Photo Essay

  • Sergey from the Sumy region, 40 years old. 
When asked to show his weapons he said that his hands were his weapons. He was injured when a grenade exploded underfoot and 14 ceramic fragments had to be removed from his body after the bloodiest day of the uprising, when at least 29 protesters were killed after Yanukovych's security forces shot at the demonstrators on Institutskaya Street in February. His wounds didn't heal until recently.
Sergey says that the hardest thing he saw was when he returned home when he discovered all of his art work had been destroyed during the assault on Grushevsky's street, where his pictures were burned. Today, he is a member of the Maidan’s battalion and is equipped with a weapon and is fighting against the separatists in southeastern Ukraine.
  • Dima from Lviv, he turned 16 during the Euromaidan uprising this winter. 
On January 22 he was with fellow activist Serhiy Nigoyan on Hrushevskogo Street, reading poetry. After a few minutes Serhiy was shot and killed in front of him and was the first protester killed during the riots. 
On February 20, Dima went to Institutskaya Street, where protesters chased the police out of Independence Square. He says he had a sense that they could not go back. 
“Many of us had no protection, and I had a wooden shield!” That day 29 protesters were shot dead and many others wounded by Viktor Yanukovych's security forces. Dima says he tried not to think about dying because he and the other activists had to help rescue people and their country. 
He is not interested in the elections because he believes today's politics are the same as ever. He continues to study at a specialized music school in Lviv, and when the time is right he plans to return to Maidan.
  • Piotr from L’viv, 33 years old.
He has been at Maidan from the very beginning of the uprising. He does not wear a bulletproof vest, and he is not armed. He has taken it upon himself to guard the residence of former President Yanukovych at Midzhygorie. He says he did not loot anything from the palace, which is very opulent and full of gold ornaments and jewelry, because he believes that it would have be unfair to those who have been killed during the uprising.  He refuses to leave Maidan because he does not trust the opposition and remains committed to his fighting it.
  • An elderly woman in front of the Trade Unions Building (or Budynok Profspilok) on Khreshchatyk Street, its facade faces the Maidan square.
The building was burned by special military forces during the uprising. She helped to disassemble the rubble after snipers killed peaceful protesters. She refused to give her name or show her face because she was scarred and it would have been too dangerous for her as the protesters are considered criminals by the state.
  • Vitalik from Kiev, 30 years old. 
He joined Maidan on December 11, 2013. Police riot forces attached metal objects to grenades and threw them at protesters. Vitalik was wounded so many times he stopped counting. He says all of his friends have been wounded at least once. Today he is deputy head of the operational unit of the self-defense forces. He says that complete victory will happen when the government starts working for the people. Vitalik fell in love in the barricades during the Euromaidan winter with a journalist from Poland, and they are planning to marry in Warsaw. She is expecting their first child.
  • Kolya from Kolomiya in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, 42 years old. 
He worked in Kievm, where he met his future wife. Now they have two young daughters. They are living with his mother in Kolomiya. He was only able to see his family twice during Maidan. He says he will remain on the square through the presidential elections. During the riots, many people were arrested and thrown in jail, but he says he was not afraid. He wants that his children to live freely and is willing to go to prison to achieve that freedom. 
His strongest memory of the uprising was seeing a fellow demonstrator lose a leg. The man said, "It's nothing. More important thing is that we won."
  • Nona, from Vinnitsa, 19 years old. 
After at least 29 demonstrators were killed in February on Institutskaya Street by Yanukovych's security forces she has been very withdrawn and refused any medical attention. She said the scariest night for her at Maidan was when she was on the frontline. The tent she had been living in for two months caught fire and all her belongings were destroyed. 
She also remembers a moment when the person next to her was shot by a sniper. She believes the revolution will only end when new young politicians are in power. She has been living in Maidan square for five months. Nona fell in love there with another defender. She hopes to find a job and have a family in the future.
  • Volodya from Shepetovka, Khmelnitsky region, 36 years old. 
He originally came to Kiev to make photos but ended up joining the uprising. On the first day of clashes, his camera and tripod were destroyed in a fire. Volodya avidly reads the Bible and has been nicknamed "Monk."
He says it was terrible to watch as the riot police beat doctors and others. He wants to wake up in a normal European country one day and plans to join the National Guard. He says after the presidential election “the undeclared war” in his country will continue. After the revolution, and when peace comes, he wants to find a job and repair his teeth that were knocked out by the police this winter.
  • Sasha from Drohobych, in Lviv, 31 years old. He lived at Maidan for two months starting in January. He stood against a storm of riot police near the Trade Unions Building (Budynok Profspilok). He remembers most vividly a man dying who was injured in the face by a pump-action shotgun by the riot police. He was injured in the leg by shrapnel from grenades and rubber bullets that hit him just below the eye. He says he was lucky. He didn't stay very long on Maidan because he was afraid of losing his job. Now his three-year-old daughter is in the hospital and he has borrow money for her treatment. After the election, he hopes people have work and that the quality of children's lives are not dependent on money.
  • An unidentified woman from western Ukraine. She came to help the movement when police attacked and killed peaceful protesters during the night. More than 60 people were killed and more than 100 were wounded during that time. She helped by removing rubble from the damaged square. She refused to show her face because she was afraid she would be arrested for helping people at Maidan.
  • Stepan, from the Lviv region, 17 years old. 
He was raised in an orphanage. Stepan was injured twice during the assault and ended up in the emergency room and both times he returned to the barricades at Maidan. He continues to live in Maidan for now and is working on the night patrol. He hopes to have a peaceful life after the election. He works part-time as a loader. He uses his earnings to buy his girlfriends clothes and flowers. 
He dreams of find a good job, getting married and having two children. He hopes that his future children will live in a peaceful Ukraine.
  • Valera, from Kyiv, 28 years old. 
One day when mass a shooting occurred, a bullet went through his laptop and stuck inside a book in his backpack. A second bullet hit his shield. On January 20 he lost sight in his left eye. He assumes that it was a targeted shooting. 
After three surgeries in Ukraine and Poland, the doctors were able to save his second eye. While he was in the hospital, a girl from the Maidan self-defense corps. was taking care of him. They fell in and eventually married.
He lost his job at a tattoo parlor because the owner thought he would scare clients because of his prosthetic eye. Valera does not use the prosthetic eye now and prefers to wear a black patch so people will be reminded of all of the violence and death that has happened at Maidan. He does not expect much from the elections and believes that action now is the answer for Ukraine. He recently started working with the police to fight drug trafficking and was shot in the chest during a special operation but was unharmed because he was wearing a bulletproof vest.
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Ukrainians share their stories ahead of elections

Updated

This weekend, Ukrainians will head to the polls to elect a new president, a pivotal moment in the wake of the ouster of the country’s former Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.

The election comes at a precarious time for the region. Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula and appears to be attempting to do the same in other parts of eastern Ukraine, prompting violence between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists, whom the West believes have the support of Russia.

There are tens of thousands of Russian troops along the eastern Ukrainian border; the Kremlin has said several times that Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered their withdrawal, but so far there has been no indication that they are following through with such a move.

On Friday, Putin said his country will “have respect for the choice that the Ukrainian people make” in the election.

“Of course we will cooperate with the newly elected head of state,” Putin told CNBC through an interpreter at a news conference. He had previously said his country would only support the election if Ukraine stopped fighting with the pro-Russian forces in the east. 

“I’m not kidding, and I’m not being ironic,” he continued. “What we want for Ukraine is peace and calm. We want this country to recover from crisis.”

Putin has maintained such rhetoric throughout the entire crisis. He has blamed the U.S. for the unrest and dubbed the protesters terrorists. 

Photographer Alexander Chekmenev spent months over the winter photographing these same protesters. This spring, he revisited the portraits’ subjects to speak with them again about their hopes for Sunday’s election. These are their stories. 

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