You may recall seeing footage on the news, in late February 2014, of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Kiev, and the country, in the middle of the night. This is the news behind the news, the story that’s too complex to tell in soundbites of how the ordinary people of Ukraine banded together to demand change.
Russian-born filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky now lives in Los Angeles, but he was on the ground in Kiev for the 93 days it took to rebirth a nation. It began in November 2013 as citizens gathered in Kiev’s Maidan Square to insist that their leaders take the first steps toward the nation joining the European Union. “Ukraine is part of Europe,” they chanted, waving Ukrainian and EU flags, and the atmosphere was partylike, all excited exuberant young people full of optimism. That quickly turned to frustration, though, when their voices were ignored, and police started beating up peaceful protesters. So they settled in for a long haul, determined to remain until they were heard, with many people living in the square in a way reminiscent of the Occupy camps we saw in Western cities.
Afineevsky shows us what a revolution in the 21st century looks like, where old tactics meet new on both sides. The very effective strategy of the powerful turning ordinary people against one another is in full force, of course: cops are working-class schmoes, too, and one here at least appears ashamed to be on the side dishing out all the violence. But this was also a revolution of Facebook journalists and cell-phone charging stations for the protesters: if the mainstream media outside Ukraine wasn’t paying much attention to Maidan, the Internet certainly was. The power of ridicule in such a communications landscape is vast; how the protesters respond when the desperate government outlaws the wearing of helmets is perfect.
Winter on Fire will make you feel downright patriotic for Ukraine, and simpatico with people who — like people everywhere — just want freedom and happiness for themselves and their families. They paid a high price but they had a real impact, and that represents a bit of hope for all of us. Change for the better can happen, but we do still need to fight for it. The powerful do not give up their power willingly.