20 Days in Mariupol

A Frontline documentary.

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Reviewed: July 2, 2023

“War is like an x-ray,” says a doctor attending to victims of a Mariupol hospital shelling. “It shows us the insides of our world.” A cop watches dispassionately as looters grab whatever they can get their hands on in a bombed-out notions shop. The woman shop owner begs them to return what they’ve taken. “War makes those who are bad, worse, and those who are good, better,” he says. Putin’s claim that Russia is pursuing its war against Ukraine to root out Nazism carries no weight with those those racing to shelters as bombs and shells destroy the buildings in which they live. Mariupol is an industrial town 30 miles from the Russian border and serves as a bridge between Ukraine and Crimea. The shell-shocked persons who filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov interviews are at a loss to account for Russia’s political motives. An older worker draws on a cigarette and says, “Putin tells the Russians that they have to attack us before we attack them.” He spools his finger against his temple to signal insanity.

Speaking in 1986 about the need for a rectification campaign in Cuba aimed at ending a mechanistic rather than political approach to solving Cuba’s problems, Fidel Castro pointed to the Soviet Union’s entrenched bureaucracy and history of brutal attacks on its people. “There is something worse than capitalism,” Fidel warned, referring to those who, under the pretense of carrying out a revolution, actually set into motion practices that eventually behead it. The combined history of the Russian monarchy and Stalin’s betrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution resulted in the “something worse than capitalism” that brought about the downfall of the Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin, a creature of Stalinism, came to power in the now-capitalist Russia with the help of cronies from such gang-ridden illegal capital enterprises as trafficking arms, drugs and human beings—the most retrograde counterrevolutionary elements in Russia, who used the barbaric tactics borrowed from the Czarist monarchy about which Putin loves to rhapsodize.

He heads a state capitalist government in a country which for the past three decades has incurred a sharp decline in the production of manufactured goods, and sold off to private interests, property and services nationalized during the Russian Revolution. Privatized Russia must now go to toe to toe with its rapacious capitalist rivals to compete in the international market. To press forward, it follows the imperialist playbook to extend its hegemony. Restoration of the monarchy is no longer an option, and so it challenges the post-World War II division of spoils, starting with its next-door neighbor, Ukraine, a country that has survived the “boot on the stair” of not only Russian and Polish pogroms, but Nazi occupation and near-anhilation of a once-sizeable Jewish population. Ukraine’s desire for independence is not so much sentimental as it is the visceral response to centuries of unremitting oppression by both Imperial Russia and the post-1928 Stalinized Soviet Union.

No one in this documentary explains that history, yet it is felt or intuited to the marrow of the bones of nearly every Ukrainian, whether they leave or stay, whether they survive or die, in the struggle to win national independence, and most certainly not to court, of all things, Nazism! Before-and-After footage unfurls a Mariupol that could have been any picturesque town in Europe. Modern edifices of recently constructed apartment buildings, hospitals, and schools, frame a landscape of ample parks and tree-lined avenues. Then, as morning turns to night, comes their utter destruction by Russian shells and tanks, with defense units guarding non-military buildings obliterated by machine gun-wielding ZZ occupation forces. A child of about eight, hunkering down in a basement shelter, says that he fears that he will die that day. An 18-month-old does die during a shelling. A 16-year-old is killed while playing soccer with classmates in the field adjacent to his school. None of them are Nazis.

A woman about to give birth in a maternity hospital where the film crew has been taking refuge, is being transported, post-shelling, to a different hospital. Sensing that the baby she has come there to give birth to has died, she begs to die, and despite the heroic efforts of the medical team to the contrary, she does. Scarcities paradoxically abound: No electric power, no water, no antibiotics. It’s as if the US blockade of Cuba arrived in Ukraine bolstered by Russian tanks, bombs, and a Draconian military invasion. Corpses hastily dropped into trash bags fill gaping mass graves. The polkadotted blanket that had been seen beneath the woman who begged to die flutters by as bodies land helter-skelter in their silt-trench Hereafter. If this is the post-script to what happened on the Maidan in 2014, the funereal cadence it favors feels premature. Why? Because our hindsight vantage point is leavened by knowing that in March and April, after Chernov and his crew managed to flee Mariupol with their secreted footage, as two MI8 missiles blazed toward them overhead, more than 1,700 steelworkers fought valiantly to defend the Mariupol Azovstal Iron & Steel Works before negotiations by the capitalist Zelensky government had them reclassified as Prisoners of War. In their wake, they left behind unnamed numbers of co-workers in the plant’s underground warrens and 35 bomb shelters, determined to fight another day. Imagine if the film crew’s 20 Days in Mariupol had come not in winter but in the spring that followed! Imagine if the film crew could have captured the optimism and iron resolve of steelworkers fighting for independence as they registered their impressions, conclusions, and prognoses for the outcome of this now 17-month-long defensive effort to win self-determination for the people of Ukraine.

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