What Russia is doing in occupied Mariupol

Hardly any other city in Ukraine was destroyed as badly as Mariupol. Now Putin wants to build a new, a Russian Mariupol on the ruins.

A few days ago Vladimir Putin visited Mariupol. The Ukrainian city that has become a symbol of utter destruction. Videos released by the Kremlin show the Russian ruler driving through the city at the wheel of a car. It's nighttime. There is nothing to be seen of Mariupol or what remains of it. No ruins, no destruction.

On May 20, 2022, the last Ukrainian fighters left the city in the south of the country, on the Sea of Azov. Buses took them from the site of the Azov steelworks, where they had been holed up for weeks. Since that day, Mariupol has been under Russian occupation; since the annexation of Donetsk oblast in violation of international law, it has been part of Russia under Russian law.

During the three-month siege, Mariupol was hit hard, harder than almost any other city. Around 90 percent of the buildings are damaged or destroyed, and very many cannot be repaired.

Nearly 450,000 people used to live here; about 120,000 remain. It is not clear how many people were killed during the siege: Moscow speaks of 3000 civilians killed, probably it is much more. Ukrainian counts put the number of victims at 25 000.

Now, ten months after the end of the siege, the port city is about 90 kilometers behind the front lines. What leaks out comes almost exclusively from the Russian propaganda apparatus. But with the help of satellite imagery and photographs, one can get a glimpse of what the Russian occupiers are doing in the city. A new, a Russian Mariupol is to be built on ruins.

Am Beispiel von vier Orten, einem neuen Bezirk, dem Theater, dem Stadtpark und einer Straße, erklären wir, was die Besatzer in Mariupol gerade machen, wie sie die Stadt verändern und auf was sie dabei besonders Wert legen. Bei seinem Besuch fährt Putin durch die Kuprina Straße im Westen der Stadt. An dieser Straße wurde von den Besatzern in kurzer Zeit ein neuer Mikro-Stadtbezirk hochgezogen. Newskyj heißt er, ein Vorzeigeobjekt der Besatzer. Noch im Mai 2022 war zwischen einigen großen Hallen nur eine circa 90 000 Quadratmeter große grüne Wiese.

One year later, the satellite images show that seven gleaming white apartment blocks are standing here. Most of the neighboring halls have been destroyed, and large holes gape in the roofs.

Videos and pictures show the buildings up close. Russian flags hang on every apartment block, the grass is newly planted, the streets freshly tarred. It looks like a backdrop.

The microdistrict was built by the Russian Ministry of Defense, or more precisely by the ministry's military construction company, which normally builds airfields or barracks. In Mariupol, it is housing estates, and a hospital is also to be built.

Mariupol's exiled mayor, Vadym Boychenko, told the BBC it was no coincidence that many of the buildings built by the occupiers were on the outskirts of the city. "They are only building this to supposedly prove that the version they are spreading of what is happening in Mariupol is true. But they are lying. They destroyed the city. The city no longer exists. It will take 20 years to rebuild it." His adviser, Petro Andryushchenko, also speaks of staging. The new houses would house mainly members of the Russian military. Mariupol residents would have to continue living in destroyed houses.

It is not certain how quickly the Nevsky district was built; the Ministry of Defense says it took 80 days, and the first people moved in as early as September 2022. It probably didn't happen quite that fast, but the speed is still remarkable. Putin also had this new micro-district shown to him. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Chusnullin, who is responsible for reconstruction in the occupied territories, accompanies him, has folding plans with him, and shows Putin where schools are to be built and where kindergartens are to be set up.

Putin also talks to people who are passed off as residents, captured on video and later published on the Kremlin's website. They thank him; one woman says, "This is a little piece of heaven here." But at some point, from a distance, you can suddenly hear the faint cry of another: "It's all lies, it's all staged." Bystanders react in shock: Chusnullin and several other men turn around frantically, trying to figure out where the shouts are coming from.

Two days later, when the video had already been shared thousands of times on the Internet, it is deleted from the Kremlin site and republished in an edited version, without the shout. On the left bank of the Kalmius River is the Azov Steelworks, behind it are the residential districts of the Livobereshny district with its many apartment blocks and the Palace of Culture on Azovstal Street. Many who lived here used to work in the steel mill. During the siege there was heavy shelling, tanks drove through the settlement, many apartment blocks were destroyed.

Satellite photos from September 2022 show how badly Azovstal Street was hit. Roofs of dozens of houses are damaged, artillery shells simply tore away parts of some houses. The house with number 33 was also hit. Months after the video, the three wrecked cars are still standing in front of the house.

Ein paar Monate später, im Januar 2023, sind die Asowstalstraße Nummer 33 und die Häuser daneben weg. Auf Satellitenbildern kann man noch erahnen, wo mal die Wohnblöcke gestanden haben. Neben den Baugruben stehen noch die gelben Bagger.

Die Häuser werden auch auf einer Liste aufgeführt, die das Bauministerium der sogenannten Volksrepublik Donezk verbreitet hat: Dort sind Hunderte Häuser aufgelistet, die offenbar nicht mehr repariert werden können und deshalb abgerissen werden sollen. Dass die russischen Besatzer die zerstörten Häuser abreißen, mag nicht überraschend sein. Der Exil-Bürgermeister Bojtschenko erhebt aber einen schweren Vorwurf: Russland verwische damit die Spuren der Kriegsverbrechen, die sie in Mariupol begangen haben. Unter den Trümmern vieler Häuser, behauptete Bojtschenko im Februar, lägen noch immer getötete Zivilisten, die gemeinsam mit dem Bauschutt einfach weggeräumt würden. Die Aussage lässt sich nicht überprüfen.

Zu einem Mahnmal für die Grausamkeit des russischen Angriffskrieges sind die Überreste des Theaters von Mariupol geworden. In weißen, großen kyrillischen Lettern hatten sie auf den Platz vor dem Theater das Wort „Дети“ – Kinder geschrieben.

Das Theater war kurz nach dem Einmarsch der russischen Truppen von der Stadtverwaltung Mariupols als eines der Gebäude ausgewiesen worden, in dem die Bevölkerung vor Luftangriffen Schutz suchen sollte. 1300 sollen es zwischenzeitlich gewesen sein.

Doch am 16. März wurde das Theater von mindestens einer Bombe, abgeworfen von einem russischen Flugzeug, schwer getroffen.

Eine Rekonstruktion der Nachrichtenagentur AP kam zu dem Schluss, dass 600 Menschen unter den Trümmern ihr Leben verloren haben könnten. Wie hoch die Zahl der Opfer genau war, lässt sich nicht mehr ermitteln. Die geborgenen Leichen wurden in Massengräbern bestattet.

Noch im August 2022, Monate nachdem die letzten ukrainischen Kämpfer die Stadt verlassen haben, kann man auf dem Platz vor dem Theater das Wort „Kinder“ lesen.

Monate nach der Bombardierung haben die russischen Besatzer dieses Mahnmal verschwinden lassen. Anfang Dezember 2022 wurde um das Theater ein Gerüst errichtet und darüber eine Plane gespannt. Bedruckt ist sie mit Porträts von russischen Dichtern. Alexander Puschkin und Leo Tolstoi sind zu sehen. Die Ruine wird mit einer Technik, die bekannt ist von den sprichwörtlichen potemkinschen Dörfern, zu einer Simulation von Kultur und Wiederaufbau.

For many Ukrainians, it must seem like a mockery that the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko can also be seen on the tarpaulin. Behind it, the ruined building, the visible sign of a war crime, is being demolished stone by stone. Whether the theater will ever be rebuilt is unclear.

For Putin, Mariupol is militarily important. After the conquest, the city was gradually transformed into a logistics center. For the Russian ruler, however, it has above all great symbolic significance. This was demonstrated by his visit. After the withdrawal from Kherson, the city on the Sea of Azov is the only major city that Russia has been able to conquer since February 24. As soon as a new apartment block is built here, it is triumphantly paraded on Russian television. Moscow wants to use Mariupol as an example of how the occupied territories are to be Russified. The traces of Ukrainian history and culture are being destroyed. Whoever wants to have his pension here needs a Russian passport, the city has been assigned to the Russian time zone, doctors, craftsmen or civil servants are sent from Moscow. And the construction plans are of enormous dimensions. 875 hectares of housing are to be created by 2035, according to a leaked document from Russia's state planning agency. The port and the historic center are to be rebuilt, and a technology park is to be built where the Azov steelworks once stood, according to Russian sources.

All this is reminiscent of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, completely destroyed by Russia in two wars, then rebuilt with a lot of money from Moscow. Here, Putin has at least superficially bought the goodwill of the population. Whether the same can be done in Mariupol is by no means certain. "It's a shame Putin didn't come to our house in the Livobereshny district," wrote a resident of this heavily damaged neighborhood on Telegram, according to the independent portal Mozhem Obyasnit (Можем объяснить). "No windows, no doors, no hot water or heating. Here he could have talked to 'local people'." Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)