For many years, Ukrainians were simply people on the periphery, on the fringe of the Soviet Union. It may be one of Europe’s largest countries but, as part of the USSR, Ukraine was dwarfed by its neighbor–and political master–Russia.

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union; the former empire fell apart, and independence was claimed at different points, from the Baltic Sea to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. And with the birth of a nation came the Ukrainians.

Sergei Supinsky was 35 years old at the time. He was an experienced photographer working for the Komsomolskoyïe Znamia newspaper, and also for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA). Today he is still doing what he was doing then, i.e. listening to jazz on precision sound equipment and wandering the highways and byways of Ukraine, seeking out the right light for the right shot framed the right way.

His pictures of Kyiv and Odessa feature the shades of gray from those years of newfound freedom, and also of hardship, with street urchins, torn-down statues, and the first fights at the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament of Ukraine where the process of passing legislation could sometimes involve fisticuffs and bank notes.

This is a country where the people speak and pray in Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Tatar, where the people look one way and then the other, alternating between Moscow and Brussels, or looking inwards.

The soldiers may still have been wearing Soviet greatcoats but by 1994 Ukraine had signed the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. Then three years later, it also signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership with the Russian Federation.

By then, in Chernobyl, where the 1986 accident had contaminated the region and part of Europe, causing the death of thousands and weakening the Soviet power base, the nuclear power plant was finally closed down, with Western aid payments for $2.3 billion.


The 2000s were years of political movements and protests. Ukraine became more Ukrainian and less Communist, going through the growing pains of independence, exploring its own history, including the “Holodomor,” the great famine of the 1930s planned by Stalin, and the Holocaust in Ukraine where one and a half million Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944. And in the 2000s, Sergei Supinsky began working for Agence France-Presse.

In 2004, there was an unprecedented protest movement, driven by anger over allegations that the presidential election had been rigged. The pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych was challenged by protesters supporting the pro-West, pro-reform candidate Viktor Yushchenko, the victim of a mysterious poisoning by dioxin. Ultimately, after a repeat runoff election, Yushchenko was declared the winner, and so after years of shifting back and forth between Moscow and Brussels, the new president steered Ukraine clearly towards the West.

Yet these were years of ongoing political crisis, with the Kremlin keeping a watchful eye on the situation, moving its own pawns behind the scenes. Elections followed–as did electoral fraud.

On November 21, 2013, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych (who had been elected in 2010) suspended the signing of an association agreement with the European Union, preferring cooperation with Russia. The decision triggered protests and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators occupied Independence Square (Maidan), calling for Viktor Yanukovych to step down.

In January 2014, riot police led a violent charge causing the first fatalities and injuring hundreds. The protest movement spread to regions outside the capital. In February, clashes and attacks by special police forces against Maidan protesters left around one hundred dead in central Kyiv. Viktor Yanukovych spoke of an insurgency; Russia claimed it was an attempted coup and that the West was behind it.

On February 22, the president was removed from office by a vote of Parliament, and fled, ultimately to Russia. Russian troops annexed the Crimean peninsula. It was announced that a referendum would be held on the status of Crimea as Russian territory.

In the industrial east of Ukraine, in the Donbas, pro-Russian separatists seized government buildings. Ukraine launched an “antiterrorist operation” in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk where the separatists were backed by Russian armed forces, even though this was officially denied by Moscow. It was war. Severe sanctions were imposed on Russia by Europe and the United States. Here were the beginnings of another Cold War.

Ukraine’s regular army suffered a series of defeats. By September 2014, a cease-fire had been concluded with the involvement of Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; and in February 2015, the separatists and Ukraine signed a second peace agreement, Minsk II, after mediation by France and Germany. The agreement established a contact line and a buffer zone. The ceasefire was regularly broken, but after some 14,000 deaths, the conflict had been “frozen.”

In the winter of 2021-2022, the Russian army deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine. Was this bluff or a real threat? On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine. For the people of Ukraine, a new war had begun.

In the capital, Sergei Supinsky was in action, recording the first scenes of destruction caused by Russian strikes. The next day he was in the north and east of the city where the Battle of Kyiv was being waged. His photos provide evidence of the first Russian troops being killed in their bid to take Kyiv. Since then Sergei Supinsky has been taking photographs non-stop.

Karim Talbi, Europe Editor-in-Chief – AFP

Sergei Supinsky

Follow on
See full archive