J.T. Blatty Frontline / Peace Life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War
Art at the Institute was pleased to present Frontline / Peace Life, an exhibition of photographic portraits by J.T. Blatty, chronicling a generation of volunteer soldiers of the war in eastern Ukraine and their stories of a return to a marginalized existence, “peace-life,” as the war moves into its sixth year without resolution. The exhibition opened on January 16, 2020 and now is available for viewing online. Co-curated by Walter Hoydysh, PhD, Director of Art at the Institute and J.T. Blatty, this marks Blatty’s first solo showing with The Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA).
Former U.S. Army Captain
J.T. (Jenn) Blatty graduated from The United States Military Academy at West Point. She is a 2002-03 combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, the author of Fish Town: Down the Road to Louisiana’s Fishing Communities, a photojournalist, and FEMA disaster reservist photographer whose articles and photographs have been published in Bloomberg Magazine, National Geographic, PDN Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Savannah Magazine, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, The Oxford American, and CNN Photos amongst others. Since early 2018, she spent months embedded in the war in eastern Ukraine, working with Ukraine’s volunteer soldiers and veterans of the war in Donbas. Her project, Frontline, Peace Life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War, was previously exhibited at the Ukrainian National Museum of Chicago (May 2019).
Dmytro “Babay” Lavrenchuk: Was working in marketing and digital advertising in Kyiv when the first students were beaten during Maidan. He then became actively involved in the revolution and following the Crimea annexation, joined the Aydar Volunteer Battalion, traveling East by bus where he fought as a combatant, liberating and defending Ukrainian towns in the Luhansk region. He was wounded in action and sustained life-threatening injuries from a grenade launcher shelling. Dima is now a student in Kyiv, pursuing degrees in public administration and law to combat government corruption.
READ EXCERPT FROM HIS STORY
Alina “Alya” Viatkina: Following Maidan, at the age of 18, Alina started her own Twitter fundraising campaign to collect medical and other supplies before she hitchhiked to the frontline to deliver them. She eventually stayed on the front as a paramedic with the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (Right Sector) and worked under the shellings of the battle for the Donetsk Airport. She currently works with female veterans to help them cope with psychological trauma from the war.
READ EXCERPT FROM ALINA’S STORY
Bizhan Sharopov: Originally from Tajikistan, Bizhan was a PhD student in biology in Kyiv before the war. When Crimea was seized by Russia, he began training to prepare for combat and eventually found his way by bus to the front-line where he joined the Aydar Volunteer Battalion, liberating and defending towns in the Luhansk region. Today he continues his work in the biology field as a researcher and is writing a book about his experience during the war.
READ EXCERPT FROM BIZHAN’S STORY
Uliya “Cuba” Sidorova: Originally from Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, Cuba traveled to Maidan after the students were first beaten and stayed until the end, assisting with the wounded and killed in a makeshift hospital that was established by the people. After Maidan, she joined the Hospitallers medical unit on the front line and worked as a paramedic with them until 2017, when she created her own medical unit with a comrade within the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (Right Sector). She continues to serve there today on the frontline.
READ EXCERPT FROM CUBA’S STORY
Dmytro “Davinci” Kotsiubailo: Originally from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, Davinci was 18 and a student of the arts, focused on painting, before he became an active participant in the Euromaidan revolution. It was during Maidan that he joined the Right Sector and began training with them for combat immediately following the annexation of Crimea. Shortly thereafter, they deployed East, where he volunteered as a combatant. He continues to serve on the frontline today with the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps (Right Sector) as the First Assault Company Commander.
READ EXCERPT FROM DAVINCI’S STORY
Edward “Edvas” Hatmullin: A Soviet soldier from the first Georgian War (1989-91), Ed was living and working in-between Donetsk and Kostyantynivka in eastern Ukraine when the war erupted. He was displaced from his home in Donetsk and quickly went to the aid of the ground forces, navigating them along back roads to enter and liberate separatist-controlled towns. He continued assisting troops by delivering supplies in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and in 2015 co-founded East and West United, a logistical operation providing medical equipment, ammunition, food, and other supplies to the entire frontline of the Donetsk region (to volunteer and regular army soldiers), and continues to run operations today.
READ EXCERPT FROM ED’S STORY
Valera “Indeyets” Krukov: Was a tattoo artist and freelance artist, crafting stained glass for churches when the first students were beaten on Maidan. When he learned of his best friend’s sister being severely beaten by the Berkut, he became an active participant and was eventually shot by the riot police at close range during protests, resulting in the loss of his eye. After numerous surgeries in 2014, he deployed with friends to the East, working as a “freelance sniper,” and continues to volunteer on the front line today.
READ EXCERPT FROM INDEYETS’ STORY
Olena “Mellon” Maksymenko: Ukrainian journalist, was seized and held as a POW in March 2014 by Russian authorities in Crimea after she traveled there to investigate. She was interrogated and tortured for three days under suspicion that she was a spy for the United States. After her release, she went East and volunteered in an organization supporting citizens caught in the crossfire of the war, and after joined the Right Sector as a volunteer paramedic. Olena continues to travel to the frontline as a journalist and is a “reservist” for the Right Sector as a paramedic, should there be another war escalation.
READ EXCERPT FROM MELLON’S STORY
Oleksandr “Mongol” Yermoshyn: Originally from Berdychiv in the Zhitomir region, Sasha was a taxi driver and a musician before Maidan. After the Russians invaded Crimea, he joined The Wings of Phoenix, a volunteer organization that took on multiple roles, from transporting dead bodies to delivering essential supplies to the Ukrainian Army and volunteer soldiers on the frontline, including tactical and medical equipment, uniforms and food. In 2015 he joined the 58th Infantry Brigade and has been serving on the frontline of the war ever since.
READ EXCERPT FROM MONGOL’S STORY
Dmytro “Sim’orka” Kulish: Was a Special Forces Platoon Deputy Commander in the Donbas Volunteer Battalion (National Guard of Ukraine). He was captured by Russians in the “green corridor” when trying to exit the city of Ilovaisk with his troops in August 2014, when Ukrainian forces were ambushed and encircled by insurgents and hundreds of soldiers were massacred and wounded. An agreement with Russian commanders allowed the return of wounded Ukrainian Forces soldiers to safety, but the Donbas Battalion volunteers were handed over to the separatists by Russian officers. Dima was tortured and held captive for nearly ten months before being released in June 2015.
READ EXCERPT FROM DIMA’S STORY
Yulya “Valkyrie” Tolopa: Crossed the Ukrainian border from Russia when she was 18, inspired to understand the true events of the Maidan revolution versus reports from the Russian media. Shortly thereafter she jumped on a bus to the frontline and joined the Aydar Volunteer Battalion, liberating and defending towns in the Luhansk region. Today, she continues to serve on the frontline in the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a Russian citizen, protected by Ukraine from Russia’s request for extradition. She is still fighting to obtain Ukrainian citizenship, her attempts stifled by a law requiring proof of no criminal history from her mother country, where she is wanted as a traitor.
READ EXCERPT FROM VALKYRIE’S STORY
Alina “Zabava” Gordeeva: Before Maidan, Alina was a manager at a pharmaceutical factory in Kyiv. After the annexation of Crimea, she joined the Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNSD) where she was trained in tactical medicine and weaponry amongst other skills. The UNSD then deployed East near the Donetsk Airport, where Alina delivered volunteer-donated supplies to the frontline soldiers near Voldyane, transported sick and wounded soldiers from the frontline to hospitals, and worked as a medical instructor, training frontline soldiers the skills to treat and react to combat injuries.
READ EXCERPT FROM ALINA’S STORY
Eugene “Zhora” Turchak: Was an executive director for a Kyiv construction firm before he joined the Euromaidan revolution, delivering merchandise from his warehouses to the revolutionaries. After Russia invaded Crimea, he immediately visited a recruiting station, was assigned to the 95th Brigade and deployed East. He was assigned to a special assault task force, responsible for storming and liberating separatist-occupied towns including in Stepanivka and Zelenopillia, where his squad liberated three Ukrainian Armed Forces Brigades that were surrounded by the insurgents. Today, he works as a project manager for veterans support nonprofit organizations.
READ EXCERPT FROM HIS STORY
Nadia “Conor” Pikhay: Was an architect in Dnipro before joining the Maidan revolution in the Dnepropetrovsk region. After witnessing the unrest in the East during a soccer game in Donetsk, she began preparing to defend her hometown with thousands of others in Dnipro, then joined the Dnipro-1 battalion and volunteered as a combatant on the frontline until 2015. In 2016 she began training regular armed forces soldiers, but unable to keep away from the fight, she joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces that same year and continues to serve on the frontline today.
Conor’s Excerpt: Recently I read, or rather recently re-read Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. There is a phrase saying “that we should win the war and shoot nobody…and that those who fought against us should be educated to see their error.” But it’s impossible. With each passing year you have less and less faith that this war may ever be over. World War I or II ended with some capitulation or destruction of one state. This is some comprehensive victory, and I really hope that we are bringing it closer by being here rather than home.
Vadym “Tsar” Boyko: Was working as a foreman in Belarus when he caught news of the war. He immediately returned to Ukraine and went to a recruitment station to sign up for the fight. He deployed to the East with the 90 th Separate Air Battalion, engaging his first battle in Pisky as an unofficial commander after his lieutenant was killed and the remaining official military leaders abandoned the area. From Pisky, Vadym went on to defend the Donetsk Airport until they were ordered to retreat under the first ceasefire agreements. Tsar’s Excerpt: We were storming the old terminal, but in the end we were ordered to retreat, although we could have taken it. . We retreated, took further positions and the separatists hung the bodies of our dead comrades in the windows of the old terminal right in front of us
Valerii “Schumacher” Vlasov: Originally from Bila Tserkva, near Kyiv, Valera, a former Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) soldier at the time, was working at a casino when he was drawn to become an active participant in the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan), driven by a desire to do something purposeful with his life. In April, he attempted joining multiple volunteer battalions to join in the fight against the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and by August joined an Armored Personnel Carrier team with two other volunteers in the Aydar Volunteer Battalion, where he helped liberate and defend towns and villages in the Luhansk region until 2015. Not content with the “peace life,” he joined the 72nd Brigade of the UAF in 2018, where he continues to serve on the frontline of the war presently. READ EXCERPT FROM SHUMACHER’S STORY
Resort Shyrokyne, Ukraine 2019 A volunteer militant from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) patrols the streets of abandoned, war-destroyed resort homes in Shyrokyne. Once a popular, beachside resort city near Mariupol, Shyrokyne became a major launching point for Russian-backed separatists in 2014 during the war in the Donbas, until Ukrainian forces recaptured it in 2015.
Waiting Game Avdiivka, Ukraine 2018 Soldiers on the frontline in Avdiivka, in the operations area, monitoring the night for attacks from the Russian-backed separatist side.
Vendetta Pisky, Ukraine 2018 Stacked ammunition crates at a “block post,” or checkpoint, to the frontline positions in Pisky. Before the war, Pisky had a population of approximately 2,000 residents. In 2014, it became a major battleground during fighting for the Donetsk Airport, which ultimately fell to the Russian-backed separatists in 2015. As of 2016, less than 20 residents remain in the war-destroyed village, living amongst the soldiers who continue to hold defensive positions in the ongoing war.
Sunflowers and Oil Vodyane, Ukraine 2019 Soldier of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army stands in a harvested sunflower field less than 100 meters from the frontline in Vodyane.
Scope Popasna, Ukraine 2019 View through the scope of a Ukrainian soldier on the frontline in Popasna, looking toward the Russian-backed separatist controlled side in the Luhansk region.
Right Sector Avdiivka, Ukraine 2018 2014 and present day volunteers of the Ukrainian Volunteer Corp, Alina Mykhailova and “Davinci” Kotsubailo, with their dog in a former school transformed into a military operations center in the frontline town of Avdiivka. The Ukrainian Volunteer Corp and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army were one volunteer force in 2014 under the Right Sector, until they split in 2015 into the Ukrainian Volunteer Corp and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army. The UVC and UVA are two of the only major organized volunteer units that have refused to be integrated under the Ministry of Defense, therefore their volunteers cannot receive state benefits as war participants, and when they die on the frontline, their deaths are not counted in the figures.
Rehab Kyiv, Ukraine 2019 Dmytro Lavrenchuk, 2014 Aydar volunteer combatant (wounded in action), inside of the Kyiv City Clinical Hospital for War Veterans, a municipal service for soldiers with registered injuries and “war participant” status.
Popasna Ukraine, 2019 War destroyed remains of the welcome sign for Popasna, a frontline town in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. Popasna fell under control of the Russian-backed separatists twice in the summer of 2014 until the Ukrainian forces permanently retook it the same summer. Nearly abandoned now, the remains are frequently shelled by the insurgents.
Returning the Call, Avdiivka, Ukraine 2019 A soldier from the 20th Battalion of the Ukrainian Armed Forces reloads his weapon to return fire towards the Russian-backed separatists during a night shift defending positions in Avdiivka. Even under the Minsk ceasefire agreements since 2015, nightly violations are routine, with casualties amounting every week. In the Industrial Zone of Avdiivka, it is routine for soldiers to take shifts firing small arms weapons during the night to demonstrate the presence of Ukrainian soldiers maintaining their hold on the positions.
Pisky School Pisky, Ukraine 2018 A war destroyed school in the frontline town of Pisky. Before the war, Pisky had a population of approximately 2,000 residents. In 2014, it became a major battleground during fighting for the Donetsk Airport, which ultimately fell to the Russian-backed separatists in 2015. As of 2016, less than 20 residents remain in the war-destroyed village, living amongst the soldiers who continue to hold defensive positions in the ongoing war.
Paratroopers Lugovoye, Ukraine 2019 Paratroopers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces 25th Airborne Brigade return from a live training exercise at a Joint Field Operations training field near Mariupol in eastern Ukraine. The soldiers demonstrated a response to a potential enemy attack on Ukraine’s defensive positions during the 2018 Marshall law declaration, coinciding with fear of an escalation and attack.
Industrial Zone Avdiivka, Ukraine 2018 War destroyed infrastructure on the frontline in the “Industrial Zone” of Avdiivka. Avdiivka, near Donetsk Airport and Donetsk City (under control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic), was one of several towns captured by Russian-backed separatists in April 2014 in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. In July 2014, after heavy fighting, Ukrainian forces regained control of the town from the insurgents. Avdiivka remains a frequently shelled frontline town and one of the hottest spots in the continuing war in the Donbas, despite ceasefire agreements. Fighting for the “Industrial Zone,” where Ukrainian forces have established fortified positions to control a key highway connecting occupied territories, has greatly intensified since 2016.
Avdiivka, Ukraine 2018
Frontline, Peace Life Kostyantynivka, Ukraine 2019 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) on the railroad tracks in Kostyantynivka, the arrival and departure point for many soldiers traveling back and forth from the frontline to the peace life, a six-hour express train-ride away from Kyiv. Kostyantynivka, an industrial city of the Donbas approximately ten miles from the frontline, was captured by the Russian-backed separatists in April 2014 and later retaken by the Ukrainian forces in July 2014.
Frontline Borsch, Tryohizbenka, Ukraine 2018 Soldiers and volunteer veterans discuss the state of the war over borsch with a village resident inside of her home in Tryohizbenka, less than 20 meters from the frontline in the Luhansk region of the Donbas.
Drone Operator, Mayorsk, Ukraine 2018 Yulya Tolopa, “Valkyrie,” 2014-2015 Aydar volunteer veteran and present day UAF soldier, at a frontline operations area in Mayorsk, reviewing her drone imagery of the Russian-backed separatist controlled area. Although Yulya is a drone operator for in the Armed Forces, she was trained and equipped by a non-governmental organization to perform her responsibility.
Counting the Days Avdiivka, Ukraine 2018 Soldier’s writing on the wall on the frontline in Avdiivka, counting the days until the rotation on the frontline will end.
Birds of Freedom Kyiv, Ukraine 2018 Tattoos on 2015 volunteer veteran and present day tattoo artist, Kim Isrich. The doves on each hand represent “zhinotstvo” (femininity) and “cozatstvo” (freedom fighters). For Kim, the birds represent freedom. A symbol that “we never surrender. Better be dead than a slave.”
Avdiivka Coke Plant, Avdiivka, Ukraine 2019 A road towards the frontline town of Avdiivka, with the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant — one of the top five coke producing plants in Europe — operating in the background. Constructed by the USSR in 1963, the plant produced 12,000 tons of coke per day (instrumental to Ukraine’s steel production), worth $2.4 million, but has fallen to less than half this production since the beginning of the war. It was temporarily closed in 2014 after being caught in the crossfire between Russian-backed separatists (who temporarily seized control of Avdiivka) and the Ukrainian forces (who regained control). The plant resumed production in 2014 but continues to sustain damage from artillery shelling (at least ten employees of the factory have been killed since 2014).