In the lead-up to Ukraine marking 30 years of sovereignty on August 24, photographer Amos Chapple traveled across that country to ask everyday people what independence means to them.
Blogger from Lviv
The struggle for independence touched every family in Ukraine, whether through fighting, or the Holodomor, or Stalin’s repressions.... The freedom we have is built from the blood of countless Ukrainians.
During virtually every century, we were fighting and failing to win our independence. Now finally we have it; so even 30 years on, we still feel the joy of freedom. In the West, you don’t feel such a connection with your past because freedom came long ago, so you don’t value it as we do. Even today in the Donbas, we still have to fight for our security, our language, and our territory.
My generation still has a problem with psychology. Our parents made us feel small because in the Soviet system they were small, just tiny pieces of a huge machine. They never believed in us, so now we need to believe in ourselves.
In my work I try to show Ukraine without stereotypes. We are typecast in the West as a country where the girls are easy, the people are poor, the men just travel abroad to work as lowly laborers, and as the place where Chernobyl happened.... It’s a long list of cliches. In fact our people are very smart, we are ready to negotiate and find compromise, but we still don’t know how to present ourselves to the world.
We want to be heard and we hope that thanks to hard work and intelligent people, the perceptions of our country will change.
Former factory worker, from a village near Ivano-Frankivsk
Freedom is a bit like religion: People can unite around it and it’s a beautiful thing to believe in. Every population is seeking it.
After so much pressure, things are better now. Before, if you spoke badly of the Soviet authorities, you might get a knock on the door from the KGB the next day. Today you can say what you want. I think those of us who lived through socialism need to pass on and die. The mentality of getting things handed to you needs to end with us; then I think things will be better for the young people.
I remember the celebrations when the Soviet Union collapsed. I was in the village just a few hundred meters from here. Everyone was waving and singing Shche Ne Vmerla (a patriotic song that is today’s national anthem of Ukraine. The full title translates to The Glory And Freedom Of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished).
It was a wonderful atmosphere, but we were a little nervous, too. There were Soviet military bases all around, so many of us were expecting that maybe some tanks would appear. But the next morning, I woke up and walked out onto the street and we were still free.
Ukraine is a rich country, beautiful and full of resources, but slowly we watch our neighbors -- Hungary and Poland -- develop faster than us.
Most of all, we need a strong rule of law. Corruption here is so deeply ingrained that people can just buy whatever outcome they want in the courts.
I've done all kinds of work, but mostly I worked at an oil refinery. Once that shut down, it got harder and harder to find work. Once you reach 40 or 45 years of age, no one will give you a job.
I’m 58 and I need to wait another seven years until I can draw my pension. In the meantime, I sell what I can from my garden, just trying to get by.
Founder Of Ryba-Pera, a digital marketing company in Kyiv
Freedom is in our blood. That’s why just in the past 30 years we’ve had three revolutions. One was the Orange Revolution. The second was the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych. Then I believe when we voted Volodymyr Zelenskiy into power, this was a third revolution -- because he’s not a politician, he wasn’t a part of the system. Three times we’ve shown the world our desire for freedom. We don’t sit on our hands when we see something is wrong.
Some people think these revolutions were organized entirely by oligarchs or foreign powers, but it’s impossible for massive street movements to come from a decision of some shadowy group. The sentiment for change has to exist already; only then can you throw wood on the fire.
I was just a baby in a small mining town in the Donbas [in eastern Ukraine] when Ukraine won its independence. I remember the years following that as being very poor. Only two things expanded -- the cemetery and the town market. Everything else went into decline as the demand for high-quality coal collapsed.
To heat the house in winter, we had to start a fire in the hearth. Every day after school I had to scrape up the ashes and throw them out, then build a coal fire and the room would slowly get warm. I had a TV then, and I remember watching American movies and seeing how other people lived. I thought, “I don’t want to do this every day.” I wanted to live like the people I saw on the screen.
I think the first time I felt national pride was when I started to follow football. In 1998 and 1999 Dynamo Kyiv had an amazing season, beating big European teams like Real Madrid and reaching the Champions League semifinals.
My native tongue is Russian, but I’m fluent in Ukrainian. Learning a language is a little boring, frankly, so I only fell in love with the Ukrainian language once I got into our music, like Okean Elzy.
It might sound strange, but I think it is our good fortune that we never had as much oil and gas as Russia. Because of these resources, Putin was able to generate a lot of money for that country. And in the 2000s people watched their living standards improve very quickly, so they kept voting for him. I think this oil was like a drug for Russians, and because of this they’ve sold their freedom; now they don’t even have a real vote. Ukraine, on the other hand, has to work on developing other areas of the economy.
All problems in our country stem from poverty. This is the seed of corruption. It results in people getting into politics not for their country and its people but for themselves; they want to be rich. There are no parties run and funded by ordinary people. If someone wants to get into politics, they need a lot of money. Who has money in Ukraine? The oligarchs. That’s why the people who end up in government here write laws that make oligarchs richer.
But I think the next generation is growing up with a different mentality: that there is no point waiting for someone else to make changes, it’s up to you to make the space around you better right now.
Retired architect from Kyiv
Was I involved in the revolution in 2014? [laughs] I was involved in everything.
I was 5 when the Germans captured Kyiv in 1941. During the bombardment, we were hiding in our basement. Then I remember watching from the balcony of our apartment as columns of Nazis came down Artemov Street (today called Sichovykh Striltsov Street).
Some people with flowers were welcoming them, which was strange, given all the trouble they had caused with the bombardment. Life became unbearable in the city, so our whole family walked around 250 kilometers to a village in Vinnytsia Oblast, where my father was from, and I spent the war there under Nazi occupation.
I remember one moment when a German medic came to me and gave me a saucepan. He told me, "Go get some food from the kitchen and bring it out to me." I went to the Germans' kitchen and the cook poured meat stew with potato into the saucepan. Even though I was so hungry, I headed out to give it to the German.
The ground was rough, and as I was hurrying toward where the German was, I tripped and spilled everything into the dirt. I lay there for a moment in shock, then I thought, "Well, they’ll shoot me anyway, let me at least die with a full belly." I picked up the potatoes and chunks of meat off the dirt and ate them, then I licked the saucepan clean. Then I went back to the kitchen and asked the cook to fill it up again. He looked at me strangely, but luckily he did it. Then I took that bowl very carefully to the medic. If it had been an SS soldier, I would have been shot for sure.
During the Soviet period, we didn’t know any other way to live. I had a stable salary and knew when I retired I would have a pension and be able to help my kids, and I’d be able to travel to the sea once a year. But we couldn’t buy much because there was nothing in the shops. We could only buy flour three times each year -- 3 kilograms each time -- and we couldn’t get butter anywhere. We just got used to this kind of life; we didn’t know people lived better elsewhere.
I had friends whose dream was to live in a time when you could find anything you wanted in the stores. Unfortunately they didn’t live long enough to see it.
In 1991 we got our freedom quickly, and at first we thought this was normal. But later on we realized we had to fight for it. We still have to give our lives and resources for freedom.
Retired hydrologist from Dnipro
Thirty years ago, we were full of great expectations. We were hoping for a lot of change and possibilities, and that never materialized. But of course when expectations are sky high, you will always be disappointed.
I don’t blame the government for this outcome, I blame all of us, myself included. On the one hand, freedom means a lot of possibilities and the right to make decisions; but it also means a lot of responsibility. You want to commit to a certain decision, but it’s hard to predict what the consequences will be. Soviet life was very different, you had your goals and your plans, everything was predictable. Then in the blink of an eye, it all fell apart.
But today there is a lot of comfort, and communication is easy. We can travel, we can make money.
A very simple thing is needed for the future: Everyone needs to be aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. People have to know what the goal is and what the results will be.
I love my country -- the fields and the forests and the rivers. But happiness is somewhere else; it comes from the family, the world.
Miner in Ternivka
I remember watching my parents as things were moving toward independence in 1991 and I could feel their sense of hope. Freedom for me means being able to make my own choices without having to clear them with anyone else first.
Up until 2014, I was proudest of our country for maintaining peace through all those years. Then when the war started that year, I was drafted to fight. It was very hard on my wife and kids. I think it might have been tougher for them with all the worry than it was for me on the front lines. After a year as a soldier, I went back to mining. It’s heavy work and it’s dangerous, too, but I enjoy it. We miners work hard, but we play hard too. The best part of the job is the community -- sometimes we gather together by the river on summer evenings to celebrate holidays.
It’s the nature out here in the east that I enjoy the most: when you come out in the evening and you can hear the crickets and frogs in the pond. And the people -- it’s difficult to describe them, but you’ve seen it, so I guess you know what I’m talking about.
Ukraine needs to develop more in fields like tourism -- that’s where there is still so much room for economic growth. But the most important issue for us now is this war. We need the fighting to end and Crimea to be returned. Then we can work on other things.