Footage of Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, by Tomas Rafa.
Since I returned last week from Kiev, where I documented the protests as part of my artistic focus on patriotism and nationalism, the situation in Ukraine has taken a sharp turn for the worse and shifted the meaning of these fraught terms. It is always hard to accurately describe the power of patriotism and nationalism—and the boundary between these related sentiments—in words, which is why I use my camera to reveal their symbolic functions in popular uprisings. Now that Russian forces have seized control of Ukraine’s southern Crimea region, Ukraine is divided and nationalist celebrations of President Viktor Yanukovych’s departure have come to an untimely end. Putin’s moves have put much of the world in a diplomatic frenzy aimed at staving off what could be the start of a new Cold War or, more terrifyingly, a world conflict. Meanwhile, for some Ukrainians in Crimea, patriotism may mean voting to remain connected to Kiev in an upcoming referendum; for others, it may involve deeper ties to the land of their native tongue.
We cannot say what will happen next, but it remains important to reflect on what unfolded during the months of protests. The name of the movement, Euromaidan, arose from protesters’ demands for greater ties to the European Union and their rallying point in Kiev’s central square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), also referred to as simply “Maidan.” While the protesters in Maidan were mostly local residents, many came from cities in the west of Ukraine, like Lviv. The square was also filled with a mix of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and international journalists. People sang the Ukrainian anthem constantly; I heard it about 50 times a day. They also chanted, “Berkut out,” referring to the police, and “Ukraine: honor and liberty,” in Russian. I met a number of Russians who were inspired by what was happening in Maidan and wanted to bring this kind of revolution to their country, where it is currently very hard to change the political environment. They had come to Maidan to learn how to ignite and direct a revolutionary situation.
On February 20, the deadliest day of the revolution, the Alpha Group—a special counterterrorism unit created by the Soviet KGB in the 1970s—was killing many people on the streets. More than 80 were killed, and hundreds were injured. I had flown to Kiev from Warsaw since the roads were now blocked at the city limits. I shot video while the streets below became a killing zone. People were being rescued from the streets and brought into the foyer of Kiev’s Hotel Ukraine. Many journalists were in the hotel, and the management eventually decided to close the doors to keep them safe. The snipers were still shooting at the journalists through the windows, however, using heavy ammunition that could not be stopped by bulletproof vests. Not that it mattered, since these snipers aimed for the head or neck.
Protesters certainly have mixed feelings now that they are no longer united by the common goal of taking down Yanukovych. Right-wing nationalists fought side by side with anarchists as long as Yanukovych was in power, but no longer. Serious tensions among the protesters arose as soon as former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko came to Maidan. Today, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian inhabitants of Crimea are clashing daily. The present struggle in Crimea is not as deadly as the bloodiest days of the uprising, but the future for the peninsula—and for Ukraine as a whole—may be more dangerous than anything we have thus far witnessed.