Photograph by Justyna Mielnikiewicz
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Dniepropetrovsk, 2014. “I came here from Donetsk and Slavyansk,” says Mielnikiewicz, referring to two cities in the conflict zone. “The people strolling along the river seemed to be living in a different country, without checkpoints and armed people. A couple days before, a Roma family was attacked by an armed, masked man in Slavyansk , a separatist stronghold. Here in Dniepropetrovsk these sisters, both Roma, said they are fine. Nobody bothers them.”
Photograph by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Dreamy Photographs of a Divided Country

With the Dnieper River as her muse, a photographer explores visions of modern Ukraine.

Justyna Mielnikiewicz was recently awarded a grant from the W. Eugene Smith Fund, which will allow her to continue her work examining the relationship between Russia and its border countries. This article was originally published on February 5, 2016.

The Dnieper is the main river in Ukraine, flowing through the length of the country and into the Black Sea. For some Ukrainians, the river is a symbol of statehood and national identity. For others, it’s a place to gather, swim, and spend time with family and friends. And for photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz, it’s a metaphor for modern Ukraine, a country split along historical and ideological divides: on one side, those aligned with the pro-Western ideas of democracy and on the other, those aligned with Russia.

Mielnikiewicz, who is based in Georgia, has been documenting former Soviet republics for the past 12 years. The seeds of her project, "A Ukraine Runs Through It” began in 2008 while she was photographing in Crimea. Over time she had observed a familiar set of dynamics unfolding between Russia and its former Soviet republics, clashes based on two different versions of history, and she wanted to learn more about how this might manifest itself in Ukraine.

Simferopol, Crimea, 2008. On the opening night of Stalin’s Roads—a play that presents Stalin as a man who created famine artificially in the early 1930s to punish Ukrainian anti-Soviet nationalism—police were deployed to the theater to avoid possible clashes with pro-Russian residents of the city, whose views on the reasons behind the famine were radically different.
Dnipropetrovsk, 2015. A crocodile is seen in a small zoo on Monastyrsky Island.

She arrived in the capital city of Kiev in February 2014, just as the violent Euromaidan protests in favor of closer ties with Europe were ending. She witnessed the initial enthusiasm following the success of the protesters in bringing about a regime change. Then she watched this slowly turn into a struggle for survival when conflict broke out in the eastern Donbass region a few months later between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian army. The conflict continues to dominate the political landscape, Mielnikiewicz says, with about 7 percent of the country now controlled by the separatists and, despite two ceasefires, skirmishes still happening along the borders.

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