The strategic port city – synonymous with shattered buildings and thousands of deaths – finally fell under Russian control this week. But that’s not all Mariupol is or was. Former residents reflect on the once-flourishing city, the harrowing tales of escape and everything that was lost
May 21, 2022
The Globe and Mail
Mariupol is now synonymous with shattered buildings, thousands of deaths and the fierce resistance put up by the last Ukrainian fighters before the strategic port city finally fell under Russian control this week.
But that’s not all that Mariupol is or was. Before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched this war – his troops began their assault on Mariupol in the very first hours of Feb. 24 – the city was emerging from its smoggy industrial past to become one of the cultural capitals of eastern Ukraine. It was a growing high-tech hub, a place of trendy beer bars, feisty independent news media and a proud LGBTQ community. Just prior to the war, a new boardwalk was constructed along the city’s Azov Sea waterfront. A water park was supposed to be next.
A city known for its Soviet-era steel factories was in the midst of getting a European makeover, which is why some believe the Russian army seemed more intent on destroying Mariupol than capturing it.
Residents were proud of what they were building. They saw the modernization of the centuries-old port as a counterpoint to the repressive, backward-looking atmosphere that hung over the Russian-controlled city of Donetsk, roughly 100 kilometres to the north.
Much of Mariupol’s new swagger came from Ukrainians who had moved there to escape life in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” that Moscow-backed militants had proclaimed after seizing the regional capital in 2014.
Today, the Russian flag flies over a destroyed Mariupol. Former residents are left only with memories of the city they knew, and the harrowing tales of how they escaped. “Mariupol was a city with a bad reputation for ecology. It had a bad reputation for factories. But I saw with my own eyes how Mariupol was growing into a cool, cultural place,” said Danil Sidelev, an IT professional who worked for two Ukrainian media outlets in the city. “It’s horrifying what they did to it.”
Like many in Mariupol’s creative class, Mr. Sidelev arrived as a self-exile from Donetsk. His new home was dominated by the pollution-spewing Azovstal and Ilyicha steel factories – and their politically influential owner, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov – but Mariupol was nonetheless a freer place to live in than the neo-USSR that Moscow’s proxies were building in Donetsk.
It was because of his experience living through Russia’s takeover of Donetsk that Mr. Sidelev didn’t flee Mariupol before the outbreak of the wider war. “I thought, I’ve already heard artillery, I can handle it. But this was completely different,” he said. “We knew that if Russia wanted to take Mariupol, they would not be able to. But they made another decision – to completely wipe it out.”
Yuliia Didenko didn’t want to move to Mariupol. The journalist had stayed in Donetsk, reporting on the rise of the “People’s Republic” for as long as she could in 2014. But reporters who weren’t following the new pro-Russian line soon became targets. A car belonging to her editor-in-chief at the Novosti Donbasa website was set on fire outside his apartment. It was time to leave.
When she first arrived in Mariupol in July of that year, Ms. Didenko wasn’t impressed with what she saw. “I had the feeling that I went back 10 years, and not 100 kilometres to the south,” the 33-year-old recalled.
Prewar Donetsk had been moving forward, in large part because of the new international airport and other facilities that had been constructed for the city’s role as a co-host of the Euro 2012 soccer championship. Mariupol, meanwhile, was still the same post-Soviet industrial mess she had visited as a university student. “Before 2014, it was a deeply provincial town in the shadow of Donetsk,” said Kostyantyn Batozsky, a political adviser who was among those who fled the regional capital to Mariupol amid the proxy war that preceded Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine. “Mariupol was just an industrial appendix to prosperous Donetsk.”
But the city was nonetheless ready for the influx of intellectual capital that came its way. Despite being known as an economic backwater, Mariupol – which was established in 1779 by a colony of Greeks expelled from nearby Crimea by Catherine the Great – always had something of an international feel about it.
The city soon sprouted cheese shops, microbreweries and art performances that changed the face of its downtown, particularly the stretch between the main square, with its elegant Drama Theatre, and the rebuilt waterfront. “We had a favourite little café where my friend and I drank Prosecco and ate delicious camembert burgers,” Ms. Didenko recalled wistfully.
Those who came to Mariupol were in many cases the cultural and intellectual elite of Donetsk. Both cities are populated predominantly by Russian-speaking Ukrainians, but those fleeing Donetsk had first-hand experience with the repression and poverty that came with Mr. Putin’s attempt to build a “Russkiy Mir,” or “Russian world,” by restoring Moscow’s control over some of the territories it lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. “Mariupol had a deep resistance to the Russian narrative. They were not buying this ‘Russkiy Mir,’” Mr. Batozsky said during an interview in Kyiv, where he now helps manage a volunteer centre that collects donations and delivers supplies to the Ukrainian units fighting for Mariupol and other front-line cities. “We called Mariupol the forward base of Ukraine. But it was more than a military outpost, it was the symbol of modern Ukraine – diverse, global. That’s why Russia literally destroyed it.”
Ms. Didenko, who fled Mariupol on Feb. 23, the day before the larger war began, finds it hard to talk about what happened to the city she slowly grew to love. “The Mariupol which I arrived in eight years ago, and the Mariupol which I had to leave when the full-scale Russian invasion began, are two different cities.”
She has no idea what has happened to the apartment she lived in, or the cafés she used to frequent. She wonders whether the woman who used to cut her hair is alive or dead. “It’s like all your life has been destroyed.”
If one episode in Russia’s lawless war against Ukraine can be called more horrifying then the others, it’s perhaps the March 16 bombing of Mariupol’s Drama Theatre. The centre of cultural life in Mariupol was instantly transformed into a mass tomb and, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the scene of a war crime.
As fighting raged all around the city, more than 1,000 people took refuge inside the white stone theatre. A week before the attack, the theatre’s set designers used white paint to write “DETI” – Russian for “CHILDREN” – on the pavement outside the building, hoping to deter an attack from above.
It didn’t matter. On the morning of March 16, the theatre sustained a direct hit, causing the roof to collapse on top of the main stage and audience hall. An Associated Press investigation later estimated that close to 600 people died in the attack. The city’s mayor estimated last month that at least 21,000 people had died across Mariupol because of the war. The figure has not been updated since April 12.
When she lived in Mariupol, Diana Berg had a spectacular view of the Drama Theatre, with its pillared façade and eye-catching red roof, from her apartment overlooking Theatre Square.
It was a fitting home for Ms. Berg, a gallerist and the director of the local LGBTQ centre who was one of the best-known figures on Mariupol’s cultural scene.
Now both the apartment and its view are gone. Ms. Berg fled Mariupol on the eighth day of the war, as Russian airstrikes made the city unlivable by knocking out the electricity, water and heating in early March. Worst of all for Ms. Berg was losing the internet and all connection to the world outside Mariupol.
Her apartment on Theatre Square, she believes, has since been taken over by Russian soldiers and used as an observation post. “You always think: What is worse? For your place to be, to be bombed, to be just smashed and you know, burned? Or to be taken by Russians? You always think about it,” she said in an interview in the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is 225 kilometres north of Mariupol and has become a hub for refugees fleeing the ravaged port. “Most of us, we think that it’s better for your home to be damaged and ruined than for the Russians to come in and touch your things and the things of your kids. … The photos of my child and everything – they are looking at it.”
Ms. Berg uses strong language when she talks about what the Russian army has done to her home and to Mariupol – which the 42-year-old arrived in eight years ago after also fleeing her
native Donetsk. “Last time, they just stole my home and kicked me out. This time, they just raped everything around, you know, and just killed it as a city,” she said, clicking through photos of Mariupol taken before the war. “You feel that everything you were trying to develop, that you were putting your soul into, was just brutally exterminated.”
What Ms. Berg had been putting her soul into was the Tyu art gallery and LGBTQ centre – a hangar-like building that was a unique space in largely conservative eastern Ukraine. Ms. Berg hasn’t seen Tyu since she handed the keys to some of the neighbours in early March. They needed a building with a basement to shelter in as Russia began to shell the city centre.
At the start of April, there were 20 or 30 people hiding in the gallery basement. Ms. Berg assumes they would have burned whatever they found in the gallery – including artwork – to cook and to stay warm through the siege.
By the end of last month, Russian troops had entered Tyu and Kremlin-controlled media were broadcasting pictures of the pamphlets and posters about gay, lesbian and transgender issues that they found inside as proof of the degenerate Western values that Russian troops were “liberating” the citizens of Mariupol from. What happened to the people who had been hiding in the basement is unknown.
Tens of thousands of Mariupol residents who were captured by Russian forces have reportedly been sent to “filtration camps” where they are fingerprinted, photographed and interrogated. Those found with any evidence of pro-Ukrainian sentiment – such as tattoos on their body, or suspicious contacts on their phones – are detained indefinitely.
Not everyone in Mariupol welcomed the city’s new cosmopolitanism. When The Globe and Mail visited the city in 2017, someone had painted a large swastika on the side of the Tyu centre, along with the slogan “Against LGBT.” The previous year, a gang of thugs broke into the centre and assaulted those inside.
Witnesses told reporters that at least two of the 2016 attackers were wearing T-shirts of the Azov Battalion, a unit of volunteer fighters with far-right roots. Though the Azov Battalion had fewer than 2,000 members – and had become increasing depoliticized in recent years after being absorbed into Ukraine’s National Guard – the Kremlin used the existence of Azov to claim that all of Ukraine needed to be “de-Nazified.”
It was ironic to Ms. Berg that those she clashed with most became her city’s last defenders against the Russians. Particularly since Azov had made their last stand in the sky-dirtying Azovstal factory that she also used to complain vociferously about.
Now, like the rest of Ukraine, she views the Azov fighters – who this week were being transported to filtration camps and an unknown fate after more than 80 days of resistance – as heroes. She said she even misses the way the hulking Azovstal factory ruined the city’s waterfront.
Ukraine’s culture war has evaporated, for now, into national unity against the Russian invaders. The country’s LGBTQ community, she said, is also doing its part for the war effort. “I think that
all these fights between the so-called right and so-called left will just be no more,” Ms. Berg said, speaking before the Russian capture of Azovstal. “When Ukraine Pride is funding Azov, you know, and gathering [money] for the armoury – when, and many don’t know this, queer drag persons are carrying guns – it will be very, very hard for them to say, you know, this is right and this is left. I think that in terms of this, we will be much more united.”
For 25 days, Mr. Sidelev the IT professional and his girlfriend, journalist Tania Zhuk, had little idea what was happening to their city as they sheltered in the basement under their apartment building with two dozen other people. They had no mobile signal, and only knew what was happening directly above them.
A Russian tank was in the courtyard of their building, firing at Ukrainian positions a few blocks away. To get food and other supplies for the group – which included four young children, including a seven-month-old girl – the men had to run across an active front line to reach a warehouse that had been abandoned by a humanitarian group early in the fighting. “The first time I was really scared was when the Russian soldiers came to our door, because we didn’t know what they’d do. Will they be good guys or not? Maybe we’ll open the door, and they throw a grenade at us. We didn’t know what to expect. Maybe they even have some kind of list of people that they need to find. I was afraid for my girlfriend, of course, because she’s a journalist.”
But the soldier only told the group to stay inside the basement because it was dangerous on the streets outside. Then he asked for their apartment keys, saying they needed to be checked for Ukrainian snipers. Even with the keys, Mr. Sidelev said, the Russians broke down each door, and looted whatever they wanted from the empty apartments.
After more than three weeks of hiding, Mr. Sidelev and Ms. Zhuk decided in late March that it was time to try to escape Mariupol. The Russians had established a safe corridor to a nearby village, albeit one that was under Russian occupation. But the couple thought if they could get that far, maybe they could arrange a ride further, to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
What they saw when they emerged from their basement shelter shocked them. “The view was insane, completely insane; everything was burned out, probably one in three buildings was destroyed – completely black,” Mr. Sidelev recalled. Barely covered bodies lay strewn in the streets.
They returned to their shelter and decided that anywhere had to be safer than Mariupol. Along with another couple, they made a plan to escape the city by moving slowly from one town to another in Russian-occupied Ukraine until they finally found a driver willing to take them, for the right price, to Zaporizhzhia. But knowing they would have to pass through a thicket of Russian checkpoints before they reached Ukrainian-controlled territory, they first had to burn anything that hinted at what they did, or what they believed in. “We burned everything that could connect us to journalism, to media, all our notebooks,” Mr. Sidelev said in an interview in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where the couple now live. “We had to throw out any books that could show our pro-Ukrainian position.”
Unlike most of those who escaped Mariupol, Ms. Berg still has her archive of photos and videos that she took of her city before the war, and during the first days of the siege. In her last footage of Mariupol, there’s the sound of artillery sound in the distance – and Ms. Berg can be heard swearing inventively at the Russian warplanes overhead – but the city centre is still intact. The Drama Theatre still stands.
She wants to turn those videos into part of a documentary about Mariupol, and all that was lost when the Russian army destroyed a city that was just establishing itself as a cultural centre – and a home for all those who wanted a different future than what Mr. Putin had in mind for eastern Ukraine. “We don’t want it to stay just in the memory of the whole world as just, you know, a ruin and a mass grave, because we feel that a small civilization was destroyed actually,” Ms. Berg said, watching the videos she took of the first days of the siege. “We want to show people how it was before.”
Mark Mackinnon is the Senior International Correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and a seven-time winner of the National Newspaper Award, Canada’s top reporting prize. Author of The New Cold War: Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union (Published 2007 by Random House Canada and Carroll & Graf) and The China Diaries e-book (2013)