The Caucasus

What Makes a Nation?

The people of Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakstan in the face of Russian imperialism

This photo essay is published in collaboration with Coda Story as part of the Complicating Colonialism issue.

The history of Russian occupation in Georgia dates back more than 200 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it won its independence but separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia refused to acknowledge the new Georgian state and went to war. In 2008 Russia sent the military into South Ossetia and Abkhazia to shore up control and today twenty percent of Georgia remains under Russian control. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s complex history with its eastern neighbor is deeply rooted in centuries of Russian colonialism and expansionism. In this photo essay, award-winning Polish photographer Justyna Mielnikiewicz documents the people of Ukraine, Georgia and Kazakhstan at times of upheaval—in the throes of protest, dissent, and strife, and as they try to hold on to their identity in the face of modern Russian imperialism. 

Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine, November, 2008. Opening night of “Stalin’s Roads.” The play commemorated the victims of the 1932-1933 famine, which it said was artificially created by Joseph Stalin in order to punish Ukrainian anti-Soviet nationalism and crush their independence. During the performance, which featured actress Varvara Nikolayenko (pictured) in the role of a Soviet pioneer, police were deployed inside and around the theater to avoid possible clashes with pro-Russian residents of Simferopol, whose views on the famine came from Soviet-era history books where the history of Ukraine was written to serve the Soviet Union’s purposes.


In the Kyiv metro stations named after the Heroes of Dnipro the Soviet Era name with Russian transliteration using the letter ‘E’ was replaced with the Ukrainian spelling using the letter ‘I.’


Kamianske, Ukraine, 2016. Upstream on the Dnipro River, Dniproderzhynsk, named after Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka, the ferocious Bolshevik secret police, was changed to Kamenskie. The Communist myth portrayed Dzerzhinsky as the man responsible for saving the Dnipro Metallurgical Plant, the area’s main employer, when in fact the story, like many others, was fabricated for the purposes of Soviet propaganda by local apparatchiks eager to please Moscow. In 2016 the city was littered with toppled statues of Dzerzhinsky and Lenin, whose remains were scattered in the museum’s yard. 

Kyiv, Ukraine, 26 April, 2022. Amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv’s City Hall ordered the removal of Soviet-era sculptures of Russian and Ukrainian workers which formed part of a memorial known as The People’s Friendship Arch, dedicated to Ukrainian-Russian unity. After the head of a Russian worker broke off, a Ukrainian soldier stepped on it while his friend took a photo. 

Lviv, Ukraine, March 3, 2022. Mariana Szutiak, 20, a hairdresser from Lviv, helps weave camouflage netting for the Ukrainian army. She first learned to do it while she was still in school during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Volunteers often weave together, making it almost a new national craft of Ukraine. It affords people the chance to be together, calm their nerves, and have some impact on helping the army.


Kyiv, 2022. An employee at the hotel Premier Palace in central Kyiv removes the name “Moscow” under a wall clock at the reception. (It was later replaced with “Beijing.”) 

Dniprovka Village, Ukraine, July, 2015. A gold-painted, headless statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in the center of Dniprovka, near the banks of Kakhovka Reservoir, on the Dnipro River. Since 2013, hundreds of Lenin statues have been removed from cities across Ukraine.


Tbilisi, Georgia, March 9, 2023. Thousands of mostly young people gather on the steps of Georgia’s parliament building to protest the controversial “Foreign Agent Law” passed by the ruling party Georgian Dream (simply referred to by Georgians as the ‘Russian Law’), seen as a carbon copy of a similar law in Russia which effectively silenced all independent voices. 

Petropavl, Kazakhstan, February, 2017. Army conscripts stand in front of murals at the local university which depict two famous Kazakhs — Abai Qunanbaiuli (poet, composer, and philosopher) and Shoqan Walikhanov (scholar, ethnographer, historian) — dominating Russia’s classic writers Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin. 

Tbilisi, Georgia, March 27, 2022. Protestors prepare to burn effigies of Russian president Vladmir Putin (the masks they’re wearing will be transferred to the dolls) as a part of pagan rituals marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The event was prepared by Lada Titova, a Ukrainian from Lviv and Femen protestor Anna Kuzminikh, a Russian member of the activist punk band Pussy Riot, and Anna Zizeva, a Russian living in the United States who moved to Georgia to be closer to protests on the ground.



Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Jusyna Mielnikiewicz is an award-winning photographer from Poland, based in Tbilisi, Georgia since 2003. Her works have been published internationally by The New York Times, National Geographic and WSJ. She has won numerous awards including the World Press Photo, Canon Female Photojournalist Prize and Caucasus Young Photographer Award by Magnum Foundation.

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