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Mariupol and the Warsaw Ghetto

The Russian military’s invasion of Mariupol was constantly reported on during the Ukrainian army’s brave stand at Azovstal. Despite this, little is known about the experiences of civilians during the wider siege. A historical comparison with the Warsaw Ghetto may help reveal the true level of human suffering that befell this Ukrainian city.

August 9, 2022 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Mariupol roadsign Photo: rospoint / Shutterstock

The Russian siege and sacking of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is said to have been “terrible”, “barbaric”, “bloody”, “destructive” and so on. These descriptions do not do justice to the nature of this bloodbath, even in broad strokes. Instead of explaining what happened, such labels confuse and obfuscate. They also “normalise” the event as usual results of another military operation. After all, can inflation not be described as “terrible”, human trafficking – “barbaric”, knife crime – “bloody”, and forest fires – “destructive”? What then about human agency in such events, the victims and the perpetrators? What about remembrance?

Remembrance or propaganda?

One all-important dimension is missing from current discussion on the Mariupol siege. This event should ultimately be portrayed and understood from the perspective of the victims, the city’s inhabitants. Only then could outside observers and commentators begin to grasp the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy that unfolded in front of their eyes on television screens and in social media posts. To develop a clear understanding of an event involving half a million people, it is insufficient to just glance at images. It is not enough to look at a multistorey block of apartments hit by a Russian rocket and turned into a smoking heap of rubble, people sheltering in a basement, or satellite snapshots of an ever growing field of unmarked mass graves.

Like the intellectually lazy use of adjectives, a string of images that fail to yield a coherent storyline only flatten and atomise the event in question. In turn – and quite frighteningly, for that matter – the tragedy becomes “normalised”. Bad, but supposedly nothing out of the ordinary. To stop denialism of this kind, an overarching narrative is necessary to explain what really happened. Yes, the Mariupol siege and sacking are part of the story of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine. At the same time, the events are part of the Ukrainians’ valiant defence of their country against the Russian invaders, that is, Russian fascists or “rashists”. However, from such a perspective the siege eventually disappears among the military statistics of tens, if not already hundreds, of sieges faced by Ukrainian cities, towns and villages. This approach also tends to “normalise” what happened in Mariupol. As a result, it plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s propagandists.

To counteract this “normalisation” and de facto erasure of Moscow’s actions in relation to Mariupol and its inhabitants, the siege of this port city must be told as a story in its own right. What we currently have at our disposal are disparate snippets of information and survivors’ tales that are mostly disconnected from one another. The besieging Russian troops did their best to cut off the city’s access to the internet and mobile networks. Indeed, they eventually achieved this in full by late March. At that time, the world’s public opinion was turning against Russia. This followed the March 16th airstrike on the Mariupol city theatre (Donetsk Region’s Academic Drama Theatre), in which around 1,200 mainly children, women and old people were sheltering. At least half of them died in the blast.

After cutting off Mariupol’s communication links, only the Russians could understand the entire situation in the city. The occupiers keep this knowledge to themselves, allowing Russian propagandists to manipulate events to fit the Kremlin’s current needs. It will take years or even decades to gather, sort and analyse the pieces of this jigsaw if we are to write a full history of the Mariupol siege.

At present, the more immediate task at hand is to save the siege’s story from “normalisation” and the loss of memory. That is exactly what the Russian government does not want. Just look at what happened in the wake of the equally barbaric siege and invasion of the Chechen capital Dzhokhar-Ghala (Grozny) in 2001. Initially, the United Nations took note and declared Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth”. Afterward, Russia pumped vast amounts of money into the reconstruction of Grozny between 2003 and 2008. The following year, in 2009, the United Nations honoured this feat by granting the Chechen capital a “UN-HABITAT award”. This marked a high point in “normalisation”, or the world’s tacit acceptance of the Russian re-colonisation of Grozny and all of Chechnya. This was achieved on the bones of the victims of Moscow’s genocide against the Chechens.

Drawing on this telling example, in the midst of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin hopes that time will see the “collective West” eventually “return to its senses”. Moscow promotes the idea that doing lucrative business is worth turning a blind eye to the inconvenient truth of yet another colonial genocide, this time of Ukrainians. It could then well be the turn of Mariupol, rebuilt by Russian imperialists with western petrodollars, to receive UN accolades. I hope I will be proven wrong. However, if the Chechens could be treated this way, then the democratic world could easily accept the Ukrainians suffering exactly the same fate.

Democracy or imperialism and authoritarianism?

A Russian victory in Ukraine would mortally wound the European Union and in turn bolster and encourage totalitarian China in its quest to become the globe’s largest economy and pre-eminent superpower. Democracy and human rights would then be rolled back and restricted to a marginalised West, where many unprincipled politicians would seek to emulate the “success” of the authoritarian-to-totalitarian model of China, Russia and their allies, be they Iran, North Korea, Venezuela or Zimbabwe. Then might would make right again, entailing the rise of a new form of imperialism. It would replace the basis of today’s international law, which rests on the principle of equality among states. Instead, a world led by China and Russia would allow states to constantly threaten weaker, smaller countries.

A bleak vision, but not impossible, as the dark 20th century proved to us all. This existential danger to democracy, human rights and global peace underscores the need to analyse and retell the story of the Mariupol siege in terms that would fully reflect the tragedy of the victims and survivors. The issue is that we do not know all the necessary details. Russia would not divulge them and many key Ukrainian survivors and eyewitnesses have been deported to Siberia, the Arctic and Russia’s Far East. This includes Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands that border northern Japan. Facing the task of everyday survival in the face of a fast-approaching winter, these exiles have no access to the web, let alone the financial means to travel to Ukraine or Europe.

In such a situation, the best way to present the tragedy of Mariupol to the world is to compare its siege and destruction with an appropriate case from the past. The fate of Dzhokhar-Ghala (Grozny) could provide a suitable comparison. However, the West has neglected its duty to research, understand and commemorate the Chechen genocide at the hands of Russian neo-imperialists in the decades that followed the area’s two wars. The story of the siege and destruction of Dzhokhar-Ghala has not really been written yet. So, it cannot serve as a case for comparison with Mariupol.

Mariupol and the Warsaw Ghetto

Russian propaganda ceaselessly accuses Ukraine of “‘nazism”, thus providing the Kremlin with a specious “justification” for its ongoing neo-imperial land grab. Yet, in a cynical reversal of meanings, Moscow accuses Kyiv of a crime that the Russian government and elites are guilty of themselves. It is Russian fascism, or “rashism” in brief, that nowadays underpins the country’s totalitarian system and legitimises Moscow’s neo-imperial designs.

Nazi Germany infamously destroyed the Polish capital of Warsaw as punishment for the 1944 uprising of ethnic (that is, Catholic) Poles against the German occupiers. As a result, two-thirds of the city’s buildings and infrastructure were reduced to rubble. Prior to the planned destruction, the remaining population was forced to leave. Most were imprisoned in nearby concentration and forced labour camps. However, Mariupol suffered even greater damage to its urban fabric, as at least 95 per cent of the city’s buildings and infrastructure were flattened. For that matter, this occurred in a much shorter period of time, between February 24th and May 20th 2022.

Hence, the Warsaw Ghetto is a better example for comparison with Mariupol. It was de facto a separate city in its own right, though located within the Polish capital under German occupation. This ghetto existed from 1940 through to 1943. The Germans forced almost half a million Jewish inhabitants of the Polish capital and its vicinity into this ghetto. This statistic corresponds closely with the prewar population of Mariupol. On the other hand, over 95 per cent of the Warsaw Ghetto’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. All that was left standing after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the wall that separated the ghetto from the rest of the city and a single Catholic church. Due to issues in the city’s layout, this church had to be included within the ghetto’s perimeter.

The Germans incarcerated Jews in the ghetto to rob them of their real estate, as well as other property such as money and jewelry. This theft and restriction also robbed these Jews of dignity and humanity in the eyes of gentiles. Outside the ghetto wall, most gentiles chose to turn a blind eye to the ugly reality due to traditional antisemitism. This was additionally strengthened by Nazi Germany’s antisemitic legislation and propaganda. The German occupiers effectively “bought” Catholic Warsovians’ support or indifference for the incarceration and subsequent extermination of Jewish Warsovians with stolen Jewish property.

Here, I need to stress that I do not equate the Holocaust with the fate of Mariupol’s inhabitants, or the current conditions faced by Ukrainians more generally following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion. Yet, Moscow’s programme of “denazification” in Ukraine has already had its “Wannsee Conference moment”. On April 3rd 2022 the Russian state news agency RIA published an article that proposed the extermination of the Ukrainian political, cultural and military elites. This would be followed by incarcerating most Ukrainians in concentration or (China-style) forced labour (“reeducation”) camps for at least 25 years. The goal here is the full liquidation of Ukrainian language, culture and identity.

Most commentators view the plan of action as a chilling blueprint for yet another genocide of the Ukrainians, much like the Soviet Holodomor (1932-33). The increasingly better documented massacre in Bucha near Kyiv, from where Russian troops withdrew in late March, is a case in point. Widespread international agreement is coalescing around the conclusion that this massacre was a war crime and may amount to an act of genocide. Furthermore, two-thirds of the 3,000 (and counting) Russian rockets launched against Ukraine have targeted civilian objects. This proves that Moscow’s main aim is to kill and terrorise as many Ukrainian civilians as possible, rather than engage militarily with the Ukrainian army.

Finally, the hopeless yet necessary last stand of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (April 19th to May 16th 1943) corresponds well with a similar month-long siege that Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers and some civilians faced against overwhelming Russian forces in the city’s vast Azovstal works (April 20th to May 20th 2022). Very few soldiers involved in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising survived. Those who did had to hide, as the Germans hunted them down (alongside the ghetto’s remaining Jewish inhabitants) in order to kill them on the spot or send them to nearby death camps. Officially, the Kremlin does not act on such doggedly bloodthirsty ambition with respect to the Azovstal defenders. However, a similar desire is becoming increasingly clear following the Russian government’s announcement that these defenders, now in Russian captivity, will stand trial on the charge of war crimes. Moscow’s propaganda denigrates and dehumanises them as “nazi criminals”. This makes the outcome of such trials all the more obvious. If they are ever held, they will result in capital punishment for all the 2,500 POWs.

In order to fully establish this comparison between Mariupol and the Warsaw Ghetto, it is worth noting that the Russians are now engaging in many criminal activities previously pursued by the Germans during the Second World War. Now, Moscow’s forces are engaging in marauding and the “officially approved” robbery of private and public property across occupied Ukraine, including Mariupol. Ukrainian museums are being robbed of valuable items while Russia steals metal from Azovstal and millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain. Russian soldiers and occupation administration officials are also “helping themselves” to citizens’ property, mainly cars, smartphones and laptops.

The Russian occupiers even steal and deal on the black market the humanitarian aid sent from Russia. This is making the lives of the fewer than 100,000 inhabitants who have remained in the destroyed city even more miserable. They have no electricity or running water. Hunger and starvation are rampant while decomposing bodies contaminate any usable ground water supplies. Malnourished and traumatised civilians also keep dying due to a lack of even basic life-saving medicines. Unsurprisingly, localised cholera outbreaks may trigger a full-fledged epidemic if not contained in time. Russian “humanitarian aid” is insufficient and woefully inadequate but creates a welcome backdrop for propaganda. The Kremlin’s priority is exactly that, namely, propaganda. At present, it cannot be promoted directly to the city’s remaining inhabitants through television, as no power is available in Mariupol. Due to this, “mobile information complexes”, or China-style vans with large screens, are deployed across destroyed Mariupol to make the Kremlin’s narrative available to all.

Unprecedented acceleration

The main difference between the Warsaw Ghetto and Mariupol is that nazi Germany created the first as an instrument for carrying out the Holocaust, while the Russians besieged Mariupol to make the city’s inhabitants into Russians. Nevertheless, both urban populations suffered similar issues. These include hunger, a lack of life-saving medications and running water, and a life-endangering exposure to the elements. The German and Russian soldiers displayed no respect for human life.

Whilst it does not change anything, it should be remembered that the Germans transported the ghetto’s surviving inhabitants to death camps. The Catholic inhabitants of Warsaw were to be spared the sight of the extermination of their Jewish neighbours. No such attention to detail was paid in Mariupol. What counted in this case was speed, meeting the Russian president’s unpublicised deadlines for the “special military operation” in Ukraine. After all, the Kremlin initially hoped to conquer all or most of Ukraine in less than two weeks. With no safe corridors ever really opened, Mariupol’s citizens were unable to leave the city. Many subsequently perished under indiscriminate Russian shelling. Most of the casualties are still buried under the rubble of their destroyed blocks of apartments. Currently, a conservative estimate puts the number of civilian deaths in Mariupol at 22,000. In the future, the number will be adjusted, unfortunately, only upward. However, we may never know the true number, as the Russian invaders seem to have deployed mobile crematoria in order to radically reduce the number of dead civilians and soldiers left in Mariupol’s streets.

It took the Germans two years and seven months to isolate the Warsaw Ghetto from the outside world, starve the population, remove its inhabitants, and then reduce it to rubble. Through the use of modern technologies of warfare and wanton destruction, the Russians vastly improved on the German model. The Kremlin achieved similar goals in besieged Mariupol in less than three months. So, the Russians were at least a dozen times quicker and more effective than the Germans. This represents a staggering 1,200 per cent acceleration in action; I fear to say “improvement”.

This technocratic conclusion stands at odds with this article’s goal to make the tragedy of Mariupol’s citizens more visible to the world. After all, commenting on the genocidal character of Soviet totalitarianism, an anonymous US journalist attributed the following “wise saying” (actually derived from Jewish-German satirist Kurt Tucholsky’s 1925 witticism) to Joseph Stalin: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.”

By knowing the overall plotline of the siege of Mariupol and its similarities to the Warsaw Ghetto, the reader is left with the difficult task of filling in the framework with human stories. How did the civilians in besieged Mariupol feel? What did they think? How did they react to mortal danger and interact with others? What did they do to try to protect the last shreds of their dignity? How did the victims die? How does life look to survivors and those exiled to Russia’s icy heartlands?

I am unable to assist with this task, for I am not a novelist and have not lived through the Mariupol siege. We now badly need a stopgap measure that would prevent the victims and survivors from being reduced to dehumanised statistics. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto once again plays a role here. For example, writer Dawid (Bogdan) Wojdowski survived the Holocaust during his childhood. He lived in this ghetto and subsequently devoted all his life to revealing human-level stories of this unprecedented genocidal ordeal to the whole world. Wojdowski’s magnum opus on everyday life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto, known as Bread for the Departed, is perhaps the best Polish-language novel ever published during the communist period. To a degree, this book also answers many questions about how people felt, died and survived in besieged Mariupol.

I thank the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan for support and making it possible for me to research and write this essay. The opinions and argument presented in this essay are the author’s, and do not represent any official position on the part of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center.

Tomasz Kamusella is Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He initiated and co-authored the monograph Eurasian Empires as Blueprints for Ethiopia: From Ethnolinguistic Nation-State to Multiethnic Federation (Routledge 2021). His reference Words in Space and Time: A Historical Atlas of Language Politics in Modern Central Europe is available as an open access publication.


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