Activism, Uncensored: The "Not Calm Hearts" in Kharkiv, Ukraine
With bombs falling all around, embattled videographer Jon Farina visited with the abandoned poor and elderly at ground zero of the Russia-Ukraine war. An exclusive mini-documentary
On January 6th, 2020, then-30-year-old videographer Jon Farina was filming a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol for Status Coup when he found himself in the middle of a historic melee. Farina shot images of a Capitol police officer crying out as he was caught between waves of advancing Trump supporters and fellow officers behind, among the most dynamic and unsettling pictures captured that day.
Farina’s January 6th footage was used by everyone from ABC to The Guardian to CBS and Stephen Colbert to the Wall Street Journal to NBC and MSNBC to CNN, and countless other major news organizations.
Within a few days he himself became a quasi-celebrity, as CNN’s Pamela Brown (among others) interviewed Farina, the photographer “in the middle of everything.” He was also interviewed by USA Today and a few other journalists. Then, the story took a turn.
Two weeks after the January 6th events Farina was in Richmond, Virginia, where a rally of pro-gun protesters had been expected. The planned Richmond demonstration was pitched as the possible next battleground of the “insurrection.” The city’s Mayor, Levar Stoney, even said, “The violent, lawless insurrection and assault on democracy and its institutions that unfolded last week in Washington, D.C., will not be tolerated in the city of Richmond.”
Farina was shooting a livestream for independent journalist Jordan Chariton’s Status Coup, but the event turned out to be relatively unremarkable (you can read more about it here). Nonetheless, the livestream shut down mid-event. Chariton thought something had gone wrong on Farina’s end. It turned out YouTube had shut Farina down for violating their “firearms policy”:
The day before, Ford Fischer of TK partner News2Share had the same thing happen to him at a gun rally in Columbus, Ohio, which had been hyped in reports as a possible “secondary attack.” Just like Farina, Fischer was told he was in violation of YouTube’s firearms policy. Fischer later had raw footage of January 6th removed by YouTube on similarly dubious grounds. The effect of these moves was to make it difficult for independent videographers to publish controversial uncut video (or, especially, livestreams, an important moneymaker for independents) unless properly contextualized by a corporate outlet.
Farina went on to leave media for a bit, and was working at a ski lodge earlier this year, when war in Ukraine broke out. He got the itch to go, and ended up in the embattled city of Kharkiv after a long journey that traced through Hungary, Lviv, and Kyiv. In Kharkiv, which significantly was also a dividing-line city in World War II, Farina hooked up with a group of young, Russian-speaking Ukrainian volunteers who would go on to call themselves the “Not Calm Hearts” on Telegram.
The 30-minute film you see above, Meet the “Not Calm Hearts”: Four civilians’ mutual aid keeps the Ukrainians of Kharkiv alive, is the product of weeks Farina spent with those volunteers. It’s a chronicle of the work of the group, operating within shelling range of Russian guns, delivering food and supplies to the poor, elderly, and disabled who lacked either the funds or the strength to evacuate.
As you can see in the film, Farina, now 32, got unpleasantly close to the action, especially in one shelling scene depicted early on. “I thought we were done for,” he says, of a scene captured early in the film. “The bombs, they just didn’t stop.”
The remaining story is a combination war diary and sociological tale that extends back long before war broke out. The Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens you’ll see in this film — infirm, living off meager pensions in many cases, stuck in crumbling infrastructure — are the most vulnerable groups in the ex-Soviet states. Before 1990 the Soviet government made an effort to cram larger and larger percentages of the population (above 70-75% in some places) in neighborhoods of cheap, poorly built towers that even without a war have been threatening to fall down.
Now, in places like Kharkiv, “people with money and resources were able to leave,” as Farina puts it, leaving these folks behind. These are ethnic Russians, which makes it significant when hearing one woman say, “We want victory.” I should point out that Russian coverage of areas like this has been sharply different, and has included complaints of Ukrainian forces using such people as human shields, but Farina didn’t see anything like that, and in fact his only recollection of anything similar involved seeing the remnants of a Russian forces camp “between civilian buildings” in the city of Bucha.
I interviewed Jon for more on the film, and his journey from January 6th to now:
Matt Taibbi: Before we get to the “Not-Calm Hearts,” let’s go back to January 6th. What were the circumstances of the famous shots you got?
Jon Farina: That day, I was doing interviews near the Ellipse before Trump went on to speak. I was live streaming, but because of the crowd, I got a lot of buffering. So I was like, fuck this, I’m leaving, I’m going to the Capitol. As I’m walking away, I hear Trump speaking. I just keep walking and I got to the Capitol, and then no more than a few minutes later, that’s when they broke through the barricades. I hopped the fence, on the lawn, ran up to the front and made my way to the front of the line. So, I was there at the initial breach. I was shocked at how there was very little law enforcement, very few police officers. I knew within the first five minutes that it was going to be bad because there were no cops in riot gear. It was Capitol police with little cans of pepper spray. I knew they weren’t going to hold up. I’d been around the Proud Boys and, and all these groups for the whole year leading up to January 6th… I knew it was gonna be bad. I just didn’t know how bad.
MT: How did you get that shot?
Farina: My thing was to show the desperation of these people trying to get into this building… Even going back and looking at the footage, I could see in people’s faces, they were scared, they were hurting, these just regular people, just fighting to get into this building. That’s basically what I wanted to show: the desperation, the violence.
MT: What happened after that initial scene?
Farina: Jen from Status Coup texted me and told me that many people were in the building. So I thought, let me try and make my way into the building. That’s when I found that tunnel, and I saw how violent it was. I made my way in there and stayed in there for about 30 minutes. I had my camera on a tripod, so I was able to hide behind somebody and put my camera over them and record what was happening in the front. That’s how I stayed in for so long, because other people were rotating out. They would say, “We need fresh Patriots to the front of the line!” Then they would rotate people in and out, people who were hurting from the spray would get out of there, and they’d get new people into the front to try and push the police into the building.
MT: When you got out of the tunnel, what then?
Farina: All my equipment died, my camera was dead, I lost my GoPro, my phone. Also my face, my hands, everything was burning up. The crowd had had bear mace, and then the police would pepper-spray them. I was just drenched in pepper spray and bear mace and whatever else. In the tunnel, I almost collapsed from dehydration, and also I was being crushed in there. I still have pain to this day, from what might have been a minor fracture that never healed properly.
MT: Upon reflection, what’s your take about what happened there that day?
Farina: A lot of it was psychological. When I was there, I was like, “Holy shit, these people are hypnotized.” They can’t break out of it, because they’re already too involved. The adrenaline is pumping through the event, even I felt the rush… It’s like a, like a drunk night, where after, you watch the things that you did, and you’re like, “Oh fuck. Why did I do that?” You saw the energy kind of take over people.
MT: At the end, you reached the place every photographer wants to reach, having the shot that everybody in the world is using. Some people shoot their whole lives and that never happens. One, how did that feel, and two, how odd was it to have your work taken down by YouTube almost right after?
Farina: It felt good. I’m glad people saw the desperation. About YouTube, I’m thinking, what are they trying to cover up? Why are they taking this down? Who’s behind it? I just thought they were trying to keep information about what really happened on the down low. But maybe that’s not the case, I don’t know.
MT: Switching gears, how did you get to Kharkiv?
Farina: Status Coup and I split ways. I just went back to freelancing for myself and it just got too difficult for me. Then in the winter I left New York and I went to the Poconos and worked at a ski resort. I was operating a ski lift and when war broke out I said, “Fuck it. I’m going to Ukraine… Let me go over there and get the story.”
MT: You raised your own money, got a Ukrainian press credential and just went, right?
Farina: I flew into Hungary, took a 15 hour train from Budapest into Lviv, and after that wound up traveling further east. I’d hooked up with two other photojournalists, from New York. We got a fixer, we traveled to Kremenchuk, and we hit places like Dnipro, and Zaporizhzhia. Then we went to Kyiv, and from Kyiv, we wanted to go further east, so we went to Kharkiv.
MT: It;’s in Kharkiv that you hook up with these “Not Calm Hearts”?
Farina: Yeah. My hotel was in the Kharkiv city center, which was completely destroyed. Basically every building was destroyed. Once I checked out of there, I went and stayed with them in the Saltivka area. That place was like the hardest hit area.
MT: How far were you from the front lines?
Farina: Just a few miles. It was really close. We were in the shelling and gunfire. We could constantly hear gunfire from their home. Really close.
MT: You’re depicting volunteers going back and forth to these abandoned areas. Where did they get the money? What was the process?
Farina: They had PayPal, and they were using their Instagram to show people what they’re doing. Every time they would deliver food, they would have the person take a picture and just post it to show that, hey, we’re spending money to go buy food and bring it to these people.
MT: Was this your first war work? What was the hairiest moment?
Farina: This is my first time. The worst moment is the bombing scene in the film. I thought we were done for. Because the bombs, they just didn’t stop. We had just got back from a day of delivering… As soon as we got out of the car, five missiles came in. We ran to the building, and took cover. I turned the camera on, and then it just kept going nonstop. I think I counted maybe 20 to 25 rockets.
MT: You ended up staying with these guys for roughly two weeks, and this ends up being a story about life in these abandoned areas. Is that what you were trying to capture? Also, what happened to them? You were posting a lot of this online. Did that have an impact?
Farina: They, stayed in the city and they had people to help out and feed. I think they have a big network, in part probably because of the exposure that I gave them. I think they have a big operation now. I’ve been seeing videos that they post on their Telegram — when we were delivering, they had maybe like five people tops, they would deliver to maybe 20 people. Now from the videos that I see, it looks like they’re feeding maybe 50 people at a time. They have these big trucks, so I think their operation got somewhat better.
As for what I was trying to capture, I knew I wanted to do a story on these guys, but I didn’t know where it was going to go. I didn’t expect to be living with them, you know…? One of the first things they said is that they don’t have any help from the government or anybody else. After the night of the bombing, I think one fire truck came to put a fire out and then that was it. We didn’t see any services come to clean up the neighborhood or anything like that. That was only in the cities. These outside neighborhoods or villages are kind of being forgotten about. Nobody’s helping them. And that’s the big issue.
MT: Glad you made it back, and well done.
Farina: Thank you.
One last note: Jon didn’t set up a Patreon ahead of this film’s release, because he didn’t want to be perceived as trying to fundraise off this story. I’m a little less shy about doing so on his behalf, however. Even though I didn’t know about this project until after he returned (the Executive Producer credit in the movie is generous, but ex post facto), any subscription revenue from this content will go to Jon, not to TK or me. Thanks to him and to Ford Fischer from our partners News2Share for putting this together.
Fascinating. This is what journalism used to be.
Interesting piece. Amazing to me that the true journalism is being done outside of the traditional corporate model. The corporate model is so corrupt it is anti-journalism. Bravo to this brave photo journalist!! As usual the poor and marginalized will pay for the elites misguided actions. So sad.