Renegades

Backstage of a Revolution

A year after a bloody protest movement swept through Ukraine, an intimate look at how a disparate band of bat-wielding, balaclava-clad protesters took down a government.

Backstage of a Revolution

A year ago this week, the government of Ukraine was toppled after thousands of Ukrainian people from disparate regions and diverse walks of life became players in the “Maidan” revolution that swept the capital, Kiev. After years of corruption and economic stagnation, the protestors demanded the impeachment of then-President Viktor Yanukovych. What began as a protest led by thousands of students erupted into clashes between police and people from all walks of life. Laborers and businessmen, ex-soldiers of the Afghanistan war and bodyguards, men and women of all ages; they each grabbed a wooden stick or a baseball bat, a helmet or a balaclava and headed to Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti — Independence Square. Two Italian photographers, Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni, traveled there to document the movement.

With violent clashes once again rattling the country, Narratively’s Chelsea Stahl talked to the two photojournalists about what they discovered on the streets and faces of Kiev.

Can you tell us about making the decision to go to Ukraine?

We followed the Ukrainian crisis since the beginning. Italy has a very close relationship with Ukrainian people, since many of them, over the years, left their country to work in Italy. That helped us to have a firsthand view of the situation while sharing views and hearing our Ukrainian friends recount their experiences.

Through them we contacted some people in Kiev and got involved in the “Maidan network.” We stayed in the private homes of Ukrainian citizens, together with many other young people. Many Kiev residents were welcoming – they hosted people from all regions of Ukraine, giving their help to the Maidan stronghold.

A young man patrolling the main frontline on Hrushevs’koho Street leading to the Parliament Rada. High barricades of tires, bricks and snow had been erected by protestors amid heavy clashes. (Photo by Jean-Marc Caimi)
A young man patrolling the main frontline on Hrushevs’koho Street leading to the Parliament Rada. High barricades of tires, bricks and snow had been erected by protestors amid heavy clashes. (Photo by Jean-Marc Caimi)

Did you have a plan for what you wanted to produce? Did that change upon arriving in Ukraine?

We had a basic idea of how to turn the conflict into a story. We were tired of the spot news — like only photographing the clashes. We wanted to move on photographically from that. We wanted to focus on the bursting humanity that was supporting the revolt. This idea brought us to make two stories. The first story was shot in black and white with a very instinctive approach; photographing the lives unwinding during the Maidan. The other was a very simple documentary-portraiture idea. The fighters of Maidan were mostly normal people who took up arms for a cause. Their faces, the snagged outfits, the dramatic background of a city wrecked by war — these things were calling out, asking to be photographed.

A young man who works as a sales agent in a supermarket brings flowers and chocolate to celebrate a friend’s birthday in Maidan. (Photo by Jean-Marc Caimi)
A young man who works as a sales agent in a supermarket brings flowers and chocolate to celebrate a friend’s birthday in Maidan. (Photo by Jean-Marc Caimi)

Did anything surprise you?

You can never be emotionally prepared for a civil war situation.

We were surprised, and moved, by the wide array of people who joined the Maidan. From the young student to the middle-aged businessman, from the old ladies to the artists, from the left-wing intellectual to the Nazi fighter; a boiling humanity who came together because of a single goal: getting rid of the corrupt government ruining their country. This cooperation would have been inconceivable in any other situation.

A young man from a small village in the western part of Ukraine who works as a carpenter. He declares he will fight and die if necessary to get freedom for his country. (Photo by  Valentina Piccinni)
A young man from a small village in the western part of Ukraine who works as a carpenter. He declares he will fight and die if necessary to get freedom for his country. (Photo by Valentina Piccinni)

A priest of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church joins the crowds in Maidan Square. (Photo by Valentina Piccinni)
A priest of the Orthodox Ukrainian Church joins the crowds in Maidan Square. (Photo by Valentina Piccinni)

What were your impressions of the fighters — the protestors who took up arms?

Some people were scared of the muscular and fierce side of Maidan. The violent side wasn’t evident in the beginning of the protests, but later came to light in January and February of 2014. Everyone who participated was completely sure that President Viktor Yanukovych and his government had to be ousted. That probably would not have happened with only pacifist talks.

The fighters were [all], honestly, ready to die. You don’t do that for a fashion trend.

A very young girl from the north of Ukraine who works as a salesgirl in a supermarket. She was shocked upon entering Maidan to see the perfect organization of the protest, like in a military camp. She says she will fight to the death if necessary. (Photo by Valentina Piccinni)
A very young girl from the north of Ukraine who works as a salesgirl in a supermarket. She was shocked upon entering Maidan to see the perfect organization of the protest, like in a military camp. She says she will fight to the death if necessary. (Photo by Valentina Piccinni)

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