Ukraine, through the looking glass
When Donald Weber returned to Ukraine in February amid growing anti-government protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square, he went not as a photographer or a journalist, but as a citizen. “I came to throw rocks, not to take pictures,” he says, half-joking. “It was my people, my city under attack from an ultra-corrupt regime.”
The photomontages that emerged from Weber’s trip – the result of a collaboration with fellow photographer Arthur Bondar – are spectral, even hallucinatory, blending pictures of ordinary Ukrainian life with symbols of protest, state power and oppression. “The thing that inspired me most was [Viktor] Yanukovych and his absurd palace on the outskirts of Kiev,” Weber says, referring to the corrupt former president, who was deposed in February as the result of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution. “It was so crazy, so over the top – I could picture Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il living there.”
“People forget that Ukraine is an incredibly corrupt country,” adds Weber, who spent the first of several years living in Ukraine covering the anti-corruption Orange Revolution in 2004. “In the U.S. and Europe you talk about the 99% and the 1%. But in Ukraine it is the 0.001% and the rest. The idea of meritocracy has been crushed, and Yanukovych represented that.”
Although Weber didn’t know it at the time, his unorthodox juxtapositions of syncretic imagery now seem a fitting mirror for the postmodern war that Russia is waging in eastern Ukraine. “Certainly after they annexed Crimea, that’s when I realized the events in Kiev weren’t the end,” Weber says. “I left Ukraine feeling destabilized. Russia had already begun grumbling, moving west. But the thing about Russia is they never admit to anything – it’s subterfuge, not overt.”
In the last several months, Russia’s proxy war in eastern Ukraine – supporting an allegedly homegrown, pro-Russian separatist movement – has evolved from fomenting rebellion to more overt displays of aggression, including sending columns of tanks, heavy weaponry and thousands of troops to support the rebels across the border. Russia has spun or denied these military movements, admitting this week that Russian troops had entered Ukraine, but claiming they were there on leave and supporting the separatists of their own free will. Responding to Ukraine’s recent release of video showing captured Russian soldiers, the Kremlin dismissed the alleged invasion as the result of a patrol that had gotten lost and wandered across the border accidentally.
The lack of an obvious, traditional act of war has effectively muted international outrage, while Russian propaganda and misdirection have confounded the possibility of a coherent media narrative. “This is a blatant invasion by Putin and Russia,” Weber says. “For people to have speculation that Russia might be invading Ukraine is absolutely absurd.” Weber’s friends from eastern Ukraine speak Russian, but “that doesn’t make them Russian,” he says. “There has always been a traditional friction, but nothing like this. The only reason a war is going to rage is because Putin decided it would happen.”