“Humankind repeats the same mistakes over and over again,” Dmitri Beliakov, a photojournalist who covered the war in Ukraine from when it began in 2014 until 2019, tells me. “People never learn, so I did not go on assignment ‘to stop war’ or teach someone a lesson. My agenda was far more realistic if not primitive.
“I wanted to increase public awareness. I wanted to make sure that no one could ever look back on this moment and say, ‘Oh, we did not know this was happening.’ or ‘No one told us…’” If one day people deny that this war and these atrocities happened—and Beliakov suspects that some will—his photographs will remain as evidence, standing as a testament to the human cost of war.
Beliakov was born in the Soviet Union and went on to a career in photojournalism that has spanned decades and countries. In the five-plus years he spent covering the conflict in Ukraine, he did so from both sides of the border, crossing countless checkpoints and moving from within a Ukrainian infantry regiment to a separatist battalion and back.
Right now, the photojournalist lives in Vermont with his family, where he’s had time to reflect on what he witnessed in the early days of the war. Today, he sees parallels between what’s happening in Ukraine and what happened during World War II. As history repeats itself, he has devoted himself to understanding and revealing truths about war, beyond the headlines: the causes and warning signs, the global consequences, and the individual people left devastated in its wake.
To coincide with an exhibition of Beliakov’s work from his time as a photojournalist documenting war in Ukraine, held at Norwich University in Vermont, we asked him about his experience over the last nine years.
Where were you on February 24, 2022?
“I worked on a sponsored project and lived in Armenia for a year and actually was on a shoot in the Syunik region on February 24, 2022, when Putin’s army invaded Ukraine. Right after the invasion, Russia passed several draconian laws. These laws imposed severe criminal penalties for ‘fake news about the Russian armed forces,’ as well as having ‘foreign contacts,’ being ‘under foreign influence,’ receiving foreign financing,’ and the like.
“These laws put me at risk of near-certain detainment and prosecution, with a possible sentence of up to fifteen years, were I to return home to Moscow and be seen as criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine in any way. In these circumstances, my family and I scrambled to relocate to a place of safety. We were very fortunate to receive assistance from the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, which helped us in acquiring American visas. This was possible thanks to a one-year Research Fellowship with the Peace and War Center at Vermont’s Norwich University.”
You witnessed and documented the War in Donbas in 2014. How have the events you witnessed then influenced what we’re seeing today?
“Unfortunately, few people in the West realize that for every Ukrainian, the war has not been going on for one year but for nine. It started not on February 24, 2022, but on February 27, 2014. Everything that happened in February-March 2014 was a prelude to the war for Donbas, which became a kind of ‘swing’ maneuver, distracting Ukrainians from the Crimean ‘asset.’
“The 2015 Minsk agreements were a form of imitation of a peace effort, but the conflict didn’t really end. And after eight and a half years of the war, which escalated numerous times only to enter the back-and-forth phase again and again, Putin decided that it was time to take control of most of Ukraine and put a government of marionettes there. He was convinced that no one would interfere to stop him because the West, in his view, was too weak and too dependent on the Russian energy supply.
“However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was so shocking in its scale of senseless brutality that it automatically triggered associations with World War II, with its mass killings and destruction in pursuit of the revenge chimera. Therefore, currently, support for Ukraine remains at the heart of Western countries’ foreign policy. It is said that one must consult the past to learn about the future.”
What led to this moment in global history? And relatedly, what are some misconceptions people have about the war and the years that led up to it?
“In Russia today, a very strong emotion has spread. This emotion is resentment—a monstrous, endless, bitter resentment. The Kremlin is deeply dissatisfied that Russia has not been offered an acceptable place at the Western table, and nothing can satisfy the resentment. Putin chose resentment as a formula for life (probably because of his personal qualities).
“Russian society as a whole is offended by the world order, and Russian resentment is projected onto the West, who they feel is responsible for this world order. In retaliation, the Kremlin’s aim is to reshape Europe to the advantage of Putin’s regime. As a result, in the 21st century, we are facing a war in Europe with global consequences.
“Western countries do not seem to have realized the extent of Vladimir Putin’s existential threat to the world. For years, Russian propaganda channels kept banging on claims that NATO was ‘encircling Russia’ and that Ukraine ‘posed a threat’ to Russia. But Putin is certainly aware of the fact that Russia is 30 times the size of Ukraine and that it has land borders with 14 countries, of which only five are members of NATO. There is no ‘encirclement.’
“In fact, Ukraine never fit into the vision of Putin’s world order. Putin basically denies that Ukraine is a sovereign country; he believes that Russia has the privilege to interdict the sovereign political decisions of its neighbor. Without a doubt, the events of the last eight years—the Crimea annexation and the war in Donbas—were a form of warning, the punishment of Ukraine for ‘disloyalty.’
“On February 24th, 2022 Putin decided to send a message to Kyiv: ‘We shall make your dream of Ukraine being in the EU and NATO incredibly expensive if simply not impossible.’ Russia is now prepared to devastate Ukraine so no one can have it if Russia cannot. Russian soldiers fighting on the front are having this idea drumming into their heads: ‘If you screw up this war, the Russian Federation will be no more.’
“This is not just war anymore but a wide-scale punitive expedition. One of my Russian SF contacts, a vet fighting now in Ukraine, said to me in September, ‘We have gone too far. We have drowned in our own blood. […] We shall just burn the entire territory, wipe it out, turn their land into unusable terrain. It will not be possible to plant a fucking tree where we pass.’
“It is obviously impossible for Putin to win this war, but there should be no illusions: as long as Putin is in the Kremlin, the war will not end. It will drag and expand. The size of the Russian Army is rapidly increasing; the defense industry is being reoriented, and education is becoming an instrument of propaganda and military training. The country is being prepared for a big, long, and exhausting war. For Putin, it is one ‘forever war.’”
What is one of your most powerful memories from your time as a photojournalist documenting war in Ukraine? What moment proved pivotal—for you and for the world?
“Probably one of the strongest impressions was the cornfield near the village of Gabrovo, over which the Boeing MH-17 passenger plane was shot down: the smell of burnt flesh, hundreds of human fragments and melted pieces of fuselage scattered throughout the field, madmen with machine guns in their hands, sporadic shots in the air, hysterical, drunken screams, piles of colorful suitcases that looters were digging through.
“That is what war is too. It is not necessarily a fierce fight for the Donetsk airport or exhausting battles for Slavyansk. These aren’t the only events that characterize this war; it’s also a war characterized by ‘incidents’ where people who are not involved in the war perish.
“At one point, one of the European photo editors asserted that certainly, NATO would not interfere in the conflict; that generally Western countries would be extremely careful not to complicate their already-tense relationships with Russia; that the U.S. administration had other priorities in Afghanistan and Iraq; and that the only reason I was on assignment was the fact that Moscow-backed rebels had effectively killed a large group of Westerners. Otherwise, no one in the West, he continued, cared about ‘the stupid war on the margins of Europe’
“The reaction from Western countries at that time was ridiculous—they expressed ‘concerns’ and applied some symbolic sanctions on a few Russian companies. This is how—seven and a half years later—we arrived at February 24, 2022.
“MH17 was just one of many hundreds of terrible tragedies of 2014. It took the lives of three hundred innocent people at once. MH17 was a turning point: it made it impossible to ignore the events in Ukraine. It served as a ferocious cry of caution to all who, almost six months after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine, managed to ignore what was happening. It was after Boeing that life changed forever.”
As a photojournalist covering war in Ukraine, wha did it mean to work on both sides of the front? How did this work logistically?
“It is a privilege in any conflict if you can do both sides. And to some extent, those who wanted it badly succeeded in doing so, though it was only possible for a number of years. My most successful period of work lasted from 2014 to the end of 2015.
“At the very beginning, in 2014, the crossing of the ‘boundary line’ between the Ukrainian-controlled territory and Moscow-backed reservations was elementary: at the Ukrainian checkpoints, almost no questions were asked, and the separatists – in principle, quite stupid guys, and journalists were not picked on; problems at their roadblocks were mostly due to their excessive militancy.
“One hot day, in June 2014, on the way from Donetsk, at one of the checkpoints in the direction of Zaporizhye, a huge traffic jam gathered. The rebels checked every car, examined the documents of the departed, searched for deserters from their militia, or were just looking for an excuse to confiscate someone’s car.
“Near the checkpoint, within ten paces, there was a mortar battery: every five to six minutes, four barrels spit out 120mm mortar rounds in the direction of Ukrainian positions. I saw how nervous people were in traffic—in fact, at any moment, a return volley could arrive from the Ukrainian side, and this could end in disaster for anyone in the queue of cars.
“I showed the militants my press card and accreditation from the Donetsk press center and asked them to let the people through as quickly as possible, nodding at the mortars: anything could go wrong, you know? In response, I heard, ‘Afraid to die, journo? Why the fuck did you come here? But we are not afraid, because we know that we all gonna die anyway!’
“Until January 2015, I worked only on the side of the separatists, visiting the Ukrainian side just occasionally. All winter and summer of 2015 and for another few weeks in September-October of 2015, I shuttled between Kyiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhye, Mariupol, Moscow-backed-Donetsk, and all across Crimea.
“I worked at Ukraine-controlled Bakhmut, towards which the Ukrainian army, defeated in Debaltsevo, broke out from the encirclement. I was one of the first to sneak into surrendered Debaltsevo to document the aftermath of the three-month battle for this strategically important industrial and railway knot.
“I extensively covered the Mariupol area, which was hit by missile strikes from the separatists and where the bases of several Ukrainian battalions (one of them “Donbas”) have been located. I covered intensive fighting in the trenches of Shirokino. I covered various villages on the territory of the DPR-LP (the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics).
“At that time, various forms of accreditation had already been introduced, and there was more of a hassle at different checkpoints, but it was still possible to move freely throughout the territory of war-divided Ukraine. I rented an apartment in Donetsk where I kept a flak jacket and medical kit for several months, but every three weeks I flew to Moscow to my family (flights between Kyiv and most Russian destinations have not yet been canceled).
“All my contacts on the Ukrainian side I either found myself or got in touch with through colleagues. On the side of the separatists, everything was even simpler: I worked under the umbrella of the friendly magazine Russian Reporter, whose editor-in-chief was the Donetsk journalist Vitaly Leybin. With his help, I also received some invaluable contacts in the DPR/LPR regions.
“I survived by working that way for two years, executing dozens of very successful assignments for The Sunday Times of UK, The Russian Reporter, The Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, Der Spiegel, Stern, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, and others.
“In November 2016, I was selected from 400 applicants as a US-based IMAGELY Fund Fellow, which included a $5,000 grant to continue work on the documentary photo project ‘On the Margins of Europe’ in eastern Ukraine. It gave me an opportunity to stay in the area from December 2016-March 2017 and cover the events that transpired during that period.”
“In 2016, I realized that both the Ukrainian and pro-Russian sides seriously bureaucratized the processes related to media. Ukrainians introduced an ‘electronic accreditation,’ and the application process has become more complicated. In Donetsk, everything was not so sophisticated, but it took much more time to even acquire various permits than before. Nevertheless, a lot was possible, and it was still okay to cross the boundary line between the ‘people’s republics’ and the Ukrainian territory, despite constant aggravation and local battles all along the frontline taking place.
“It was possible to shoot an assignment in Avdiivka, where the largest coke-production enterprise in Europe was located, in the afternoon before traveling to spend the night in a beautiful, cozy, and inexpensive Ukrainian hotel and have a yummy dinner there with Ukrainian metallurgists. Then, in the morning, it was still possible for me to pass through all the roadblocks and find myself in one of the coal mines of Stakhanov, where I was received with the same hospitality by the already ‘separatist’ miners.
“Despite my Russian passport, I experienced no special problems in Ukraine throughout 2016 and the first half of 2017. I was able to move freely, both in Donbas and in Western Ukraine. I worked with the Ukrainian infantry regiment No. 46 in Mariinka in August and October. I celebrated New Year’s Eve 2017 with the same regiment at the Svitlodarskaya arc and then worked with the separatist ‘Vostok’ battalion in Yasinuvata and Donetsk.
“Back in April 2017, I photographed the mayor of Kyiv, Vitaly Klitschko, on assignment for Stern, and then I went to Donetsk to give lectures on photojournalism for local students. Suddenly, I got a notice in my private email from Kyiv that I was named ‘an accomplice to terrorists’ because I ‘visited the territories occupied by Russia without permission of the Ukrainian authorities.’
“I suspect that the information about my numerous trips to Crimea, as well as to the DPR/LPR had been ‘leaked’ to Kyiv by the separatists themselves—they also did not like the way I work. Anyway, I was denied accreditation by the Ukrainian SBU. I did not travel to Ukraine anymore.
“For the next two years, I worked only in the territory of the ‘people’s republics.’ But in November, after the conflict at the border of the LPR and the Russian Federation, when I refused to ‘pass a voluntary interview with a representative of the FSB,’ I was denied future entry to the separatists.
“I’m proud of my ‘Ukrainian career period’ and its results. I know I understood the conflict, and I tried as best as I could to explain it through photographic means and pass on my experience to others.”
What moments, if any, have given you hope while you’ve covered these painful stories? Is there anything you hold onto?
“No, not even one. Except for perhaps a few rare, sentimental Ukrainian dinners in Kyiv with non-biased friends who did not make trouble due to my Russian passport.”
How are you doing now in Vermont? What does your life look like today?
“It’s a life-changing experience. I visited America four times from 1998-2008, but I did not travel properly and did not know the country. I work as a senior fellow at Norwich University. My family—three of my kids, my wife, and the dog we brought from Moscow—are all with me. Two of my kids are students at one of the state middle and high schools.
“A lot of things are new. I am getting the American driving experience and learning the Academic culture of an American university. But we’re getting there.
“At Norwich University, I write for Peace and War Center publications, share my personal photo archive, serve as a panel member for relevant discussions, appear as a guest lecturer to offer my expertise on various topics such as Putin-related wars, terrorism and counter-terrorism, the civil society crackdown in Russia, Russian human rights abuses, and the history of war crimes committed by the Russian military in various conflicts. The university is also hosting several travel exhibitions of my work from eastern Ukraine and Armenia.
“Russia has taken a very nasty turn under Putin’s rule. Staying in Vermont with my family is a great opportunity for all of us. I can see already that Norwich is a very special place, and how unique the entire community is. I would like to use my time at Norwich to advance the local community’s understanding of war and peace in that part of the world. I always wanted my pictures to play a supporting role to shed light on the darkest wartime chapters.”
Can you tell me a bit about your current exhibition, charting what you witnessed as a photojournalist covering conflict and war in Ukraine?
“To mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Norwich University was willing to sponsor my exhibit of Ukrainian works at its Kreitzberg Library in the Sullivan Museum in Northfield.
“For the opening on Tuesday, February 28, we had a panel discussion titled ‘On the Margins of Europe: A War Before the War,’ where I was joined by Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch; Nathan Hodge, senior editor at CNN London; and Maj. Sergey Filippov, commander of Kyiv-based volunteer battalion ‘Volya,’ who participated remotely from Ukraine.
“The reason I think they were interested was that, since the early days of the conflict, most Russian journalists actively took part in a propaganda war against Ukraine and focused exclusively on Moscow-backed rebels, depicting them as ‘heroes, fighting Ukrainian fascism’ or showed civilian casualties on the separatist’s side.
“I am Russian, but for over five years, I documented the war in Donbas comprehensively, photographing three groups’ experiences: 1) those workers and other civilians living on both sides of the ‘cease-fire line,’ collectively punished by Kyiv, which has imposed a pitiless economic embargo; 2) those pro-Russian rebels, frustrated by Putin, who led them to believe in a bright future of close ties to the Russian world, but has not delivered what he promised; and 3) fighters from Ukrainian battalions, a mix of moderate supporters of a Western-leaning Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalists and extremists of all types.
“At the same time, I examined the complex story of the wartime economic ties that kept the struggling community together. The exhibition features 55 works that were executed in the period 2014-2019. In addition to the actual action photos, I also show Ukraine as a country with its people, industry, all its color and flaws.
“The exhibition will last until April 2, and then it will travel around the state of Vermont visiting various colleges and universities. Hopefully, we will also go to Washington, DC, where it would be hosted by one of the institutions/think tanks with appropriate Ukrainian programs.
“I think that, despite the fact that support for Ukraine remains at the heart of US foreign policy, the actual saving of Ukraine is clearly not seen as a matter of life and death to Americans. More effort should be put into enhancing Western perception and comprehension of the consequences of this unfolding tragedy.”
In what ways do you see photography contributing to peace, in this war specifically or in war more generally?
“As a journalist with 28 years of experience (five and a half of which I spent covering the war in the Donbas) and also as someone who was raised in the Soviet Union, I can see strong historical parallels between the two wars: WWII and the Russo-Ukrainian. They have a remarkable resemblance.
“In both events, we witness one party trying not only to conquer another’s territory but to completely ‘excise’ a group of people. The Ukrainians, which are seen as the enemies of Putin’s regime, are subjected to the ethno-historic excision just like Poles, Chechens, or Lithuanians in 1939-44.
“All methods are being used: the aggressors terrorize the Ukrainian population on the occupied territories and forcibly evacuate dozens of thousands of people to the aggressor country. Atrocities are widespread, and regions that resist are turned into a form of scorched earth by indiscriminate, massive artillery bombardments and missile strikes.
“We need photographers on the ground to provide us with one crucial service: awareness.
“The goal of photography is to increase awareness about the issues of Russo-Ukrainian war and the crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, reeducate the international public once again about the ‘lost’ lessons of WWII, and provide the basis for future study. By doing these things, photography contributes to peace.”
For more work from Beliakov during his time as a photojournalist documenting war in Ukraine, check out his 2016 interview with Feature Shoot.
All images and captions © Dmitri Beliakov