The Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom presents viewers with a story of everyday citizens facing down brutal riot police controlled by Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The colorful array of activists, artists, scarf-wrapped babushki, bearded priests and fresh-faced students makes it appear as if Ukraine’s people from all walks of life in participated in the Maidan uprising. But some are missing—neo-Nazis, who were edited out.
Ukraine had an established far-right movement long before the Maidan upheavals of late 2013–early 2014. In 2010, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yushchenko drew widespread condemnation abroad by honoring Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator and leader of an underground army responsible for slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles during World War II. Pre-Maidan Ukraine was home to the Social-National Assembly, a white-supremacist organization headed by Andriy Biletsky, who’s written that his group’s mission is to “lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival.” It also had the Svoboda party, led by Oleh Tyahnybok, a parliamentary deputy whose 2004 request for an investigation of the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” controlling Kiev caused international headlines. In 2012, a fellow Svoboda politician called Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.” All that these groups needed was an opportunity to come out of the shadows; Maidan gave them that chance.
Initially, the disparate neo-Nazi factions remained on Maidan’s periphery. But as the protests grew violent in late 2013—which led to Yanukovych’s overthrow, civil war, Crimea, etc.—the far right “played a crucial role, providing muscle to protesters who were largely unequipped to do their own fighting,” as The New Yorker described it. Indeed, the instrumental role of far-right groups was acknowledged by journalists and analysts in publications as diverse as The Guardian, the BBC, Reuters, and The National Interest. Even Hannah Thoburn—a commentator who’s authored numerous articles in support of Maidan—has noted that Winter on Fire failed to mention “that far-right nationalist groups were very involved in the fighting.”
The darkest evidence of the far right’s involvement comes from Ivan Katchanovski, a professor at the University of Ottawa, who researched the events of February 20, 2014, “Maidan snipers massacre” when mysterious gunmen killed over 50 people. In addition to being the crucial turning point that led to Yanukovych’s abdication, the massacre is the climax of Winter on Fire. Katchanovski argues, with considerable forensic and other evidence, that far-right groups not only provoked fighting by shooting at the police but also carried out the murder of Maidan protesters in a false-flag operation. The Kiev government has been unable to provide a definitive explanation to what happened that day.
The far right’s absence from Winter on Fire becomes even more glaring when compared with other documentaries about Ukraine. Maidan: Tonight Tomorrow, which received a positive review in The New Yorker, managed to include the far right, despite being less than nine minutes long, while Masks of the Revolution, a French film, focused solely on the role of ultranationalists during and after Maidan. (Ironically, the Ukrainian government attempted to prevent France from airing the latter film because they claimed it “creates misconception.”)
Without the neo-Nazi groups, Maidan would not have succeeded in overthrowing Ukraine’s elected president—the titular “winter on fire” would have sputtered out. And yet the film makes no mention of them. (A frame-by-frame scrutiny revealed some background flashes of flags and insignia, an interviewee wearing a scarf with Bandera’s image, and two scenes with Tyahnybok milling about in the background, but none of this would hold any meaning for an American viewer.) The fact that Evgeny Afineevsky, the film’s director, chose to ignore the very factor that made his film possible is astonishing.
Another gross distortion in Winter on Fire is its presentation of Maidan as an independent phenomenon free of Western interference. While the film makes much of the ties between the Yanukovych government and Moscow, it portrays the protest movement as spontaneous, grassroots, and, above all, beholden to no foreign interests. Visiting American politicians appear in a single ten-second scene when they, according to the intertitle, “meet with Yanukovych in order to find a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.”
Evidence, however, demonstrates that America’s role during the winter turmoil of 2013–14 was more quarterback than arbiter. The most telling example of this comes via an intercepted phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Washington’s ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. During the call, Nuland and Pyatt sound like two senior managers hashing out corporate restructuring, with Nuland instructing Pyatt on which Ukrainian leader should be appointed prime minister, how to sideline the UN and the EU in negotiations, and the best strategy for making Ukraine land “jelly side up,” as an enthusiastic Pyatt described it.
The call, which was leaked on February 4, 2014, was not the first time Nuland and Pyatt were deeply involved in Maidan. On December 11, 2013, the pair made a highly publicized tour of the barricades handing out cookies to protesters. Three days later, Senator John McCain flew in to speak to the crowds; McCain and Senator Chris Murphy shared the stage with Svoboda leader Tyahnybok. Both visits were filmed by Ukrainian and Western press, yet are absent from the documentary. Understandably, the involvement of senior US government officials working to land Ukraine “jelly side up” interfered with the “everyday people, teachers, doctors, street cleaners” narrative of Winter on Fire.
What is so striking about Winter on Fire is not how it whitewashes the story of Maidan but the fact that Afineevsky, the director, brazenly admits it. An interview with US-funded Radio Free Europe brought up the claim that the film “glossed over” Right Sector, a neo-Nazi organization that played a prominent role in Maidan and was later accused of torture, among other crimes, by Amnesty International. “You know what? Right Sector, they actually fought for everything like everybody else. They were a part of these people,” scoffed Afineevsky. What Afineevsky meant by this answer is unclear, much like the statement that he is “a filmmaker not a journalist,” which Radio Free Europe said he gave in response to charges that he oversimplified the narrative.
Afineevsky repeated the same line in an interview with Mashable, when asked about his decision to ignore the anti-Maidan protests that arose in response in the Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine and were viciously suppressed by far-right gangs in the spring of 2014. According to the Mashable article, which noted Winter on Fire’s “failure to address many of the complexities of the revolution,” “the decision to exclude alternative viewpoints was a conscious one.”
The “alternative viewpoints” excluded by Afineevsky are, of course, the opinions of the roughly 22 million Ukrainians who were against the Maidan uprising, as reported by Kyiv Post (a pro-Maidan publication) in December 2013. To put this decision into perspective, imagine a foreign filmmaker creating a glowing documentary about the NRA called America’s Fight for Freedom while ignoring the alternative viewpoints of millions of Americans who strongly oppose the NRA.
Documentaries are no strangers to controversy over accurate presentation of complex subjects. (The current debate over Making a Murderer, another Netflix original, is a case in point.) Although there are no clear ethical guidelines, the question centers on how strongly a filmmaker can put forth a certain point of view before omission of facts crosses the line into propaganda.
Winter on Fire omits key facts, which results in an audience whose understanding of Ukraine’s history, politics, regions, sociological makeup, and languages is extremely limited (or nonexistent) receiving a one-sided view of developments in Ukraine. Afineevsky—whose film is advertised for a general viewership and is getting broad distribution thanks to Netflix and its Oscar-nomination hype—presents a highly slanted version of unfamiliar events in a foreign nation, events that led to a still ongoing civil war and the worst US-Russian confrontation in decades, as “Ukraine’s fight for freedom.” In the process, the director cynically ignores the half of Ukraine—22 million people!—who vehemently opposed Maidan; and the fact that critical fighting was done not by freedom lovers but by white supremacists and other neo-Nazis.
Perhaps if Afineevsky, who chose to exclude alternative viewpoints after watching police crack down on protesters in Kiev, had traveled to eastern Ukraine, Winter on Fire would have turned out differently. Had he walked around the wasteland of Donbass assailed with heavy weapons late in 2014, met with survivors of torture at the hands of far-right battalions, spoken to widows of those slaughtered by indiscriminate shelling by all sides of the conflict, and gazed upon the over 2 million eastern Ukrainians forced to become refugees, he might not have deleted their existence. Unfortunately, it appears that by that point Afineevsky had long decided who were the heroes of his tale.
Omitting inconveniences such as armed ultranationalists, American politicians, and the opinions of 22 million Ukrainians required meticulous, perhaps even Oscar-worthy editing; erasing these factors from real life has proven to be much more problematic. In fact, in the two years after Maidan forces took control of Kiev, the impact of both the far right and the American government on Ukrainian society has only grown deeper.
Clashes with riot police gave white-supremacist organizations an opportunity to seize a central role in the Maidan uprising; the ensuing war with eastern Ukrainian rebels enabled the far right to expand from gangs into organized battalions, marching under the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel symbol and the black-and-red banner of Bandera.
For nearly a year, this disturbing development was barely covered by Western media, which, much like Winter on Fire, largely avoided the dark side of Maidan. Stories of the neo-Nazi battalions slowly seeped into the West due in part to the tenacious journalism of investigative reporter Robert Parry as well as the attention of US Congressmen John Conyers and Ted Yoho, who sponsored an amendment banning US funds from going to the infamous Azov battalion, which was formed from one of Biletsky’s organizations and has been labeled as “openly neo-Nazi” by The New York Times and received coverage in USA Today.
In addition to brutally crushing dissent in southeastern Ukraine, the far-right paramilitaries racked up a horrifying record of human-rights violations. Several far-right battalions have been accused of torture, kidnapping, murder, and war crimes by Amnesty International. At times, the paramilitaries have turned on the government, clashing with police and guardsmen with deadly consequences; as commentators pointed out, Kiev’s control over these armed ultranationalists is tenuous at best.
On the political front, Nuland’s and Pyatt’s machinations left Ukraine under considerable US influence. According to respected Ukrainian investigative reporter Sergei Leschenko, as quoted by Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, “Pyatt and the U.S. administration have more influence than ever in the history of independent Ukraine.” Last August, Pyatt and Nuland watched over the Ukrainian parliament grudgingly vote in favor of an unpopular amendment, the passage of which required considerable American arm twisting. Vice President Joe Biden has stated that he talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko more often than he does with his wife, in an awkward mix of joke and admission of Washington’s involvement in Kiev.
Toward the end of Winter on Fire, a young activist says: “For 23 years, we only had our independence on paper, but now…it has become real.” As of late 2015, the US-backed Kiev government has an approval rating below that of former President Yanukovych before his overthrow, as increasing omens of growing public disillusionment with the Maidan government and the danger of a far-right coup grow. It appears that, much as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the seeds of US democracy have not found fertile ground in Kiev.
And that is the heartbreaking irony of Winter on Fire. The documentary, like much Western coverage of Ukraine, chooses to present the West with a mythical, whitewashed version of the Maidan “revolution” as a movement composed solely of democratic, freedom loving people. Now the elements ignored by this myth are threatening the possibility of a free democratic Ukraine.
Lev GolinkinLev Golinkin is the author of A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Amazon’s Debut of the Month, a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program selection, and winner of the Premio Salerno Libro d’Europa. His writing on the Ukraine crisis, Russia, the far right, and immigrant and refugee identity has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, The Boston Globe, Politico Europe, and Time (online), among other venues.