Justyna Mielnikiewicz "Ukraine Runs Through It"
Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a shock to Ukrainians—but not as a surprise. They had already been at war since 2014, when Russian soldiers in green uniforms with no insignia annexed Crimea and then went even further, hiding behind the back of local separatists in Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Donetsk. Russia took a territorial bite out of the Donbas region at the time and has kept this regional war smouldering ever since, all while placing the blame on Ukraine.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the political development of Russia and Ukraine has followed very different paths. Two revolutions—the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (itself the culmination of the more widely known Euromaidan protests)—deepened Ukraine’s break with Russia and its Soviet Past. The growing trend in Kyiv to look to the West for security and reliable partners was
then even further intensified by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of its armed intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Unlike Ukraine, and after a very short period of relative openness under Boris Yeltsin, Russia under Putin reversed course and began to hark back to the Soviet era for inspiration. While the decommunization laws that Ukraine passed in 2015 banned the Communist Party and all glorification of the Soviet Past, Russia did the opposite. The brutal Joseph Stalin is officially touted as an example of skilled leadership and (unbelievably) as a great reformer, while the Russian Communist Party is kept on life support as a state-approved opposition in order to preserve the appearance of multiparty democracy.
This gap has kept on widening, and having finally decided that Ukrainian statehood always was an artificial construction and was therefore somehow illegitimate, in February 2022 Moscow sent the Russian armed forces across the international border to seize what they claimed and believed was theirs.
I was in Dnipro when the invasion began. On the very first morning, a group of local volunteers who had played a central role during the first few months of Russian and separatist aggression in 2014 were now back in action, setting up a centre to help IDPs and volunteer fighters. Nationwide resistance continued as the war went on. In some places, such as Melitopol and Kherson, local citizens confronted Russian tanks with their bare hands.
I worked in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019, and ended my long-term project with a book entitled Ukraine Runs Through It, in which through a series of images and accounts I told the story of Ukraine since its Revolution of Dignity. I chose the Dnipro river as a metaphor for the country, as a line of reference along which I explored Ukraine’s history, geography and relations with both the East and West. Following the invasion in 2022, I returned to Ukraine, where the Dnipro river has once again become one of the front lines of defence—a fighter of sorts, supporting an army of soldiers, IT specialists fighting the information war and volunteers in the rear, all doing whatever it will take to stop Russia.
In the introduction to my book Ukraine Runs Through It, I quoted Mykola (Nikolai) Gogol—known as a Russian writer but of Ukrainian origin—whose life reflects the complex, dualistic relationship of non-ethnic Russian intellectuals with the Russian Empire.
In an essay entitled ‘A Glance at the Composition of Little Russia’ (a concept that he never developed), Gogol wrote that ‘much in history is decided by geography’. In the past, geographic features often served as natural barriers against invaders, but this is now rarely the case in modern warfare—or so I believed until the 2022 Russian invasion and the fighting that has ensued.
On the ground, the Russian Army has proven to be outdated in terms of equipment and tactics, restricted to available roads and unable to cross rivers smaller than the Dnipro. However, their rockets, missiles and bombs are able to by-pass geographical barriers and spread terror among both soldiers without adequate defensive systems and civilians, sometimes a thousand kilometres from the front. Nevertheless, both Ukrainian defences and the Russian advances in the south are intrinsically linked to the Dnipro river.
The Dnipro has been portrayed in the past as a line separating the country’s Ukrainian-speaking west from the Russian-dominated east, but this is nowadays a somewhat contrived perception—and even more so since the two revolutions and the ongoing war. Like the concept of a ‘Little Russia’, buried in history and replaced by modern Ukraine, the artificial division of the country according to language is a thing of the past. Moscow used the supposed denial of certain people’s right to speak Russian as a pretext to instigate unrest in Ukraine by dividing the country along an East-West line. The reality is of course much less simplistic than this accusation: many ethnic Ukrainians use Russian as their first language, and a great number of ethnic Russians are Ukrainian patriots. Historically, the lingua franca of eastern Ukraine—and particularly its large industrial centres—indeed tends to be Russian, whereas literary Ukrainian is much more commonly used in western Ukraine; but both in private and in the media, people effortlessly mix both languages while speaking to each other, as if there was only one tongue.
Ukrainians obviously never wanted this war, but their extraordinary ability to resist since 2014 has impressed all their observers, and theirs is a universal story of a nation struggling to deal with the threat and turmoil that have been forced upon it by another. Besides the military losses that it is causing, the total war that Russia began to wage in 2022 has already resulted in the destruction of an innumerable number of homes, businesses and critical infrastructure. The Russian army has also inflicted brutal attacks on towns and villages, bombing residential areas and raping and massacring civilians. The war has already cost the lives of thousands of Ukrainians, many of them the Russian speakers whom Vladimir Putin claims to be ‘protecting’, despite the fact that the Russian language and culture were never seriously endangered in Ukraine.
My work covers a period that stretches from the end of the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 into all-out war in 2022. What began as a protest against a corrupt government led not only to the emergence of a new leadership but also to war with Russia, resulting in massive transformations of both Ukrainian society and of the regional geopolitical situation. Amid the destruction, Ukraine continues to build and strengthen its identity in an uneven battle for its existence and future as a nation. Thousands of Ukrainian citizens have already given their lives for this idea, opposing an overwhelming Russian war machine that is blindly and mercilessly levelling countless towns, villages and cities.
Curator of the exhibition: Nestan Nijaradze
Exhibition organizer: The Tbilisi Photo Festival
Cover image: Justyna Mielnikiewicz/MAPS. Ukraine Runs Through It. 2022