Thursday, 14 July 2016

The language barrier in psychical research


Dr Carlos Alvarado has produced a blog post which points out that a large quantity of psychical research has been published in languages other than English, aptly titled All Our Past is Not in English.  He notes that publications which rely solely on English-language sources often provide an incomplete, or even erroneous, picture because they fail to take account of what was going on elsewhere and not reported in English:

'These works tend to emphasize developments in the English-language world—such as the work of the Society for Psychical Research and of J.B. Rhine and associates—to the neglect of developments in other countries. No one would deny the importance of this work. What I decry here is that reliance on these sources produces an incomplete view of the development of the discipline. But what is worse is that some seem to have accepted these incomplete views as the whole canon, and feel no need even to qualify the obvious incompleteness of their writings.

This concern resonates with me as Reviews Editor of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  I am aware that a great deal is published which is not in English, and much of this remains inaccessible to the monoglot English-language reader.  Occasionally I am able to run a review, in English, of a foreign-language book (usually either German or Spanish), which I am happy to do because the Society for Psychical Research is an international organisation, but I am always conscious that the bulk people who read the review will not be able to access the original text.

The major difficulty I have, over and above hearing about and being able to evaluate such books, and the perennial one of people not having the time to write book reviews in any language, is finding reviewers who are both knowledgeable about the subject under consideration and able to write decent enough English that I at least know what they are trying to say, even if the review requires polishing to bring it to the required standard.  Those obstacles mean it is possible to cover only a small proportion of what is published in languages other than English.  There is a considerable volume that English-language readers never even get to hear about, much less read.

Alvarado is quite correct in highlighting an issue that many writers seem happy to ignore; after all, a smooth enough history can be fashioned from English-language sources and whatever happens to have been translated.  He remarks that the situation is improving to an extent, though with historians rather than psychical researchers tending to make the running.  I have to say that while this is to be applauded, there are often problems when non-specialists tackle an area in which they may possess depth in the specific topic they are examining but not breadth in the wider subject.  And English-language readers still do not have access to the sources to be able to check the validity of what is written.

What can be done about this state of affairs?  Well, certainly we could all learn additional languages, however reaching the required standard isn’t going to be feasible for most adults.  At one time the SPR was not afraid to publish reports in non-English languages on the assumption that readers would understand them; those days are sadly long gone.  Being practical, professional translations would be ideal, but translators are expensive and not always au fait with specialised terminology.

One possibility that would help to address the problem in a small way is group sourcing of translators, a kind of Wiki effort involving a number of people collaborating to produce translations with the consent of the author that could either be submitted to a publisher or appear in an online edition.  This type of project might be best aimed at journal papers rather than books and requires careful quality control.  It would make sense to focus on rendering foreign works into English as this would make them accessible to the greatest number of people.  Something that might stimulate interest in translation is to institute a book prize.  The Parapsychological Association makes a number of awards each year and one for the best translated book could easily fit into its scheme.

Those researchers who are fluent in more than one language should try wherever possible to make their results available in them all.  A number of scholars are keen to transcend linguistic boundaries to reach the widest possible audience.  Carlos Alvarado himself is one, bringing foreign-language information to English-speaking readers.  Icelandic Erlendur Haraldsson writes in English, as does German Andreas Sommer.  In the opposite direction, Francisco Cánovas Picón has a blog in which he frequently translates English-language material into Spanish (including an article of mine on the Warrens and Enfield).  Alvarado suggests recruiting colleagues who can help with the literature in various languages, as he has done in his tireless efforts to disseminate the international history of psychical research.  The key to progress is to share information, and the wider it is shared, the greater will be its contribution to enriching the field.  That entails breaking down language barriers wherever possible.

Friday, 24 June 2016

History of Russia in Photographs

Vladimir Semin: Sparrow Hills, Moscow, 1 May 1994

The Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow, has announced a website devoted to the History of Russia in Photographs, launched appropriately on 12 June, Russia’s national day.  Covering the period 1860 to 2000, it currently has almost 80,000 images, with more added daily.  The aim, according to Olga Sviblovo, the museum's director, is to bring together as many photographs as possible in a ‘visual Wikipedia’ of Russian history, or as the site itself puts it, the ‘life of the country in all its manifestations’.   To date it combines holdings from more than forty archives, museums, private collections, and the state archives.  Many of the photographs have never been published before.  As well as the project drawing from established sources, individuals can post images they own which were taken before 2000.  The resulting website will encourage research and discussion, provide a valuable educational resource, and act as a beacon for further donations of historical material.

It is possible to search chronologically or by name or keyword.  An understanding of Russian (or an online translator) is necessary to be able to read the captions but is not necessary to examine the photographs themselves as the timeline can be manipulated by means of cursors defining start and end dates.  Registered users can leave comments, and create their own ‘exhibitions’.  The former should help to expand the bald descriptions of many entries which at present cry out for elaboration.

Browsing the website shows what astonishing changes have occurred in Russia in the period it covers.  The earliest photographs were taken when serfdom still existed, and the display tracks the changes from Tsardom, the First World War, the 1917 revolution, the Communist regime in its various forms, the Great Patriotic War, Cold War, Glasnost, to the fall of the USSR.  It is a lot of history and a very big country.  In that context, 80,000 images suddenly seems a small number, but once it really gets going there is scope for the site to reflect the country – its people, places and events – in all its facets.

At the moment certain gaps are apparent.  To take an example, putting Afghanistan (or rather Афганистан) in the search box brings up only five images, all from 1980 and by a single individual.  Thousands more relating to the Russian presence in Afghanistan must be lurking in Russian government files.  One would think it odd not to see any from Vietnam on a website devoted to the History of the United States in Photographs.  Admittedly there is a tagging issue at the moment; many of the most recent photographs, from 1999, are of Russian forces in presumably Chechnya, but these are not identified as such.  What is on the website is also governed by what has survived.  Only nine images are tagged with Trotsky’s name, hardly surprising taking into account how he was airbrushed by Stalin, and it may be necessary to source material suppressed within Russia from external archives to provide comprehensive coverage.

Another notable gap is indicated by the presence of only one photograph by Boris Mikhailov, of two men sitting in a kitchen dating from 1983.  Mikhailov has produced a large documentary body, as I know because an extensive selection was shown at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in the 2014 exhibition Primrose:Early Colour Photography in Russia.  Some of these works are challenging, but represent a legitimate view of the USSR.  It cannot be said that the Multimedia Art Museum is unaware of Mikhailov because Primrose was put together in conjunction with them, and the curator was Olga Sviblova.  There may be copyright issues of course, but many of Mikhailov’s pictures have been legitimately published online, so it should not be difficult to obtain his permission to add them to the History of Russia in Photographs database.

It is early days, and I am sure that many of the omissions will be filled in in time, though I wonder if there are criteria for inclusion which have not been made public.  It is worth bearing in mind that support has been provided by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the Moscow Department of Culture, the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, and Yandex, a Russian multinational which operates the most widely-used search engine in the country.  Official support may have come with strings.  Sviblovo’s announcement contained the declaration: ‘We began thinking of such a portal in 1999 because we understood how important it would be to create a photographic history for future generations.  You cannot build the future without knowing your past.’  Let’s hope the aim is to provide a representative, not a selective, view of the past.  It would be a pity if ideological influences were allowed to affect the content.

Such concerns notwithstanding, the website is a marvellous achievement, which raises the obvious question for someone browsing it in the UK: why are we not doing something similar?  The Victoria and Albert Museum in London is an obvious body to initiate a project like this, with its existing collection soon to be complemented by some 400,000 objects which are going to be transferred to its custody from the National Media Museum in Bradford.  The V&A has stated that it plans to increase opportunities to see its extensive photography holdings, both physically and digitally, but the sceptic in me suspects that digital access will not be on the scale of the History of Russia in Photographs.  The V&A’s curators could do worse than look at the Moscow initiative for inspiration when planning their own offering.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

On the trail of Mikhail Bulgakov

Leaflet from Museum M A Bulgakov

On a recent trip to Moscow my wife and I visited Mikhail Bulgakov’s flat, located in a quiet courtyard at 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya ulitsa, which has been turned into a museum to honour his achievements.  Like many others I became a fan of Bulgakov’s as a result of reading his classic novel The Master and Margarita, and I was keen to pay homage and see for myself places associated with the writer and his books.

Before we went up to the flat we called at a rival attraction just inside the courtyard entrance.  The grandly named Museum-Theatre Bulgakov House also contains a small Bulgakov museum which is free to enter.  Display cases exhibit photographs, documents and artefacts, plus a large collection of international editions of his books which demonstrate his enduring popularity.  The weirdest exhibit has to be a large model of a tram with the head of Berlioz, a character from the Master and Margarita who has an unfortunate encounter with some spilled sunflower oil and is decapitated when he falls across a rail.
 
Tram, Berlioz at bottom left

There is an old-fashioned ambience and it is am enjoyable venue for a cup of tea, though it is probably very crowded on theatre nights.  There seems to be a fascination with poor Berlioz because you can buy jars of various sizes each with a picture of a face in some liquid, mimicking a preserved head.  I was tempted to get one but didn’t think it would survive the journey, assuming it managed to negotiate airport security.  Outside the entrance is an attractive statue of Koroviev and Behemoth standing guard.  It was a pleasant visit, but little of the information provided was in English.
 
Koroviev and Behemoth in the courtyard

Bulgakov’s actual flat is at the top of a block without a lift, so a climb is necessary to reach it.  Once there, it is very different in tone to the Bulgakov House’s faded grandeur.  Apartment 50, the communal flat where he and his first wife lived from 1921-4, is now a fully-fledged curated museum (The Museum M. A. Bulgakov).  The flat becomes the temporary home of the devilish Woland and his retinue in The Master and Margarita, and amusingly the Bulgakov House Museum sign on the street corner by the courtyard entrance is numbered 302-bis, the fictional number Bulgakov gave to the block.
 
The sign for the Bulgakov House Museum, 302-bis

Recognised by the Moscow City Department of Culture, the museum is dedicated to expounding Bulgakov’s life.  While the stairwell leading to the flat is clean it is heavily graffitied with writing and paintings relating to and inspired by Bulgakov’s work.  These predate the establishment of the museum and have presumably been left intact for ‘atmosphere’, but they give the stairs a scruffy look.  Once at the top of the building it is a pleasure to find that the flat itself has been completely renovated and is welcoming and cheerful.
 
A sample of the graffiti

Unfortunately we again found that the non-Russian information was limited, yet I was happy simply to be able to examine the exhibits and soak up the atmosphere.  The staff were friendly and there was a lively feel that one does not associate with normally staid authors’ museums.  It was fairly busy, and a group was lectured, sadly in Russian, for a considerable time in the bric-a-brac filled kitchen.  Whereas the unofficial museum near the courtyard entrance has a static display, the flat has changing exhibitions.  There is quite a lot crammed in the limited space, though there is room for further acquisitions.  I thought the museum well worth the small entrance fee.
 
In the Bulgakov Museum, naturally in a suitable T-shirt

One could tell that the intent behind the enterprise is serious because the single information panel in English was headed with a quote by Michel Foucault, taken from his Les Mots et les Choses, the English-language title of which the curators have used as the label to describe their current efforts to bring order to the miscellaneous nature of the collection, identify gaps, and relate the holdings to Bulgakov’s life – ‘Words and things: Unveiling a Collection’.  It is to be hoped that this project will include translations of information, and so allow non-Russian speakers to learn more about this remarkable writer.

To complete our Bulgakov tribute we visited nearby Patriarch’s Ponds (actually a shady garden dominated by a single rectangular lake).  I like to think I sat on a bench in much the same spot Berlioz and Ponyrev were sitting when Woland appeared before them.  There were couples and families lounging around, and it felt a calm oasis in the busy city.  I was disappointed to learn that a tram line never ran close to here but it was pleasant to be in the place that that Bulgakov used to such great effect in the opening of his novel.  Unfortunately the grass had been reseeded and covered in plastic to protect it so we didn’t see it at its best.  We were there in the afternoon as well, on a sunny day, and to get the full Bulgakov effect we should have gone when dusk was falling, shadows lengthening, and the air full of the promise of night-time mystery.  Who knows, we might even have met Woland, come back to see how Moscow had altered in his absence.
 
Patriarch's Ponds, though only one remains

There are a number of fine museums in Moscow dedicated to authors, even if we did find that their limited opening hours meant it was hard to fit them all in when there was so much else to do.  We managed to visit the superb Art Nouveau Gorky house-museum, which deserves to be better known, and the Chekhov museum, which also contains a small theatre added to the original home.  Sadly, despite our best efforts, we could not get to either the Gogol or Dostoyevsky houses.  Perhaps next time we’ll manage it.  There is also a Bulgakov Museum in Kiev (his birthplace), so that has gone on my wish list as well.

Plaque commemorating Bulgakov in the street

Sunday, 8 May 2016

A Demon in Enfield?



With the release imminent of James Wan’s The Conjuring 2, in which Ed and Lorraine Warren fearlessly battle the Forces of Evil in a north London suburb, it is worth examining the contention that the Enfield Poltergeist was really a demon come to persecute the Hodgson family.  The tiny extent of the Warren’s connection with this classic case has already been analysed so it could be argued that whatever they had to say on the matter has little merit, but surprisingly while Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair of the Society for Psychical Research, who had by far the most to do with the case, were quick to dismiss the Warrens’ claim, newspapers at the time did in fact occasionally raise the possibility of a demonic component to the events that were besetting the Hodgsons.


For example, Psychic News of 6 January 1979 devoted considerable coverage to Enfield, including much of the front page.  On p. 3, one of the sub-sections is firmly titled ‘No demon involved’ and Playfair gives his opinion in forthright terms:

‘Guy dismissed any suggestion that the phenomena were demonic.  “I have no time for this devil rubbish,” he said.  “It is an invention of medieval religious dogmatism.  There is no connection with reality.”

‘“I can well understand how some fanatical exorcist would feel he had a whole legion of devils in the house.”

‘”We have had no indication at all of any diabolical activities.”’

Why he should have been asked this question by the Psychic News journalist is curious; possibly the Warrens had been in touch with the paper (they had made a flying visit to the house on 16 June, 1978).  Playfair may have thought that the only behaviour that could be characterised as diabolical in connection with the affair – though not of course demonic – was that of the Warrens.


It is worth pointing out that it was not only the Warrens who considered exorcism to be an appropriate solution for the Hodgsons.  The same idea came from a more surprising quarter.  In This House is Haunted (2007, pp. 238-9) Playfair recounts how he visited the eminent German parapsychologist Hans Bender, who was staying in London, and discussed the matter with him.

‘”I would be inclined to try exorcism,” Professor Bender said, rather to my surprise.  “I’m not convinced that a discarnate agency is involved, but you can never prove it.”

‘”I replied that I was reluctant to get involved with exorcists, as were both Maurice Grosse and Mrs Harper [Mrs Hodgson]…”

‘”Oh, the Catholic rituale is disastrous,” he replied.  “Because it is a mechanical form of applying a rite without the slightest understanding of the psychological background.”’

Bender said that he thought it would be preferable to have a psychologist examine the case, then find a Church of England clergyman willing to help.  Playfair goes on to say that at the same time he and Bender were discussing the advisability of calling in an exorcist, one, an Anglican monk, actually turned up at the house, brought by a journalist from the National Enquirer.  Grosse took him to one side, explained Mrs Hodgson’s attitude to exorcism, and asked him to leave, which he did with good grace.  The fate of the Enquirer hack is unknown.


The Daily Star used the Enfield case to begin a series called ‘The world beyond’.  Playing up the sensationalist angle, its front page on 10 March 1980 was dominated by a large close-up picture of Janet Hodgson with ‘Possessed’ in large letters under it.  It shows her, according to the first paragraph, as she

‘lets out a spine-chilling scream in the dead of night.  She is a girl possessed … by a supernatural force.’ 

She looks as though she could be enjoying herself, but who can tell what form intense fear, let alone possession, might take.  The story covers several pages and while it all sounds dramatic, the case could be explained without recourse to demons despite the paper’s best efforts.  True, the first page of the extended story inside has the headline ‘”The thing” tried to strangle Janet with the curtain’, and ‘Possessed by a devil? Turn over to centre pages’ placed seductively at the bottom.  There is as well an emphasis on the ‘family in fear’ angle.  But even with these cues to orient the reader to a verdict of devilish possession, it is clear that the actual events do not match the claim.

Turning to the centre pages there is the large headline: ‘Was Janet possessed by a devil?’  This part of the spread was written by Daily Mirror photographer Graham Morris, someone who in his own way has done much to make the case famous with his images.  Appended to his by-line is the declaration ‘who shared the family’s nightmare’, indicating that he is someone worth listening to.  He gives a brief account of his experiences in the house in which he says specifically that:

‘Although the word was never mentioned in the house I was sure that we were experiencing “poltergeist” activity.  Experts say awareness to (sic) this phenomenon is experienced more often by pubescent girls so Janet is the obvious suspect.’

Morris does not specifically refer to demonic possession and only makes oblique hints – the reader is informed that ‘In many photographs when the rest of the family look terrified, Janet seems to have an evil grin on her face’, and her nocturnal flying occurred without her being conscious of it, even though on occasion it left her bruised.  Yet he considers the phenomena to be centred on Janet as a typical poltergeist agent, rather than caused by a demonic entity.

Trying hard, the article’s main author, Ellen Petrie, quotes Janet: ‘“Some people say the house is even more haunted than the one in that Amityville Horros (sic) – the American haunted house which became the subject of a book and a film.’ (The final part of that was by Petrie, not Janet; the Star was obviously saving money on sub-editors.)  Sceptics may be sagely nodding at the information that Janet was aware of Amityville (book 1977, film 1979), but considering its high profile in the media at the time it would be more surprising if she had not heard of it.

The evidence for demons on the Star’s showing looks flimsy.  Janet may have been ‘a girl possessed … by a supernatural force’ as the front page trumpets, but ‘supernatural force’ is not synonymous with ‘demonic possession’.  The Star was trying to whip up that angle to increase the drama, but it wasn’t putting heart and soul into it.  Significantly perhaps, Grosse and Playfair are absent from the Star’s coverage; perhaps the editor had read Playfair’s comments to Psychic News on the matter of demons the year before.


It was left to the Weekly World News of 26 April 1983 to really lay out the case for demonic intervention at Enfield.  The front page screams:

‘The most bizarre story of the year… POSSESSED! Top exorcist battles a terrifying demon who makes young children fly across the room.’

That’s more like it.  If you want to argue that there are demons involved, have the courage of your convictions; as long as you don’t go overboard because then it resembles satire.

Seeing that blaring headline the reader might breathe a sigh of relief: ‘the Warrens at last’.  But the article is not about them.  The ‘top exorcist’ is none other than Maurice Grosse!  Was the article making fun of the Warrens’ general approach to such matters without the hazard of being sued by them (the pair not being famous for having a lively sense of humour, Grosse far away and more obscure) – or simply reflecting the fact that their association with the case was barely noticeable?

The article, written by Clifford Montgomery, starts as it means to go on: ‘In a bizarre case that defies sanity, two young girls are being hurled through the air like rag dolls – by demons from hell that have taken control of their bodies.’  There is more of the same, making life in the house sound, well, hellish.  The article continues:

‘Why these two young girls of Enfield, England, have been singled out for such satanic horror is a mystery that has baffled church exorcists who have failed in their efforts to drive the demons out.

‘Now famed demonic investigator Maurice Grosse has taken up the battle to rid the youngsters of their evil captors before their sanity is shattered forever.

‘The man who has been battling the devil all his life thinks this case may be his greatest challenge.’

That the story has bypassed the stringent fact-checking stage can be judged from a supposedly direct quote:

‘”He is the last hope for our daughters,” their anguished mother told The NEWS.  “If God is merciful, he will help Mr. Grosse drive the Dark Angel from their souls before it is too late.

‘Why has Satan done this to us?

‘What does he want with innocent little children?  My babies are being driven mad by fiends from the fires of hell.  Why won’t he leave my children alone?”’

That may all have sounded vaguely plausible in the American Bible Belt, but not to anybody with some knowledge of the case.  Sadly, the paper concludes, ‘Grosse has not yet found the key he needs to drive the demons from the two little girls.’

Grosse’s view of this ridiculous farrago is contained in a letter, dated 27 April, 1983, which he sent to his correspondent who had supplied the article.  He minces no words.  It begins:

‘I was absolutely dumbfounded!  I have never experienced such a monumental case of mis-information in my life … when I read the rubbish he had written about the case, and me being a “demonic investigator”, I didn’t know whether to collapse in laughter or explode.’

One suspects he collapsed in laughter in preference to exploding.  He briefly ponders whether a remedy might be available through the American legal system, but concedes that it is not an area with which he is familiar.  Then he muses that it would probably be better to ignore the article, which is evidently what he did.


Despite these sporadic tabloid efforts there is little evidence to support the contention that a demon was orchestrating events at Enfield.  Playfair and Grosse thought the idea preposterous, and Graham Morris, who had ample opportunity in his Star article, could not bring himself to say outright that he was confronted by a demon rather than psychokinetic energy emanating from Janet.  Even the guttural voice that looms large in any demonic interpretation can be more easily explained in other ways; Grosse and Playfair, who set much store by the voice productions, certainly had no need to invoke a demonic aetiology when analysing the recordings.

There are various explanations for what happened at Enfield, extensively debated in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and other publications, but to argue with no evidence that it has to have been a demon and all alternatives are wrong is irresponsible.  James Wan’s film, by buying into this distorted narrative, will be the cinematic equivalent of that Weekly World News article, with about as much truth in it and with as little respect for those who, unlike Ed Warren, demonologist, experienced it all at first hand.

Monday, 18 April 2016

From Maidan to Netflix: Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire


The subtitle of Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom indicates the stance taken by Evgeny Afineevsky’s 2015 documentary on the astonishing events in Kiev of November 2013 to February 2014.  He traces the escalation from the initial suspension by President Viktor Yanukovych of discussions prior to signing an association agreement with the European Union, prompting peaceful protests and the occupation of the city’s Maïdan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square; the passing of draconian legislation to counter the protests and the murderous assaults by the security forces as the confrontations grew uglier; and finally Yanukovych’s undignified flight to sanctuary in Russia leading to the formation of a new government.  Yanukovych made a wise decision to leave because he deserves to appear at The Hague for presiding over this barbarism.

Recorded by 28 camera operators using a variety of equipment, Winter on Fire covers events in the square and other key locations, intercut with interviews by activists given during and after the occupation, and with occasional very brief footage of the wider domestic and international political context.  The focus is the appalling violence inflicted on the demonstrators, making it sometimes hard to watch as the government’s militarised police wield batons and boots on their helpless victims, and later take to shooting them first with plastic bullets then with live ammunition.

In the face of this brutality the square’s occupiers’ sense of purpose remains firm as they face the fascistically-dressed paramilitaries and their hired thug auxiliaries with whatever makeshift weapons are at hand, but most of all with their comradeship and determination to win a better future.  The scenes of heroism and sacrifice cannot leave the viewer unmoved; the visuals were dramatic enough on their own without the need for the intrusive and unnecessarily manipulative dramatic music which was overlaid at times.  The demonstrators display confidence in forming their own ad hoc democratic institutions, sidelining the ineffectual opposition politicians – including Vitali Klitschko – who sought to co-opt the desperate struggle for their own electoral purposes (though Klitschko’s rebuff did not prevent him later becoming mayor of the city).  The film certainly acts as a monument to the people’s unity and indomitable will in the face of seemingly overwhelming force.  However, it also leaves the sense that it is covering familiar territory.

I was fortunate to attend a screening at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge with Afineevsky present for a question and answer session which proved to be as illuminating as what we had just seen.  He rather acted as if Winter on Fire is groundbreaking in capturing Euromaidan as it unfolded, whereas the 93-day protest has been the subject of a number of films already, some of which have been shown in the annual Cambridge Festival of Ukrainian Film.  Winter on Fire  is a worthy if flawed addition to the canon, but coming after others on the same subject it feels as if the issues have moved on; in fact the 2015 Cambridge festival showed Serhii Andrushko’s 2014 Post Maidan, which explores the anticlimactic aftermath of the giddy heights of the Maidan occupation.  Perhaps the audience member who asked Afineevsky about the tension between the events depicted in his film, which exhibited such a sense of unity, and the fracturing of the nation which followed (a consequence only briefly touched in in the closing seconds) had this datedness in mind.

Afineevsky has captured some of the variety of those who took part, young and old and from various walks of life, including the significant role of religious leaders, though not those with political affiliations on the far left and right who were directly involved but have been airbrushed here.  When asked about dissenting voices, notably those who supported Yanukovych, he tried to give the impression that the Ukrainian population was overwhelmingly hostile to the President’s actions in distancing the country from closer ties with the EU.  The statistics do not bear that out, as there was widespread support for the competing options of forging ties with Russia or with both Russia and the EU.  To suggest that the situation was unambiguously ‘The People versus Viktor Yanukovych’ is frankly dishonest.  Kiev is not Ukraine.

As an audience member pointed out, even with a flawed electoral process Yanukovych was popular enough to be elected.  The resident in Maidan is Everywhere (2015) complaining about protesters blocking cars is a rare individual in any of the Maidan films in not being fully supportive of the movement against Yanukovych.  It is easy to forget, in marvelling at the numbers involved in the square, how many weren’t there.  In terms of an agenda, it was curious that Afineevsky was accompanied at the Cambridge screening by someone from the Ukrainian embassy, which raises issues about his film’s independence (footage shot from the Berkut police side is included, which possibly came from government sources rather than Afineevsky’s camera operators).  There may be a motive here over and above celebrating the bravery of the Maidan occupiers at a time when the present Ukrainian government in turn is mired in controversy, with a pressing need to stress national unity.

Afineevsky was evasive in many of his responses to question after the Cambridge screening, though to be fair he pointed out he is a filmmaker, not a politician (he has also said in interviews that he is not a journalist, though how one can be a good documentarist without being a journalist at the same time is unclear).  Judging it on its own merits, Winter on Fire is highly polished, as one would expect with Netflix finance involved, and consequently it has received wider distribution than earlier works on the subject which had less marketing clout.  Netflix of course had previously financed The Square, about the 2011 uprising in Egypt which also ended in disappointment.  Winter on Fire deserved its 2016 Oscar nomination (losing to Amy in the documentary feature category), but by concentrating on the highlights it lacked the powerful rawness of Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 Maidan which better captured the boredom of the occupation as well as the visceral action.  More importantly, now that some time has passed one might have expected a broader perspective on those momentous weeks.  Gripping as it is, Winter on Fire’s simplistic narrative and lack of analysis means that it is far from being the last word on Euromaidan.


I’d like to thank Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, part of the Department of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge, for arranging this screening, and Evgeny Afineevsky for giving us his time.