Film Review | Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Democracy

A girl dressed in traditional Ukrainian garb stands in front of a line of men in riot gear as snow or ash falls.

Occasionally there are moments in life when we are jarred out of the complacent routines of our lives and asked existential questions about who we are, what we value and who we care for. This is one of those moments. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has stirred profound emotions in all of us who are compassionate and concerned about how the current structure of the human condition is organized. Who has power? Who wants power? And what are they willing to do to get it?

This is not a new beginning, but a continuation of a series of stories on Ukrainian land for the past few decades. As such, while there are no straightforward answers to the question about how the rest of the world should respond to Russia’s aggression, it is obvious how Ukrainians want to be governed.

“No one can make a free person kneel.” 

Self-determination: the ability to make decisions about what is best for a community or society is the pivotal concern. And Ukrainians, as much as anyone around the world today, are fighting to protect that right. They have done it before successfully and, because of the fanaticism of one man, they are forced to defend it again.

Winter on Fire, the extraordinary documentary film produced in part by Netflix and directed by Evgeny Afineevsky, superbly summarizes the dilemma of protecting the right to ‘self-determination’ in the face of authoritarian control and the risk to sacrifice oneself, or loved ones, for the cause of freedom.

“We are not afraid to die for freedom. Freedom is for us. Freedom is ours. We will win and Ukraine will be part of Europe and Ukraine will be part of the free world! We will never be slaves. We will be free!”  

Words spoken by one of the activists captured on video during the 93 day Euromaidan resistance movement that started in late 2013 and ultimately forced then-President Yanukovych to resign and seek asylum in Russia. The documentary chronicles the dedication and painful sacrifice of Ukrainians during those tense and violence-filled months and it clearly shows the vile tactics that authoritarian governments use to terrorize and demoralize their citizens.

In scene after scene, we witness the barbaric treatment of Ukrainians by the Berkut, the secret police wing of the government formed to crush any acts of independent or progressive thought. As with the firing on civilians by the Russian military during the current invasion, the Berkut function as the prosthetic arm of an oppressive regime that will do anything to hold on to power.

How fragile are the democratic structures that provide people with the ability to voice their opinions, move freely, and engage in critical dialogue about governance? Even in historically strong democracies there are threats to open societies. The U.S. prides itself on being the longest standing stable democracy on the planet, and yet even in this country there are forces that are pushing towards authoritarianism and placing limits on freedom.

“If we don’t take them down now, no one will ever be able to do it.”  

It is a raw and violent film. Not one to watch alone late at night worried about the plight of humanity, but one that should be viewed by anyone who considers self-determination to be a value that they hold dear. A film like this could never be made in Putin’s Russia. It is not even accessible there today. Recently Netflix placed Winter on Fire on YouTube in order to allow the entire world free access to the movie. Everywhere but Russia.

Putin has recently taken actions that make it extremely difficult for Russians to see the movie. To begin with, he instituted a ‘fake news’ law that will penalize anyone who shares news about the war, including calling it a ‘war’. In addition, he has blocked parts of the internet in the country (think ‘net neutrality’ in the U.S.) and has limited access to Facebook, Twitter, the BBC and Deutsche Welle. As a final note of authority he shut down all of the independent media organizations in Russia.

Without an independent media it will be difficult for Russians to access information that they need in order to fully grasp the scope and scale of the war. And there will also be an enormous cost to average Russians due to Putin’s outrageous actions, due to a lack of credible information. As in an Orwellian world when up is down and down is up, how will Russians practice their own form of self-determination without the true story behind this horrific aggression?

“’Poppa,’ she said, ‘I’ll grow up and bring them down myself,’” shared by another participant of the Euromaidan Revolution in ‘Winter on Fire’ about how his daughter begged him not to go back to the Square because she would fight for their freedom when she became of age.

When faced with the stark reality of an oppressive regime that cares nothing for the lives of its citizens, let alone the citizens of an independent country, what are the choices before them for action? In this case, rather than fleeing Ukraine (other than largely woman, children and the elderly) they have chosen to stay and fight for the ability to remain independent. Just as they did almost exactly eight years ago in Maidan Square in order to force early presidential elections, Ukrainians have chosen to stand and protect their liberty.

The question that now remains, however, is what is the rest of the democratic world willing to do in order to also fight for freedom? As with the Berkut in 2014 in Maidan Square and throughout Kyiv, a dictator will use fear to maintain power and will terrorize the people in order to break their spirits. As shown vividly in Winter on Fire they were unable to do it then, so it is unlikely that Putin will be able to do it now.

“For the future of our children people were prepared to die.  The people came out and showed that we have the power.”  

Nevertheless, as bombs continue to fall on hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, atomic power plants, and as millions of refugees stream out of the country, the rest of the world wrestles with the decision about what type of action to take.  In a world where there are constant threats to democracy, the Ukrainian experience is a sobering one.  Winter on Fire shows us how one group of people responded to that threat in real time. How will their actions inspire others who care about freedom and self-determination to respond in the coming ominous days?