“The Hatred Is Real, and It’s Pretty Chilling”
Filmmaker James Jones arrived in the Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, the day that President Viktor F. Yanukovych fled Kiev for Russia following weeks of protests that turned violent.
Over the next three months, Jones, a Russian speaker who has spent time in both Moscow and Kiev, made several trips to both the east and west of the country for the The Battle for Ukraine, which explores the deep-seeded hatreds brewing on both sides of the crisis.
The Battle for Ukraine is Jones’ third film for FRONTLINE; he talks about what it was like to be on the ground and how the initial optimism of the protests has devolved into fear of civil war.
How did you get involved in the story?
Every day I wasn’t there, I felt like I was missing the story. I recently made a film in Russia about a Putin youth movement set up to counter any pro-democracy demonstration. This was another example, in a former Soviet country, of young, pro-democracy students, all coming together, taking to the streets and being supported by the broader population. I was desperate to be out there. I just booked my flight, hired a camera and got out there the day [former President Viktor] Yanukovych fled.
What was the mood in Ukraine at that time?
There was a mixed atmosphere of total jubilation that they’d ousted this corrupt president, and credible sadness that more than 100 people had been killed. Government snipers had fired at people, picked them off as they ran down the street. And it was moving. Whatever you thought of the revolution, it was incredibly moving to be there.
I filmed this guy who’d been involved in the fighting, for example, and grandmothers and old people would come up to him and ask to take his photo. This 17-year-old computer science student suddenly became a rock star on the streets of Kiev.
People clearly didn’t have much money, but they would drive us around for free. Everyone was chipping in with whatever they could. The tragedy is that spirit of optimism has descended into fear of civil war, fear of the country being split apart.
From that day when the president was gone and they thought this was beginning of a bright new future to now when it seems like Ukraine as it now exists may not survive is pretty depressing.
What was it like to operate there as a Western journalist?
[It was calmer in] Kiev, [where pro-Ukrainian forces dominated] because the government forces had just evaporated. There were men walking around with baseball bats, so it was still slightly tense.
When I went to the east, there was a change in the atmosphere. A lot of the people watched Russian TV, so they had a slightly distorted idea about how the revolution came about. Everywhere I went, people would say, “You’re NATO, you’re a spy.” When I said I was with American television, it got even worse. It was pretty hostile there.
I was following a group that was pro-Russia and wanted to break away from Kiev. You didn’t want to catch them in the afternoon, because they’d obviously been drinking and they’d threaten me. The town’s police didn’t really want to get involved, and take sides between pro-Kiev and pro-Russia, and it was slightly lawless. This gang would go on a rampage. They’d threaten to smash my camera, rip up my passport.
It got even worse in Donetsk, where the pro-Russian separatists had taken control. In Kharkiv, they were kind of thugs given license to cause trouble. In Donetsk, these were armed men. And there, it was even more lawless, and you didn’t want to go through a checkpoint in the afternoon after they were drinking. Journalists I know were punched, one TV crew had their car stolen, another crew had their flak jackets stolen. So the atmosphere was pretty unpleasant.
How did you gain access to the separatist, pro-Russian leadership?
We were talking to guys in Donetsk with machine guns outside, and said cheekily, “Can I come and see you?” thinking they would say, “Don’t be stupid.” But instead they said, “We’ll make a call.” The fact that I spoke Russian, they liked. I’d lived in Moscow, so they felt I had a love of Russia in one way or another.
We walked up to the top floor of this building, and it was lined with men with machine guns. The leadership was on the 11th floor and the fifth floor was where they tortured people. They had beaten this Ukranian guy and forced him to denounce the government on Russian television. So I was kind of worried about the fifth floor.
But they took us to an empty conference room on the 11th floor and they shut the door. We were in the for about 45 minutes with two men with a machine guns, and there was a moment when I thought, “Have we just been kidnapped?”
Then they walked us into another conference room, and we met [Denis] Pushilin, [chairman of the self proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic] and these three fighters. You realized pretty quickly the armed guys were in charge, not this civilian.
These guys weren’t as hostile because they had a message they wanted to tell the world — they were having a referendum.
What most struck you about your time in Ukraine?
It was the hatred. I knew western and eastern Ukraine had a cultural and linguistic divide. I’ve been to Kiev, and people speak Ukrainian and Russian, and there’s a mix. There didn’t seem to be real tension between the two. People started making a Yugoslavia comparison and I thought: “That’s ridiculous. It’s nothing like that here. It’s artificial. It’s being cooked up by media on both sides.”
Actually, when you see some of the fighting and the way people talk about each other, that hatred is real and it’s pretty chilling, I think. So that was kind of scary and depressing.
I don’t think it is Yugoslavia still. I think there’s a chance this could simmer down.
But at the moment the east isn’t functioning. Where the separatists are in charge, the infrastructure is falling apart already. Children aren’t going to school. These guys don’t know how to run a country. I’d love to be hopeful but I’m pretty pessimistic, that this isn’t going to go away quickly.