NYC to Donetsk & back: an American visitor discovers a new nation in the making in eastern Ukraine

Alexander Korobko, “NYC to Donetsk & back” (Russian Hour, 2018)

Made in 2017 or 2018, or some time after the death of Mikhail Tolstykh aka Givi in February 2017 (his death in his office is mentioned early on in the film), this remarkable documentary follows the travels of Russian-American actor Peter von Berg in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to discover the truth ignored by Western mainstream news media (MSM) about the experiences of the people living in the region, as opposed to what is reported by the Western MSM. Before 2014, the DPR was an oblast or province of Ukraine, predominantly Russian in ethnicity and language, and one of the most industrialised and prosperous parts of that country. After the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Crimea’s own escape from Ukraine and reunion with the Russian Federation, Donetsk Oblast held a referendum in May 2014, the result of which led to the establishment of the DPR. Ukraine then invaded the DPR and its fellow rebel republic the Lugansk People’s Republic (also a majority-Russian area in Ukraine) and the three fought a brief hot war from May to early September, 2014. At the time von Berg visited the DPR, it was recognised as a state only by South Ossetia and was still claimed by Ukraine along with the LPR as part of its territory.

With political scientist Alexander Kazakov as his guide, von Berg tours areas that were part of the front-line in the DPR’s fight for survival in the summer of 2014 and is introduced to various people including DPR head of state Alexander Zakharchenko and at least one of his ministers, Alexander Timofeyev, who takes von Berg on a trip to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes. The actor visits a specialist surgical hospital and talks to the head administrator and medical staff there; he also visits a steel-making factory, an Orthodox church, and a theatre and its cast of actors.  He even meets a Texan, Russell Bentley, who decided in 2014 to throw in his lot with the DPR and help the republic fight the post-Maidan regime in Kiev. The discussions he has with Zakharchenko and others about the society they are building in the DPR are very revealing: the people intend to create a socialist society in which primary and secondary education and healthcare are provided for free by the government, and cultural pursuits and enrichment are taken for granted and are the right of the people to enjoy.

Von Berg is very moved by many of the sights – in particular, the bombed remains of houses and other buildings near the front-line, and a Soviet-era memorial on a hill outside Donetsk city that was deliberately targeted and ruined by Ukrainian tanks – and marvels at the resilience and determination of DPR residents. They are highly educated and cultured and are mindful of their long history and traditions. Zakharchenko reminds von Berg of the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American revolutionary history and Timofeyev quotes the Roman poet Virgil; theatre director Natalia Volkova tells von Berg that the first play her theatre performed after the cessation of war in 2014 or early 2015 was Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage”, in which a civil servant tries to find a suitable bride through a match-maker. (The travails of the civil servant and the bride might well mirror the DPR’s attempt to urge a federal style of government to Kiev and then its later attempt to become an autonomous republic, then form a federal union with the LPR, and then finally become more or less independent.) The fact that von Berg finds such friendly and cultured people, irrespective of their vocations, will surprise many Western audiences accustomed to societies where everyone knows only enough from his / her own school and college education to perform his / her chosen vocation and little else apart from what s/he picks up from news media and social media. Strangely though, after visiting a medical centre, a factory, a cultural centre and a politician’s office, von Berg does not visit a school, a university or a technical college to find out how the DPR produces people with such a rich and varied education.

In many questions that von Berg asks of his gracious hosts, there is implied criticism of the neoliberal capitalist system as it operates in his home country. Von Berg is impressed with the DPR’s ability to provide medical care (including specialist surgery) for free and education for free up to a certain level as well. Zakharchenko explains to von Berg that the state will fund particular university students’ studies in full if the young people are studying in an area where the government has a shortage of qualified people, on the condition that upon graduation the students agree to work for the government for a given period, otherwise the students are expected to pay for part of their studies. No doubt, on hearing of what students in the US must pay for their studies, Zakharchenko and others must have fallen over backwards at the sheer insanity of a system that bankrupts young people just so they can gain qualifications for jobs that are unlikely ever to pay off their tuition loans over a lifetime of work. What von Berg discovers as he travels around the DPR is also an indictment of the Western MSM’s failure to report the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine and the support that the West gives to fascist, even neo-Nazi regimes to repress their own citizens and to use violence against them where such governments and such actions advance Western political and economic elite goals of seizing other people’s lands and natural resources.

Von Berg comes away with new respect and admiration for a people who, under conditions of war and political and economic uncertainty, have created a thriving society and a rich and layered culture where people have the opportunity not only to fulfill their potential in particular fields but blossom in other areas. At the same time, the threat of a renewed hot war against the DPR by Ukraine, rent by political corruption, economic decline and extreme neo-Nazi terror, and encouraged by the West to recover what it considers to be its territory in the DPR, the LPR and Crimea, is never far away.

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

Fascism As It Is: snapshot film of the Ukrainian crisis that indicts mainstream Western news reporting

Andrey Karaulov, “Fascism As It Is” (2014)

Looking hastily made, this documentary is a snapshot of the chaotic situation in Ukraine after the massacre of left-wing activists and pro-federalisation rally participants in the Odessa Trade Union building and the building’s subsequent burning by fascist supporters of the interim Ukrainian government in early May 2014. The film concentrates on two incidents: the aforementioned Odessa mass killings and arson and a similar incident of mass killings in Mariupol in eastern Ukraine in April 2014, with mention of a third incident in Zaporizhiya, also in eastern Ukraine, that occurred before the Mariupol incident in which people holding a peacefully rally were harassed by police who used tear gas and chemicals to intimidate and disperse crowds.

The two incidents are retold in considerable detail in the format of interviews by the director with various eyewitnesses and others people spoken over what look like newsreels. Historical film material of incidents of World War II is used in parts of the film that refer to the Soviet defence of Ukraine against the Nazi German onslaught. The format is very stream-of-consciousness and the pace is quite fast so it takes all my attention to follow what is being said. Many viewers might need to watch this documentary at least twice because there is so much information coming at you and so much detail to absorb. However what comes through very clearly is the fact that the government that overthrew the legitimately elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 has very clear links to current Ukrainian fascist forces as represented by the Svoboda Party and neo-Nazi Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) and Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past (such as the notorious Stepan Bandera) who collaborated with Nazi Germany in the early 1940s and among other things butchered Jewish people in their thousands. Interviewees make clear that Pravy Sektor thugs have infiltrated most parts of Ukraine beyond their base in western Ukraine where Svoboda enjoys electoral support and are terrorising people and committing brutal acts including killing and causing disappearances.

Another theme running through the film is the way the various incidents are reported or ignored in the Western mainstream media. Just about everything that has been occurring in Ukraine has been filtered through an anti-Russian point of view that favours the fascists by Western news media. The incidents in Zaporizhiya and Mariupol have been all but ignored and the massacre of progressive, leftist and pro-federalisation activists by Pravy Sektor, Shtorm and the so-called “Dnepr-1” battalion, the latter two groups being owned by Ukrainian oligarch businessman and politician Ihor Kolomoisky, has been downplayed and the arson given more prominence as an accident. The staged incident of “rival soccer fans”, actually Shtorm and the Dnepr-1 battalion, fighting with one another was portrayed as being for real.

The most horrific part of the documentary comes very late in the film when a journalist tells the interviewer of bodies of dead people being thrown out of the burning Odessa Trade Union building (with accompanying shots of the dead bodies falling from windows and hitting the concrete) and of the smells of chemicals used in the building. The journalist describes how she barely managed to escape the building alive herself.

In spite of its slapdash style and apparent lack of organisation, this documentary is well worth watching. The Odessa Trade Union building mass murders and the arson that was intended to cover up the butchery are documented on other websites and blogs like Oriental Review, World Socialist Web Site and Joe Giambrone so the film cannot be accused of being pro-Russian propaganda.  Interviewees point out that the interim regime’s Pravy Sektor and other enforcers have been killing ethnic Ukrainians as well: the lists of people who were killed in the Mariupol incident and who have been disappeared by the authorities since Yanukovych fled Ukraine include several people of ethnic Ukrainian background.

It is clear from the documentary that the interim government under Acting President Oleksandr Turchinov and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk is guilty of war crimes. Western governments and the Western news media, by ignoring or obfuscating the truth of the incidents highlighted in the film stand equally guilty as accessories to war crimes.

As a narrowly focused state-of-the-nation snapshot, the film does not fully explain the connections between the Ukrainian fascists and nationalists of the past with their descendants in western Ukraine who now govern the country with brutal force and incompetence. The film does not make the link between the deliberate misinformation generated in the Western news media about the recent shocking events in Ukraine and the fact that the fascist government under current President Petro Poroshenko is taking orders from rogue elements in the United States government (especially the US State Department) who are keen on seizing energy resources in the eastern Ukraine and surrounding Russia with hostile NATO states armed with missiles aimed at major Russian cities.