Henry Langston is a London-based producer and correspondent making short- and long-form documentaries focusing on conflict and protest around the world.
I was in Ukraine in 2014 when then-President Viktor Yanukovych was gradually ousted from power in the Euromaidan Revolution. I saw the peaceful protests that began on the streets of Kiev – on a public square roughly the size of Trafalgar Square called the Maidan – escalate into a bloody geopolitical crisis that, with the help of Vladimir Putin, engulfed the country and is still basically ongoing today. In the earliest days, the Maidan was an insane but contained protest enclave, rammed with people expressing their desire for the country to move away from Putin’s Russia towards the EU. Outside the square, though, life continued mostly as normal in one of Europe’s major capitals – nightlife included.
I remember one January night in Kiev the temperature dropped to about -25 °C and my feet were frozen because the police water cannon had found the holes in my shoes. I sat warming up in an underground sports bar right on the Maidan with a surreal mix of journalists, photographers, film crews, huge guys wandering around with batons and young, semi-armed revolutionaries in helmets, all mixing together in this place with very cheap beer and Premier League football on big screens. Things got quite serious towards the end of the revolution; a lot of people died. But before it went that way the atmosphere was actually really fun.
There was a surreal mix of journalists, photographers, film crews, huge guys wandering around with batons and young, semi-armed revolutionaries
Later, when I followed the action to Donetsk, things were getting more sinister: journalists were being arrested and carted off, the streets emptying as people fled the city. Many of the clubs and bars remained open, though, including the one in our hotel which became popular with the cowboy separatist government that were claiming to be in charge of the city at that time. One really big guy – I think he was calling himself “the Minister of Culture”, I can’t remember, it was a revolving door of random lunatics at this stage – had come in with a body double and five or six armed guards in full camo gear with assault rifles. They had a ritual where they'd head outside to the terrace, fire off some rounds and then head into the karaoke room to do proper cat-strangling renditions of Western pop hits with escorts they’d hired. I’d go back to the hotel wanting to relax after a stressful day on the frontline, but end up desperately trying to avoid getting beckoned over to do shots with these guys. Because really, who the fuck knows where that ends?
They’d fire guns from the hotel terrace then sing karaoke with escorts
There have been other memorable occasions – raiding Putin’s private wine cellar with activists who’d taken over Yanukovych’s huge mansion estate, for example. It was built with money embezzled from the public purse. Putin visited so often that he had his own guest house, but by this point Yanukovych had fled. To be honest, I’ve had better wine, but it was an experience.
Another time I was out in Spain with some miners who were on strike and fighting pitched battles with police. They were launching missiles at the cops through these homemade bazookas but it was all done and dusted by about 4PM when we managed to creep away to a bar in the local neighbourhood. There was a lot of wine and cider and some of the miners were getting stuck into some speed. I kept my head though and turned my reports around for the morning.
They were launching missiles at the cops through homemade bazookas
When things started to escalate in Ukraine, alcohol was very prevalent on both sides of the conflict. You’d come across soldiers who were on duty but brazenly pissed. Talking about your feelings, therapy: these generally aren’t seen as options when you’re dealing with life problems in Ukraine. So alcohol becomes the go-to. Sometimes, as a conflict photographer, a crowded bar just isn’t the best place to be. There are times when I’ve blasted through a few books or TV series rather than gone partying. You wanna engross yourself in something else for a few hours and then try to get some sleep – before you’re woken up by pissed separatists firing missiles out in the car park, or whatever the next day has to throw at you.