In the first minutes of the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom the cameras capture rubble, screams and gunshots. We see a young man slumped over, dead in the middle of a street in Ukraine as people run past him. It looks like a war zone. A man no older than 22 stands in front of the camera calling his mother on his cell phone to tell her he loves her as gun shots ring out near him. The screen cuts to black and the documentary takes us back to the beginning of the anti-government Ukrainian revolution, also known as the Euromaidan revolution, that unfolded between November 2013 and February 2014.
This revolution began after then-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was supported by Vladimir Putin, betrayed his promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych stated that Ukraine could not afford to lose trade with Russia and was instead shifting Ukraine’s economic focus to building a stronger relationship with Russia (1). After news broke that Yanukovych was backing out of the EU deal, roughly 10,000 protesters occupied Ukraine’s Independence Square, chanting “we are a part of Europe!” (2). Israeli-American film director Evgeny Afineevsky and his 28 cameramen chronicled the aftermath of this decision for 93 days. The film is gripping, and the sheer size of the protests is breathtaking. Priests, apolitical individuals, students and average citizens all occupy Independence Square. Demonstrators had tents set up, live music and danced together. It even looks joyus, with some comparing the beginning of the movement to a party. The tone of the protest quickly changes, gross human rights violations unfold before the viewers eyes as police attack demonstrators. People are beaten with iron rods until they are bloody and unable to move. They simply ask the police “why?” repeatedly while enduring continuous abuse. Later in the film, the police participate in crackdowns which leave the streets stained in blood from dead bodies. The viewer watches frame by frame as protestors fall dead in the streets at the hands of the police. Flaming tires and Molotov cocktails illuminate these moments in the dark of night. Despite this, we see beautiful moments of unity: protesters cooking together, caring for the injured, and singing the national anthem as chaos unfolds around them. In the last moments of the movie, Yanukovych flees Ukraine to seek asylum in Russia and the victory goes to the people.
However, the narrative that Afineevsky weaves for the viewer is one-sided. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom fails to address a fundamental part of the Euromaidan revolution; the white-supremacist group formerly known as the Social-National Assembly, now called Svoboda party, and the Neo-Nazi Right Sector who played key roles in the success of the movement. These groups were a part of the mass-protests, and they used the instability within the country to gain more power and increase membership.
The history of the far-right’s involvement in Ukranian politics goes further back than the Euromaidan Revolution. In 2010 former President Viktor Yushchenko honored Stepan Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, and supported the killing of Jews and Poles by Ukrainian partisans (3). The Social-National Assembly of Ukraine was co-founded in 2008 by Andriy Biletsky and Oleh Tyhnybok. Bilestsky stated the group’s mission was to, “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival”(4). Currently, Biletsky is the Party leader of the National Corps, founded in 2016, and as of 2019, their membership numbers have tripled (5). Tyahnbok is known for his anti-semitic, homophobic and xenophobic comments. For instance, in 2004 he gave a speech in which he called for Ukraine to fight against the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” (6). Tyahnybok is currently the party leader of Svoboda. While the BBC covered the Euromaidan revolution they wrote of Svoboda’s involvement, stating, “Svoboda has been a key participant in recent protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to cancel a deal with the EU” (7 ). Tyahnybok even appears in Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom in two separate frames, though his presence goes unacknowledged. Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist who studied the social protests in Ukraine and reported for The Gaurdian, stated, “the xenophobic, homophobic, nationalist Svoboda party had, with even more extreme groups, been involved in Euromaidan – as the protests are known – almost from the beginning” (8). Additionally, Ischenko wrote that, “the incidents of torture, lynching and public humiliation of alleged thieves in the protest camp, nor the beatings of homeless and drunk people nearby, have made it into the international media” (9).
The Right Sector also known as Pravyi Sektor is a combination of several Ukrainain nationalist groups and heavily influenced the Euromaidan revolution. In 2015, Amnesty International reported that they are particularly concerned with the Right Sector. In their report Breaking Bodies: Torture and Summary Killing in Eastern Ukraine (10) they detail human rights abuses perpetrated by the Right Sector shortly after Euromaidan revolution:
One former prisoner told Amnesty International how people who introduced themselves as Right Sector smashed him in the face with the butt of a gun, knocking out several of his front teeth. Telling him they were going to kill him, they threw him into a hole in the ground and began to bury him alive. He recalled: ‘One of them said, ‘if you don’t want to be in Ukraine, you can be in the grave.’ I tried to push my way up but they pushed me down. They completely covered me with dirt until I couldn’t move my head. I lost consciousness.’ Responding to enquiries made by Amnesty International, the Right Sector denied all allegations (11).
Without these extremist groups, the Euromaidan revolution would likely not have been as successful, as they provided weapons and training to protesters as well as fought on the front lines. Jon Lee Anderson, an investigative reporter and war correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote of the involvement of the Right Sector, saying, “the ultra-nationalist group Right Sector played a crucial role, providing muscle to protesters who were largely unequipped to do their own fighting” (12). These groups and their involvement is completely left out of the documentary. In failing to acknowledge this, the director dismisses the complexities of the revolution. In doing this the viewer suffers and pays the price of Afineevsky ignorance; a false retelling of history.
Though these far-right groups went unidentified, their symbols can be seen throughout the documentary on flags, military style uniforms and scarfs. However, these symbols are meaningless to the average viewer, who does not have in-depth knowledge of the complex political history of Ukraine. Afineevsky, the film’s director, stated in an interview with RadioFreeEurope that the viewer can clearly see symbols of the Right Sector, which ignores the fact that the average viewer has no way of identifying that insignia or assigning any meaning to it. (13). Although, if a viewer has affiliation with these groups this film serves to reinforce their ideology and confirm their belief that they are needed to bring “order”. Furthermore, Afineevsky was asked why he omitted the involvement of these groups, and responded, “You know what? Right Sector, they actually fought for everything like everybody else. They were a part of these people,” he says, “At the end of the day, it was people who came out, who stood for what they believed in, and who achieved [something]” (14).
In conclusion, despite Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom capturing the numerous human rights violations perpetrated by the police unto demonstrators, it fails to tell the whole story of the Euromaidan revolution. Specifically, it neglects to highlight the far-right extremist groups who propelled this movement forward. In leaving this significant aspect out, the film provides an unreliable description of the events. Perhaps Afineevsky did this intentionally to create a more easily digestible narrative for Western audiences. However, in not providing the entire truth, the credibility of this documentary, as well as the director, are undermined. The viewer is left with a one-sided account of a multidimensional story, and without the proper resources to recognize the intricacy of the Euromaidan revolution. Prior to my research, my first impression of this film was that it was an “accurate” portrayal of events, and a powerful documentary that captures the people’s fight for freedom. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom paints a vivid picture while only using one color, when in fact the complexities require a broader palette to fully encompass the truth.
Anderson, Jon Lee. “Maidan: Tonight Tomorrow.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, June 20, 2017https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/maidan-tonight-tomorrow.
Baklitskaya , Kate. “Why Is Support for Far-Right Party National Corps Growing in Ukraine?”
euronews, March 3, 2019. https://www.euronews.com/2019/03/03/national-corps-why-
“Breaking Bodies: Torture and Summary Killing in Eastern Ukraine” Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR5016832015ENGLISH.pdf
Ishchenko, Volodymyr. “The Ukrainian Protesters Must Make a Decisive Break with the Far
Right | Volodymyr Ishchenko.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, February 7, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/07/ukrainian-protesters-
Levy, Clifford J. “’Hero of Ukraine’ Splits Nation, Inside and Out.” The New York Times. The
New York Times, March 1, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/02/world/europe/02history.html.
O’Connor, Coilin. “Winter On Fire Blazes Oscar Trial With Gripping Account Of Ukraine’s
RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty,
February 28, 2016. https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-winter-fire-oscar-documentary-
Parfitt, Tom. “Ukraine Crisis: the Neo-Nazi Brigade Fighting pro-Russian Separatists.” The
Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, August 11, 2014. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/11025137/Ukraine-crisis-
Parry, Robert. “Seeing No Neo-Nazi Militias in Ukraine.” Consortiumnews, September 8, 2014. https://consortiumnews.com/2014/09/08/seeing-no-neo-nazi-militias-in-ukraine/.
Radia, Kirit. “Ukraine Violence Leaves at Least 25 Dead.” ABC News. ABC News Network,
February 18, 2014. https://abcnews.go.com/International/ukraine-violence-leaves-
Stern, David. “Svoboda: The Rise of Ukraine’s Ultra-Nationalists.” BBC News. BBC, December 26, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20824693.
Traynor, Ian, and Oksana Grytsenko. “Ukraine Suspends Talks on EU Trade Pact as Putin Wins Tug of War.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 21, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/21/ukraine-suspends-preparations-eu-trade-pact.
“Ukraine’s Far-Right Svoboda Party Holds Torch-Lit Kiev March.” BBC News. BBC, January 1, 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25571805.
“Ukraine protests after Yanukovych EU deal rejection.” BBC News. BBC, November 30, 2013. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25162563
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom. Netflix, 2015.
Soma Samadhi is a senior at UNC Asheville studying Political Science with a minor in Human Rights and is a founding member of Dignity.