Mariupol and the Warsaw Ghetto
University of St Andrews
The Russian siege and sacking of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in 2022 is said to have been ‘terrible, barbaric, bloody, destructive’ and so on. These adjectives do not do justice to the nature of this bloodbath, even in broad strokes. Instead of explaining what happened, such labels confuse and obfuscate on the one hand, while on the other ‘normalize’ and consign to oblivion such a war event, as one of many of its type. Isn’t it so that inflation can be deemed ‘terrible,’ human trafficking – ‘barbaric,’ knife crime – ‘bloody,’ and forest fires – ‘destructive’? What then about human agency, the victims and the perpetrators? What about remembrance?
Remembrance or Propaganda?
An all-important dimension is missing from the current discussion of the Mariupol siege that would better pinpoint the character of this event, which should be portrayed from the perspective of the victims, the city’s inhabitants. Only then could outside observers and commentators begin grasping the sheer magnitude of this human tragedy that unfolded in front of their eyes on television screens and in social media posts. For developing a clear comprehension of an event involving half a million people, it is insufficient to just glance at images, be it of a multistore block of apartments pierced by a Russian rocket that turned it into a smoking heap of rubble, people sheltering in a basement, or satellite snapshots of the still growing field of unmarked mass graves.
Like the intellectually lazy multiplication of adjectives, a string of images that fail to yield a coherent storyline flattens and atomizes the event in question. In turn – and quite frighteningly, for that matter – the tragedy becomes ‘normalized.’ 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, and at the same time of the Ukrainians’ valiant defense of their country against the Russian invaders, that is, Russian fascists, or ‘rashists’ in short. However, from such a bird’s view perspective, the Mariupol siege drowns and eventually disappears in the military statistics of tens, if not already hundreds, sieges and re-takings of Ukrainian cities, towns and villages. This approach also tends to ‘normalize’ what happened in Mariupol, and thus, plays into the hands of the Kremlin’s propagandists.
To counteract this ‘normalization’ and de facto erasure of what Moscow wantonly meted out to Mariupol and its inhabitants, the siege of this port city must be told as a story in its own right. What we now 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 the city’s access to the internet and mobile telephony, which they managed in full by late March 2022. At that time the world’s public opinion was turning against Russia, following the airstrike, on 16 March, on the Mariupol city theater (Donetsk Region’s Academic Drama Theater) in which around 1,200 mainly children, women and old people were sheltering. At least half of them died in the blast.
After cutting the communication links between Mariupol and the world, only the Russians have enjoyed the grasp of the entire situation in this city. The occupiers keep this knowledge to themselves, which allows Russian propagandists to manipulate its preselected elements to fit the Kremlin’s current needs. It will take years or even decades to gather, sort and analyze pieces of this jigsaw for writing an ultimate history of the Mariupol siege.
At present, the more immediate task to hand is to save the siege’s story from ‘normalization’ and forgetting. That is exactly what the Russian government wants. That is the same, which happened in the wake of the equally barbaric flattening and violent taking, in 2001, of Dƶovxar-Ġala (Grozny), or the capital of Ichkeria (Chechnya). 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 honored this feat by granting the Chechen capital a UN-HABITAT award. A high point in ‘normalization,’ or the world’s tacit acceptance of the Russian re-colonization of Grozny and all of Ichkeria, which was achieved on the bones of the victims of Moscow’s genocide of Chechens.,
Drawing on this telling example, in the heat of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin hopes that after a couple of years – or at most, half a decade – the ‘collective West’ would eventually ‘return to its senses.’ That doing lucrative business with Russia is worth turning a blind eye to the inconvenient truth of yet another colonial genocide, this time of Ukrainians. Then, it would be the turn of Mariupol, rebuilt by Russian imperialists with petrodollars flowing form the West, to receive UN accolades. I wish I would be proved wrong, but if the Chechens could be thrown under the bus of history, the democratic world may resign itself to exactly the same fate for the Ukrainians, should Russia be allowed to win this war.
Democracy or Imperialism and Authoritarianism?
A Russian victory would mortally wound the European Union, and in turn, bolster and encourage totalitarian China in its quest for becoming the globe’s largest economy, and thus, the supreme superpower on the planet. Democracy and human rights would be then rolled back and contained to the marginalized West, where many unprincipled politicians would seek to emulate this ‘success’ of the authoritarian-to-totalitarian model of China, Russia and their allies, be it 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 the equality of all states. Instead, under China ruling supreme, Russia and other authoritarian powers of continental importance would push around the other (‘small’) states.
A bleak vision, but not impossible, as the dark 20th century proved it to us all. This existential danger to democracy, human rights and global peace underscores the urgency of analyzing and retelling the story of the Mariupol siege in terms that would fully reflect the tragedy of the victims and survivors. The dilemma is that we do not know all the necessary details. Russia would not divulge them, while many key Ukrainian survivors and eyewitnesses were deported to Siberia, the Arctic, and Russia’s Far East, including Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands that border northern Japan. In penury, facing the task of day-to-day survival in the face of fast-approaching winter, they have no access to the web, or let alone financial means to leave their exile for Ukraine or Europe.
In such a situation, the best approach that remains for presenting the tragedy of Mariupol to the world in an intelligible manner is to compare the siege and destruction of the port city on the Azov littoral, alongside and the extermination of the inhabitants, with an appropriate case from the past. The fate of Dƶovxar-Ġala (Grozny) could provide a suitable counterpoint, but for the fact that in the decades that followed Russia’s two wars on Chechnya, the West have neglected the duty to research, understand and commemorate the Chechen genocide at the hands of Russian neo-imperialists. The story of the siege and destruction of Dƶovxar-Ġala 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 the ongoing neo-imperial land grab in Ukraine. Yet, in the cynical reversal of meanings, Moscow accuses Kyiv of a crime, of which the Russian government and elites are guilty themselves. It is Russian fascism, or rashism in brief, that nowadays underpins the country’s totalitarian system and legitimizes Moscow’s neo-imperial designs.,
Nazi Germany infamously destroyed the Polish capital of Warsaw, as a 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, and most were imprisoned in the nearby concentration and forced labor camps. However, Mariupol suffered even greater damages to its urban tissue, because at least 95 percent of the city’s buildings and infrastructure were flattened,  and for that matter in a much shorter period of time, between 24 February and 20 May 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 1943. The Germans forced almost half a million Jewish inhabitants of the Polish capital and its vicinity into this ghetto. The piece of statistics tallies well with the prewar population of Mariupol. On the other hand, over 95 percent of the Warsaw Ghetto’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed. What remained standing after the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the wall that separated this ghetto from the rest of Warsaw, alongside the single Catholic church. Due to the vagaries of urban topography, this church had had to be included within the ghetto’s perimeter.
The Germans incarcerated Jews in the ghetto, first, to rob them of their real estate elsewhere, alongside movable property, money and jewelry. This theft and reducing them to unfree inmates, who were unable to decide about themselves, 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 additionally heightened through nazi Germany’s antisemitic legislation and propaganda. The German occupants ‘bought’ Catholic Warsovians’ support or indifference for the incarceration and subsequent extermination of Jews with stolen Jewish property.,
Here, I need to stress that I do not equate with the Shoah the fate of Mariupol’s inhabitants or the Ukrainians under the current conditions of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion. Yet, Moscow’s program of the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine already had its ‘Wannsee conference moment,’ when on 3 April 2022, the Russian state news agency RIA published an article that proposes the extermination of the Ukrainian political, cultural and military elites, which should be followed by incarcerating most Ukrainians in concentration or (China-style) forced labor camps for at least 25 years. The goal is the full liquidation of Ukrainian language, culture and identity.
Most commentators see the plan of action to be a chilling blueprint for yet another genocide of the Ukrainians,,, conceived clearly in emulation of the Soviet Holodomor (1932-1933).,, The increasingly better documented massacre of Bucha in Kyiv’s vicinity, from where the Russian troops withdrew in late March 2022, is a case in point. A widespread international agreement has been coalescing 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 targeted civilian objects. This statistics prove that Moscow’s main aim is to kill and terrorize as many Ukrainian civilians as possible rather than to engage militarily with the Ukrainian army.
Finally, the hopeless yet necessary last stand of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (19 April-16 May 1943) corresponds well to a similar last stand that Ukrainian soldiers, volunteers and some civilians put up against the overwhelming Russian forces for an entire month in the city’s vast Azovstal works (20 April-20 May 2022)., Very few soldiers of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising survived. Those who did had to hide, because the Germans hunted them down (alongside the ghetto’s remaining Jewish inhabitants), aspiring to kill all on the spot or in the nearby death camps. Officially, the Kremlin does not act on such a doggedly bloodthirsty ambition in respect of the Azovstal defenders. However, a similar intention is palpable under the Russian government’s announcement that these defenders, now in Russian captivity, would stand trial on the charge of war crimes. Moscow’s propaganda denigrates and dehumanizes them as ‘nazi criminals,’ which makes it obvious that the only outcome of such trials, if ever held, would be capital punishment for all the 2,500 POWs.
Finally, in order to wrap up this comparison between Mariupol and the Warsaw Ghetto, it is not without value to mention that like the Germans during World War II, now the Russians engage, on a mass scale, in marauding and the ‘officially approved’ robbery of private and public property across occupied Ukraine, including Mariupol. Ukrainian museums are robbed of valuable items, Russia steals metal production from Azovstal and millions of tons of Ukrainian grain, while Russian soldiers and occupation officials ‘help themselves’ to Mariupolians’ movable property, mainly cars, smartphones and laptops.
The Russian occupiers even steal and deal on the black market in humanitarian aid sent from Russia, making lives of fewer than 100,000 Mariupolians, who remain 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 traumatized civilians also keep dying, due to lack of even basic life-saving medicines. Not surprisingly, localized 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 pumped directly to the city’s remaining inhabitants through television, because no power is available in Mariupol. Hence, ‘mobile information complexes,’ or China-style vans with vast screens, are deployed across destroyed Mariupol, to make the Kremlin’s narrative available to all and sundry.
The main difference between the Warsaw Ghetto and Mariupol is that nazi Germany created the former as an instrument for carrying out the Holocaust, while the Russians besieged Mariupol to the better make the city’s inhabitants into Russians, irrespective of Mariupolians’ own wishes in this regard. Nevertheless, as a result, both urban populations suffered similar privations, namely, hunger, lack of life-saving medications and running water, or life-endangering exposure to elements. The German and Russian soldiers displayed no respect for human life.
Not that it matters or changes anything, but the Germans transported the ghetto’s surviving inhabitants to the prescribed death camps., Catholic Warsovians were to be spared the sight of the extermination of Jewish Warsovians. No such attention to detail was paid in Mariupol. What counted in this case was speed, meeting the Russian president’s not publicized deadlines for the ‘special military operation in Ukraine.’, After all, initially, the Kremlin hoped to conquer all or most of Ukraine in less than a week.,, With no safe corridors ever really opened, Mariupolians were unable to leave the city, and many perished under indiscriminate Russian shelling. Most 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 full tally, since the Russian invaders seem to have deployed mobile crematoria for a radical reduction in the numbers of dead bodies of civilians and soldiers that were 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, denude this ghetto of its inhabitants, and then reduce it to rubble. With 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 a quarter. So, the Russians were at least a dozen times quicker and more effective than the Germans. A staggering 1,200 percent acceleration; I fear to say ‘improvement.’
This technocratic conclusion stands at odds with the essay’s goal to make the tragedy of Mariupolians 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 Kurt Tucholsky’s 1925 witticism) to Generalissimo Joseph Stalin: ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.’
Apart from knowing the overall plotline of the siege of Mariupol and realizing its singularity, thanks to the comparison with the Warsaw Ghetto, now the reader is left with the difficult task of filling in the framework with human level stories. How did 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 victims die? How does life look like to survivors and Mariupolians exiled into 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. So, now we badly need a stopgap measure that would prevent the victims and survivors from being reduced to dehumanized statistics. And again, the hard-working Warsaw Ghetto comes to succor. Dawid (Bogdan) Wojdowski, as a ten- to twelve-year-old boy lived in this ghetto. He survived the Holocaust and subsequently devoted all his life to make human-level stories of this unprecedented genocidal ordeal known to the whole world. Wojdowski’s opus magnum Bread for the Departed is the best Polish-language novel ever published during the communist period., To a degree, this book also replies to many unanswered questions about how people felt, died and survived in besieged Mariupol.
Slavic-Eurasian Research Center
 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 arguments presented in this essay are the author’s, and do not represent any official position on the part of the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center.
 Piotr Majewski. 2005. Wojna i kultura. Instytucje kultury polskiej w okupacyjnych realiach Generalnego Gubernatorstwa 1939–1945. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo TRIO, 2005, p 311.
 Krzysztof Dunin-Wąsowicz. 1980. Społeczność Warszawy widziana przez okupanta. In: Józef Kazimierski, ed. Warszawa stolica Polski (Ser: Varsaviana). Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, p 114.
 Ruta Sakowska. 1993. Ludzie z dzielnicy zamkniętej. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, p 29.
 Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak. 2013. Getto warszawskie. Przewodnik po nieistniejącym mieście. Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, p 1396.