregated, they will be jailed, if someone was in a car line of five or more, they will be jailed or if someone wore a ski mask, they will be jailed. This was at a time where the temperature was below freezing in Kyiv. The next day people were seen in the streets with kitchen pots on their heads and masks crafted carefully with crayons and glitter, or with anything they could find, and one man was saying “They forgot to put that in these laws. They should add that immediately” to the camera. People interpreted it with such irony.
The documentary shows how, during a midnight assault on the Euromaidan, with hopes of waking up local residents to warn them about the attack by the special forces, a bell ringer rang the bells at the local St. Michael Monastery. The last time these bells were rung was in 1240, eight centuries prior, when the clergy needed to warn people about the Mongol attack on the city.
Although the Russian state-owned media portrayed the protests as a xenophobic and nationalist uprising, the protestors at the Euromaidan were incredibly diverse. People came from different parts of Ukraine, spoke many languages, had varied religious beliefs. Even amidst these differences, they all believed in and had only one pro-human rights message. In the documentary, the streets of Kyiv were filled with people fighting for their freedom for three months. Brisk pacing, evocative memories, raw emotions in a wintry landscape.
Among the stories of many brave freedom fighters in Euromaidan, there’s that of Serhiy. In the documentary, I saw Kristina Berdynskykh, a reporter at the Maidan interviewing Serhiy Nigoyan, a 20-year-old activist. He was asking Kristina where she has even seen him for her to interview him and she said that she saw him coming to the Maidan every day and helping people. She then took her phone out to show Serhiy a portrait of him that someone drew during the protests, he looked at it and was smiling in awe. Little did I know he would become the first protester to get killed due to mortal shooting in the protests to come. Only 20, he suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died for his country. His eyes were drawn by someone on that picture Kristina showed him on the interview day for him to see, and after this protest ended another did the same, only it stands tall today for everyone to see.
At the end, as the protests continued into December, protestors filled the Kyiv’s city hall and called on Yanukovych to resign. Yanukovych, ahead of an impeachment vote, fled the capital. For some, this could be just another picture of a protest in a history book, old wine in a new bottle type of thing. And yes, protests and wars have happened countless times in different ways but when we turn the pages, feel the anger, share the struggles of people, we realise that the cause or the root of it all was mostly the same every time.
It’s the duty of the governments and the world leaders to steer their people and countries into living with peace with other countries, respecting each other’s values, providing people access to education, employment, food, health care. Understanding each other, strengthening our economies, fighting for injustice, highlighting the importance of dialogue isn’t a one man driven operation. If this world is the play, Ukraine is at the centre stage now, the rest is behind the curtain, hopefully taking notes.