Reports From the Front
Evgeny Afineevsky, "Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom" (115 minutes, 2015); Sergey Loznitsa, "Maidan" (130 minutes, 2014); Kalani Pickhart, "I Will Die in a Foreign Land" (300 pp., 2021)
One evening a few months ago I finished off some busywork and migrated to the living room, where I found Carola watching a documentary about which I knew nothing. It was set in Ukraine, about which I knew that Alexander Vindman seemed a good guy and that vile guy Rudy Giuliani had tried to pressure the obscure nation's president--whose name I never registered while somehow gathering that he had a show business background--into digging up nonexistent dirt on Joe Biden. But that documentary, Evgeny Afineevsky's 115-minute 2015 Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom, proved utterly compelling, and this is to alert you that it's currently available from Netflix whether you subscribe or not. Anyone who can't stand more images of bombed-out apartment buildings or whatever next-generation horrors are hitting the airwaves by the time I post this are likely to find Afineevsky's account of Ukraine's unarmed 2013-2014 Maidan protest/movement/revolution inspiring, alarming, and educational all at once. At the very least it will keep you on the case.
Nor, I learned easily enough a few days into Putin's war, was Winter on Fire the only Maidan documentary. So after I'd watched it again I rented on YouTube its most prominent counterpart, Sergey Loznitsa's award-winning 130-minute 2014 Maidan, which I found solid and skillful but static, all fixed cameras documenting the foot traffic and ever huger demonstrations in and around Kyiv's Maidan Nezelezhnoisti, a half-Arabic term that translates "Independence Square." Curious, I checked out the two films' Rotten Tomatoes stats, which showed quite a range: Loznitsa's Maidan 100% critic, 52% audience; Afineevsky's Winter on Fire 88% critic, 92% audience. Conceivably that's because Afineevsky's free viewings tend more recent and hence more Ukraine-positive than Loznitsa's pay-for-play ones. In any case, start with Winter on Fire, which was finished much later and benefits enormously from a wealth of human-interest ploys and was ultimately nominated for an Oscar.
There's a pan-faith theme in which church bells rouse protesters, sanctuaries serve as hospitals, rest areas, and meet-up spots, and Ukrainian Orthodox and Jewish and Muslim and other varied Christian clergy unite in their public criticism of fraudulently "elected" Putin puppet turned Paul Manafort client Viktor Yanukovych, who the Maidan Revolution ultimately forced to skulk off to Russia and is now cooling his heels in Belarus awaiting reinstatement by his old boss. Afineevsky introduces us to individual interview subjects first immersed in the struggle and later recalling its surprising if also sometimes tragic success. These witnesses tend younger than Loznitsa's protesters, who are rarely interviewed anyway--most of the brave words in his film come from the bigshots on stage whereas one of Afineevsky's most charismatic interviewees ends up dead. Yanukovych's black-clad police goons the Berkut, who by the end were firing bullets that were no longer rubber at the crowd, are viewed almost exclusively from a distance by Loznitsa. In marked contrast, Afineevsky bears down on several disturbing shots in which extra truncheon-wielding Berkut pile on lone fallen protesters instead of pursuing others on the run, as you'd think would be their mission, and also shows us not so unarmed protesters breaking cobblestones into rocks suitable for flinging and explaining how tire fires smoke out Berkut in the perches from which they pick off random protesters. And because Afineevsky didn't rush to finish his film for the 2014 awards circuit, he found himself free to end it in a Ukraine finally warm enough for shirtsleeves, where his heroes have the leisure to reflect on what they've gained--although maybe not, as is now so clear, in perpetuity.
Well before Putin even hinted at his war, Winter on Fire sobered me. In 2014 my political self-education project was hedge funds, and I'd been so preoccupied that I never gathered that Ukraine had brought off the impossible--a peaceful revolution. In the end the protesters pressured a government that included Yanukovych's all too complacent opposition, who dominated the Maidan stage and occasionally wheedled toothless compromises the street protesters rejected, into unanimously ousting Yanukovych from the presidency. His successors were far from perfect, as how could they not be, but became less so once Volodymyr Zelenskyy won an unprecedented 73 percent victory in April 2019. In total, this was a triumph of unarmed resistance. And what I found especially sobering was my hunch that given a similar chance I wouldn't have had the guts to put my body on the line the way these men and women did--hundreds died. Sure I marched in the counterculture era, and against Bush II's and Cheney I's Iraq war too. But the worst I endured was a little tear gas, and as I approach 80 this dilemma becomes academic. I'm hale for my age and far more ambulatory than I was a year ago, but within limits. There may well be marches I'll want to join should the Repugs bring off the judicial-legislative putsch they're gunning for. But were they to get rough, I feel like I'd just be in the way. Loznitsa's film especially stresses that at Maidan few elderly shared such reservations. They'd put up with too much for too long.
About a week ago as I write, as the most dangerous human on earth threatened the worst possible outcome of his troop buildup to the south--an outcome, let me note, predicted by the elderly president Fox claims has dementia where the Times merely claims he has s--t for brains--Carola reminded me why she'd been watching that documentary. It was a novel her publisher, Two Dollar Radio, had put out in October: Kalani Pickhart's I Will Die in a Foreign Land, which, preceded by a clarifying timeline, focuses on the Maidan and takes place mostly in Ukraine. So I put All the King's Men aside and downed it in two or three days. I suggest you do the same.
Like many Two Dollar Radio books, this story with a happier ending than what has turned out to be Ukraine: The Sequel can be a challenging read. Its profusion of first-name-only characters shift around in time and space, and while Kyiv is at the center, there are also scenes in Odesa, Donetsk, abandoned Pripyat near Chernobyl, in Prague, Moscow, Boston, L.A. Chapters are devoted to transcriptions of a cache of fictional cassette epistles, one fictional video recording, song lyrics, newspaper items fictional and I think not, a rundown of antiprotest laws, "Phrases on Euromaidan Protest Posters," lists of dead protesters and of the 298 dead on Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 that pro-Russian Donbass separatists gunned down on July 14, 2014, a marriage announcement, a Stravinsky quote, some translated poetry, a single line from The Odyssey, and Revelation 8:10-11. But because it's so disjunct it moves quickly; the long chapters in this 300-page novel run six-eight swift pages. The protagonist if there is one is Katya, an American physician who's left her half-assed husband and dead young son to do good overseas. A dying and sympathetic pianist turned miner turned Russian spy plays a major role. There are many sex scenes, a few rote or awkward, most within normal range, at least one hideous. The lesbian love of a politically neutral Odesa-based journalist and a feminist arts activist whose Ukrainian name translates "glory," on the other hand, is very nearly utopian until it's cut brutally short.
In toto I Will Die in a Foreign Land homes in on love and family, both of which survive in perpetual danger exacerbated by the kind of political angst and turmoil that plagues sufferers in L.A. and Boston a lot less than it does in Kyiv, while also addressing the marginality of lives in the arts. Ukraine stands as both cauldron and citadel, while the Los Angeles chapter near the end, where the surviving half of the utopian love affair finds sanctuary, seems meant to remind all Americans how lucky we are. But though by no means does the novel ignore the way our luck feeds to some extent off the misfortunes of others, for the most part Pickhart leaves that in an implied background.
Then again there's one of those newspaper-item chapters, just 10 pages from the end. I'll reproduce it in toto before I sign off.