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She wore the Russian flag. He had Ukraine’s. Some people loved the photo and others were aghast.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/5/2019 Isabelle Khurshudyan
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: HANDOUT PHOTO: Juliana Kuznetsova embraces her fiance at Belarusan singer Max Korzh’s concert in Warsaw on Nov. 27, 2019. (Courtesy of Juliana Kuznetsova) © Courtesy of Juliana Kuznetsova/Courtesy of Juliana Kuznetsova HANDOUT PHOTO: Juliana Kuznetsova embraces her fiance at Belarusan singer Max Korzh’s concert in Warsaw on Nov. 27, 2019. (Courtesy of Juliana Kuznetsova)

Juliana Kuznetsova and her fiance were at a concert in Poland last week when she noticed flags from nearby countries dispersed throughout the crowd. That gave her an idea.

She is Russian. Her fiance is Ukrainian. They borrowed the flags for their respective nations and asked someone to snap a photo of them together after the concert in Warsaw by Belarusan rapper Max Korzh.

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Kuznetsova said they didn’t plan the pose, but she and her fiance stood with their foreheads together, not looking at the camera and holding each other while wrapped in the flags.

“We didn’t have any political intentions with this photograph,” she said. “But after that photograph took off all over the Internet and I read a bunch of comments, both good and bad, I understood that maybe a photo like that can provide some hope for people that everything can be good no matter what, that love can conquer all.”

With Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists embroiled in a five-year conflict in two of Ukraine’s eastern regions, the online reaction to that message was mixed. Some commentators thought it was an inspiring display of love transcending politics. Others, though, saw it as traitorous amid tensions between the two countries.

While the photo may not ultimately rank among the classic images of tenderness amid turmoil — such as an East German soldier passing a flower through the soon-to-topple Berlin Wall in 1989 — the shot of the couple wrapped in the two flags is having something of a moment.

Kuznetsova posted the photo on her personal Instagram page and tagged the rapper Korzh as well as several fan pages for the singer. Her initial post garnered more than 240 comments, and the photo was also reposted by other accounts and eventually picked up by a handful of Ukrainian and Russian blogs.

Perhaps it was especially resonated because of the timing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, are set to have their first meeting on Monday. The leaders are expected to discuss a peace deal — it was reached four years ago but hasn’t been implemented — for the separatist-held territory in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian army and the separatists have coordinated troop pullbacks in advance of the Putin-Zelensky face-to-face.

In response to a 2014 Kyiv uprising that resulted in the ousting of corrupt, Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin annexed Crimea and then stoked the uprising in the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region. Moscow denies it directly supports the separatists, but Russian aid props them up. Relations are so sensitive that Korzh, the artist whose concert was the site of Kuznetsova’s photo, was briefly banned from Ukraine because he performed in Crimea in 2015.

About 13,000 people have died in the war, on both sides. One Ukrainian military serviceman, Anatoly Stefan, posted Kuznetsova’s photo on his Facebook page with the caption: “Did someone tell this young man how many Ukrainian children were left orphans because of the three colors that hang on this girl’s shoulders?”

Some other commenters questioned if the couple were truly in love, or if this was just a Russian propaganda ploy. But not all of the reaction was negative; one Instagram user offered the couple well wishes for the future while another said seeing the photo improved her mood.

In a Levada-Center poll released last month, 56 percent of Russian citizens declared having a positive attitude toward Ukraine, and similarly 54 percent of Ukrainian citizens reported a positive attitude toward Russia, according to data from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology.

While Kuznetsova was initially surprised by the breadth of the response, she said she is pleased that many interpreted the photo in the same way she did.

“It never aroused people’s surprise, hatred or disgust” that Kuznetsova was engaged to a Ukrainian man and he to a Russian woman, she said. “We are one people and for us such relations are absolutely normal. I am, in fact, sincerely glad that so many people responded very positively to our photo. That means that all we want is peace.”

Kuznetsova’s initial aim in posting the photo was that Korzh might “like” it or maybe even attend her wedding, writing in the caption, “It doesn’t hurt to dream.”


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