Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Author: Katy Oh

In the documentary, “Winter on Fire,” blue and yellow undertones fill every second of each frame, an effect that constantly reminds you of the vibrant colors of a country’s flag, one that was waved all around Ukraine during its 2014 revolution.

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125 casualties, 65 people missing, and 1890 injured - these are numbers that overlook the weight of the emotional turmoil that struck Ukraine within a matter of a few months. But while the documentary is filled with the thundering, chaotic sounds of gunshots from the front lines of the barricaded streets, it begins by zooming into the eyes of a young, Ukrainian man with a scarf around his neck and a flimsy helmet tilted to its side — eyes that speak for the rest of the country’s passionate youth.

What began as a movement for the youth, however, became an all-encompassing, national movement of not only teenagers, but also women and men of all different generations, unified by one common goal.

From the end of 2013 to the beginning of 2014, tensions in Ukraine soared, as its corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, promised that the country would join the EU, while discretely engaging in negotiations with Russia, years after Ukraine had become independent from the USSR in the late 20th century. Small, peaceful protests sprung out in Maidan, the independence square, where people yelled chants and defended their hopes for a new, free Ukraine.

“Our government crossed out the future of Ukraine, and the aspirations of the Ukrainian youth, I came here to defend my future, the future of my children, compatriots, and country,” one man stated as he was stopped to be interviewed.  

Chant after chant followed.

“We dream of a better future”

“Convict out!”

“Shame”

And eventually,

“Re-vo-lu-tion!”

What took place after these initial stages of protest could never be forgotten.

The Ukrainian government’s police, Berkut, confronted these peaceful protests with violence, beating men and women with iron sticks. As all of Ukraine saw Berkut strike the innocent, youthful generation of students and young civilians, “People realized that if today students are beaten, tomorrow, anyone can be beaten as well.” Then came the March of the Millions, which changed the scope of involvement.“Everyday people, teachers, doctors, street cleaners, everyone, the whole country said this must stop,” a member of the National defense exclaimed. Famous singers, leaders and people of all religions, young men and women, old men and women, took to Maidan to grow their platform and mobilize a greater force of the masses.

And still, after people occupied Bankova and eventually the Kyiv City state administration to face the Berkut police in their gradually encroaching threat, violence escalated, as the police turned to the use of tear gas and stun grenades.

The documentary captures the Berkut police force in action, as their black helmets and shields move collectively in the white snow of December. At one point of the documentary, however, the camera looks into the face of one policeman for about 5 seconds, almost as if to remind you of the dehumanizing effect of war in itself, humans killing humans alike.

And it only got worse. As the Berkut police force advanced, they also began to work alongside Titushky, criminal mercenary agents, who carried out violence in a way that the government policemen could not. The civilians became powerless in the face of such hostilities, but they still had a more powerful voice of resilience in the face of unrest.

While gunshots, graphic sights of victims’ bleeding, and the cries of the people continue, at one point, the screen shifts to small signs of hope, capturing a young girl playing Chopin’s “Etude in C Minor” on a brightly colored blue and yellow piano besides the barricades.

By February, Yanukovych finally resigned, seeking exile in Russia, but the amount of lives lost in the fight for freedom could not be ignored. Near the end of the documentary, one woman says something that resonates long after the end of the film:

“I can’t accept that after all the wars we’ve had in this world we are still resolving our problems by killing each other.”

A look into a modern revolution bears a continuity with historical wars in the past under the pattern of progress at the expense of violence and death.

Winter on Fire is an oxymoron, in the figurative sense. Amid the cold, icy winter, it was the people’s burning passions that prevailed.