EuropeStoryUkrainian society; Kiev Fiery Protests by Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Paulo Nunes dos Santos, Dublin based freelance photojournalist & writer covering armed conflict, humanitarian crisis, current affairs, political and social issues worldwide.

Late in the year of 2013, protesters in the Ukrainian capital descended upon Independence Square, also known as Maidan, to voice disapproval against the government’s latest decision.

After years of negotiation and months of promises their government under President Viktor Yanukovych, at the last moment failed to sign a major trade agreement with the European Union.

The square, located close to the government buildings, fast became an iconic site of protest. The students were the first to arrive. These were the Ukrainians with the most to lose, the young people who unreflectively see themselves as europeans and who wished for themselves a life and a country close to the european model. Many of them were politically minded, some of them radically so.

When the riot police came and beat the students, a group of Afghan veterans also came to Maidan. These middle aged men, former soldiers and officers of the Red Army, came to protect “their children”, the best of the youth, the pride and future of the country. After the Afghan veterans, hundreds of thousands of others joined in, but now not so much in favour of a future in Europe but in defence of decency and demanding change.

January 24, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: A protestor, evolved in smoke, shouts provocative words towards the Ukrainian riot police forces at a defensive barricade near Dynamo Kiev's stadium in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 24, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: A protestor, evolved in smoke, shouts provocative words towards the Ukrainian riot police forces at a defensive barricade near Dynamo Kiev’s stadium in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

January 25, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: A anti-government protestor uses a homemade shield to protect himself from the riot police water canons at a barricade outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium, near the Independence Square in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 25, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: A anti-government protestor uses a homemade shield to protect himself from the riot police water canons at a barricade outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium, near the Independence Square in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

The protesters represented every group of Ukrainian society: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, Jews and Atheists. The diversity of the Maidan was impressive.

By mid January, the government tried to put an end to Ukraine’s civil society by passing a series of laws without following normal procedures and removing the few remaining checks on executive authority. For the people on the streets, this was an attempt to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and make all participants in the Maidan, by then numbering in the hundreds of thousands, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then mostly peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych started losing support even in his political base in the southeast close to the Russian border.

January 25, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors continue to demonstrate outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 25, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors continue to demonstrate outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square in central Kiev. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

Around the barricades erected on the streets that give access the square, piles of tires and wood would now burn 24 hours a day. The high columns of flames and smoke filled the skies at night in a quasi-apocalyptic scene tinted by a dramatic orange glow. A visual spectacle complemented by the frozen icicles formed by the police water cannons captivated the lenses and imagination of photographers and videographers covering the event and their audiences around the world.

After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police and tensions in Maidan reached a high point on February 20th. A day that would be remembered as one of the most violent in Kiev’s recent history.

The Square was in flames with protesters and riot police standing off over the future of the country. Protests were ongoing for more than two months now but events were about to come to a head. In the early hours of that morning dozens of protesters armed with nothing more than clubs, rocks and handmade metal shields advanced towards the police in direction of the parliament building. Retreating security forces and unknown snipers from surrounding buildings started shooting and by the end of the day more than 50 people were killed, the heaviest death toll of the clashes between protesters and security forces in the Maidan.

KIEV, UKRAINE - February 20, 2014: Anti-government protestors take cover behind newly build barricades at the frontline where violent clashes were happening between protestors and riot police outside Independence Square in central Kiev. The riot police responded to the advance with gunfire that, according to the opposition, killed at least 70 and as many as 100 people. The drastic escalation of the three-month-old Ukraine crisis left the country reeling from the most lethal violence in decades. CREDIT: Paulo Nunes dos Santos
KIEV, UKRAINE – February 20, 2014: Anti-government protestors take cover behind newly build barricades at the frontline where violent clashes were happening between protestors and riot police outside Independence Square in central Kiev. The riot police responded to the advance with gunfire that, according to the opposition, killed at least 70 and as many as 100 people. The drastic escalation of the three-month-old Ukraine crisis left the country reeling from the most lethal violence in decades. CREDIT: Paulo Nunes dos Santos

The violence would lead to the downfall of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president and the following day Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine.

The images in this project, ’Kiev Fiery Protests’, are a collection of photographs shot in around Maidan’s iconic barricades since the beginning of the revolt in late 2013 till the dramatic turn of events of February 20th. A day that would send Ukraine into a deep political instability, territorial divisions and a vicious war with no end in sight. [Official Website]

January 26, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Ukrainian protesters laid siege to Ukrainian House international convention center, a Soviet-era building in central Kiev, used as a base by the security forces, who remained holed up inside.??Some two thousand stick-wielding protesters clad in helmets threw Molotov cocktails and smashed in windows of the Ukrainian House, climbing over sandbags into the building. The security forces protected themselves with riot shields as well as by hurling stun grenades and attempting to douse the protesters with jets of water.??The protesters later in the night formed a corridor on the steps of the building to allow the security forces to leave. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 26, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Ukrainian protesters laid siege to Ukrainian House international convention center, a Soviet-era building in central Kiev, used as a base by the security forces, who remained holed up inside.??Some two thousand stick-wielding protesters clad in helmets threw Molotov cocktails and smashed in windows of the Ukrainian House, climbing over sandbags into the building. The security forces protected themselves with riot shields as well as by hurling stun grenades and attempting to douse the protesters with jets of water.??The protesters later in the night formed a corridor on the steps of the building to allow the security forces to leave. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

January 24, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors attack the Ukrainian riot police, outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 24, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors attack the Ukrainian riot police, outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

Anti-government protest in Kiev Anti-government protest continue in Kiev Anti-government protests continue in Kiev Thousands mourn the anti-government protestors killed in Maidan Kiev protests turn deadly Kiev protests turn deadly

January 26, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week. An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael's Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 26, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week.
An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael’s Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

January 26, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week. An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael's Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 26, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week.
An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael’s Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

KIEV, UKRAINE - February 24, 2014: Anti-government protestors try to storm the parliament building in central Kiev, moments after the proposal for release of political prisoners was rejected by majority vote in a parliamentary session. CREDIT: Paulo Nunes dos Santos
KIEV, UKRAINE – February 24, 2014: Anti-government protestors try to storm the parliament building in central Kiev, moments after the proposal for release of political prisoners was rejected by majority vote in a parliamentary session. CREDIT: Paulo Nunes dos Santos

Kiev protests turn deadly Protests in Kiev Protests in Kiev

January 24, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors attack the Ukrainian riot police, outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 24, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Anti-government protestors attack the Ukrainian riot police, outside the Dynamo Kiev stadium near the Independence Square. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

January 26, 2014 - Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week. An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael's Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)
January 26, 2014 – Kiev, Ukraine: Thousands in Kiev mourn a protester shot dead during clashes with the Ukrainian riot police in Kiev, early in the week.
An emotional crowd packed Saint Michael’s Cathedral and spilled into a square outside to pay their last respects to 25-year-old Mikhail Zhiznevsky, with many waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons. (Paulo Nunes dos Santos)

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