"They rejoiced in every basement when they heard the fighting approaching"

July 29, 2022
  • Ivan Grek
Ivan Grek spoke to a family from Mariupol trying to rebuild their lives in a former Soviet republic. They shared what life was like in a basement, how the Drama Theater was destroyed, about the Azov Battalion and human shields, and why their position is “neutrality.”
Ekaterina, 21 years old. Worked in the restaurant business.
Maria, Ekaterina’s mother, 42 years old. Worked in the restaurant business.
Leonid, Ekaterina's boyfriend, 23 years old. Graduate of engineering university.
Confrontation between locals and Ukrainian troops in Mariupol, 2014. Source: Wiki Commons
How did you react to the Maidan in 2014?

LEONID: I’ve always supported Ukraine's turn toward the EU, but I still don't understand how our own capital being overrun can help us join the EU. It seems to me that the Maidan was a copy of similar revolutions in other countries, which didn’t turn out to be anything sensible for them. Really, the next eight years showed that my doubts were justified. Or was Poroshenko supposed to be the outcome? I can’t say that he was radically better than Yanukovych... Russia didn’t offer any future. If they had brought gas to their own villages, built roads, created some centers of growth other than Moscow, then our turn to the West could be called into question. But instead of doing good for their people, the Russian elites spat on them and began to spread their “Russian world,” which has brought nothing good neither to the people of Russia nor the people of Ukraine.

The Maidan involved the theft of Crimea, the war in the Donbas and a full-fledged war with Russia. Would we live better under Russia? I’m not sure. So neither the first nor the second scenario is close to me.

How did you react to Crimea, the beginning of the war in the Donbas, when Mariupol temporarily came under the control of the DNR? What did the people around you say?

MARIA: It’s simple – we left. There weren’t really troops in Mariupol, and the struggle between the sides looked like a tug-of-war, there was no feeling of war. But when our troops began to storm the DNR Headquarters, the shots and rumbles could be heard in our apartment. We didn’t need new revolutions, and I left for another region with our daughter (Ekaterina was 13 at the time). In the end, Mariupol remained in Ukraine, although there was a small military contingent there. Apparently, they reached some agreement, and the DNR didn’t take over the city. I felt that about 30% welcomed the prospect of going the way of Crimea, mostly it was older people. Support among the youth was minimal.

Did you define yourself as some nationality at that time?

EKATERINA: It still seems to me that choosing a nation doesn’t make any sense. I live in Ukraine, I speak Russian and I love my city. I haven’t traveled much around Ukraine and other countries. If I traveled more, maybe I would have a more defined identity. And so my identity is human.

How did life change in Mariupol after 2014?

EKATERINA: Twenty-fourteen divided my family and my life between two cities. My mother and I left for a safe place, while my father stayed to work in Mariupol. Over several years in a new city a new life had begun for me, and when we decided to return to Mariupol, I left my life behind again, along with my new friends and my first love. When we returned, I continued to go to a Ukrainian school, but soon we moved to another neighborhood, where I started going to a Russian school. Six months later this school began to be moved onto Ukrainian, which took place with its share of stress. The problem wasn’t that we had to study in Ukrainian, but that the teachers were afraid to speak Russian even among themselves. There was a story about how a saleswoman in a store switched to Russian with a customer, he recorded it on his phone, and she came under fire and was fired. People tried to speak Ukrainian at their workplaces, where they used to speak Russian, but it was unusual.

LEONID: We live in Ukraine, and we are Ukrainians – it’s right to have a single state language. Imagine if in Russia every nation spoke its own language – how would Chechens and Buryats communicate? Patriots aren’t born, they’re made. But there were problems with instilling patriotism.

What were the problems with instilling patriotism?

EKATERINA: At our school, a mandatory anthem was introduced in the morning, 10 minutes before the start of classes. Standing for it was obligatory, and if we were late for the anthem (not for class), our notebooks were taken, which violated the school’s code. Love for the anthem and flag was instilled in a strange way: it was forbidden to move, and if someone was tying his shoes, then he had to freeze in that position during the anthem. This irritated people. The idea of instilling patriotism isn’t bad, but how it was done was weak.

LEONID: Ideological idiocy is characteristic of practically every CIS country, and Ukraine is no exception. After 2014, Ukraine began to cultivate patriotism to spite Moscow while denying its own history and values. For example, we’ve always venerated our ancestors who won the war against Nazism, but after 2014 all Soviet soldiers from World War II automatically became some sort of lowlifes and idiots who were worse than the Germans. More than 30% of the Soviet army were Ukrainians – they, it stands, were lowlifes and idiots too? Is my great-grandfather who served through the whole war and won the Battle of Kursk one of them? The only thing that’s worse is what Moscow did to the memory of the war, making it an instrument of mobilization for war, now against those who stood shoulder to shoulder with Russians against fascism. On May 9, my great-grandfather would drink two glasses of vodka and withdraw into himself. He would’ve killed someone on the spot for the [Russian propaganda] phrase “we can do it again.”

MARIA: Victory Day has always been an important holiday for us. They [the Russian media] are still constantly saying that we have Nazis walking the streets. What Nazis?! We have a Russian-speaking city. They constantly talk about the Azov Regiment. None of them forced us to do push-ups on the street, many of them spoke Russian, because it was the same local guys there.
Azov soldiers in a military parade in Mariupol, 2021. Source: Wiki Commons
The Azov Battalion, who are they?

LEONID: Azov in 2014 and after 2014 are two different organizations. When it was a private volunteer organization, right-wing elements flocked there, mostly football hooligans. After they began to be integrated into the army, the composition of Azov changed a lot. In particular, it changed under the influence of the Americans, who at first wanted to label them a terrorist organization, but then began to train them and make them a professional military unit. You can probably find some fascists among the Azov people, but this concerns specific individuals and not the ideology of the battalion as a whole. And these people aren’t fanatics, they would never sear swastikas onto dead children. This is the same propaganda as the claims that every Russian is a beast that tortures women and children.

EKATERINA: So you understand how much Azov participated in public life – I fully understood what it was only in 2022. They weren’t visible at all in the city.

Do you recognize the government in Kyiv?

MARIA: Of course, I voted for it. But Zelensky didn’t fulfill his single key promise – to prevent a war by any means! Even after the start of the war, no one tried to decide our fate through negotiations. Not a single "green corridor," and a complete humanitarian catastrophe, in part because of a lack of preparation for an attack on the city. We were simply left to fend for ourselves.

LEONID: Instead of trying to prevent a war, Zelensky simply continued Poroshenko's policy. I think that Zelensky represents the same interest groups as Poroshenko, who they decided to replace, painting him as “absolute evil,” which he was not. When a fight brews for a while, both sides want it. Our oligarchy stopped looking to Russia and instead to America and put at the helm a new face who continued to sharpen the knives with the direct assistance of the West. Hatred for the other was cooked up on both sides for many years instead of building new relations. People are stuck between two moronic ideologies of hatred, because of which Ukrainians and Russians are ready to kill each other.

"My emotional position is neutrality – I am on the side of people. Yes, we are angry at the Russian state, which started the war, but we can’t deny that our government also received dividends from militarism."
EKATERINA: This is not a war of peoples, but some politicians dividing things up, setting up a meat grinder in which tens of thousands of people are being ground. There are no good or bad people in this war – only victims.

How did you learn that the war had begun?

EKATERINA: I came home at about 2 am, around 4 am the phone started ringing. I turned it off and went back to sleep, because I didn’t believe that they would attack us. We all thought that mom had been panicking everyone the whole week before the attack for nothing, but she was right.

MARIA: Yes, a few days before the start of the war I said that we had to leave. It was intuition, because no one rationally believed that Russia would attack us. Early in the morning of February 24, my husband called me from abroad and said that the war had begun. He never got to us. What a man who can’t do anything to save his family experiences – that’s a separate personal tragedy…

What happened around you in the first days of the war? How did people react and what did they talk about?

EKATERINA: When we heard bangs in the east of the city, we moved to the hallway and the bathroom, where there were load-bearing walls. It was the last night I slept in my bed before leaving the city. I sat in a daze all day in the hallway staring at one point and constantly heard bangs and thuds. When the panic subsided, I realized that it was our weird upstairs neighbors clanking furniture, but that didn’t make me feel any better. By the way, they didn’t leave for the basements until the last and survived! Imagine, people were blown away by mines when they came out of hiding but nothing happened to them!

Whoever could left. Most of the old people remained, along with those who couldn’t leave them behind.
Smoke from many buildings amid massive Russian bombing in Mariupol, 3 March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
Were there people who wanted Russia to come? Can you sketch such a person?

MARIA: I only know my friend's elderly parents who said that Russia would come and everything would be fine. After two days of bombing, they changed their minds completely. Also, I had one Instagram follower who got really excited from the attack. I don't know anyone else. There was also one grandpa in the neighboring basement, his 10-year-old granddaughter was killed by shrapnel, and he couldn’t bury her for more than a week. He sat with her corpse in the basement under shelling. When it got quieter, he buried her in the courtyard and happily went to meet the DNR people… I don’t know if he went crazy with grief or if it was some kind of psychological defense. But similar tragedies played out in every basement in the city of half a million, where tens of thousands of people died.

EKATERINA: Most people didn’t even think about the prospect, but lived their lives. That is, joining Russia was not even on the agenda of people. The idea didn’t exist out there, at least not in my circle of acquaintances.

How did the people around behave when it became clear that Mariupol would be attacked? Did they join the territorial defense?

EKATERINA: You don't understand that Mariupol wasn’t ready for any military action at all, even though it was immediately clear that if there was a war, we would be the first. Do you know how many times we heard alarms? Twice, just twice! Our mayor was the first to run from the city – no information, no rescuers, nothing. When I hear that in Dnipro there were always drills, apps on phones, instantaneous organization of defense and evacuation of people, I want to cry, because the only thing we got was a promise to launch a car with a loudspeaker around the city, which no one ever saw. The basements also weren’t ready, there were no resources in the shelters, bare walls.

MARIA: I don't understand why there wasn't any preparation. In the last 3-4 years, so much money was invested in infrastructure in Mariupol that not only the center changed but also the residential areas. If they had planned to surrender the city, they probably wouldn’t have spent so much money.

LEONID: I have two friends, both of whom are radical about the Russians. One of them went to serve even before the start of the war and died in the battles for Mariupol. Another signed up as a volunteer, but they sent him back, saying that volunteers were dying in the hundreds and they would accept him if he came back the next day with his things and thought carefully about his choice. He decided to stay with his mother and fetched water for his basement.
"Fetching water was an extremely dangerous business, because dozens of people were shot at the sources. We don't know who shot at them. There were a bunch of morons on both sides who could be told 'shoot there' and they would shoot anything that moved. And so there were always heaps of corpses near the sources."
Do you remember the first bombing? What was the worst thing about it?

EKATERINA: Yes, I remember it: we had just had dinner, an alert went out on Telegram – the three of us sat in the hallway and waited... at some point I got used to the warnings and stopped worrying, but something was hit, and it was rather close – then I covered my head with a pillow, it seemed that I shrank into a small lump, and cried... Actually the first bombs weren’t the worst part – it was when they announced that "this night will be a nightmare." The worst thing is to sit and wait for your death, wrapped in your thoughts and in the dark. I sincerely didn’t understand what people did to deserve the death and destruction.

MARIA: The most terrible thing was to look into the eyes of your children and loved ones and realize that at any second they could be killed. I was constantly shaking, thinking about what our relatives in other cities in Ukraine might be going through now. It was also scary to think what would happen to our pets if we were all killed. When you think to yourself, it’s scary that perhaps tomorrow you will burn alive, or in two minutes you’ll find yourself under rubble, where you will die slowly in terrible pain and no one will save you.
How was life during the siege? Tell about how you moved to the basements. What does a day in a basement look like?

MARIA: At the very beginning of the war, I managed to go to the market and buy food for us and for the cats. The battles reached us in the first half of March, and we began to move between the apartment and the basement. It turned out that one neighbor was really allergic to cats, and we had to actually run to the apartment during the fighting to take care of them. No abandoning them! You know, when you’re constantly expecting to be killed and living with likeminded people, you get used to it. But when you see the fearful eyes of an emaciated dog roaming the street, your heart breaks.

EKATERINA: A day in a basement resembles life in a terrarium. Someone starts to swear – it’s annoying; silence – it weighs on you; you need to use the toilet – they’re shooting outside... all that’s left to do is sit and look at the candle. Fear, boredom, annoyance and incomprehension. It was better in the courtyard, there was life there. When they stopped shooting, we would go out to cook, play cards, melt snow and collect water. There was some normalcy. When the fighting went on and people started to leave, everything emptied out and then it became awful outside.
“We were shelled mercilessly, and as soon as the bombardment would end, we immediately heard thuds from the courtyard – men were chopping firewood and heating grills to feed their families."
We had this Garmoshkin [surname changed] who was on duty outside the courtyard throughout the whole siege and rarely went down into the basement, because besides us he also had paralyzed parents whom he looked after. He was killed in the last days of the siege. His teenage son couldn’t go out to the courtyard to bury his father's body for more than a week, because there were heavy bombardments. His little daughter pretended that nothing had happened and Russian psychiatrists have already diagnosed her with serious trauma. They got to Russia by a miracle, they were gotten out during the shelling by journalists. They were settled and received some kind of support and places at a university for children in one of the big cities. They’re very strong people – they just say "we’re fine, the rest should be forgotten."
Refugee civilians in Mariupol, 12 March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
How did you get food? Did soldiers help you?

EKATERINA: We were lucky that we had managed to stock up and had some supplies at home. People didn’t want to eat because of stress, but I was constantly hungry! Many went on the “Mariupol diet” and lost a lot of weight. The main problem was water, we drank very little, because people were often killed on the way to get water. When the snow melted, it became very hard, because we had nowhere else to store food. Then a rumor went around that the owner of a shop nearby had "dug a tunnel" – there was a lot of food and useful things. We went to take a look: the shop had been broken into, and we went inside, but instead of the "tunnel" we found an equipped cellar. To be honest, we took starting fluid, coal, cereals and a bottle of wine. It's shameful, but everyone who wanted to survive did it. They got their food how they could. Neighbors always helped each other.

MARIA: Those who took what was really necessary survived. Looters were the first to die, because they rummaged around the city and came under constant shelling. I myself saw a looter dragging away a bathtub... C’mon, where are you dragging that bathtub? Everyone has indecent people, and the locals, the Ukrainian army and the DNR looted. Looting is about the person, not an organization.

MARIA: As for help, no one helped us at all. We were on our own, and that’s how it was in all the basements that I know of. The battles going on around the city were confusing – waves of attacks zigzagged, the sides changed places. Chaos. And in that chaos, no one paid attention to us, they only came and asked for essentials. They would come and say that we are on the defensive here and there will be shelling, leave or stay if you want. Neither the Ukrainian army nor the DNR cared that civilians were around: they would put a mortar nearby and go to work on each other.
It was cynical, but in every basement they rejoiced when they heard machine gun fire and close combat, because they wanted someone – anyone – to win."
Even if the Finns came and knocked everyone out – we just wanted it to end!

EKATERINA: Once they took up positions on one side of us and the other. They hit us with a mortar; it's good that the ceiling in the basement turned out to be solid, and only a hole was left. We were angry at both sides for fighting with us in the middle – this is the basis of what I called emotional neutrality. In all the basements that we know of, people felt the same way.

LEONID: During the whole time in Mariupol, I saw soldiers only once – we were moving to another shelter, they came out to meet us and radioed to others so they wouldn’t shoot at us, and we moved on.
And the Red Cross?

MARIA: They were just as helpless as we are. When they were supposed to open humanitarian corridors to leave the city, we went to the Drama Theater at our own risk. There was shooting on all sides across the city, no one even thought about stopping. The Red Cross was there, and they didn't know what was going on either. The Ukrainian army also didn’t know anything. When people told them they were ready to go, they looked at us as if we were crazy – no one was observing any corridors. Some at their own risk decided to go. I think many died in the crossfire.
The Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol after airstrike, 16 March 2022. Source: Wikipedia
Did you see what happened to the Drama Theater?
Were there people there? Was the Ukrainian army there?

LEONID: I was about 200 meters from the Drama when the bomb hit it, and I was thrown back by the blast wave. More than a thousand people were sheltering there, and there were no equipped Ukrainian army positions. Soldiers drove around it and supposedly periodically fired mortars from pick-up trucks. But even if a mortar shell was launched from the square, who would drop an aerial bomb on a bomb shelter?!

EKATERINA: There were civilians with their families. My acquaintance told me how it all happened: a lot of people stayed there in the hope that corridors would be opened, there weren’t enough beds, there were a lot of names on the lists (I don’t know the exact number). The Ukrainian army occasionally came with some provisions, asked if everything was OK. There were repeated shots in the direction of the Drama, but that time it was clearly bombed from an airplane... One woman who came to our basement brought with her a little boy whom she had pulled out from under the rubble. She had been trying to help the survivors, and he grabbed her arm as she cleared the rubble. His parents died. This boy with bright and kind eyes ran around the basement and told us where mom and dad live and how to get ahold of them. He didn’t understand that they were no more, and he himself by a miracle was still alive.
In Russia they say that people were locked underground and the Theater was blown up.

MARIA: You've seen the photos – there's a huge hole in the roof! How can you plant explosives so that they go off like an aerial bomb dropped from an airplane that everyone heard and saw. No one locked people anywhere, they didn’t give a damn about us, and if you’re talking about “human shields,” then that’s those people who decided that it was more dangerous to leave than to stay near the positions. Like in every basement around, the Drama had a bomb shelter where people lived, like everywhere else.

Who is the Ukrainian army and DNR for you?

MARIA: The Ukrainian army is us.

EKATERINA: I perfectly understand that the army consists of people and each soldier has a difficult personal choice. I hate the soldiers of the DNR for their choice. At the same time, I feel pity for them, but not the pity that makes you want to help them – no! They were abandoned by Russia back in 2014, poor, only half outfitted in uniforms, unprepared, unlike our boys. They live in some kind of abandoned borderland, which at the moment is neither Ukraine nor Russia. I condemn their choice to go to war against our country, their choice to rob people and take their lives. I condemn everyone who talks about “liberation!”

MARIA: Yes, that’s it that they’re poor. On the outskirts of the city we saw Kadyrovtsy, the Russian army. They have different uniforms and faces. The DNR is ordinary guys, not military men. Apparently, they picked them up from the villages. By all accounts, they stormed the city and there was such chaos with the battle lines.

[An exhaust pipe pops down the street and everyone ducks their heads instinctively]

What feelings did the DNR soldiers have? Did they feel like liberators?

MARIA: No, there were no special feelings or attitude toward us. I don’t know, they didn’t behave in any particular way. Just guys.

Did you have direct contact?

EKATERINA: The closest contact was at the edge of the city.
We left on foot without even knowing for sure whether the Ukrainian army was standing at the exit out of the city or the DNR."
We went through the filtration points. Some people got normal soldiers, but I got a disgusting type. He spent more than 20 minutes digging through my phone, making stupid remarks. Unable to figure out how to humiliate me, he asked: “Who do we have here, a boy or a girl?” It was terrible at the two borders: no normal conditions for the women who were waiting for their men from several hours to several days. My boyfriend was released after a few hours. One woman's husband worked in law enforcement. She didn’t know what was going on with him for two days, but then he turned up. They had reached some agreement. Only at the border out of the DNR did they feed us and offer to take us by bus where we needed, sold SIM cards.

How long did you stay in Russia? How did people act?

MARIA: About a month. Many had relatives in parts of Ukraine that were being shelled. These people didn’t talk about the war, and neither did we. But there were also those who were so brainwashed that they really believed that the Nazis had kept us in slavery...

EKATERINA: The first two days were hard. We didn't understand why everyone was smiling. Why houses and cars were whole. Why there was cheerful music playing in the stores. The “liberation” posters and Z signs got on our nerves, but we needed to learn to live again. Do you know how annoying the mask regime is in Russian cities after the basements of Mariupol? What is a "politicized flu" against the backdrop of a war?

When did you hear about Bucha? What do you think happened there? The same DNR people?

EKATERINA: I learned about Bucha when I was in Russia. At the time, almost no one spoke about Mariupol, but Bucha was on all the social networks. Honestly, after what I saw in Mariupol, where no professional photos were taken, the Bucha story seemed to me like a media fight between the two sides. You can't play with a tragedy like that. All these disputes: there were bodies in the photo, there weren’t... Bucha was a big tragedy, but all my feelings remained in Mariupol, and I wanted to talk about that. I know it's wrong to say, but it's true.

MARIA: And yet, we haven’t heard of anything like Bucha in Mariupol. No executions, no rape. Of course, I assume that these crimes took place, but none of us has any evidence.

Why did you decide not to stay in Russia?

LEONID: Some incredible insanity is blooming in Russia, and I don't understand where it’s going.
“After 30 years of democracy, the Russians haven’t come up with anything better than to find themselves a czar again and build a giant new dresser. As you know, big dressers make a lot of noise when they fall, and Russia has a long history with this."
How big was the bang when the dresser fell in 1917? Russia again built a huge dresser – the USSR, which collapsed with such terrible force and awful consequences that it’s painful to recall. The gang in power today will collapse with the same thud, and if there is something left of Russia, then the Russians, out of habit, will start building a new dresser for themselves, because they’re comfortable in a giant dresser, but it constantly tips over from its own weight.
Russians at the rally in support of Ukraine in Georgia, 2 March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
How are your interactions with Russians going?

EKATERINA: There are mostly normal people here who don’t support the war. I heard that at the beginning of the war there were attacks on the Ukrainians who arrived, but now those people pretend to be Balts because there are only a few of them. Some Russians who left are even embarrassed to speak out of guilt. Many help the Ukrainians who arrive.

A [female] REFUGEE FROM DNIPRO JOINS THE CONVERSATION: I once encountered open hatred when I first arrived. But the main, divisive issue we face in this country is our compatriots who criticize us for speaking Russian. It’s as if they want to continue to divide us along linguistic lines. A friend came from the front and we were speaking Russian, but another Ukrainian who had fled found us and began to tell my friend that a real Ukrainian should speak Ukrainian. My friend explained to him that a true patriot defends his homeland with a weapon in his hands.

EKATERINA: A lot of confusion and division. For example, I don’t understand how it was possible to make an official slogan out of the phrase “Russian ship, go fuck yourself” and slap it on buses and stamps. They’re covering our cities with foul language and our children are reading it. It was a great meme, but as an official slogan, it again raises the issue of the Russian language, etc. We must unite all together, not by language or region.

Will you go back?

LEONID: This war for ideology and flags entirely killed my faith in a future, because it sowed chaos and insanity everywhere.
I understand that Ukraine wants to protect itself from all Russians, but bans on Russian-language music, Pushkin, Turgenev, and others will lead to more absurdity and denial of what we consider part of Ukrainian culture."
The authorities will continue to tighten the screws so that people fight not for themselves, but for their ideas, which I don’t support. What is the reality? People from Western Ukraine were the first to leave for Europe, live on benefits that were limited and only lasted for them, and rent their apartments to refugees from Eastern Ukraine. For example, my friend works for a nonprofit organization and receives 7,300 hryvnias of support while they ask 10,000 hryvnias for a small apartment. She and her relative together can barely make ends meet. As always, patriotism is not about actions and serving one's nation but about supporting flags and ideologies, which I call insanity. I have a place to live in Western Ukraine, but I don't see a future there.

In the DNR and Russia the insanity is even worse. When the war started, I began to really look at how people live in the DNR – it is gloom. Now in Mariupol you can’t bury your relatives without paying 15,000 hryvnias – or the body will be put in a pile for cremation with the rest. Where will that regime go? They’re led by the local Yanukovych, the former MMM Global con artist, Denis Pushilin.

I want to return, but to the city that I left – to the city that is no more…
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