In doing a little background viewing as I read The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution, Marci Shore’s 2017 history of Ukraine’s Maidan protests and their aftermath, I came across the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, released in 2015 and directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. Unlike Shore’s book, Afineevsky’s film covers only the events of the 2013/2014 winter in Kyiv during the Maidan, but it is nonetheless illuminating. Citizens in Western Ukraine were fighting at first for their right to join the European Union — but later, to align themselves with the human rights and democratic traditions of the West — in the face of Russian-led efforts to keep Ukraine within the Russian sphere of influence. The film, developed from the viewpoint of the protestors, may prove an inspiring example to those who have become cynical about the efficacy of protest against a totalitarian, corrupt government. (That’s already the case in Venezuela.) But in Ukraine, this protest had a high human cost, as the documentary reveals, and even today, four years later, the future of Ukraine, still engaged in a war with Russia in its eastern regions, is far from certain. (And what impressed me was the extent to which Kyiv resembled the great cities of the former Habsburg empire such as Vienna, Budapest, and Prague, rather than Moscow or even Belgrade.) Of just as immediate relevance is the fact that, as Timothy Snyder pointed out in The Road to Unfreedom, Ukraine served as a laboratory for Russia’s disinformation campaign strategies, which they then rolled out for the U.S. election of 2016 — not to mention Paul Manafort’s suspicious ties to the region.
As Shore mentions in the preface to her book, “I hope that the chapters of this book about the war in the Donbas can play some small role in providing a human face to yet another tragedy of the kind Neville Chamberlain described as a ‘quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.'” Winter on Fire certainly does so; it lacks detachment, but not passion; those seeking a more objective view of these events will have to look elsewhere. The film was a 2016 nominee for the Best Documentary Oscar, as well as a nominee for the “Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking” Emmy. You can watch the documentary on Netflix; the trailer is below.