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Remembering Russian War Crimes in Mariupol
Wrenching accounts of the city’s destruction remind us why Putin mustn’t claim it as his prize.
LATE LAST MONTH, a documentary called 20 Days in Mariupol, made by video journalist Mstyslav Chernov and produced by the Associated Press and the PBS program Frontline, opened in Ukraine after having been released in select theaters in the United States and Europe over the summer. Having seen this 93-minute film at a PEN America screening in New York in May and found parts of it almost unbearable to watch—a lot of reviews use the word “harrowing,” and for a good reason—I can barely begin to imagine how it would affect Ukrainians for whom the war it chronicles is not a distant horror but a daily reality.
A grim record of the war’s early days, the film is especially relevant right now when there is renewed talk of persuading Ukraine to negotiate for peace and make territorial concessions—a scenario in which Russia would presumably keep all the Ukrainian territory it currently controls, including Mariupol. The carnage and devastation Vladimir Putin’s army inflicted on this once-flourishing port city in Eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region must be remembered. And just last week, the account offered in 20 Days in Mariupol was supplemented by another powerful personal testimony: a 48-minute YouTube video titled “Our House Is Burning,” compiled by Ukrainian journalist Denis Kazansky from videos shot during the siege by Mariupol resident Nikolai Lazarev (who uses the pseudonym Kolya Oko, or “Kolya the Eye”).
Let’s start with 20 Days in Mariupol, which will be broadcast on PBS in the United States this fall. Chernov and his team went to Mariupol when the Russian invasion was imminent, expecting the city—just 35 miles away from the Russian border—to be among the first places hit. They stayed for more than two weeks after all the other journalists had left, determined to let the world know the truth of what was happening.
The film unfolds chronologically. We see a Ukrainian soldier on a walkie-talkie, saying that he sees Russian tanks out the window. Then we see them in the eerie quiet: two tanks with the letter Z painted in white on the side, moving slowly down the street, swerving clumsily and bumping two parked buses. They look incongruously ordinary for harbingers of hell.
The human suffering begins almost at once. As the camera crew gets out of the van, a distraught elderly woman walks toward them weeping. “My son is at work; where should I go? Where can I hide?” she wails in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian. The crew members persuade her to go home and stay inside: “They don’t shoot at civilians.” Here, knowing what is to come, the viewer cringes at the naïve optimism, and the journalists themselves quickly realize their mistake: moments later, Russian missiles hit some residential houses. Later, we see men and women hurrying by as they rush to get out of the city with the Russian troops closing in; others crowd into improvised bomb shelters such as a fitness center with a basement-level room, some crying, some cradling babies and toddlers in their arms, some briskly putting tape over mirrors to prevent them from shattering in an explosion. “I don’t want to die,” says a girl who looks seven or eight years old, tears streaming down her face. “I want this to be over.”
But things are going to get a lot worse. An ambulance arrives at the hospital, bringing a small child: a 4-year-old girl, badly injured in a missile strike. A paramedic tries to perform CPR; frantic hospital staffers rush to get the child on the gurney and into the operating room; the crying mother runs after them pleading, “Save my baby!” The girl’s face is blurred out in a couple of shots; we see mostly her legs, first in bright-colored leggings, then bare. “Show that Putin prick the murdered eyes of this child, and all the doctors who are crying,” says a doctor while the nurses are trying to revive the child with adrenaline shots and defibrillators. “That fucker, show how he’s saving all the people. It’s good that we’ve got press here. Keep filming.” (Note: I’m using my own translation, not the subtitles.) The child, Evangelina, doesn’t make it.
Adults, bloodied and dazed, some crying out in pain, are also brought in on stretchers. But it’s the bereaved parents who make a truly indelible impression, and we’ll see a few more before the film is over. Eventually, there is also an episode with a happy ending: a baby girl who hospital staff fear might be stillborn—the mother was injured in the infamous maternity hospital bombing—stirs after a vigorous rubbing, whimpers, and finally gives a full-throated cry. The nurses clap, cry with relief, and coo at the baby. But it’s only a brief respite: moments later the shelling starts again.
20 Days in Mariupol also makes us realize the extent to which what we see on the news is sanitized not only of gore but of shattering emotion. An NBC news clip shown in the film, which uses the footage Chernov and his team sent back to their editors at the AP, includes a brief shot of a father hunched over the body of his teenage son, covered with a bloodstained sheet. (The boy was killed in a missile strike while playing soccer.) The full footage shows the father wailing as he clutches the boy’s head and kisses his forehead through the sheet, repeating, “My son, my poor son! My darling boy!”
The relentless chronicle goes on as Russian strikes systematically reduce the city to rubble. “Houses we saw standing days ago are destroyed,” comments Chernov. Some people still try to board up shattered windows; others wander about dejected. “We have no electricity, nothing to eat, no medications, nothing,” weeps a middle-aged woman. “Someone must do something! They’re killing us!” A teenager points to a spot where a column of smoke is rising, saying that his friends lived there: “I don’t know if they survived or not,” he says flatly. There are burned-out cars, one with a dead body in it. There’s an injured, unconscious teenage boy in the ruins of a building; the filmmakers aren’t sure if he survived, either. There’s a mass grave, several grim-faced men dumping black body bags into it. “It’s hard, of course,” one of them says.
Those who are alive are doing what they can to stay that way. People trying to get out of the city are told there is no safe way. Some turn to looting. A woman who may be a supermarket employee tearfully berates the looters (“Are you humans or some kind of animals?”), and soldiers chase them away, cursing and telling the people that they must stand together. There’s a shot of a man chasing a guinea pig scurrying along the street; it’s not entirely clear whether he’s rescuing a pet or hunting down potential food. Another man, in his fifties or sixties, trudges by with a cart filled with his possessions; he says he’s lost his house in the shelling and is going to stay with his (presumably estranged) wife. He’s been walking, he says, for about four hours, ignoring the gunfire close by. “That’s life,” he says.
The larger context of these tragic events is only occasionally shown, but it’s enough. We see Putin announcing the “special operation” and, later, Volodymyr Zelensky denouncing Russian atrocities. The film also covers the story of the maternity-hospital bombing, whose aftermath was filmed by Chernov and photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, and the Kremlin’s attempt to spin it by labeling Maloletka a “Ukrainian propagandist.”
And there are moments that bring home of the cynical falsity of the Kremlin narrative in which Russia is rescuing ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine from oppression by Ukrainian nationalists or even “Nazis.” Virtually all the Mariupol residents we see in the film are Russian speakers, yet none evince any sympathy for the invaders. Early on, Chernov asks a middle-aged, probably working-class man if he thinks Mariupol may fall into Russian hands. “I really don’t want that to happen,” the man says curtly while puffing on a cigarette. “I want to live in Ukraine, in peace and quiet. I watched Putin’s speech on the internet today, fuck it. He explains it so beautifully to his citizens, like it’s basically necessary, we have to attack Ukraine because otherwise Ukraine will attack Russia.” He shrugs, twirls his finger at the side of his head and adds, “Marazmatik” (which can mean “senile,” “moron,” or “nutjob”).
Later, a young woman in a bomb shelter lit by a single small lamp weeps for herself, the city, and the children; when Chernov asks if it still matters to her who controls Mariupol, she thinks a moment and replies, wiping away tears, “I don’t want it to belong to Russia. I don’t want to live in Russia, I want to live in Ukraine. I don’t want anything of Russia here. Absolutely not.”
“OUR HOUSE IS BURNING,” WHICH LACKS English subtitles beyond YouTube’s patchy autotranslate, doesn’t have the professionalism of 20 Days in Mariupol but it has a raw and gripping immediacy. Nikolai both films and narrates, in a plainspoken, melodrama-free, sometimes even jocular tone; his account starkly conveys the chilling “new normal” of life under siege. On the balcony of his apartment, he points to a thick cloud of gray smoke rising around the five-story building: a different section of the building has just been hit by a shell. (His own balcony itself has two holes from earlier strikes.) Later, down below, four men carry out a dead body (blurred in the edited video), place it in a box, and haul it away. “We live here like people on death row,” Nikolai says at one point. “If a shell hits us, we’re ready.”
Meanwhile, there is no power and no running water, and food is extremely scarce. Nikolai’s wife is cooking on the balcony, using a small wood stove: it’s tukhlyak (literally “rot”), salvageable pieces of spoiled vegetables picked up at the store. His two teenage sons show off a grilling basket full of grilled birds that turn out to be pigeons. “Just this morning they were still running around,” comments Nikolai, “and now—” “And not they’re not running around,” finishes one of the boys. The family still manages to have moments of laughter and fun; in one scene, they’re sitting around the dinner table with one of the boys playing the guitar and singing a Ukrainian-language song about hope for the end of the war. Life goes on.
Except when it doesn’t. Toward the end of the film, Nikolai and some other men are headed to a house hit in an airstrike. “Either they’re there under the rubble, or they’re all dead down in the basement,” he tells someone, his matter-of-fact tone both contrasting with and underscoring the atrocity of what is happening. Later, we see the boy who is the family’s sole survivor put up a makeshift memorial amid the rubble, a pole with a board that has the names and birthdates of four people carved into it: mother and father, both born in 1974, and two children, born in 2007 and 2010. Date of death: March 17, 2022.
Two months later, on May 20, Mariupol was surrendered to the Russian army after a legendary last stand by its defenders in the Azovstal factory.
TODAY, RUSSIAN PROPAGANDISTS ARE flooding the Internet with Mariupol videos of a very different kind: ones celebrating the city’s supposed rebirth under Russian rule.
Russian media claim that Mariupol, in which as much as 90 percent of the housing was destroyed or damaged, will be fully rebuilt in three years. The Kremlin clearly intends for it to be a showcase; there’s a lot of money being pumped into its reconstruction, and Putin himself solemnly ordered the relaunch of the city’s streetcar service by video link on May 2. But who will populate this model city is unclear. Of the half-million people who lived here, about 350,000 left after the start of the war (with some unwillingly taken to Russia). Between 21,000 and 75,000 were killed. Some refugees have returned. But a few locals brave enough to communicate with Western journalists have said that the city is teeming with laborers from Russia and Central Asia. Mariupol’s new inhabitants also include Russian military personnel and Russian administrative staff, as well as their families—and other Russians who have no qualms about buying cheap real estate in the occupied city.
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It is no exaggeration to say that Mariupol’s “reconstruction” continues the crime of its destruction. As an Associated Press investigation found, this project includes “a comprehensive effort to suppress Mariupol’s collective history and memory as a Ukrainian city.” Many streets have been given back their Soviet-era names; most notably, Prospekt Mira—Peace Avenue, which cuts through the entire city—is now Lenin Avenue. The erasure extends to the mass slaughter perpetrated by Russia in the spring of 2022: There is virtually no doubt that in many cases, damaged buildings have been bulldozed with dead bodies still inside, the human remains carted away with the debris.
That includes Mariupol’s Drama Theater, the site of one of Russia’s most infamous war crimes in Ukraine: At least 600 people died when the building, then serving as a bomb shelter, was bombed despite prominent markings indicating that it was sheltering children. After the Russians took control of the city, the theater—which residents said reeked of decomposing flesh—was surrounded with an enormous fence. In December, crews began demolishing the structure, leaving only the front section to be incorporated into a new theater building. Last week, a clip of a visiting Chinese opera singer belting out the Soviet World War II song “Katyusha” inside the theater’s remnants sparked Ukrainian outrage; a spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called it “an example of complete moral degradation.”
The same applies to the cheery “Mariupol comes back to life” propaganda reels. These Potemkin videos show streets filled with cars and buses, spiffy restored buildings and ongoing construction, posters advertising jobs, and well-stocked shops. (Needless to say, the numerous buildings and streets that still lie in ruins remain off-camera, as does the squalor of neighborhoods where people still lack basic comforts.) Of course, we also see smiling people walking the streets, relaxing on the beach, or hanging out in parks. Some of those people are probably actual locals; a minority of Mariupol residents did welcome Russian rule, and even those who oppose it but were unable or unwilling to leave their home city probably try to make the best of it. But it’s also very likely that the propaganda clips feature a lot of Russian occupiers and colonizers impersonating grateful citizens of Mariupol.
Tellingly, many comments on one such video (some of which seem to come from real people) gush about how much it looks like Soviet documentary footage. A number of commenters are particularly delighted by a shot of a happy grandpa wearing a USSR T-shirt, which he can finally do without being molested or harassed by those nasty Ukrainian “Nazis.”
Meanwhile, Putin, the Kremlin’s own “happy grandpa” (in the immortal words of the late Yevgeny Prigozhin), is not forgetting Mariupol, either. On September 1, the start of the school season throughout Russia, he presided over the opening of a school in Mariupol by video link. In a particularly creepy moment, a 7-year-old boy flanked by Denis Pushilin, the Russia-installed head of the “Donetsk People’s Republic,” greeted “esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich” and thanked him for “taking care of my beloved city of Mariupol”; Vladimir Vladimirovich listened with a small, satisfied smile. Six days later, Putin promoted the officer in command of the Russian Army divisions at the battle of Mariupol, Andrei Mordvichev, to the high rank of colonel-general.
Obviously, Ukraine’s fortunes in its war of liberation remain uncertain. While calls for a peace deal often come from bad-faith players who habitually recycle Kremlin narratives, there are also genuine concerns about the human costs to Ukraine itself of a lengthy war of attrition. But when considering negotiations and potential concessions, “Remember Mariupol” is a good principle. Any agreement that lets Putin and his henchmen claim it as a prize, and escape accountability for the crimes committed upon it, is the international-relations version of the archaic custom that allowed a rapist to marry the victim and go free. The world must not let it happen.