As Russia launched its military assault across Ukraine this week, reports circulated about citizens of the besieged nation gripped by sudden fear for their lives as many explored frantic escape options. In the midst of these dire circumstances, however, modern events suggest a lingering spirit of defiance. From November 2013 to February 2014, tens of thousands of activists occupied Maidan Square in Kiev to protest pro-Putin prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to prevent Ukraine from entering the European Union.
Despite violent pushback from government forces, the so-called “Euromaidan” protests ultimately forced Yanukovych to flee the country. Ukraine has been planning to apply to join the EU in 2024.
These dramatic circumstances are captured in alarming closeup in the 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky dispatched a large team of cinematographers to the scene of the protests, illustrating the intensity of the circumstances with shocking, moment-to-moment detail. The movie eschews complex political backstory for the sheer visceral nature of the demonstrations and the violence that ensued, with protestors voicing their desire to maintain democratic unity across the country in the face of totalitarian pressure.
One of Netflix’s first Oscar nominations, “Winter on Fire” remains available on the service across the world — and that includes the Ukraine, where Netflix became available last fall. (Another documentary on the protests, Sergei Loznitsa’s “Maidan,” is not available on the service.) “I wish Netflix would relaunch a campaign for the film,” Afineevsky said in an interview from Los Angeles this week. “The great lesson we see with ‘Winter on Fire’ is that Ukraine can stand for their beliefs and unite against their enemies.”
Afineevsky noted that the movie underscores the perilous nature of current circumstances in part because the outcome of the Euromaidan protests weakened Putin’s ability to overtake Ukraine. “What we see in the movie is that they were able to achieve change within their government when they are united,” Afineevsky said. “If Putin allows Ukraine to win this situation and the U.S. still supports them, that’s a bad sign for his presidency. It means this can happen to him as well.”
The divide over Putin’s leadership has been illustrated in recent times by the rise of dissident Alexei Navalny, the victim of an assassination attack by Putin’s government who was imprisoned in a labor colony last year. The subject of the recent Sundance documentary hit “Navalny,” the activist figure instigated protests across Russia not unlike the ones catalyzed by Euromaidan in 2014. On Thursday, Navalny used a court hearing to voice his opposition to Putin’s actions. “I am against this war,” he said. “I think this war is designed to divert attention from Russia’s problems, and it will only lead to greater impoverishment.”
Navalny came to prominence in recent years, in the aftermath of Euromaiden, as Putin’s vulnerability became clearer across the region. “Euromaidan was a lesson for Putin that he couldn’t let Ukraine remain free,” Afineevsky said. “Putin can’t win their hearts, but he is trying to find a way to acquire the land back. He cares about land, not people.”
Afineevsky noted that Putin’s recent strategy echoed the timing of his decision to annex Crimea from the country in early 2014 shortly after the conclusion of the Olympic Games in Russia. The Ukraine invasion follows immediately after the Winter Olympics in China, a key strategic partner for Russia that has yet to fully condemn the attacks. “There are a lot of political games going on,” Afineevsky said. “He will not agitate China. But the west closed its eyes to this in 2014. It will be harder for them to close their eyes now. The Ukrainian people will suffer.”
It should come as no surprise that “Winter on Fire” is unavailable in Netflix’s Russian service, but its citizens remain divided over Putin’s actions. “People condemn him all the time in conversations,” Afineevsky said. “It’s not like Putin is following what the nation wants. He’s following what he wants as a leader.”
The Euromaidan protests influenced resistance in other parts of the world, including Hong Kong, where screenings of “Winter on Fire” helped energize protests against Chinese rule in 2019. “People learned from Ukrainians to revolt,” Afineevsky said. “Rich and poor, old and young, can unite and be together to stand together against any threat they have. This movie can teach anyone that right now.”