Ukraine, through the looking glass

  • An Orthodox priest, photographed Dec. 6, 2013, is blended with an image from Maidan, photographed on Feb. 26, 2014. Maidan is the centre of Kiev and in English, means “Independence Square.” Here, ever since Ukrainian Independence in 1991, people have come out to protest, to gather, to shop and to voice their pleasure or displeasure. Maidan was the scene of the largest protest gathering in 2004, the Orange Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of protestors turned out to protest against corrupt and illegal elections shenanigans by Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of Regions. Almost 10 years later, people would flood Maidan and protest Yanukovich again for his last minute cancellation of a European trade deal in favor of a Russian deal.
  • A Christian cross of a protestor who was killed by snipers on Institutskaya Street, blended with a composite image of various fighters and citizens found amongst the barricades of central Kiev.
  • A poster of the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, with a clown nose at Khreshatik Street, is blended with a police rubber police truncheon. EuroMaidan began as a peaceful protest, but in late November and again in early December, police moved into the square to remove protestors. Many protestors believed excessive force was used by government forces, only inspiring them to stand fast and feel vindicated in their pursuit of a corruption free government. Violence in the square continues to occur, most recently last week.
  • A young protestor builds a barricade close to the House of Ministers on Grushevskogo Street on Dec. 8, 2013, blended with one of Viktor Yanukovich’s Tanino Crisci crocodile shoes photographed Feb. 23, 2014. The shoe was found on the fifth floor of Yanukovich’s Mezhigiriya Estate. When ousted president Viktor Yanukovich fled Ukraine on February 21, he left behind a notoriously lavish estate said to have cost around one billon dollars. Over 140 acres, the compound had a private zoo, golf course, a replica of a Spanish galleon, an administrative complex, security force of 650 and a staff of one thousand. For years, the rumours of this lavish estate, which was acquired through shady deals from a public trust, swirled through the minds of Ukrainians. Nobody was allowed to see it, let alone go inside. 
  • A blended image of various people found among the barricades and Maidan, and flowers and other memorial items. The protestors were a wide mix of people, young and old, rich and poor, male and female; a cross-section of citizens tired of corruption and blatant disregard for law and order on behalf of the elite and government. In Ukraine there is rampant corruption, secretive land deals, a small cadre of elite businessmen lining the pockets of government, no transparency and a poor economy. Many Ukrainians were tired and fed up with an unjust system after decades of economic devastation. It was not a battle between west and east, Russia and Ukraine, but a desire to change the way government functions in everyday life. It is yet to be seen if the actions of EuroMaidan will be successful in the years ahead.
  • Police form a barricade in front of the Presidential Administration, blended with an image of two angels found in Yanukovich’s Mezhigiriya Estate. Most of Yanukovich’s and his mistresses’ personal belongings were packed up in the night of Feb. 21, 2014, but there was still a sizable amount of personal affects left scattered throughout the five story residence. Most of the objects here were found in his private church inside the house, the office, the fifth floor dressing room and closet (the entire floor was devoted to clothing, mostly stripped and taken away), the movie theatre, billiard and games room and the living quarters. His wardrobe alone was estimated at around one million dollars. Objects of varying value were found, from tchotchkes to an eight million euro chandelier.
  • Tires at the barricades on Grushevskogo Street, Jan. 29, 2014, blended with a view from the park at Institutskaya St. and the October Palace, a place seized by EuroMaidan protestors and used as a supply warehouse, dormitory and operations center. It was in this area where many protestors were killed by snipers. Grushevskogo was the site of early violent clashes in January and became the ‘front line’ between the police and protesters. The first deaths of the uprising occurred on Grushevskogo in January.
  • A Ukrainian protester in a national Ukrainian costume spends the night in his tent at the barricades on Maidan, photographed Jan. 27, 2014,  blended with a photograph of a Molotov Cocktail photographed on Feb. 23, 2014. Molotov Cocktails were the weapon of choice with the the EuroMaidan protestors in Kiev. Using fire to their advantage, the protestors managed to create a series of barricades and defensive lines between themselves and the police, allowing the critical time to build up fortifications.
  • A protester sits with a gun in the occupied Mezhigoriya Estate of former president of Ukraine, Feb. 28, 2014, blended with an image of the location where the bulk of police forces were situated just off of Grushevskogo St. Many of the front-line police were new army recruits, freshly conscripted into the military and out of high school, Feb. 10, 2014. Once Yanukovich fled his lavish estate, battalions of EuroMaidan protesters seized his property and opened it to the public, the first time anyone in Ukraine had seen his estate which was rumored among citizens for years due to it’s opulence, obscene wealth and ridiculous trappings. Walking around the grounds, people were astonished at how anybody could accumulate such wealth in such a short period of time (under five years).
  • A Ukrainian National Flag on the top of the barricade at Hrushevskogo Street, photographed Jan. 1, 2014, blended with objects found inside Yanukovich’s Mezhigiriya Estate. Most of Yanukovich’s and his mistresses’ personal belongings were packed up in the night of Feb. 21, but there was still a sizeable number of personal affects left scattered throughout the five story residence. 
  • A protester brings more tires to the barricades built on Grushevskaya Str., Jan. 23, 2014, blended with an image of one of the barricades located on European Square photographed Feb. 12, 2014. The barricades on Grushevskogo were built in January after government forces made a push to clear out protesters from the area. Three protesters were killed and in the clashes, the protesters were able to seize this line and further the territory already under their control. Grushevskogo was considered the ‘front line’ as this is the street leading to the government area and the district with the most police. It was anticipated that when the police and government made their move, it would be here. In the end, the protesters were wrong and the government forces used snipers along Institutskya Street.
  • The majority of streets in Kiev are made of cobblestones, proving a very effective source of ammunition for protesters. Many of the weapons used by the protesters were crude and rudimentary, but ultimately successful. During the battle of EuroMaidan from November to February, protesters and police alike used a vast array of weapons, some legal and standard for police actions, others less salubrious. While protesters armed themselves with sticks, stones, the ubiquitous Molotov Cocktail and some more outlandish, medieval era weapons such as catapults, axes, bows and arrows, the Berkut (Ukraine’s special riot troops) deployed more life-threatening devices, such as pipe bombs containing nuts, bolts, nails and ball bearing to inflict maximum damage. 
  • A protester blended with bullets found after Feb. 18 police actions. Before government snipers moved in on Feb. 18 and Feb. 20 and killed 100 people, protesters were always found covered with balaclavas and other protective clothing. Many were fearful of government forces and police and that there would be retribution for talking part in protests. At one point, the government issued a text message to people saying: “We have registered your name, address and phone number as taking part in an unlawful and illegal protest.” Once the government collapsed and Yanukovich fled, people felt relief and lifted their masks.
  • Protesters stand close to a fire to get warm and drink tea after a whole day of manning the barricades at Hrushevskogo Street. The barricades were made within hours and reinforced over the days following police actions. Anything and everything that could be scrounged were used. Sandbags were filled with snow and ice, cables, wire, material from contraction materials, billboards were torn down, material from parks were all used to build sizable and defensible barricades.

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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.”

Donald Weber and Arthur Bondar are photographers. They will be publishing their work from Ukraine in a book this fall, “Barricade: The EuroMaidan Revolt.”

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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