Ukraine has long had a tricky relationship with guns. In the course of its post-Soviet history, it has been the only country in Europe without legislation governing the civilian possession of firearms. More than a dozen laws have been proposed, but none have been passed by parliament. Instead, Ukrainian gun ownership is regulated by ordinances overseen by the interior ministry. Officially, the only legal way to own a firearm in Ukraine today is to acquire a rifle for hunting or sporting purposes; handguns are banned, available only to security guards and certain categories of state officials.
Those, at least, are the rules on paper. But the war in Ukraine’s east—a grinding conflict between pro-Kiev forces and Russia-backed separatists that has left ten thousand people dead—has made an absurd mockery of these regulations. In the conflict’s early days, when the Ukrainian military was in disarray after the Maidan Revolution and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, much of the fighting was carried out by members of hastily assembled volunteer battalions. Those battalions had an unclear legal status and were not always well equipped; their weapons and supplies came from donations, private supplies, and the black market. Since 2014, when war broke out in the Donbass region, huge caches of firearms have poured into the conflict zone. Today, after numerous shaky ceasefires and direct incursions of Russian soldiers and artillery, a tense, often-deadly stasis has taken hold, and the military weapons are increasingly flooding out of the conflict zone and into the hands of civilians.
According to the Ukrainian photographer Andrey Lomakin, who photographed civilian gun owners in their homes, in 2014 and 2015, the insecurity and trauma of the war have made firearms in Ukraine a kind of “modern amulet,” awarding their owners “an extra power.” “Not everyone is comfortable to point it at the aggressor and shoot,” he has written. “But everyone feels safer having one.” Lomakin, who is forty-three years old, grew up in Kiev, and remembers his schoolboy lessons in how to assemble a Kalashnikov rifle with his eyes closed, part of mandatory Soviet-era military training. Back then, Lomakin recalls, guns had a foreboding mystique—yet these days, he says, they have become alarmingly ordinary. He has seen a growing number of otherwise law-abiding citizens looking to buy guns, both legally and on the black market. Last year, the head of a Ukrainian association of gun owners told the Associated Press that the country contained as many as five million illegal firearms. “Ukraine has turned into a supermarket for illegal weapons,” he said.