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One of the most horrifying things that has happened in these horrifying times in human history is the unprovoked war Russia is waging against Ukraine. The fierce fighting has brought terrifying images to those of us who live far from the battlegrounds, and in our remoteness and concern with our daily lives, we may wonder what it’s all about.

In fact, Ukraine’s struggle to emerge from its Soviet past has been a long one. In 2004 and 2005, Ukrainians engaged in the Orange Revolution, a series of protests and political actions that forced the reversal of the rigged election of Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency. After Yanukovych was legitimately elected as president in 2010, he began a realignment with Russia that, in 2013, caused him to renege on an agreement to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union in favor of Russian markets. It is the aftermath of this last-minute thwarting of the public will that is the subject of Evgeny Afineevsky’s searingly immediate documentary, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.

The film records in great detail Euromaidan, a protest movement that began in November 2013 in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square). The protest lasted for three months and ended in a bloody confrontation with police, Ukrainian security forces known as Berkut, and paid thugs called Titushky that cost 125 lives, mainly of unarmed protesters, in less than 48 hours.

Afineevsky does a fine job of recounting the events from 2003 that led up to Euromaidan using intertitles and maps. This groundwork is necessary to help uninformed viewers understand the players and the basic issues—a fight between the Ukrainian people who wanted to join a democratic Europe and improve their economic prospects and the old guard who hoped to reestablish a dictatorship under Russian control.

Once we have been briefed, we become flies on the wall via a 30-person camera crew who fanned out to record every aspect of Euromaidan and interview participants, from pop singer Ruslana Lyzhicko and Muslim spiritual leader Said Ismagilov to charismatic 12-year-old Roma Saveliyev, an uneducated Romy from a village just outside of Kyiv who, unsurprisingly, is assigned to the tech tent to help people with their internet connections and hardware.

To put a point on just how important this protest is, a cleric at Kyiv’s Mykhalvys’kyi Monastery gets permission to ring all of the church bells in support of the protesters; he says the last time all the bells were rung was in 1240, when the Mongol-Tatars invaded the city. Despite the spontaneity of the demonstrations, the protesters quickly learn to organize, forming Maidan Defense Units, building barricades, activating AutoMaidan (the car “cavalry”), and setting up kitchens, clothes drop-offs, and medical facilities.

There is a bit of a party atmosphere at times and frequent mocking of the ridiculous edicts issued by the government, but the stakes couldn’t be higher once suppression of the protesters becomes deadly serious. Rubber bullets are somehow replaced by real ammunition, machine guns and percussion bombs loaded with shrapnel are turned on the unarmed civilians, and protesters marching toward the Parliament fall into a trap not too different from that which befell the Light Brigade immortalized by Lord Tennyson.

One moving scene involves a fighter giving a tearful interview about the death of a friend who was shot trying to get a stretcher to an injured man; the scene shifts to the death of this would-be rescuer caught on camera. What is clear is that these Ukrainian men (women were present, but not in combat) were willing to fight to the death to prevent backsliding into the bad old days of Soviet domination. Although Kyiv citizens formed the bulk of the protesters, people from all over Ukraine joined the fight.

With the shock of so much carnage and unflagging determination, it comes as little surprise to see footage of Yanukovych slipping away under cover of night to seek asylum with Vladimir Putin. It is entirely possible that he has had a hand in attacks on the country that began in 2014, culminating in the invasion this year. It is no surprise that Ukraine is fighting back with all that it has for the right to determine its own future. Winter on Fire stands with the best combat documentaries ever made, and one that is all the more urgent for us to watch and absorb as we contemplate the need to defend ourselves against the rise of fascism in the world.

Winter on Fire is available to stream on Netflix.

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Marilyn Ferdinand (Archived Contributor)

Marilyn Ferdinand is the founder of the review and commentary site Ferdy on Films (2005-2018) and the fundraising Love of Films: The Film Preservation Blogathon. She currently writes for Cine-File and has written on film and film preservation for Humanities magazine, Fandor, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. She lives in the Chicago area.