Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (documentary review)
Documentary review by Lungani Hlongwa
Abstract: The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces has been a major topic of discussion. Around the world, news headlines have been dominated by coverage of key episodes and the trajectory of the conflict. To get an understanding of events leading to the Russian invasion, I recently watched Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, an award-winning documentary directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. This documentary has been highly recommended for those who wish to gain background information on the Russo-Ukrainian war. The documentary follows a 93-day protest by Ukrainian citizens demanding the resignation of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and greater alignment with the European Union. It is a chronological account of key events that shaped the resistance and its outcome. Overall, the documentary does well in capturing Ukrainian citizens’ struggle against a regime which they perceive to be a threat to Ukraine’s future. But, as I will argue in my reflection, the documentary is mostly one-sided and does not provide a strong connection with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Keywords: Russia, Ukraine, conflict, invasion, protest, revolution
About the Documentary
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (hereafter Winter on Fire or ‘the documentary’) is a 2015 documentary film directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, written by Den Tolmor, and co-produced by Netflix. It follows the 2013-2014 Maidan Square uprising in Kyiv to oust pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych and bring Ukraine into closer alignment with the European Union (EU). The documentary is highly rated with a score of 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 8.3/10 on IMDb. Winter on Fire is one hour and thirty-seven minutes long. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was also one of the winners of the 2016 Television Academy Honors. Those interested in watching the documentary can do so on Netflix or YouTube via this link.
Winter on Fire: A Summary of the Documentary
The documentary starts with a one-minute textual narration of Ukraine’s recent political history. In 2004, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych won the election and assumed power. However, the elections were proven to have been rigged and Yanukovych was forced to step down. In the following years, Ukraine struggled to attain economic stability, leading to the return of Yanukovych in 2010. This time, the election results were confirmed, and Yanukovych assumed full control. He immediately adopted two contradictory policies. He promised that Ukraine would join the European Union (EU) while he secretly built closer ties with Russia. The documentary does not go into too much detail explaining the contradiction in assuming a pro-Europe and pro-Russian posture. I also feel that the documentary could have provided more information here about the historical links between Ukraine and Russia.
Following the textual narration, the documentary proceeds with then Ukrainian prime minister Mykola Azarof announcing that there would be no signing of a free trade agreement deal between Ukraine and the EU. Many Ukrainians perceived this as a betrayal, as Viktor Yanukovych’s regime promised to sign an EU association deal. Instead, while Ukrainians looked to the EU, Viktor Yanukovych was developing closer ties with Russia. Some Ukrainians saw this as a step backward in the country’s development, which, according to one commentator, takes Ukraine all the way back to her grandparent’s times when it was under the Soviet Union. Some commentators interviewed believe that shunning the EU option was a robbery of their kids’ future. The stage was set for what would start as a protest and grow into a full-blown revolution.
At first, about 300 to 400 people gathered at Maidan Square in Kyiv. That number gradually grew as people took on the snowy winter to express their dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to shun the EU option. At first, the protest was more like a festival as people danced, sang, and chanted “Yanukovych, sign the agreement.” By day nine of the protest, there were still no signs that the government would sign the EU deal. Instead, police officers were deployed to Maidan Square, where they used force and violence against protestors. More determined than before, the protestors decided to take the struggle closer to the presidential headquarters where they were met with even more violence from the police. After a long struggle, the protestors were forced to retreat to Maidan, where they built a base for their resistance with the help of retired soldiers.
Several days later, police once again encircled Maidan. In the documentary, there is a physical pushing contest between protestors and the police who want to breach Maidan’s barricades. This is a rather tense moment in the documentary as protestors put their bodies on the line to defend the very idea of Maidan as a base for their resistance. Many protestors said they did not care if they got injured, as long as the idea of Maidan survived. Maidan is an important site of political struggle in Ukraine. It is here where students gathered in 1990 to generate energy that eventually capitulated the Soviet Union (Diuk, 2014). Protestors hoped Maidan would once again serve as a site for overthrowing a regime which they believed was bad for Ukraine’s future.
There are several instances in the documentary where protestors call on the police to join them in their struggle. “Remember what your first-grade teacher taught you,” said one protestor in tears. “Didn’t she teach you to love Ukraine? What about the oath you took as a police officer to defend Ukrainians?” It is not clear whether there were some active members of the police who joined the Maidan protest. What is clear, however, was that police would continue using force to crush the resistance at Maidan. Thanks to the great number of people who joined the protest, Maidan was saved a few times from the police and with it, the idea that the resistance would continue until the protestors’ voices were heard.
Throughout the documentary, there are several such clashes between protestors and the police at Maidan Square and various other locations in Kyiv. In some instances, police were reported to have fired rubber bullets and stun grenades with nuts and bolts to deliver maximum injury to protestors. Indeed, many protestors were injured during the Maidan uprising. Yet, these attacks from the police only made the resistance stronger. Musicians, celebrities, and different religious groups also became part of the resistance. By this time, the fight was no longer just about EU membership or Yanukovych’s resignation. Seeing that the government was willing to use force to push their agenda, protestors saw their struggle as a fight for freedom and the very future of Ukraine.
By day 60 of the protest, the documentary shows police firing real bullets at the protestors. Several people died, driving the protest to a point of no return. Medical stations were set up at Maidan to treat the injured. Ukrainian citizens came to Maidan to donate medicine, food, and warm clothes. Even kids as young as twelve volunteered to charge phones in the tents to provide much-needed communication between what was turning into a battlefield and home. Doctors from around Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian Red Cross provided medical assistance. Some of the medical facilities set up in Maidan were attacked and burned by the police. In one such medical facility, many injured patients died as they could not escape the flames that had engulfed the building. At this time, the scenes at Maidan were nothing short of a war-torn city with dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Even doctors from the Red Cross were fired upon, despite their highly visible uniform.
Fast forwarding to the 92nd day of the resistance, protestors announced their demand for Yanukovych’s resignation by 10:00 am the next day. They announced that they will take up arms in their struggle should Yanukovych fail to resign. Shortly after that, Yanukovych is seen on surveillance cameras escaping Kyiv. According to the documentary, Yanukovych was given asylum in Russia. His unconstitutional resignation was announced the next day along with dates for presidential re-elections. Maidan Square erupted with celebrations. There was renewed hope for a different future for Ukraine. However, a heavy price had been paid. According to human rights organizations, an estimate of 125 people died in the 93 days of the Maidan protests. About 1890 people were treated for injuries and 65 people remain missing.
Following Yanukovych’s escape, the documentary provides brief textual narration of what happened in the following months after the Maidan revolution. The documentary notes that the Berkut (Ukraine’s special police force which had waged violent acts against Maidan protestors) was permanently disbanded. A pro-western government was elected, which promptly signed the EU agreement. Some brief information is also provided about Russia sending military forces to assist pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of Ukraine. I found the pro-Russian identity to be a missing part of the documentary and had to read other sources to fill in the gaps. The paragraph below provides what I think would have added more context to the Maidan protest and clear links with the recent Russian invasion.
Reviewers’ critical reflection
Since attaining independence in 1991, Ukraine has existed in a dual cultural identity between a Ukrainian-speaking pro-European west and a Russian-speaking pro-Russian east (Zhurzhenko, 2014). A significant number of people living in Crimea (which is in the southern part of Ukraine) and the Donbas (which is in the eastern part of Ukraine) speak Russian and are also culturally aligned with Russia. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014 shortly after the Maidan revolution and is today one of the areas controlled by the Russian military. The Donbas, specifically the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, were also largely under Russian military control as of writing this article (July, 11, 2022). At first, the Kremlin’s objective for invading Ukraine was to overthrow the Ukrainian government and prevent the country from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (Kirby, 2022). However, that objective, according to Kirby, has since changed to the “liberation of the Donbas.”
The documentary does well in capturing the desire of some Ukrainians for Ukraine to become a member of the EU. A wide range of protestors were interviewed, giving viewers a broader perspective. Interviewees included doctors, artists, priests, businesspeople, and former soldiers, among others. For such Ukrainians, EU membership is seen not only as a step toward economic development but also toward the embrace of a European identity. In the early days of the Maidan struggle, many protestors in the documentary film were seen carrying EU flags and chanting “Ukraine is part of Europe.” What the documentary does not mention, however, is that the Maidan uprising was also about cultural identity. As Diuk (2014) points out, “‘a new Ukraine was born on the Maidan,’ by means of demonstrations that not only brought a new government to power but changed the people and their outlook…that may well be the Maidan’s main significance” (p. 83). What Diuk seems to be implying is that on the surface, the protests were to oust a corrupt government and to restore the dignity of the Ukrainian people. On a deeper level, however, the protests revealed the quest for a new Ukraine.
The documentary also falls short in presenting the other side of the identity spectrum. It merely glosses over the fact that some people in the eastern part of Ukraine identify with Russia and do not wish to develop closer ties with Europe. By failing to highlight the Russian identity, the documentary risks presenting all Ukrainians as being pro-EU. Thus, failing to highlight the pro-Russian side in Ukraine makes it challenging to understand the stated reasons behind Russia’s invasion and its development. I think Winter on Fire should have been a two-part series, with the second part focusing more on the pro-Russian side. That way, viewers would have had a more balanced view and a clearer understanding of the reasons leading to the Russian invasion. Perhaps that was beyond the scope of the director’s objective with the documentary. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended as a piece of the puzzle in understanding Russia’s invasion. Viewers may have to fill in the gaps by consulting other sources.
Diuk, N. (2014). The Maidan and Beyond: Finding Ukraine. Journal of Democracy, 25(3), 83-89.
Zhurzhenko, T. (2014). A divided nation? Reconsidering the role of identity politics in the Ukraine crisis. Die Friedens-Warte, 249-267.
Hedenskog, J. (2014). Ukraine–A Background. A Rude Awakening: Ramifications of Russian Aggression Towards Ukraine, 17-24.
Kirby, P. (2022). Why has Russia invaded Ukraine and what does Putin want. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589