Before the winter of 2013-2014, Ukraine had spent its 22 years of independence peacefully. Where Russia had seen wars with separatist regions (Chechnya, 1994-1996 and 2000-2005), witnessed its president turn tank barrels on the parliament (October 1993), and had seen opposition-leaning Russians jailed and beaten by riot police for peaceful demonstrations (Winter 2012-2013), Ukraine had remained quiet. Certainly, the country had its share of political assassinations in the 1990s, but even 2004’s Orange Revolution was concluded peacefully and without violence against the protestors in the street or the politicians involved.
So the decision by then-President Viktor Yanukovych to use force on the thousands of Ukrainian citizens peacefully protesting his choice to forego signing an association agreement with the European Union came as a great shock to the body politic. Netflix’s newest documentary, Winter on Fire, tells the story of what happened next, as Ukrainians were killed, kidnapped and beaten by their government for daring to believe in the possibility of a new, uncorrupt, and European Ukraine.
Condensing the emotionally and politically charged events of a three-month long protest into the space of 98 minutes is a daunting task, but one that Russian-American director Evgeny Afineevsky has accomplished beautifully. He allows several of the main actors of what became known as the EuroMaidan movement, and some of its ordinary participants and activists, to narrate the events as they occurred, only intervening to set and close the story.
The footage is raw and often graphic. It shows horrifying police beatings of protestors, shooting deaths during street fighting, the blood on the floors of makeshift hospitals. Afineevsky was in Ukraine, on Maidan (Kyiv’s main square), for the much of the revolution and so does an excellent job of conveying the emotion of the event, showing the diversity of the protestors, and telling a powerful, visceral human story.
Perhaps most affecting are the stories of the young men who choose to go into battle. Sergey Nigoyan, originally from Armenia, was the first of the protestors to die on Maidan; interviews with him before his death are haunting. As is sixteen-year-old protestor Dmytro Holubnychyy’s call to his mother to say “I love you” before confronting Yankuovych’s riot troops.
Certainly, there are additional details that I wish had been incorporated, but this is my own exacting bias. Not long before the denouement of the protests, during one of the lulls in the fighting, I spent two days on Maidan talking to protestors and activists of all types: grandmothers, students, artists, military veterans, right-wing hardliners, and socialists. While Winter on Fire does a terrific job of conveying the hopeful, community atmosphere of the protest camps, much material that could have been useful for viewers unfamiliar with EuroMaidan was excluded. It is not made clear, for example, that many of the materials used to create anti-riot police barricades and defend Maidan had been donated by local businesses; that protestors were not just from Kyiv, but from the north, south, east and west of Ukraine; that far-right nationalist groups were very involved in the fighting. In a few important cases, the translation could have been better executed.
Winter on Fire wisely avoids some of the large political questions that could have derailed it. It does not try to discover whether Russian riot police were indeed involved in the beatings of protestors, or attempt to determine who fired the first shots on the bloody day of February 20. Nor does the documentary attempt to cover the series of events that came immediately after the end of the protests: Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the proxy war that it began in eastern Ukraine, the resulting deaths and waves of refugees.
At its core, Winter on Fire is an emotional chronicle of a nation’s fight for dignity, freedom, and self-determination. Over and over again, as the winter and the protests dragged on, protestors in the documentary sing Ukraine’s national anthem. As 125 of their compatriots died and were buried, Ukrainians continued to sing that “soul and body we will down for our freedom,” a lyric—sadly left untranslated by Afineevsky—that now has more meaning than anyone ever wanted it to.
Hannah Thoburn is a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute and tweets at @HannahThoburn.