Caimi & Piccinni picture brave Ukrainians just weeks before the Russian invasion

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In early 2022, photography duo Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni travelled to Ukraine to document a nation preparing for war. What they didn’t know then was that these ordinary people would be putting their newly learned skills to the test just weeks later 

It was in 2014 that everyday Ukrainians – demanding democratic value and EU integration during the country’s uprising, called the Maidan Revolution – began to feel seriously concerned for their safety. Several months prior, the then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yakukovynch reversed his decision to sign a historic trade pact with the European Union. The public outcry that ensued criticised the leader for acting on pressure from the Kremlin in Russia, and led to student-led demonstrations in Kyiv’s Independence Square, calling for Yakukovynch’s resignation and an end Ukraine’s corrupt political system. The government reacted angrily to political discontent and issued a series of repressive laws, essentially outlawing the right to protest. When that didn’t stop the swell of demonstrations, they dispatched the Berkut police unit to intervene and break up the masses by means of force — terrorising civilians with batons and opening gunfire onto the crowds. Protesters had to quickly become artists of self-defence, making makeshift bulletproof vests from stacks of magazines, donning ski goggles, motorcycle helmets and knee pads, and arming themselves with spades and baseball bats. 

© Caimi & Piccinni.
© Caimi & Piccinni.

“People were dying, and this was happening right in the centre of Kyiv,” says Italian documentary photographer Jean-Marc Caimi. He recalls the events which culminated in the series The Fighters of Maidan], made with his longtime collaborator, Valentina Piccinni. His words hang heavy, not only because the shock of police brutality at Euromaidan still hasn’t worn off, but because – after an eight-year separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine – the nation is under relentless and devastating Russian attack. The world woke up on 24 February to learn that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered military operations in the north, east and south of Ukraine, with multiple missiles and air raids targeting the capital Kyiv and cities including Kharkiv and Odesa. The Ukrainains had anticipated the invasion for some time, with news of Russian troops amassing on the country’s border being reported as early as March 2021. 

The Italian duo, known as Caimi & Piccinni, arrived in Kyiv at the start of 2022. It was their third visit since completing The Fighters of Maidan and their follow-up projects, War Games and War Scars about the volunteers and veterans of fighting in eastern Ukraine. During this recent stay they produced How To Survive a War, a photo project documenting the warfare-training workshops taking place on wintry weekends in Kyiv and beyond.

At the time, Putin’s war was a threat with no certainty. “There was a prediction that the first missile attack would arrive in Kyiv on 13 February,” says Caimi. “When that didn’t happen, people felt relaxed, hoping it was all political hot air.” The photographers returned to Italy the day before the airstrikes began. 

Weekend warfare training in the Desnyans'kyi District is run by the Kiev Territorial Defence Corps. These courses are aimed at ordinary citizens and take place in a remote wooded area on the outskirts of the capital. © Caimi & Piccinni.
A young lady trains in the bushes of Plesets'ke on the outskirts of Kyiv during the free weekend war workshop organized by a paramilitary group of soldiers. Trainees are ordinary people and are asked to escape after an explosion, which is simulated with a smoke grenade. A tunnel of tractor wires was set up as an escape path. © Caimi & Piccinni.
A 'tactical medicine course' takes place in the bushes of Plesets'ke, on the outskirts of Kiev. The students, all ordinary citizens with no experience, learn the basics of first aid in war situations. Simulations of different challenging situations are staged by the students under the guidance of a veteran or a reservist soldier. © Caimi & Piccinni.

The land that we now know as Ukraine has a  long history of occupation over the centuries – by Mongol warriors in the 13th century, by Polish and Lithuanian powers in the 16th century, falling to imperial Russia in the 18th century, then the Soviet Union – has made Ukrainians hardy against invasion.

“Ukrainians are born with resistance in the DNA,” says Caimi. “If something like this ever happened in Italy…” He jokes about the prospect of invasion in his homeland. “We don’t take warfare courses. We take the car and go to Switzerland.” In Ukraine, however, Putin’s war was all too real. “[After eight years] you’re going to expect citizens to say, ‘Let’s train for war because it might be necessary to be prepared’.”

Caimi & Piccinni say that their warfare-training reportage is about the mental preparation that the workshops encourage. “The training gives you different skills. First, you learn the hows: how to heal a wound, how to hide, how to dodge an explosion,” they explain. Second are lessons on teamwork and support. “If your building gets attacked or you have to flee, you need to trust that other people will help. It helps to know non-verbal cues. The training is intended to make you more lucid when you have to do something in a critical situation.

As many Ukrainians are now experiencing firsthand, especially those fighting unarmed in Russia-occupied cities like Kherson (an important port city on the Black Sea in south Ukraine), survival is not just about practical skills. What helps enormously is believing that, “you belong to something, that you are part of a group”. 

“We cannot say for sure whether the training had a real impact on citizens, but it seems to have helped a lot. Even the Russians did not expect the Ukrainians to be so prepared” 

Weekend warfare training in the Desnyans'kyi District is run by the Kiev Territorial Defence Corps. These courses are aimed at ordinary citizens and take place in a remote wooded area on the outskirts of the capital. © Caimi & Piccinni.

One of the workshops’ participants told the photography duo that she took the course after feeling anxious of the news and wanting to be around others, to actively build a network. Since Russia’s invasion, she has taken shelter in one of the train carriages in the Kyiv metro. When Caimi & Piccinni were finally able to contact her on the fourth day of the war, she sent over some photos. Remarkably, she was smiling in the images. “Watching the war happening in real time and the extraordinary resistance of Ukrainian people, we cannot say for sure whether the training had a real impact on citizens, but it seems to have helped a lot,” says Caimi. “Even the Russians did not expect the Ukrainians to be so prepared.” 

One of the targets available at Liski District Tactica Polygon with different subjects. This one bears the image of Putin and is one of the most popular of the "fun" ones. Apprentices here are usually private businessmen and people with good financial resources, as polygons are usually very expensive. An 8 mm rifle bullet costs on average one euro and many are used during a one-hour training session. © Caimi & Piccinni.
Liza Premiyak

Liza Premiyak is a London-based journalist. For the last seven years, she’s been interested in understanding, of all places, what it means to live, create and protest in Eastern Europe. Until recently, she was Managing Editor at The Calvert Journal, where she looked after the online publication’s photo stories and ran the New East Photo Prize, broadening perceptions of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia.