A letter of love, despair, and hope to the city of Mariupol and its people. The same people, who according to Victoria Donovan—senior lecturer, author, and writer with an interest in the Donbas region and its imaginaries—“welcomed me so warmly and shared so generously their knowledge and experiences, now fear for their lives in the city’s basements and bomb shelters. Russian shelling of the humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol means that they are stuck in the city without food, water, or heating, and today (12 March 2022) it is -5C and snowing.”

*A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS: Before you start reading Victoria’s letter, we would like to take the opportunity and connect our readership with the displaced art collective from Mariupol FreeFilmers’ work, fundraiser, and call to support, which can be accessed here. Consider donating for basic needs, medical help and relocation to safer places.

Just before the Internet stopped working in Ukraine’s southern port city of Mariupol, Anna Bahachenko, an archivist at the local museum, sent me a Telegram message: “Today I’ve scanned and uploaded almost our whole collection of “Ilychevets” [a Mariupol newspaper published in the Soviet era]… it might seem funny but doing that today really calmed me down.” Anna’s actions didn’t seem funny to me at all. Given the intensifying Russian attacks on the city, they seemed, on the contrary, incredibly brave. As part of a community of museum workers functioning in the Ukrainian East (a region torn apart by pro-Russian separatist violence since 2014) Anna was aware of the risks war poses to the cultural fabric of society, its heritage and archives. Her efforts may well have preserved a part of the city’s cultural legacy that could otherwise have been destroyed by Russian shelling. That was the last message that I received from Anna. Since 2 March she hasn’t been back online.

The last time I saw Anna in person was in Mariupol in November 2021. I had travelled to the heavily industrialized city on the Sea of Azov on the overnight train from Kyiv. I arrived bleary eyed, but excited: I had wanted to visit Mariupol since watching Little Vera (1988), Vasilii Pichul’s bleak but beautiful coming-of-age drama set in the aestheticized dereliction of the city’s port region. The city didn’t disappoint: from the winding hilltop streets of the historic Azov Greek district to the sprawling factory complexes belching coke oven emissions into the sky, Mariupol is a place of remarkable cultural diversity. More than architecture and industry, however, it was the people who I met there who brought the city alive. These people, who welcomed me so warmly and shared so generously their knowledge and experiences, now fear for their lives in the city’s basements and bomb shelters. Russian shelling of the humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol means that they are stuck in the city without food, water, or heating, and today (12 March 2022) it is -5C and snowing. 

Mariupol. Photograph by Artem Bereznev @bereznevartem

My research deals with the heritage of industrialization and it was this that brought me to Mariupol. While I was staying in the city, I had the chance to meet some extraordinary individuals who were in different ways connected with the metallurgy industries that dominate the city’s skyline, making everything smell like fireworks night. These factories are run by the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s international steel and mining group, Metinvest, and were, until the outbreak of war, the primary source of employment for local residents. The UK remains one of the primary purchasers of Metinvest’s steel which it imports as huge plates to Newcastle, where it is reworked into serviceable goods. In peacetime, Metinvest plays a fundamental role in community life. Not only do people have to breathe the factory’s toxic fumes on a day-to-day basis, but it is almost impossible to find employment in a sector that isn’t controlled or influenced in some way by the company. As Anna explained: “the factory’s here, the factory’s there, it’s all an integrated system.”

I met Artem Bereznev on the fifth day of my visit. He was working in his aquarium store, where he fabricated miniature marine environments replicating underwater conditions in different parts of the world, complete with tropical fish. This was just a passion project, however: Artem’s day job was as a factory foreman at the “Ilych” steelworks, where he had worked for over twenty years. Another of Artem’s hobbies was photography. He suggested that we meet later that evening to take some photos of Mariupol’s factories by night. This turned out to be an incredible experience: the Azovstal iron and steel works’ imposing sprawl, illuminated by the eternal flames of the blast furnaces, resembled a scene from Mad Max. As we observed the view, Artem told me that these factories had never stopped working, not even during the Second World War, since shutting down the blast furnaces would cause irreparable damage. As of seven days ago, Azovstal was still producing metal. As Russian shells rained down on the city, workers were still turning up to work to tend to the furnaces and pour the steel. Artem decided to leave when the shelling intensified, taking his family to the relative safety of relatives in the western city of Khmelnitsky. It would surely have been impractical to transport his beloved fish and their delicately crafted aquariums with them on this journey. They remain behind, like so many other Mariupol residents, to face the evil ferocity of this Russian war of aggression.

Ilych Iron and Steel Works metallurgy factory, Mariupol. Photo by Artem Bereznev @bereznevartem

On the last day of my trip, I visited Platforma Tyu, an arts collective that leads workshops for teenagers from marginal groups, including LGBTQ+ teenagers, who, as one of the team’s coordinators explained, “struggle to find a place in their patriarchal community.” I had been following Tyu’s activities on Instagram for some time and was impressed how they helped young people develop creative skills, like exhibition installation and podcast making, but also taught them to be engaged citizens: how to use language so that local politicians listen to you, or how to design a demo poster that would go viral online. When I visited Tyu I was shown around by collage artist and teen mentor Masha Pronina. Masha gave me a tour of a moving exhibition of local teenagers’ work on the themes of loneliness and alienation. Another topic that the young creatives had explored was “life beyond the factory.” Encouraging them to think critically about established career paths, the team at Tyu had stimulated some remarkable work. This included a brilliant mockumentary about a disillusioned, alcoholic factory worker, directed and played by local teen, Denis Barabash.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, I reached back out to Masha Pronina. As Russia intensified its shelling of Mariupol, she and some colleagues from Tyu had taken the difficult decision relocate to the western city of Lviv, the hub of the country’s humanitarian effort, where they could support the displaced, traumatized children flooding into the city. When I spoke to her on March 3, she was in the midst of recruiting and training mobile brigades of art therapists and mentors who would work with these youngest victims of Putin’s war. Her experience with teenagers back in Mariupol had prepared her for this new challenge, she explained, and, until the internet went down in the city, they had been helping with her work in Lviv, fighting the trolls who attacked them online. Masha speaks passionately about the young people she worked with in Mariupol who are now among those sheltering while incessant shelling razes the city: “These amazing LGBT (and not only LGBT) kids, these new kids, this new generation, new Ukrainians, we’re so proud of them,” she says. “We would always say that this generation will change our country, that the fact that we have kids like this..well, that they were going to make our country so strong...and then these orcs came and attacked us, attacked our kids…and I can tell you this, one of our kids, one of our Ukrainian teenagers, is worth ten thousand of those orcs, so Putin can go fuck himself.”

Victoria Donovan is a Senior Lecturer in Russian and the Director of the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central, and East European Studies. She is currently an AHRC Leadership Fellow on the project Donbas in Focus: Visions of Industry in the Ukrainian East. She is the co-editor with Iryna Sklokina of the special issue "Donbas Imaginaries: Heritage, Culture, Communities" and co-author with Darya Tsymbalyuk of Limits of Collaborations: Art, Ethics, and Donbas, forthcoming in 2022. She is a former British Academy Rising Star Engagement Award Holder and a BBC/AHRC New Generation Thinker.