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.

Dniprovka, 2015. A headless statue of Vladimir Lenin, painted gold, stands in the center of the village.
Odessa, 2015. People from Odessa and across Ukraine come for mud baths at the Kuyalnik Sanatorium Im. Pirogova health resort.

Her story about the country inadvertently also became one about war—about internally displaced people (IDPs) and ordinary civilians who dropped their former lives in service of keeping the country afloat: a former businessman turned police chief, a hairdresser turned soldier then city councilwoman, a tourism manager turned hospital volunteer.

Donetsk, 2015. Schoolchildren dressed as clowns get ready to perform for a May Day celebration.
Kiev, 2015. Portraits of Ukrainian writers decorate the hall of the PEN club.

Mielnikiewicz describes her approach to personal projects—deconstructing a story so she can then put the pieces back together—as “epic.” She’s steeped herself in Ukrainian history, news, politics, and culture as a way to understand the complexities of the country in post-Soviet times and hopefully reflect it back in a way that helps people see what they might not otherwise see.

“For me photography is a way to explore the world,” she says. “Some people study history [or] ethnography; they pick up professions which take them around the world and help them explore it this way. I pick photography as my tool. I pick up some region or issue which arouses my interest and set on the journey to explore it with [my] camera.”

Kiev, 2015. “I met Olga before the war in Donetsk, where she worked as a photographer for local newspaper,” says Mielnikiewicz. “ The next time we talked she was living on the outskirts of Kiev with her husband Stanislav and their families. Soon after that her parents went back to Donetsk but she stayed, deciding to rebuild her life in Kiev. Olga never complaints. She and Stanislav do not like to call themselves IDPs as they see it as a label [used] to divide people.”
Yenakiieve, 2014. Yenakiieve is the birthplace of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted from power in February 2014. The city was captured by pro-Russian separatists in April, 2014.

She conversed with the people she met in cities and towns along the river—Kiev, Kaniv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mariupol—as well as places in the heart of the conflict, such as Donetsk and Slavyansk, which have a direct impact on how the future will be shaped.

Kiev, 2014. Makeshift shields and sticks made by protesters during the Euromaidan protests stand next to office chairs in Kiev’s city hall.
Kaniv, 2014. Ukrainians gather at the museum honoring Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century painter, poet, and ethnographer. Shevchenko is considered to be the father of modern Ukrainian language and a key figure in forming of Ukrainian statehood. His wish was to be buried here, along the Dnieper river.

The stories she has gathered illustrate the complex patchwork of histories, ethnicities, and experiences that make up modern Ukraine, and Mielnikiewicz is careful to point out that the current struggles fall along different versions of history and statehood, rather than along ethnic lines. “While current politics, war, and people’s lives are changing rapidly,” she says, “the Ukrainian landscape and river remains rooted, untouched, and stronger than the current turmoil.”

You can see more of her work on her website.

Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor for National Geographic.