Fire and Ice in Kiev: Ross McDonnell on Ukraine’s Front Line

Ukraine Protests
Ross McDonnell
Jan. 24, 2014. A protestor holds a handmade shield as protection during rioting.

A photographer friend in Kiev told me during a rare moment of respite this past week that this was a revolution that would be remembered in still images. It struck me as a particularly appropriate thing to say during a succession of days that saw Ukrainian demonstrators attack police lines on Hrushevskoho Street, the site where earlier in the week two protesters had lost their lives — shot by government forces using live rounds.

The scene itself was a rich visual allegory: the protesters, their blood boiling at the death of their comrades and the seeming impunity of President Yanukovich’s Berkut special police, attacked the front lines with Molotov cocktails, built huge walls of flame from stockpiles of tires and gasoline and rioted through the night as the fires burned so intensely they threatened to turn ornate building facades along the street to ashes.

The police, perhaps shamed by their earlier actions and their haste to use lethal force, were cold in their reaction to the attacks. Ice cold, in fact. They aimed high-powered fire hoses in the direction of the demonstrators and seemed to relish the result when the extreme cold turned the landscape to a glass-like lake of ice.

Anti-government Protests in Kiev

Rob Stothard—Getty Images

Jan. 25, 2014. Ross McDonnell photographs anti-government protestors attacking police in Kiev, Ukraine.

The stage was set, perfectly balanced by two polarized forces: fire and ice; anti-government upstarts versus the machinery of the state. It was a scene that will live on in the memory of those who witnessed it, a brief moment of conflict transformed into a painterly tapestry.

By night, as the rioters filed towards the front line through layers of flames to stoke the inferno with more tires and gasoline, it was a tableau worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. By day, in the blue half-light of the Eastern winter, it was like a scene from the Second World War, as the exhausted protesters — in Soviet-era army helmets and military surplus — their faces blackened by smoke, carried on.

I wonder now, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the week’s images, that deluge of countless photographs, truly represents the political crisis in the Ukraine, or merely illustrates a scenario perfectly tailored to the power of the still image.


Ross McDonnell is a photographer and filmmaker born in Dublin. LightBox has previously featured McDonnell’s work on the ‘Auto Defensa’ anti-criminal uprisings in MexicoIrish public housing projects and Enrique Metinides.


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