Understanding Russia & Ukraine: What to Watch for Context

With the onslaught of headlines, social posts, and ticker news about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine flooding our brains, it can be a challenge to get answers to the bigger questions and grasp the context behind the latest news.

For a deeper historical perspective on the unfolding events, we’ve rounded up the best films and series to put the news in perspective.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

To understand what led up to the current crisis, this 90-minute Oscar-nominated doc will drop you into the front lines of what became known as Maidan Revolution, the three-month uprising that occurred between November 2013 to February 2014.  The film captures how it all began—with small groups of students—and how quickly it escalated into tens of thousands of activists, all of them occupying Maidan Square in Kyiv to protest pro-Putin prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to prevent Ukraine from entering the European Union.

Despite violent pushback from government forces, the protests ultimately forced Yanukovych to flee the country—paving the way for Ukraine to join the EU in June 2014.

Shocking in its up-close, on-the-ground footage and interviews, Winter on Fire captures the full arc of the cataclysmic historical event.

Where to watch Winter on Fire:  Netflix

Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine 

While Winter on Fire focuses on the three-month occupation, Breaking Point takes the history lesson several steps further in exploring Putin’s propaganda machine and aftermath of the Maidan Revolution:  Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its aggressive invasion of the rest of Ukraine, and its disturbing misinformation campaign—with its echoes in the farther-reaching campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election.

Oscar-winning director Mark Jonathan Harris teamed up with Ukraine’s Oles Sanin to take a more comprehensive look at the events while shedding light on Russia’s more disturbing tactics.

A week after the Putin-backed president fled the country, we see Russian troops who officially claim to be local separatists caught on news footage telling reporters they are Russians—just before embarking on another aggressive land grab campaign.

While there’s an uplifting thread to the doc, bearing witness as it does to the gathering hordes of Ukrainian protesters and troops defying all odds to thwart their evil neighbor, this one is also a haunting cautionary tale that predicts where we are today.

Where to watch Breaking Point:   Amazon, Apple, Google Play, YouTube.

Servant of the People

By now you might have heard the Ukraine’s current president was a popular comedic actor and TV producer before he took over the political stage.  To see how and why Volodymyr Zelensky rose up to become a celebrity, check out his hit TV series, Servant of the People, a political satire that he created and starred in, which debuted on Netflix in 2015.

The show laid the groundwork for Zelensky’s life-imitating-art ascension. In it he plays a high school history teacher whose lambasting of government corruption goes viral, suddenly catapulting him into a political campaign that lands him the presidency.

Three years after the series launched, Zelensky announced his actual candidacy for the presidency in 2018 and ending up winning by a wide margin.

Where to watch Servant of the People:   YouTube

Amanpour and Company

For up-to-the-minute distillations of the unfolding events that asks and answers the bigger questions, head to PBS for Amanpour and Company’s coverage of the events—or go straight to the PBS Amanpour website, which offers short segment videos on topics such as “What is Putin’s End Game”  or “What Can Stop Him.”

Amanpour herself has logged over three decades in the trenches of international conflicts, and the journalist and her PBS team have honed a rare ability to add layers of insight to the latest news developments.

The team also lands some key guests from around the world and often secures exclusives, like this one with NATO’s Secretary General on Putin’s “Dark Message” and Chernobyl.

 

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