In the first week of October 2014, I traveled to the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on the coast of the Sea of Azov, for three days. With an ethnic demographic of just under 50% Ukrainian, 44% Russian, and the rest a mixture of Greeks, Armenians and others, Mariupol is over 95% Russian-speaking. It is also only a few kilometers west of the front, beyond which pro-Russian separatist rebels control a large swathe of Ukraine’s Donetsk District and have proclaimed it the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR). They claim not to recognize the legitimacy of the government in Kyiv, the capital, which took power after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, himself a native of Donetsk, in February.
Rumors were rife at the time of my visit that much of the local population in Mariupol and its immediate surroundings was a de facto “fifth column,” quietly biding its time until the forces of the Russian Federation and its proxies returned to take over, as they did in April of this year, two months before Ukrainian forces liberated the city. Mariupol is, at the time of this writing, the provisional capital of Donetsk District. Its governor, Serhiy Taruta (appointed by the interim president before the current president, Petro Poroshenko, assumed the office in June), had moved his office to Mariupol (his place of origin). He was governing from there before President Poroshenko replaced him with a career military officer in mid-October. Taruta was already running for a seat in the national parliament from one of Mariupol’s majoritarian districts in elections scheduled for October 26th at the time he was replaced.
What I found was a city where Ukrainian activists were busily preparing for the elections, and where candidates and campaign workers talked of civic groups in the area supporting the Ukrainian troops – including both regular soldiers and volunteers – in numerous ways. Taruta’s campaign boasted of their candidate’s achievements in securing the city’s defenses against a possible attack by Russian forces, saying he had done this by using his connections among the engineers in the giant metallurgical plants of Mariupol to create a kind of local emergency defense industry. The mood was calm but tense, and almost every time I stopped someone on the street to talk to them, they expressed dissatisfaction with the authorities in Kyiv. I encountered no fewer than seven refugees from the DNR by chance during three days’ stay.
Mariupol was originally the site of a Zaporizhian Cossack fortress called Kalmius (the Kalmius River runs through the city today), but only became incorporated as a city in 1778. It is thus older than Odessa, but far less grand. Although many buildings in the center are from the tsarist era, they are mostly single-storey and in a state of extreme disrepair. Furthermore, the city’s population is only about half a million, making it the 10th largest in Ukraine. Renamed “Zhdanov” in 1948 in honor of one of Stalin’s favorites on the Soviet Politburo, it reverted to its former name in 1989. It is a heavy-industrial city that is home to both the Ilyich Mariupol Steel & Iron Works (employing about 37,000) and Azovstal, the third largest steel producer in Ukraine. It is also home to the largest port on the Sea of Azov, to which Russia now controls access since the annexation of Crimea in March. Azovmash is the largest machine-building plant in Ukraine. The industrial feel and potential of Mariupol make it potentially a serious target for the territorial ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said earlier in the year: “We will not give up Mariupol.”
Click on the following link to see the whole album: Flickr