There was once a Cossack fortress at the mouth of Kalmius river where it reached the Azov Sea, built to protect local fisheries against the raids of the Crimean Tatars. With the influx of Orthodox Greek population from Crimea, a city started to slowly emerge here originally under the name “Pavlovsk”. After the Russian Empire extended its borders westwards to include the area, and the development of Mariupol began. First a small merchant city, later a major regional industrial hub housing two large metallurgical plants, Mariupol became a characteristic Soviet city in a region, where “coming from the Donbas” was always a better way of self-identification than being Russian or Ukrainian. Ethnic and lingusitic belonging have become messy and cultural alliences often don’t coincide with economic ones.
The city secured a place for itself on the map of international headlines during the current conflict in eastern Ukraine, being a strategically crucial place and the largest city in the region still in the hands of the Ukrainian army. Many have speculated that the strategic importance of Mariupol might make it the next desired spot for the Russians, as capturing the city would allow Putin to create a land bridge to Crimea.
Reading global media interpretations of the Ukrainian conflict can leave a somewhat Star Wars-like aftertaste in one’s mouth, where Europe and Russia are congealed into monolithic figures of Good and Evil. Often those fighting the war, or those who have no other choice but watch it happen on their doorstep are featured the least. Although the death toll of the conflict is now over 6000 and three times this much are wounded, the war is quite uneven, the bloodshed of Debaltseve exists next to the relative safety of villages near Mariupol. In the city the intensity of the war is far from, say, the massacre of the Siege of Sarajevo and thus some space remains for living a normal life between moments of violence and uncertainty. Often I felt that considering the overtly politicised discourse about Ukraine, it is little more than our vanity that pushes us to disseminate ill-informed judgements without access to understanding the background of these painful and complex situations. I wanted to hear voices of those who live in Mariupol, speculating about the future of their city, choosing to stay despite the frontline being so close. This is how I ended up having long, late-night conversations with Sasha and Anton, an English teacher and an engineer and got a chance to glimpse into their lives. As it is always the case with personal stories, I might have seen a very different Mariupol listening to others.
Life near to a siege
The armed conflict reached Mariupol in late April 2014, when in the aftermath of the upheaval surrounding the events in the Crimea, separatist forces started systematically capturing government buildings all over Donetsk oblast. When I ask Anton, where he was from, he jokingly replies that he’s on the move so often, that he is basically from his car. It was similar during those days, he had to go on business trips, using the most rundown company car, so as not to become a target of attention. A few days before the fight for Donetsk airport started in May 2014, Anton was on the road again to Alchevsk, an industrial centre close to Luhansk. He went through newly established separatist checkpoints. The oddest aspect of this was the obvious impromptu nature of the whole establishment, as the soldiers clearly had no training about protocols: pointing at people with their guns unnecessarily, ordering trucks to be opened in a mostly random fashion were all clear signs of unprofessionalism for a group that hoped to establish something as intricate and bureaucratically complex as a functioning state.
The directors of the two metallurgic plants and the mayor met the separatists after their attempt to take the city. They provided them office space on the condition that they avoid violence and allow a number of officials to continue working there. During this time, the Ukrainian army withrew from the city to avoid further agression, and for more than a month, Mariupol was in the hands of the rebels. This building happened to be located only a couple of hundred meters from Anton’s office. For about a month, separatists were residing in there, until the Ukrainian army managed to take it back, aided by the steelworkers who organised patrols on the streets to ensure safety and order. Apparently upon receiving the news of the army’s arrival, the majority of the separatists left the headquarters, so Anton lost his prime view on the core of the conflict and things went back to normal, at least for a while.
Businesses still works and Sasha just told me his amusement over the fact that new recently finished flats are being sold for not much lower prices that you would expect in similar provincial centres such as Mykolaiv or Chernihiv. A number of small businesses, whose owners left did close down, but for the majority of the population working life continues to remain as it was before the conflict.
Art and shelling: cultural life in the conflict
After the Ukrainian army retook the city, tension was still lingering everywhere, but relative peace came back. Shelling was daily and loud but instead of coming from fighting the blasts were signing the constant training of the military. I asked Sasha how life changes in such a borderline situation. Sasha has a solid perspective on the local cultural scene and his role as a Russian-language poet writing for a mostly western Ukrainian audience challenges the taken for granted views of Ukrainian geopolitics. What happens to such fragile niches like intellectuals and artists during conflict? Is the constant insecurity transformed into resistance and inspiration, or is it rather the first scene to fade away among mundane threats? And what happens with people consuming art? Considering his stories it is equally misleading to think conflict is great for some grand forms of art, or that during wartime we only find people stripped off of culture, only caring for basic survival.
Conflict brought a certain odd fame, and with that, some international presence to Mariupol. Suddenly you could meet journalists, photographers and a whole bunch of people who tend to follow conflicts. For many inhabitants who don’t travel much this was the first time of seeing these aspects of global media at their doorstep. Similar were the few documentary screenings that took place in the city, featuring recent Ukrainian movies of the Maidan or the conflict. People whom you would normally not see in such artsy locations now flocked to the cinema, hungry for news. Sasha told me it was amazing to observe all the outfits and habits you routinely associate with menial workers, football supporters or the like rubbing shoulders with the educated youth of Mariupol.
Conflict brought a certain odd fame, and with that, some international presence to Mariupol. Suddenly you could meet journalists, photographers.
Political awareness also rose drastically. As Sasha says, if anything, this is the treasure of the conflict. Mostly consisting of young people, these grassroots groups provide help to people whose houses have been damaged, help refugees settle in and organise meetings to discuss the political possibilities. Only a fraction of this is initiated by international organisations, most of them grew out of the concern of ordinary citizens who were pushed into a stronger participation realising the failing safety nets and the difficulties of state help arriving on time and in abundance. People who flee the city often also maintain their ties to the region: in Lviv I met a group of girls from Donetsk who regularly bring food, medicine and clothes to those villages in the Donbas which suffered the hardest shellings. It is often extremely difficult for these groups to play with open political cards, as their fragile cooperation lies in their shared understanding that for now solving these issues is more important than dwelling on political preferences. This engagement organised around charity is still extremely powerful for people hoping to take the events in their own hands at least on a local level.
How long could this last? Will Mariupol sink back to its regular life of a mid-sized industrial city once the conflict is over? Or would these people preserve something of the memories of cooperation and activism? It is hard to say. Sasha is not particularly optimistic. “I don’t think these people have changed – they watch the documentaries because in a way they are a more credible form of news than anything else.”
Playing the state
In January the conflict struck again, this time rather unexpectedly. Dozens of people died as heavy shelling fell on the city and separatists seized the airport. Speculations arose about the future, as it seems obvious that Russia so far has not made open moves to repeat the Crimean plot here, the separatists seem to be incapable of excercising control other than militarily. As for Kyiv, the army is exhausted and it remains unsure how much extra force they could actually mobilise.
So can the rebels function in a way that anybody could take them seriously as a political body? Anton doubts that.
So can the rebels function in a way that anybody could take them seriously as a political body? Anton doubts that. Dealing with questions about the kind of legislation, currency or taxation to be used are apparently beyond the capacity of the separatists. The reason why this much is shared among the majority of Mariupol’s citizens can be understood by the following, rather Kafkaesque story. When the separatists ruled in Mariupol in May, at some point they decided to collect taxes. Lacking a banking system or any functioning bureaucracy, they demanded cash from the metallurgical plants, whose respective leadership refused to cooperate in the safety of the fact that they never have large sums of cash lying around anyway. The separatist officials then decided to make a real mafiosi move and went to an undertaker, who accepts many cash payments. They tried to threaten the undertaker, who also refused to pay and, unable to reach a consensus, the officers left. The next day, the staff painted the flag of the Donetsk Peoples’ Republic on a coffin and left it in front of the rebels’ headquarters. Anton only saw the painted coffin lying around there for hours, until someone silently made it disappear. Thus the tax collection failed, the undertaker won and the public had a good laugh.
To stay or not to stay…
Whether the rumours about Putin needing Mariupol for a land-bridge to Crimea are true or not, nobody is in the position to credibly guess the future fate of Mariupol. Is it a good idea to stay then? Sasha says many of his friends have already left for Moscow, Minsk, Kyiv or to study in Europe. He has old grandparents who cannot leave due to their age, and whom he needs to care for. He cannot go to their dacha anymore, because it is dangerously close to the actual frontline, but as of now, working mostly from home, he does not think the situation would become unbearable.
As for Anton, he told me it would be financially impossible for him to leave his job and live somewhere else. As long as there is relative peace he is still better off in Mariupol with a stable job and a flat. He sarcastically added that if the Russians came, they would arrive from the eastern part, a good 20 km away from his home, so hopefully he would have just enoigh time to get his mother and wife in the car to leave for good.