Updated: Mar 26
Although I am loathe to admit it - and painfully aware I risk sounding like a modern cliché Millennial encouraging others to ‘embrace their spirituality’ - I must confess that I agree with the idea that events can leave scars on places. It is impossible, for instance, to visit the beaches of Normandy or Ground Zero and not feel deeply moved. Obviously there is nothing mystical in this, just an awareness of the human tragedy that once occurred in such places.
Of course, I’m hardly alone in this; the sites of Operation Overlord and the original World Trade Centre attract millions of visitors per year. But I suppose I’ve been lucky to visit similar places on roads less travelled. Gori, the Georgian city briefly occupied by the Russians in 2008 comes to mind, as does Kyiv’s main square where the Euromaidan revolution took place. I personally found the latter the most disturbing, knowing that pro-Russian Berkut police had opened fire into the crowds. Since they were sat on rooftops and deliberately picked targets with marksman rifles, they do not even have the defence of barricade terror to hide behind. The names and faces of the ‘Holy Hundred’ victims are hauntingly immortalised nearby.
Mariupol, though, was the strangest of all, not least because when I visited the place in ’21 the city had not yet met its Stalingrad-style fate. The city had seen intermittent fighting since the beginning of Russo-Ukrainian hostilities in 2014 with a few battles for its control (over the course of which the Azov Regiment and other volunteer units came to prominence) and sporadic skirmishes in the years that followed. Indeed, there had been an exchange of artillery fire just a few weeks before I visited, and I’d only been able to enter the city limits after showing my passport to a mixed group of police and soldiers who’d wiggled AKs in my direction before allowing me through.
The purpose of my three days there was to meet that dangerous eccentric, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in order to profile him for The Economist. At the time he was trying to pick up the pieces of his failing second political career, having (in sequential order) fled Georgia to escape charges of abuse of power; become a Ukrainian citizen, and governed the Odessa region before he fell out with then-President Poroshenko and lost his citizenship; lectured in New York until Columbia University decided they couldn’t have a lecturer with an arrest warrant out for him back home; been stateless in the Netherlands, before making his way to Poland and quite literally charging across the border into Ukraine, where he was arrested. The ascendant President Zelenskyy restored his citizenship, and Saakashvili started his own party, doubtless slightly out of breath.
By the time I met him, his star had waned to the point that his new party was barely polling 0.02% of the Ukrainian vote - a bad turn of events for him, though his luck was to become worse when he returned to Georgia (against my advice, in fact). However, I have chronicled that charming lunatic’s misfortunes elsewhere on these pages, and I mention him only because he was the reason I ended up being one of the last Western journalists to visit Mariupol before the full-scale invasion of ’22.
Likewise, my impressions of the city were also the foundation of my report for The Spectator, and while I feel that the editor over-dramatised matters, what I thought at the time is more or less intact. Although I despair at the thought of repeating myself overmuch (a habit of too many journalists, I find), I do feel that my memories of that city are now in rather a different context in light of what happened a bare seven months after I left it.
It is one thing to visit a place like Normandy or Ypres and reflect on what happened there, but quite another to see a place of tragedy before the catastrophe even takes place. I walked around the port of Mariupol before it became the site of a joint Marine-Azov operation to rescue border guards and police fighting with Russian forces (with the famous Azovstal Steelworks visible on the other side of the bay), and saw the central park of the city beautifully illuminated in purple light that shone through water features and sparkled off marble slabs.
It’s disquieting to think that the charming underground restaurant where I first met Saakashvili (clad in his ridiculous, ill-fitting military uniform) will now be a ruin, as will the hotel where I stayed; I drank with a Ukrainian MP who expressed polite interest in Westminster politics, but who couldn’t believe how anyone like me could live in Georgia for ten years, and later exchanged words with the hotel manager, a lady who managed to convey that she did not at all approve of Saakashvili taking up with a Ukrainian MP young enough to be his daughter. I wonder if she survived?
More poignant still was my visit to the home of the 503rd battalion, Ukrainian Naval Infantry. Their little museum featured photos of all the Marines killed in action since 2014, the most recent of which had been just a month earlier. The museum is doubtless gone, the battalion’s proud flags and patches probably souvenirs to the Russian invaders, but I at least know the colonel with whom I spoke is probably still alive; he was reported as commanding a mechanized battalion on the southern front last summer. How he went from being in the Marines in Mariupol to what seems to be an Army command I’ve no idea, but I was heartily glad to learn that he was still with us - at least as recently as August, anyway.
The same was not true for one of his company commanders whom I met: I subsequently recognised his name and picture in a KIA confirmation early in the siege of the city. Given the savagery of the fighting, doubtless many of the Marines with whom I spoke also paid the ultimate price. They were nice lads, no different from squaddies in any army in any other country.
How strange to think that just seven months before the most terrible storm they’d feared for seven years was finally unleashed, I’d been doing my best to reassure them that no, their basic accommodation in their barracks was not so bad, and that I’d seen much worse in the British Army. They refused to believe me, and laughed as though I was joking (I wasn’t, though; the Nissen huts I once stayed in at the Nescliffe camp in Shropshire date back to World War 2. From the feel of them, the mattresses probably do, too). I hope at least some of them got out in the attempted breakout.
It’s equally odd to think that this week Putin was swanning around the place as casually as I was, although during my visit there were more restaurants and bars, and their absence for his trip is entirely his fault.
Of course, the fall of any city to an invader and its utter destruction is a tragedy as old as time itself, but what I find most sad about Mariupol is the sense of quiet, determined optimism that has obviously now been extinguished. I remember a start-up business centre, the sort of ‘shared space’ office working that seems to be fashionable everywhere, with bright lights and elegantly casual modern furniture straight from the Silicon Valley playbook.
I recall the presentation of how Mariupol was going to be the next Black Sea hotspot, to rival those of Bulgaria, Georgia, and Turkey, and the hopeful nods of those around the room, mentally appreciating the joint prospects of tourism and profit.
Even then my cynical mind was thinking ‘Yes, well, you’ve got a nice coast here just like they do in Varna and Batumi, but neither of those are in artillery range of the Russians’. For their part, the Marines knew what was coming - they even predicted that “something will happen in the New Year”. Whether that was soldier’s intuition or if they had access to intelligence I’ll never know, but they alone did not share the optimism of the people sitting at communal desks sipping caramel latte.
With that in mind, my own thoughts on Mariupol’s lost opportunity are not to do with its erstwhile prospects as a beach resort and a start-up hub. The tragedy, I think, is that it was arguably possible to prevent, or at least mitigate, the city’s fall. It was always going to be the Russians’ first target: it is within the Donbas region and is on the road to Crimea, to which Russia was always going to try and establish a land link. Yet its defenders numbered the soldiers of the Azov Regiment, the 36th Marine Brigade, an independent tank battalion, and a handful of police and border service units, whose military utility was inherently limited.
Perhaps if nothing else, the city will stand as another poignant example of the fact that appeasement and fear of provoking an enemy that needs no provocation are as poor strategic choices now as they were in the 1930s.
All photos by Tim Ogden