Burning Tires, Riot Gear, And Molotov Cocktails: Photos From Both Sides Of Ukraine’s Protests

A photographer captures the complex motivations–and increasingly violent tactics–of both sides of the rising conflict in Kiev.


The protests in Ukraine have been going on now for two months. In the last week, the first protestors died in clashes with the police. If you’ve only been following cursorily (or not at all), now might be time to start paying attention. These epic pictures, from the LiveJournal of photographer Ilya Varlamov, should give you some sense of what exactly is happening in Kiev. It involves fire hoses, Molotov cocktails, and a lot of riot police. You can see them all in posts here and here.

“Hearths always require more tires to be thrown into. Because of ash and ice, ground level already rose by one meter.”

Here’s the background: President Viktor Yanukovych “set off the protests in November when he broke a promise to sign far-reaching political and free trade agreements with the European Union. Instead, he secured $15 billion in aid from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia,” explains the Times.

“The fire is constantly fed by more tires. The smoke screen must be dense! At one point Berkut attempt to feel out the protestors from a hill using a powerful projector.”

In the simplest terms, the protestors want Ukraine oriented toward Europe, rather than Russia. Protestors have gathered in a square in the capital known as the Maidan (you’ll see a #EuroMaidan hashtag to talk about the protests). Elite units of the police, called the Berkut, have opposed them. The government has passed stringent regulations limiting the rights of people to protest; the protestors have continued.

“Berkut fighters are not at all eager to communicate. People are really angry, tired, and very irritable. I spoke to two, both refused to be filmed or recorded. They are reluctant to communicate.”

Varlamov writes about the scenes he has captured in the Maidan:

“A sweet, ol’ grandmother is pouring Molotv cocktail in a nationalists’ bottles; and a manager of a large company is carrying ammunition to the student. And as it seems to me at this time, these people do not have a specific plan, nor idea of what to do next. Of course, individually, everyone has their own plan to ‘save Ukraine.’ For some its ‘we need a couple of crates of AKs and grenades, we’ll sort things out here quickly.’ Others “need to ask the world community for help and bring in the UN troops.” At this time there is no central idea of what to do, an idea that can unite and point in one direction the people at Maidan. The only thing that is completely clear–people came out against Yanukovich.”

“In a nearby alley people prepare Molotov cocktails. In reality, most of the bottles contain either pure kerosine or gasoline, the recipe is no longer followed–no time. Empty glass bottles are in a big deficit.”

He shows protestors filling up bottles with gasoline (the recipe for a true Molotov cocktail takes too long, he writes) and breaking down stones and putting them into sacks to carry to the front lines–where protestors will hurl them at police. He writes that the ground level has already risen a meter from the ash from burning tires and the ice from frozen pools of water created by the fire hoses the police use to try to disperse the crowd. His caption of the riot-suited Berkut police talks about rumors that they are using live ammunition on the protestors. True or not, Verlamov writes that there are bad actors on both sides of the entrenched conflict: “There is plenty of scumbag on both sides and it’s scary.”

“Look at the people. I said it already, but will repeat: all social classes are present on the squares–from students to pensioners.”

Though Varlamov’s images paint a picture of Kiev as an apocalyptic battle ground, he strives to make clear that the city is not destroyed and that protests, while violent, are not damaging property or disrupting life outside of a small zone of the capital: “All of the action you see in the pictures are happening on a small square near the entrance to a Dinamo stadium. … There is dark smoke and fire on all pictures: those are mostly burning tires. There is not tangible damage to the buildings. … So the picture is pretty apocalyptic, but things are not so bad.”


Above you’ll find more of Varlamov’s photos and captions, from his set of the protestors and another of his photos of the police–and his attempts to get them to talk to him so he could understand their side of the story. Remember that it’s just one man’s depictions and thoughts on the events taking place, but the photos are incredibly powerful regardless of political intent.

What will happen next? Varmalov writes: “In general, both parties have built up a ton of claims and hatred. I cannot imagine how this situation will unravel.”

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at]