The View from Above

Tobias Zielony, Maria, 2017, archival pigment print, 56 x 84 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, Courtesy of KOW Gallery, Berlin


The View from Above

Tobias Zielony and Maria on Drones.

The artist Tobias Zielony visited Kyiv in 2017 for a series of conversations and portraits of the underground queer and techno scene. His series “Maskirovka” documents the complex reality of Ukrainians and the conflicting claims of diverse actors struggling to occupy the country’s contested symbolic and political space. Zielony uses the term maskirovka, commonly referring to a Russian tradition of covert warfare and military deception, to describe Russian politics toward Ukraine since the Maidan Uprising. The “hybrid war” in eastern Ukraine has never been officially declared, yet in Crimea the masked special forces, so-called “green men”, occupied Ukrainian territory. Masks also played a crucial role in protecting the Maidan protesters from tear gas, and helped to hide their identities from the authorities. The portraits and still lifes reveal the fragile and treacherous situation in which the protagonists live and act in the city in Kyiv. When we read these conversations today, we can visit a time that is past – and really not. The aftermath of the 2013 Maidan Uprising, reflected in these conversations, is still present. This war, these conversations show, has been going on for at least eight years.

Tobias Zielony and Maria on Drones

I’m interested in knowing about the war and drones. What is the current situation, and why do you need drones?

For me the story was very simple: there was a war and there was a need for human resources. One of the battalions announced that they had a need for a drone intelligence operation.

Why are drones needed in this particular conflict?

They are important because you need to see what is happening. From high above, you gain an overview of the enemy, including their position and what they’re up to.

Are there any alternatives, like airplanes or satellites?

Actually, in the kind of war we now have, larger aircraft is not used. Several attempts were made at first — perhaps you remember the incident where military officers from the Ukrainian side were killed when their helicopter was shot down. After these kinds of events, such aircraft wasn’t used because of the human risk involved. Another crucial point to mention: drone footage is important for documenting the war crimes of the Russian aggressor.

So, you heard they were looking for an expert, someone to help with the drones, and you decided to get involved. What happened then?

I started learning how to operate a drone from reading through all the manuals I could get. In September 2014, I then went to the front line and started operating the drones. At this point, I realized I also needed the to learn how to fly a plane.

The main goal of this war is to distort and destabilize our nation, our civil society. They want to make it an unstable region and reestablish the Soviet Union.

Do you build the drones yourselves, or are they commercially available models?

We have almost no military drones. Mostly we use civil drones.

How do the soldiers use them?

For air reconnaissance. I founded a volunteer organization center to train air reconnaissance specialists, which is supported by crowdfunding.

I’ve never flown a drone. How much skill or training is needed?

First, you need to want to learn how to fly a drone, then comes the learning itself. Actually, most people can be taught to do it, although it helps if you're clever and persistent.

After you learned to operate the drone, you became interested in flying real aircraft. What happened, on a personal level? The last time we talked, you mentioned how it felt to lift off and see the world from above.

I'll show you when we go downtown. I’ll operate a drone, and you'll see what it's like. As for flying, becoming a pilot is my dream.

But you’re a pilot already. You have started to learn how to fly. Are you taking classes?

After I founded the center for air reconnaissance, one of the pilot-instructors taught me how to fly. I founded the center in January 2015 because I understood that I have to train more and more specialists. It’s really a military operation.

Have you been flying?

Yes, both planes and quadcopters.

Is it fun?

Yes, very much so, but it’s also my work.

Tobias Zielony, LED, 2017, archival pigment print, 84 x 56 cm, Edition of 6 + 2AP, Courtesy of KOW Gallery, Berlin

Thinking about this war from a foreign perspective is very complicated — or at least it’s made to look complicated from the Russian side. You don’t know who is right or wrong or who is fighting whom. On a metaphorical level, is gaining a higher perspective from an airplane or a drone perhaps needed to truly understand what is going on?

It’s necessary to document war crimes. We need more time to record the pictures and the scale of the crimes. At this point, we don't have the distance yet to talk about it, but it’s very important to stress its importance. Otherwise, later on, perhaps you have interviews where you insist on some very specific point of view, which is not the big picture.

In a few words, can you explain the conflict, how it started, and perhaps how it might end? Can you give the bigger picture?

The main characteristic of this war is that it’s constantly changing its form. It started as something very sincere, where lots of volunteers were involved and willing to sacrifice themselves. Then things changed and now they're changing again. This state of constant change makes it hard to sum things up neatly.

I was talking to a friend about what circumstances might bring the war to an end, and she said no one has a clear picture of what that would look like. In terms of territory, she did say that Russia might have one clear strategic mission, which is to regain control of Crimea.

I don't agree. The main goal is to distort and destabilize our nation, our civil society. They want to make it an unstable region and reestablish the Soviet Union, bring it back to Putin, back to totalitarianism. Territory is not the main goal.

What is it like to be a "normal" citizen and decide that you have to get involved? Can you describe the process from being an activist to becoming involved in a military conflict?

Actually, I’m a pacifist, a very peaceful person who’s not really interested in military affairs. This has nothing to do with heroism. I’m here because I'm ashamed of the things that are happening. I’m here because I’m a good manager.

If women were the decision makers, the war would have stopped much earlier.

The horror here is that people like you are put into a compromising situation where you have to make decisions that might end up helping to kill someone.

It’s not helping to kill, it’s helping to save our soldiers’ lives. Horror happens when you do nothing.

I agree. But the particular horror of this war is that you are put into a situation where you have to make difficult decisions. You are forced into a compromised situation, which relates to what you said before about destabilizing the country.

The terrible thing is that at the early stages, war decisions might have been made at the front by people who fight. But now, with time, war decisions are being made in high cabinets among men who know each other, who wear white collars, who shake hands and drink good wine. The people who don’t know each other — they sit in cold pits and shoot and kill each other. They are not the ones who decide how the war goes. It’s decided in Kyiv, Moscow and Berlin.

You are also fighting for women to be recognized as official soldiers in the Ukrainian army. Is there any way the war could change the position of women in Ukrainian society?

If women were the decision makers, the war would have stopped much earlier. In this situation, you're dealing with a lot of male egos who are busy trying to prove "mine is bigger than yours," and that they are tougher than they actually are.

Tobias Zielony is an artist, photographer and filmmaker based in Berlin.

| stay informed | stay connected


What is happening at THE NEW INSTITUTE? Step inside by following our institutional newsletter, which ties together the work of our fellows and programs, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.