What started as a popular uprising has now descended into a proxy war between Russia and the West. Over a million people have been displaced and, by some estimates, as many as 15,000 have been killed in the Donbas War in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are attempting to seize control of the region.
The first dominos fell in November 2013 when protestors occupied Kiev’s central “Freedom square”, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, after President Yanukovych refused to sign a free trade agreement with the EU. The protests continued and became more violent, culminating in a confrontation between police and protestors in February 2014 that left almost 100 dead and thousands injured.
Russia’s ensuing annexation of Crimea and the subsequent Donbas War have since stolen the headlines. Noticing a lack of focus on the Maidan movement, photojournalism student Malte Kristiansen decided to travel to Kiev in November 2014, a year after the protests started. Through portraits and interviews, he attempted to gauge the mood in the city and people’s reflections on the movement.
The resulting work, entitled “Opbrud” (“Breaking up”), was Kristiansen’s final project in his photojournalism studies at the Danish School of Media and Journalism. We sat down with Kristiansen to find out more. (Scroll to the bottom to see Kristiansen’s portraits and interviews)
Why did you decide to focus on the Maidan protests?
“I couldn’t believe any of the heavily biased media stories I had been reading. Russia cast the protestors as Nazis and argued that it would be the second time that they would have to defend themselves from them. I couldn’t believe that, but I also couldn’t believe the beautiful portrait painted by the Western media of a pro-democratic youth who want to be part of the EU. I think many Ukrainians don’t really know what the EU is and I don’t think that was what the protest was about for most. Mostly, they were just against Yanukovych and not necessarily for something.
“But I also went because the Maidan Revolution had taken place in Europe’s backyard but was only covered intensely in February 2014, even though it had started in November the year before. When Russia annexed Crimea, the Ukrainian revolution was co-opted by larger geopolitics.
“The Maidan Revolution was superseded by a discourse about the “New Cold War”. So the project was about trying to maintain a focus on what happened on the Maidan Square one year earlier – to take the discourse back from Russia.”
What was your process for choosing and meeting your portrait subjects?
“It was actually a pendulum between being very organised and totally going by chance. I needed a broad representation of men and women, young and old. I also wanted to show how people participated – there were old women making soup and medical students building makeshift hospitals – and how these people’s perceptions differed. I found that the Maidan Revolution was seen as everything from a revolution of dignity – some really feel this was the key to a brighter future – to a revolution that was just replacing one set of corrupt politicians with another.
“I made a matrix out of these different factors and used it to start reaching out to different people. I think I made 21 portraits, and there are ten in the final project.”
What are your lasting impressions of Kiev?
“What I really found inspiring is that the Ukrainian people seemed to feel empowered by it. People told me that after the USSR collapsed, all these rich corrupt politicians had gained power, so nobody cared about voting because they knew they would get cheated anyway. And now there is a real feeling that they can do something.
“When you look around Kiev, you see the Ukrainian flag waving and the slogan “I am Ukrainian” everywhere. They are embracing their nationality and really trying to define what it is to be Ukrainian.
“Coming from Denmark and being Danish, this is very interesting. I feel we have lost that debate because it has been taken over by the far right. I would never wave my own national flag because if I did that, people would think I was voting for the far right. So I think it was interesting to see how they are now able to have that sort of open discussion.”
What about the process of actually getting people on camera?
“Sometimes it was difficult to get the kind of picture I wanted, because they have a visual culture where you stand, smile, and have your picture taken. And I don’t work that way. They were very willing to let me photograph them, it was easy to get access and people were eager to talk, but it took some time before people understood that it wouldn’t just take five minutes.”
“It actually helped that I was shooting on film and that I used a big clunky camera, a Pentax 67 mark II, which is essentially a massive SLR that shoots onto 120-film. I shot lots of rolls of each of them and it took time to change the film, which slowed down the whole process, so people understood it was a process and not just a photo.”
Do you think there are divided communities, that the country is split in two?
“No, I think that many people want to paint that picture. I can only speak for what I experienced in Kiev, but there are not these strict divisions between people’s perceptions. Many people have talked about the language divide between those who speak Ukrainian or Russian, but I really didn’t experience a clear divide. You couldn’t even reduce it to simply saying that the youth are pro-Maidan and the older population is pro-Russia.”
What about the name of the project, “Opbrud”, which means “breaking up” in English? Is that what you felt?
“The meaning is not that rigid. It doesn’t just mean the breakup of the country. In Danish it’s more like something that has been set into motion. I wanted a title that had a hint of revolution – it’s not a stretch to call it that, as the violent protests brought about political change. But it also has the sense that something is on the move, or that a change is coming.”
Marco Sharyi – 27
Marco’s first impression of Maidan was its absurdity – women with expensive manicures breaking cobblestones and businessmen cancelling meetings to demonstrate. With time he discovered a different, more appealing structure of society. It was efficient and self-organised, without the bureaucracy that plagues Ukraine.
“It dawned on me and other Ukrainians that we could do anything ourselves. We realised that we could determine our own destiny and fight for the right to live an ordinary life. Maidan pushed us out of the bubble where we thought we had no choice.”
Alexey Pedosenko – 30
Alexey takes out his winter coat. It still smells of smoke from the bonfires and burning tires last winter. After a few weeks of protest, it became routine to meet at the square every day. He helped break up cobblestones that were used as projectiles, cleaned up and occupied the area so it couldn’t be vacated. Memories of the night at Maidan are as fixed in his mind as the smell of smoke on his jacket.
“Most of us are changed after the long winter on Maidan Square. It was overwhelming. I have never experienced so many good people in one place and I don’t think I will ever again be a part of the energy created by such a gathering.”
Georgiy Lukianchuk – 54
“During the protests, people slept wherever there was room. Some came from far away – others just needed a rest and a bath,” he explained.
His little office was transformed into an interim hostel for demonstrators. Among piles of paper and computers, three stones stand in a row. They are from Solovki Island, where his grandfather was worked to death in a labour camp under the Soviet Union.
Georgiy demonstrated for independence from Moscow in 1991, during the Orange Revolution in 2004 and in the Maidan protests. “I demonstrated against Yanukovych and Russia on Maidan Square. I don’t think we need more revolutions – now the country just needs to flourish.”
Valentyna Varava – 50
“The changes are coming more slowly than I had hoped. Maidan was a turning point. Before that we didn’t believe that changes were possible and we could take responsibility for them.”
During the protests she helped the injured. First she stood guard at the public hospitals to ensure that injured demonstrators were not arrested at the entrance. Later she was an assistant in an underground hospital. Now she prepares first aid kits for soldiers in the east and has just one overriding wish for the future: “peace”.
Tanya Hawrylyuk – 27
Tanya played concerts from a stage during the protests and between the front lines of the police and demonstrators. She sees Maidan as the birthplace of a new nation that isn’t owned by either the EU or Russia.
“There was a sense of cohesion at Maidan. We know this is true. We can’t linger in the past or get lost in dreams of the future. The biggest change has occurred in the hearts of the people – we feel like a free people and we are proud to be Ukrainian. No Russian propaganda can change my mind.”
Maryna Chorna – 31
It was impossible for Maryna to stay home after she saw the violent pictures of students being beaten up. She started to help with providing food for demonstrators and finding places to sleep for the many out-of-town activists.
“I lived in Poland for a few years and was considering moving away from Ukraine. But I decided to stay in my country to fight for a free and democratic Ukraine.” M