‘With all its tragic implications, war has made the residents of Mariupol reconsider their position in the world and their relation to the city, maybe for the first time since the end of the Soviet dream’. Article and photos by Anna Balazs.
The name Mariupol might sound familiar from last year’s news coverage, but other than that, it rarely registers with those from outside the region. The horrible irony of fate is that without the East Ukrainian war I would probably never have had the chance to discover this magical city on the shore of the Azov Sea, covered in rampant vegetation and smoke from giant metallurgical factories. The Donbas conflict has taken its victims with tragic senselessness, but it has also had a surprising side effect: it has created the first opportunity in many decades for Mariupol to see itself in a different light and to be seen by the world.
Having spent much of my fantastic 20s traveling around former Eastern Bloc countries, searching for traces of a world that disappeared in the days around my own birth, I thought I had seen it all: brutalist monuments, abandoned concrete structures, endless housing estates on the outskirts of East European towns. Year by year, each journey offered less excitement and fewer revelations: time was going forward with an unmerciful pace, erasing elements of the past or turning them into a profitable spectacle for tourists. The same feelings surrounded my recent arrival in Kyiv: maybe I’d grown old, I thought, eating cold borsch in a downtown restaurant decorated in a cheerful 1970s style, maybe my enthusiasm for the “postsocialist city” has disappeared forever with my youth and naïveté. Two days later, when our bus arrived in Mariupol, I realised I was wrong: post-Soviet Europe still has plenty to offer for romantic catastrophe tourists like myself.
Mariupol is a city of 500,000 inhabitants in East Ukraine, situated on the corridor between the Russian border and Crimea. As a port city, it has always been a meeting point for different peoples and cultures: Greeks, Jews, Italians and others set foot in the area, leaving their trace in the contemporary landscape. Founded in 1778 on a former Cossack settlement, Mariupol got its name from Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Russian Emperor Paul I; the last part of the name comes from the Greek word polis, suggesting a certain foreignness from the beginning. Indeed, while the Donbas area generally evokes images of coal mines and harsh industrial landscapes, Mariupol has something of a Mediterranean feel to it. Places like Italians’ Street, suburban Greek villages with living traditions, and the panorama of the Azov Sea above the smokestacks create a strange mixture of postindustrial gloom and the atmosphere of a Greek mythological island.
However, for the larger part of the 20th century, the city had a different name: from 1948 to 1989 it was called Zhdanov, reflecting the Soviet tendency to rename places after members of the nomenclature. Although Andrei Zhdanov and his colleagues are long since gone, their spirit is still there in every corner: Mariupol is a genuinely Soviet city built according to principles of a socialist order, an order that aimed to plan the life of its citizens to the fullest detail. At the center of this plan was industrial production as a foundation of Soviet economy: in this context, cities were essentially spatial projections of the Great Soviet Plan, urban planning being a practical project to accommodate workers who operated the whole system, and fulfill their basic physical and cultural needs.
Many of the former socialist cities bear marks of this ideological planning, but there are only a few places where they are presented in such a well-preserved ensemble as in Mariupol. Visiting the city feels like time travel for a variety of reasons: most importantly, the spatial structure has remained relatively unchanged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, only a handful of new buildings have sprung up in the last 30 years. Stagnation concerns not only housing, but urban space in general. Rocket-shaped playground equipment signifying Soviet achievements in space travel, rusty trolley buses with worn-out silk curtains, or fading mosaics on the buildings make it easy to imagine that we are back in the 1980s.
But an even more striking aspect of this time loop lies in the deeper structures that made the Soviet city function and continue working in present-day Mariupol without major transformation. It is enough to look at the smokestacks filling up the horizon on each side of the city to get a sense of the situation. The Azovstal and Ilyicha factories have been and still are among the largest metallurgical plants in the former Soviet Union – while ‘economic rationalization’ and a series of downsizings didn’t pass them by, the recurring postsocialist story about closed factories does not apply here.
The plants are still the main source of economic output in the city, and also the basis of local employment. I didn’t have a chance to get a clear idea about the life of the workers, so I can only talk about the lunches we had in various factory canteens: varenykis and mayonnaise salads and buckwheat porridge served in tin plates for around 2 dollars tell a lot about the timeless coziness and fading perspectives of this place. What I experienced was a return to a familiar scene of my childhood landscapes, where routines from socialist times live on, representing an endless struggle to get by and a lack of perspective to join the culturally more progressive flows of the outside world.
The mostly middle class, educated people I met in Mariupol all spoke about the same thing: after the ongoing threat of the Donbas conflict reaching out to the very outskirts of the city, they frequently mentioned the lack of cultural activities as the main problem of the place. Many cinemas have been closed since the 1990s and operate as venues for questionable little churches; theatres show outdated Soviet romantic plays; contemporary art is practically non-existent here. But there is an unexpected twist in the story: last year brought the Donbas war, the 2 month long occupation of Mariupol by Russian separatist forces, and as an unexpected consequence, a sort of cultural revival.
While locals have been recovering from the shock of losing their loved ones and their hometown becoming a scene from a war movie, they realised with a little surprise that new, exciting events were happening now. ‘I have never seen so many opportunities to do something meaningful in Mariupol. Actually, there was almost nothing, and now you can go out two or three times a week’ says Sasha, a local university teacher I met in a Mariupol park at a concert of a hip-hop band from Kharkiv. As he explained, events like this are a sign of increased interest in Mariupol from other parts of Ukraine and sometimes Europe.
Experimental theatre groups from Kyiv and Lviv, Lithuanian filmmakers and others started to come here and reflect on the local issues through different means of art. One of the most beautiful examples is a performance reciting the letters of a famous Ukrainian writer sent from the island of Capri to his wife and his mistress. Letters to the wife were written in Ukrainian, while those written to the mistress were in Russian. Read out loud in a park at night accompanied by the sound and lights from a Kyiv DJ, the performance was a poetic reflection on the current situation, where the interests of wives and mistresses clash beyond the realm of language.
At the time of my visit, the green and dusty avenues of Mariupol were silent and hot, like some abandoned colonial town in the Carribeans. The sea, heavily polluted by metallurgical waste, was sparkling in shades of grey, green and blue, beaches were crowded with locals, and the war was felt only as a threatening background noise. Three days after I left in August, the neighboring village was shelled by the Russian forces, killing three civilians and destroying many of the buildings. The fate of Mariupol remains uncertain: the city sits between Donetsk Peoples’ Republic and the Crimea peninsula, already Russian territory; a place of strategic importance.
But something has definitely happened: with all its tragic implications, war has made the residents of Mariupol reconsider their position in the world and their relation to the city, maybe for the first time since the end of the Soviet dream. The opportunity created by the war is best symbolised by the ruined government building, a monument of Soviet administration standing in the city center. Its black ruins in the main square of Mariupol present the key challenge of future development: rebuilding without questioning the old forms, or trying to find a way more suitable for the present time? Both options are heard among the local voices – anything can still happen.