Essays Mariupol. A city that is no more

A military endgame is taking place in Mariupol that could be an omen for Europe’s future to come.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, 26-28
Published on on June 22, 2022

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A military endgame is taking place in Mariupol that could be an omen for Europe’s future to come

I visited Mariupol for the first time in the spring of 2014, on my way from Donetsk to Odessa. Russia had just occupied Crimea, and the administrative buildings in Donetsk had been stormed by Moscow’s special forces. Travelers were not allowed to leave the bus stations in Mariupol and Berdiansk. It would be too unsafe and dangerous. The following months saw unrest and a temporary seizure of power by pro-Russian insurgents. Since then, shelling of the city has continued from separatist-held areas, from beyond the border line, just a few kilometers outside the city. With the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait and Ukrainian ships subject to attacks, the pressure was mounting on Ukraine’s second largest port.

When I returned to Mariupol in the summer of 2018, you still felt the tense atmosphere. The international airport was shut down and it was a long-drawn and cumbersome journey by night train from Kyiv, along the so-called line of contact. And yet: In hindsight, in a city that is today practically a pile of rubble, there was an incredible sense of normalcy. “A Bridge of Paper” was the title of the conference for German and Ukrainian writers who had not given up hope that there must be a language that could escape the pull of hostility. We were not allowed near the border, but Serhij Zhadan read from his texts to the volunteers manning advance deployments.

Anticipation of change

For most of the participants, not only the German ones, the name Mariupol did not evoke any associations. We heard about the environmental issues with pollution and saw the plumes of smoke and exhaust gases emanating from the blast furnaces and chimneys in dull colors of toxicity. At the time, the environmental problems caused by enterprises, acquired during privatization by the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, seemed to overshadow the war and the never-ending minor and major skirmishes.

But even at the far southeastern corner of Ukraine — usually an hour’s drive away from the border with Russia — there was an anticipation of change, as everywhere else in the country. From the bus station, you could travel anywhere in Europe anytime you wanted. You could hear from the English spoken by the youth that many had spent time abroad. The cityscape had changed, hotels and guesthouses had been brought up to modern standards. There was a “creative scene” that used the massive docks in the harbor for staging performances after sundown.

Now that the city has caught our attention through the horrifying images of all the buildings shelled to pieces and the mass graves in the lawns between prefabricated blocks of flats, it is abundantly clear what Mariupol was before the Russian attack: the embodiment of a large city with half a million inhabitants with the whole kit and caboodle: congestion in the city center, efficient public transport, modern supermarkets and shopping centers, commercial buildings, public parks, multiplexes, bars, and clubs. In short: Mariupol was a city with everything that constitutes a European metropolis, one that left its past of Soviet provinciality behind — a communist past on display in the cult film Little Vera shot in the city in the late 1980s.

Reinventing oneself

The new Mariupol was a reinvention of itself holding true to its historical heritage. A street, once again, called Greek Street, commemorated the fact that Mariupol was an old Cossack fortress and a city chiefly settled by Black Sea Greeks from Anatolia and the Crimean Peninsula at the end of the 18th century, with elegant villas of Greek merchants and entrepreneurs.

The industrial and cultural boom at the onset of the 20th century is demonstrated by buildings in the historicist style, such as the former Continental Hotel, The bank and publishing building, the neo-Gothic water tower, which amazingly had survived all the turmoil of the 20th century. The house of the merchant Nathan Ryabinkin and the ruins of the synagogue on Georgiewska Street bear witness to the existence of an influential Jewish population, which was wiped out in front of the city gates after the German invasion in October 1941.

Constructivist architecture of the 1920s also left its mark on the “prospekt Myru”: the street named Peace avenue. The old city center is dominated by the buildings of the Stalinist Empire, erected after WWII — countless of them bear witness to the disruptions of the 20th century. The house of the lawyer Yuriev was once home to the local newspaper, then to the Soviet secret service NKVD and, in the period of German occupation, to the Gestapo. Numerous churches were demolished in the 1930s,

Mariupol was the full embodiment of a large city — with congestion, public transport, supermarkets, shopping centers, commercial buildings, public parks, multiplexes, bars, and clubs.

One of those on the site, where a theater was erected after WWII. The very theater, where hundreds of civilians sought refuge recently and met their end to a targeted Russian missile strike.

Only state-of-the-art is good enough

All avenues and roads of Mariupol seem to lead to the big metallurgical conglomerates — to the Illich Iron & Steel Works and to Azovstal on the other side of the Kalmius River, which divides the city into two halves. Their blast furnaces, rolling mills, machine shops and smokestacks form the towering skyline of Mariupol. The shift changes of the workers — there were once 40,000 of them — defined the rhythm of life for the city as a whole, and the history of these factories constitute much of the 20th century history of the city. They epitomize the rise of Mariupol to become the center of the Ukrainian steel industry and one of the largest metallurgical complexes in the world.

The Illich Works, which emerged from the Providence Russe Co. in 1896, was established by American engineers and Belgian capital. The other plant, Azovstal, was a product of the first five-year plan and was part of the lineup with similar “large-scale undertakings of Communism”, such as Magnitogorsk and Kuzbass. Mariupol, with its railroad and seaport, was the center of gravity for coal and ore trade and drew on the endless reservoir of peasant laborers who, forced by collectivization and famine, migrated from the rural areas to the cities.

Only state-of-the-art was good enough. Equipment was sourced from Siemens-Schuckert, Demag, Metro Vickers, and Schloemann. The metallurgical enterprises in Mariupol supplied everything necessary for the modernization of the agriculture: cast iron, steel, pipes, bridge girders, railroad tracks, armored trains. What could not be dismantled in time before the German occupation was handed over to Friedrich Krupp AG on behalf of the trust activity of Bergbau- und Metallgesellschaft Ost m.b.H.

Although the plant was severely damaged, production was resumed shortly after the recapture — and, as if already anticipating the next war, it was equipped with those underground complexes, the “city under the city”, which have served as the stronghold of Mariupol’s defenders against the Russian aggressors. Azovstal, the symbol of development and industrialization, has yet again become a symbol, one of destruction, of a city bombed back to the Stone Age.

The ground zero of the final, decisive battle, the area of the conglomerate, this city within the city, is clearly visible on satellite and drone images. Modern technology makes us eyewitnesses to a horrific struggle. The rust-brown colored surface, which can be zoomed in on, is clearly recognizable.

Europe’s fortress

A bird’s-eye view of the man-made industrial landscape of the 20th century, now subjected to Russian bombing and missile attacks. In 2016, Czech photographer Viktor Macha documented the monumental factories, not knowing that these works would one day become the place of retreat for the last defenders of Mariupol against Putin’s troops and the last refuge for those residents who had not managed to leave the besieged city. What was built with the blood and sweat of generations has become the target of systematic and unprecedented destructiveness.

What goes on there in the tunnel system below the city is ineffable, not even with the most graphic descriptions by the commander, Serhi Wolina. Lack of water, lack of food, hundreds of wounded soldiers and civilians who cannot be cared for — and all this under non-stop bombardment.

We have read Lidiya Ginzburg’s diaries of the siege of Leningrad, the testimonies of the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the records of Hans Graf von Lehndorff from the enclosed Königsberg or Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad epic. These days, Asovstal is the fortress where not only Mariupol and Ukraine is being defended, but also Europe, which cannot muster the strength to rush to the city’s rescue.

Note: This text has previously been published in German in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 25, 2022

  • by Karl Schlögel

    Professor emeritus of East European History at European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder). Historian and writer, lives in Berlin. Among his books: Moscow 1937 (Polity Press 2012), The Scent of Empires. Chanel No 5 and Red Moscow (Polity Press 2021), Ukraine. A Nation on the Borderland (Reaktion Books 2022).

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