Spilnota Detector Media

Lesia Bidochko

Deputy Head of Detector Media Research Center

Arsenii Subarion

Detector Media analyst

Українською читайте тут.

The Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and now Russia, following the physical occupation, captured the symbolic spaces of Ukrainian cities, declaring a specific settlement "originally Russian" or distorting the image of the city in propaganda. In the article “Is Odesa a "Russian city"? How Russia captures the symbolic space of Ukrainian cities” Detector Media has already analyzed how [Russian] propaganda has used the events in Odesa on May 1-2, 2014 to activate pro-Russian sentiments and justify shelling of the city with the presence of Russian cultural and historical monuments. Now, analyzing how agitational propaganda appropriates the Ukrainian Mariupol is necessary.

On May 20, 2022, the city became occupied after 86 days of defense. Taking advantage of impunity, the Russian occupiers are now cleaning up the traces of their crimes in the occupied Mariupol — clearing rubble and trying to build a new Russian city on the bones of the residents they killed. For this purpose, agitational propaganda builds an appropriate ideological construct that justifies the killings and the occupation and also positions Mariupol as an "ancient Russian city."

For the first time, Russian hybrid forces tried to occupy Mariupol in the spring of 2014. They seized administrative buildings and blocked several streets in the center. In some areas, there was a confrontation between Ukrainian troops and armed formations supported by Russia, and on June 13, 2014, the occupiers were pushed out of the city. But the war was not too far from Mariupol: the demarcation line was only 20 kilometers from the city, so the people of Mariupol lived near the front line.

During the full-scale invasion, Mariupol was destroyed. According to the UN, 90% of residential buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 350,000 city residents with a population of half a million were forced to leave after February 2022. Russian troops besieged the city in the first weeks after the start of the full-scale war. According to the estimates of the investigation by Human Rights Watch and the Ukrainian human rights organization Truth Hounds, at the beginning of March 2022, about 450 thousand civilians were blocked in Mariupol. Ukrainian ombudsman Lyudmyla Denysova reported that as of May 2022, about 170,000 Ukrainians remained in the city. The Donetsk regional state administration reported that more than 22,000 civilians were killed, and more than 50,000 were deported to Russia and the temporarily occupied Donetsk region. These are only preliminary estimates, and the total number of dead, wounded, and missing remains unknown. Foreign investigators and court officials are not allowed to inspect the city's remains. Eyewitnesses to the Russians’ crimes living under occupation are unlikely to testify because of fear of punishment.

Cognitive occupation: pseudo-documentaries, propaganda literature, youth organizations

As early as May 2022, hostile agitational propaganda (in particular, RIA Novosti and Vesti Donbass) began to spread the narrative that Mariupol is celebrating the second "Victory Day", and local residents are turning to "Putin, the savior" with requests to solve the "issues of housing and communal services". According to the propagandists, the city immediately began to "resurrect" after all the horrors allegedly caused not by the Russians but rather by the Ukrainian army. Accordingly, thanks to the Russians, all the horrors were over; the city infrastructure was not destroyed by Russian artillery and super-heavy aerial bombs, and the civilian population did not die en masse.

"The enemy was knocked out from here, but the further south, the more often the eye is drawn to the symbols of Kyiv's statehood: the yellow-blue painted poles of the power line, road signs in the [Ukrainian] "language", burnt skeletons of armored vehicles, former Ukrainian positions... Quite by chance, only the monuments to the heroes of the Fatherland have withstood: not a scratch, not a chip, not a bullet hole," stated the propagandist report.

Cognitive occupation is on at total capacity. Oleksandr Malkevych, the head of the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus built in the temporarily occupied territories, launched the Mariupol 24 TV channel, which broadcasts all kinds of fakes and manipulations, such as the reports about how the Ukrainian authorities allegedly conducted medical experiments on Mariupol residents in 2020. In August 2022, the pseudo-documentary film "Mariupol. Russian city" by an RT propagandist, Stanislav Obnishchenko. The two-hour material discussed the " Kyiv regime’s torture chambers", how the "nationalists" expelled civilians from their homes to set up firing positions from there, and how the "valiant Russian Army" returned the Mariupol residents "home".

Propagandist Diana Panchenko, in her report about Mariupol (detailed analysis - in our material) repeated the thesis previously expressed by the agitational propaganda: allegedly, according to the testimonies of the residents she interviewed, the Ukrainian military did not help the residents of Mariupol, kicked them out of their apartments, did not conduct evacuations, Ukrainian tanks shot residential buildings, and the city turned from pro-Ukrainian to pro-Russian.

In the fall of 2022, Putin labeled Mariupol a "Russian city": "Mariupol is a well-known, very ancient, one might say, Russian city. As known, Peter the First established his first military flotilla there [in Mariupol], won his first victories, then Suvorov also carried out his steppe campaigns there, and Catherine the Second built up these lands." In fact, Ukrainian Cossack warriors founded the city, and historically, it has always been multi-ethnic, so to place Russians as a determining force in its development and development is historical manipulation.

An essential aspect of the cognitive occupation and seizure of the symbolic space of the occupied city (Mariupol is one example of such a tactic) is the reconstruction of public libraries, which are filled with propaganda literature. The goal of such a policy is to convince the young generation of the newly occupied territories that their city has always been "Russian". Half of the publications from the city's library fund were burned during the shelling or were liquidated as "extremist literature"; four libraries and almost 200,000 books were destroyed. Shortly after the capture of Mariupol, Russian volunteers began to remove books from the premises of the city library that served, as reported by the mayor's adviser, Andryushchenko, on his Telegram channel. Instead of Ukrainian-language and English-language literature, Russian books and school textbooks were brought to the city to re-educate and russify Ukrainian children — the Russians supply local educational institutions with their textbooks literally "by weight", delivering nine tons of books, as reported Mariupol City Council.

The program of changing the self-identification of Mariupol children was also ensured by the involvement of teachers from Russia and the holding of regular propaganda classes in the school, known as "conversations on important things" ("Разговоры о важном"). In addition, Russians are collaborating with teachers to work according to Russian standards by distributing to first-graders in Mariupol stationery with the symbols of Russia and brochures praising war criminals fighting against Ukraine. Even schoolchildren are forced to write letters of gratitude to the Russian occupiers for the "special military operation".

Additional saturation of children in Mariupol with Russian propaganda narratives occurred thanks to youth organizations that appeared shortly after the capture of the city. The first was the Young Army (Юнармия) — a military-patriotic military organization founded under the Ministry of Defense of Russia, which aims to educate young people in the traditions of patriotism and prepare a mobilization resource for the army—according to the mayor's adviser, Andryushchenko, the organization's first cells appeared in Mariupol in June 2022, although the Russian media used a more symbolic date — May 9, 2022.

Young soldiers conduct their work in city schools, where separate detachments of young men are formed. They teach students how to use firearms and promote the cult of "heroes of the special military operation," for which they conduct "courage lessons" with invitations to Russian military personnel.

Several similar organizations contributed to the cognitive occupation in the temporarily occupied territories. For example, "Movement of the First" and "Young Guard" became the most influential organizations in the public sector. "The First" is instead a revived version of the Soviet pioneer, who is popularizing the practice of volunteering and educating young people based on "traditional Russian values." "Young Guard" was created as an all-Russian youth wing of the ruling party in 2000 and is responsible for organizing cultural and educational events that spread "right values". In particular, it was "Young Guard" that organized the event on May 20, 2024, which was dedicated to "the second anniversary of the liberation of Mariupol." During the event, activists of the organization unfurled a 100-meter "victory flag" and the exact size flag of Russia. On this day, flowers were also laid at the monument to the dead Azovstal warriors during the Second World War. Even though this story has similar parallels with the Azovstal warriors of today and could compromise the Russian actions in Mariupol, the Russians use it as a symbol of the continuity of the fight against Nazism, as if "Ukrainian neo-Nazis" tried to destroy the memory of compatriots who died at the hands of fascist invaders.

Among other things, to strengthen the effect of the "normalization" of life in Mariupol and the integration of the city, the Kremlin invites Russian celebrities to visit the town and "testify" about its supposed reconstruction. Russian TV presenter Anastasia Ivleeva visited the occupied Mariupol and said that Russia is supposedly rebuilding and reviving the city from the ruins: "I was in Mariupol. When you see this half-ruined city with your own eyes, it certainly does not leave you indifferent. Why half-ruined? Because it is currently being actively rebuilt. It is a unique situation when a new life is born from the ruins.

Occupation of symbolic space: murals, graffiti, monuments

Replacing Ukrainian symbols with Russian and Soviet ones also became a component of Russian cultural expansion in the city. As part of this campaign, in August 2022, the occupation authorities demolished the monument to the defenders of Ukraine and, in the following month, installed in its place the statue of the prince and Orthodox saint Alexander Nevsky, a leading figure in Russian history. There are enough examples of the destruction of Ukrainian symbols: the monument to the victims of the Holodomor and political repressions, the commemorative sign for the 500th anniversary of the Cossacks, and the memorial to Hetman Petro Sahaidachnyy. In their place, the occupation authorities restored Lenin's monuments and installed a new memorial to a "grandmother Anna with a red flag", from whom agitational propaganda made a heroine of the fight against "Ukrainian neo-Nazism", as previously discussed by Detector Media in the "From the “Crucified Boy” to “Hero Fyodor”: How Russian Propaganda Fabricates Heroes" research.

Murals on dilapidated buildings became another way of filling the symbolic space of the city. The first was the image of a Mariupol pioneer from the Second World War, next to a 14-year-old boy who, according to Russian media, carried out wounded soldiers and civilians from destroyed buildings and dismantled rubble, for which he was awarded a medal from the hands of Denis Pushylin, the leader of an illegal terrorist group in occupied Donetsk region. In this way, the occupiers want to demonstrate the "heritability of generations" and the "historical endurance of the struggle against the "Nazi invaders", which should be a confirmation of Mariupol's cultural and historical belonging to Russia.

Another example of heroization through graffiti is the image of Russian soldier Alexey Afanasyev with the caption "I'm proud." Agitational propaganda created a "hero of the special military operation" out of him, and the story of his wounding near Zaporizhzhia, spread by the local media, became a means of romanticizing and heroizing the war among the city's residents. Another propaganda mural — "a girl on whom the NATO missiles fall" — has been removed, as the building on which the mural was painted is in disrepair. The basis of the graffiti was a statement about the responsibility of Ukraine and the West for the war, victims, and destroyed cities. The graffiti was made by Italian artist Jorit, known for his anti-Western and pro-Russian views. In a post about this mural on his Instagram page, the artist wrote that "the people of Donbas fought for eight years to get rid of the Kyiv regime," and the West "didn't lift a finger to help the children of Donbas."

Propaganda billboards in cities and on main highways in the newly occupied territories were used from the first days of the war. In this way, the occupation authorities saturated the city space with messages such as "Russia is here forever" and "We will not abandon our own." Common motives among such billboards are the idea of "revival of Donbas" and "friendship of Mariupol and Donetsk." The occupiers also installed billboards with the inscription "Together against Nazism", in this way motivating the citizens to join the ranks of the army. By installing such billboards, Russia returned to the traditional practices of agitational propaganda — using propaganda posters, but in a modernized form.

"New Mariupol" with the "new Russian" and Potemkin quarters

The Russians planned to restore the city they had destroyed by 2035, as stated in the master plan prepared by the Unified Institute of Spatial Planning (former Institute of Moscow’s Gradplan), following the order of the Ministry of Construction of Russia. The plan is designed to cover the traces of their own war crimes quickly. First, the Russians plan to restore the bombed Mariupol Drama Theater, the historical center, and the Azovstal factory.

In March 2023, the Russian media published a video in which Putin allegedly makes a night trip to the destroyed Mariupol and communicates with "residents of the microdistrict," which was allegedly rebuilt. However, in the video about the trip, which was published by the Kremlin itself, a desperate female voice can be heard: "It's all not true. It's all for show!"

The "Potemkin villages" that the Russian occupiers are building in Mariupol are lifeless houses built exclusively for pictures, as well as an element of fortification; as the mayor of the city, Vadym Boychenko, says, "they are building these buildings for a picture, for Russia's internal consumption, to show that they came to liberate and to form a narrative that was created before the start of the war... These are only 3-5 houses that they built," commented Boychenko on the demonstrative reconstruction of the area that Putin allegedly visited in the spring of 2023.

The mayor also added that the Russians built these houses specifically on the outskirts of the city: "They did it on the outskirts of the city, building it as a fortification, that is, when our [Ukraine’s] armed forces will advance, accordingly, they will blow it up themselves to create another narrative that "here, you see, we built it, but the Armed Forces are advancing, eradicating it."

The plan for 2022 states that 212,000 people will live in Mariupol, and by 2035 — 350,000. By 2022, up to 460,000 people lived in Mariupol. After the beginning of the full-scale war, according to the UN data, about 350,000 citizens left it. As the Mariupol City Council reports, the city's population is growing because of the importation of construction workers from Russia who also transport their families. They are settled in the empty homes of Mariupol residents who were forced to flee from a full-scale invasion. Opora analysts have written that the majority of immigrants are from the countries of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan); in Russia, these nationals are often called "new Russians" because, after a specific time after moving, they receive the citizenship of the aggressor country. Russia is interested in them working and staying in Mariupol.

In three years, the occupying administrations in the temporarily occupied territories discovered 13,300 "ownerless" real estate objects, half of which — for the incomplete year of 2024. Russia plans to nationalize them and settle "new citizens" there. 77.5% of such real estate is located in recently occupied territories, and Mariupol is among the leaders regarding the number of abandoned housing that will be subject to nationalization. In addition to settling in ownerless apartments, Russia offers visitors another handout in the form of preferential mortgages. This policy towards immigrants contributes to changing the ethnic and religious composition of the city's population. The authors of the material write that Russian soldiers, who destroyed the city before that, are living in the housing that has survived.

Bringing ethnic Russians to Mariupol is more dangerous because, in this way, the city is more firmly attached to the "Russian world" according to the Crimean scenario when Russians replaced the local Ukrainian population. Such actions allow Russia to announce that Mariupol has always been a Russian city and cannot be Ukrainian, given the small share of Ukrainians among its residents. According to the director of Mariupol Television, Mykola Osychenko, Russia is trying to "wash out" the local population of Mariupol in this way, and it will continue doing so as long as it has time.

Another question in the context of the ethnic composition of the city is the fate of the Greek community. Before the full-scale war, up to 100,000 ethnic Greeks and people of Greek origin lived in the Azov region, according to the Greek Foreign Ministry. As a result of the bombing of the city, monuments, and museum exhibits of the unique Greek culture of the Azov region were destroyed. In response to Russian aggression, Greece appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia's war crimes in Mariupol, citing "special interests" due to the existence of a Greek community in the city. Greek culture in Mariupol and the entire region has been damaged. The preservation of unique traditions and practices is under threat, even though a small part of local Greeks cooperated with the occupiers and still tried to spread their culture under the patronage of the occupation authorities, as reported by the head of the Federation of Greek Societies of Ukraine.

This is not the first time that Russia has implemented such a neo-colonial policy in Ukraine. For example, this happened after the occupation of Crimea in February-March 2014. According to various estimates, up to 800,000 Russian citizens have illegally settled on the peninsula since 2014. Key elements of this policy are preferential mortgage loans for newcomers, relocation of the Russian military, law enforcement officers, judges, and the state, medical, and educational personnel with their families to the area; eviction of Ukrainian citizens to mainland Ukraine; as well as deportations and incentives for Ukrainians to move to Russia.

Why agitational propaganda turns Mariupol into a showcase for the occupation

First of all, Mariupol is the largest Ukrainian city occupied by the Russians since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. It is an economic center and an industrial giant with access to the sea and appropriate port infrastructure. The war also affected Siverskodonetsk and Lysychansk; however, their economic capacities are much lower than those of Mariupol.

Secondly, its relative distance from the front line. For example, captured Siverskodonetsk and Lysychansk are closer to the front line, so the dynamic theater of hostilities complicates their reconstruction. DM can cite examples of other large cities under occupation, such as Melitopol or Berdyansk, which the invaders could have used as a "model" of the occupation reconstruction policy. Still, they were significantly less affected by hostilities, so making Mariupol a "visiting card" of their reconstruction policy is profitable.

Thirdly, Russia aims to destroy the traces of its own war crimes. The occupiers demolished damaged buildings so that after the liberation of the city by Ukrainian forces, the investigative commission could not conclusively prove that Russian weapons destroyed a particular residential building, school, or kindergarten. Along with the construction debris, the remains of the bodies of their residents were disposed of from the damaged houses. The Mariupol City Council published this information in a notice.

Fourthly, Russians use the sacred significance of Mariupol for Ukraine. In 2014, special forces, including members of the "Azov" regiment, liberated Mariupol from pro-Russian militants. This event prevented the further occupation of Ukraine. In 2022, the battle for the city lasted 86 days, 82 in complete encirclement. During these 82 days, the fighters of the "Mariupol" garrison (which included the National Guard, marines, border guards, police, Territorial Defense, volunteers, and Azov warriors) defended the city. Russia is trying to quickly desacralize the image of Mariupol as a city of resistance, create all the conditions for its Russification, and "reflash" it in the Kremlin way.

Detector Media expresses gratitude to Andriy Pylypenko for his help writing the text.

Illustration on the main page credits: Natalia Lobach

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