Photographers' Blog

Ukraine: One-on-one with the pro-Russian protesters

Donetsk, Ukraine

By Marko Djurica

“You have got to meet the Mexican,” said Wolf.

“Who is the Mexican?” I asked.

“He is our boss, you can ask him about this barricade, come with me.”

Wolf was dressed in a green uniform without any insignia. “Donbass” – the eastern Ukrainian region where pro-Russian separatists seem to be increasingly gaining control – had been written on his green helmet in permanent marker.

His face was covered with a balaclava and he wore black boots and a black flak jacket, into which he had tucked a small baseball bat. He spoke great English and didn’t look more than 30 years old.

A masked pro-Russian protester poses inside a regional government building in Donetsk

As we approached a massive, eleven-story, Soviet building we passed stretches of barbed wire with old tires and various construction materials piled up behind them. I saw a poster that read: “The Mexican’s League” in orange letters. This was his barricade.

On March 3, a couple hundred pro-Russian demonstrators stormed the Donetsk regional government building after clashing with police who were guarding the main entrance. They successfully entered through a side door, and in the end made it to the second floor where the parliament sits. Unrest continued to spiral in Ukraine and the following month separatists declared a “People’s Republic of Donetsk”.

The confrontation began because the local population, made up mainly of Russian-speakers, seek less influence from Kiev over their region. Kiev and the West have accused Russia of being behind the upheaval, Moscow denies it. Now, two months after the initial attacks, demonstrators are inside the regional government buildings and masked men stand at the barricades.

A different kind of field trip

Stavropol, Russia

By Eduard Korniyenko

Students at the General Yermolov Cadet School take all the same classes as their contemporaries would in any other Russian middle school. But there is a difference – pupils here are also given a military education.  

The state-run school is based in the southern Russian city of Stavropol, some 150 miles from the Olympic resort of Sochi. It is named in honour of Alexei Yermolov, the famous Russian imperial general, and the institution itself is as military-influenced as its name.

A highlight for lots of these youngsters are the trips they go on for field training. During the outings, they spend time at a base, undergo physical drills and practice using weapons.

Ukraine Euromaidan

Kiev, Ukraine

By Marko Djurica

Slava Ukraini, Heroyam Slava!

At the beginning I didn’t understand what they were chanting.

The speaker at the podium repeated, “Slava Ukraini” and a mass of people responded in one voice: “Heroyam Slava!”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Glory to Ukraine!  Glory to its heroes!” was the answer I got from a girl wrapped in a blue and yellow flag.

Who are these heroes they are cheering? This time I resolved to find out the answer for myself.

Sochi’s struggling locals

Sochi, Russia

By Tom Peter

“We meant to do better, but it came out as always.”

Everyone in Russia knows this phrase, unintentionally coined by the late prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and applicable to an abundance of situations in this country, where official pronouncements of intent are often so far removed from reality that you could cry. Though instead of crying, Russians ruefully utter this aphorism and smile.

In Sochi you hear it often these days. With less than 100 days left before the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city has entered the finishing straight to complete the venues for an extravaganza that is to showcase a new Russia. A Russia that has shed its shabby post-Soviet coat to welcome the world to Sochi, where the “sea meets the mountains”, where everything that is adorable about Russia will flourish in a sparkling new summer and winter holidaying resort, as official publicity has it.

This aspiration comes at a high cost.

There is of course the $50-billion prize tag, which makes the Sochi Olympics the most expensive Games in history. Some Russians say this money should have been spent on schools, roads or the public health system, all of which are in great need of repairs.

A torch in space

Zhezkazgan, central Kazakhstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

PART ONE: LAUNCH

During more than a decade of covering Russia’s space exploration program, I have seen pretty unusual missions. I have taken pictures of an investor heading for the International Space Station, as well as those of a clown and programmers flying into orbit. But the most recent space launch and landing have probably become the most unforgettable – the torch of the forthcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi reached space and then returned to Earth. Now, as I play back this hectic flurry of events, it is still hard to believe how closely these two things are entwined – the Olympics and space. The Olympic Games had been aimed by the authorities to strengthen Russia’s image. Given this ambitious task set by Moscow, Russia’s space program – a symbol of national pride, albeit marred by several botched unmanned launches – simply couldn’t stand aloof. Space was doomed to become part of this bright political show.

A few months earlier, when I learnt about the future mission of the torch, the only question that haunted my friends was – how will it burn in space? Their avid interest was heated by the torch itself, whose flame had gone out several times since the Olympic relay across Russia began last month. One of my colleagues even joked that while in space the torch would need “a man with a lighter”, recalling the image of a resourceful plainclothes security agent who saved the day, reigniting the torch with a cigarette lighter when the flame went out right at the start of the relay in the Kremlin on October 6. But as the launch date of November 7 drew nearer, there was a general sigh of relief – the torch would not be lit aboard the space station for safety reasons, and it simply would not be able to burn in outer space due to the laws of nature.

The show began on November 5 at 0700 sharp. The gates of a giant hangar at Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan opened, and at the sound of a whistle a locomotive slowly rolled out a Soyuz rocket, whose normally white-and-grey body was now decorated with Sochi Olympics trademark snowflake patterns. A quick glance at a large number of armed policemen, their armor and helicopters hovering overhead left no one in doubt that the upcoming launch was of paramount importance to Moscow.

At home with a hermit

South of Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk

By Ilya Naymushin

Viktor is a hermit who, for the last ten years, has lived all alone in the wild Siberian forest by the banks of the Yenisei River.

I first heard about him in September, when I went out sailing with some yachting buddies of mine, looking for beautiful autumn scenes to photograph. One of my yachtsmen friends suddenly asked: “Do you know that there’s a hermit who lives near here, completely alone? Do you want to visit him and take his picture?” “I don’t know. Yeah, sure, I’d like to,” I replied.

After that conversation, the day eventually came when I went out with my brother Alexey in his boat to meet the hermit. In a distant corner of a deep cove, hidden from view, we spotted a shabby wooden hut. We were in luck, the hermit was at home.

Riding the Moscow metro

Moscow, Russia

By Lucy Nicholson

London has the world’s oldest underground rail system; Tokyo’s metro has employees to push people into packed trains; New York’s subway is an ethnic melting pot. Hidden beneath the streets of Moscow is something completely different. To step onto the Moscow metro is to step back in time and immerse yourself in a museum rich in architecture and history.

Opened in 1935, it is an extravagant gallery of Communist design, full of Soviet artworks, Art Deco styling, statues, chandeliers, marble columns and ceiling mosaics.

GALLERY: INSIDE THE METRO

Built under Stalin by some of the best Soviet artists and architects, the metro transports 7-9 million people a day, more than London and New York combined. It costs 30 Rubles, around $1, for a single ride. We were given metro passes with our credentials when we arrived to cover the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow. On the first day, I caught the metro back to our hotel with a group of Reuters photographers, when we missed the last media bus.

Is it him, or is it not?

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

Yesterday, a strong rumor that a delayed flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport due to land in Havana could be carrying fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sent dozens of reporters scrambling to the airport. Since June 23, this has happened many times already.

As I watched passengers gather in the arrival hall, the gentleman in the picture below, with the blue shirt, grabbed my attention. Could he be the fugitive?

In the midst of the Snowden story, how would clients from all over the world perceive this picture if they received it, even with a caption simply stating that they were passengers arriving in Havana from Moscow? Would it raise questions? It’s difficult to find an answer to these questions as my ethics told me that it was not right, and I decided not to move this or any of these pictures. Once I got a full view of the man’s face it was clear that he was not Snowden.

Destination Cuba: Alongside empty seat 17A

Havana, Cuba

By Maxim Shemetov

I’ve never been to Cuba before. Frankly speaking, today is my first visit. It’s a very short one of only 24 hours, of which now I have only half left to walk around Old Havana and to swim in the ocean while the global hysteria over the uncatchable Edward Snowden carries on.

For me, this story started on Sunday when I woke up and slowly went to the office. It was supposed to be a usual working weekend when almost nothing happens. Almost… Incoming calls suddenly started to light up my cell phone. The big story with Snowden as the lead actor flying somewhere via Moscow began. It is hard to describe all of the next 24 hours spent in the airport, with expensive tickets booked to get inside the transit zone at Sheremetyevo and disappointment that a lot of energy was wasted on information that turned out to be wrong.

The next morning I headed to the airport again to take the same flight as Snowden. It looked suspicious that everyone knew when and how a top secret target was going to leave Russia. The flight number, even the fugitive’s seat on the plane, was known 24 hours ahead of departure! I met around 30 reporters flying to Cuba near gate 28. All were filming a newly arrived plane while arguing with airport security.

Last days in a Siberian prison

Outside Krasnoyarsk, Russia

By Ilya Naymushin

Boris Kovalyov is not my hero – not at all. I have never understood such people, the way they think, the way they live. But journalists work with all kinds of people, and to me, people in extreme circumstances have always been of particular interest. And so Kovalyov, a non-hero, became the hero of my photo story, which might be called “The Last Ten Days in a Siberian Prison Camp.”

Boris is 32 years old. He was first jailed for theft, and was sent to a prison camp near Krasnoyarsk. After a few years he was granted early release, with the understanding that he had learned his lesson. Under Russian law, a relapse into crime means the convict serves the time he was spared by early release, and is often sent to a higher-security prison.

Boris was not out long before he was arrested again, for drug trafficking, and sentenced to eight years in a high-security prison camp. He was sent to a prison near the village of Ariysk where most of the inmates are recidivists. After two and a half years he was moved to an even stricter camp north of Krasnoyarsk.

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