Russian media encourage people to live in Mariupol. They present the ruined city as an attractive resort. They praise workers who rebuild dilapidated buildings. There is no mention of who demolished these buildings.
The Russians razed Mariupol to the ground. They took the coastal city in southeast Ukraine in May 2022 after a brutal assault. Tens of thousands of people died in the fighting. About 90 percent of the buildings were destroyed. Photos from the battle for Mariupol showed the scale of Russian cruelty to the Western public. In mid-May 2022, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reported that in the attack on the Azovstal plant in Mariupol the invaders used incendiary ammunition with thermite bulletswhich is prohibited by the norms of international humanitarian law.
BBC reports now about the ongoing intensive Russification in the city. Ukrainian-language road signs are replaced with Russian ones, Russian curricula are introduced in schools, and residents are being urged to obtain Russian passports. Russian construction crews work in the city, renovating or creating new housing estates. However, significant areas remain rubble.
“There are constant reports on state television that the reconstruction of Mariupol is proceeding at a ‘record’ pace and life is returning to normal,” write Adam Robinson, Erwan Rivault and Olga Robinson of the BBC Verify fact-checking team, analyzing the data and reveals examples of the dissemination of disinformation. The intensive propaganda message is probably aimed at persuading the Russians to settle in the city. In fact, however, it can be misleading. Journalists report on a conversation with a Russian from Murmansk who sold his house and wants to move to Mariupol. He explained that he wanted to take advantage of the period of low prices. “The main thing is that it’s by the sea,” he said.
A seaside resort where “people walk around smiling”
It is very easy to find materials from occupied Mariupol in the Russian state media. “A Week in the City”, a news program of the state-owned Rossiya 1 broadcaster watched in Moscow, paints a picture of a seaside resort and residents grateful to Russians. “A year ago, the earth was burning here underfoot, and the apartment buildings were literally collapsing” – says the author material published on May 21, according to which the buildings apparently collapsed on their own. It does not mention the involvement of Russian soldiers and bombs in their collapse. The journalist then shows photos of the damage and juxtaposes them with a visualization of one of the housing estates being built in Mariupol. “This is what the city looked like last spring. It has changed beyond recognition” – he says, and soft music can be heard in the background.
The journalist continues with a “completely restored” park with an impressive view of the sea. “And you can’t say that there are fierce battles here. People walk around smiling, and the area has been tidied up” – he tells his story. At one point, he admits that new buildings are being built only “here and there”. However, the message of the material is definitely positive. It is dominated by pictures of new housing estates, peacefully walking people and seaside views.
The positive heroes are the workers, thanks to whom people can return “to their renovated apartment, where everything is sparkling clean.” “There was nothing for 30 years, no renovation. The guys came and did it,” the interlocutor of Rossiya 1 is happy.
Similar positive information regularly appears in the Russian media. July 19 agency RIA Novosti quoted Denis Pushylin, the head of the self-proclaimed, separatist Donetsk People’s Republic. In an interview with Rossiya 24 TV, he spoke about the city’s growing population. “It is characteristic of Mariupol that the main driver, including the creation of jobs, is construction and everything related to it. Nobody is unemployed in Mariupol anymore,” Pushylin said. August 8 RIA Novosti reported Vladimir Putin’s thanks to those rebuilding Mariupol.
A resident of Mariupol on the message of the Russian media: “nonsense”
An entirely different picture of Mariupol emerges from the analysis of BBC Verify journalists. To find out the scale of the damage and describe the current situation, they analyzed satellite images. Many new skyscrapers have appeared over the past year – mainly on the outskirts. On the northwestern edge of the city is Nevsky – a vast district of new buildings. This is a show project of the Kremlin. In March this year Vladimir Putin visited the district. Already at that time, the media reported on huge social tensions and cases of eviction of people from already occupied apartments.
A huge part of Mariupol is still devastated. The scale of the damage can be seen mainly in the central part of the city, where most of the houses still do not have their roofs rebuilt. The BBC spoke to an Azovstal employee who stayed in the city during the war. According to him, what is shown on Russian television is “nonsense”. The man estimates that the Russians have rebuilt about 10 percent. destroyed residential buildings.
The analysis of satellite images shows that the Russians decide to leave the ruined huge tracts of the city – they do not rebuild residential buildings, but dismantle them. They probably judge that they are too damaged. BBC journalists point out an almost deserted district in the eastern part of Mariupol with an area of approximately 315,000 sq m. square meters.
The Russian media is silent about this perspective. Just like about social tensions and residents’ indignation at the actions of Russian construction teams. At the end of July, the Mariupol city council, loyal to Kiev, announced that temporary graves are still found in the city. “The occupiers are literally building new facilities on the bones of Mariupol residents they killed,” the city council said. A nightclub was opened among the blocks of flats destroyed during the war.
“I’ve always dreamed of living by the sea”
Both Russian state TV and pro-Kremlin YouTube channels regularly show happy families moving into their new homes. They cite their conversations with the Russians, who seem to reproduce an uninformed or outright false image of wartime reality. “Of course, it was Ukraine that destroyed the city,” says Vladimir. He argues that the Russians will rebuild Mariupol and it will be even more beautiful than in the times of Ukraine. Oksana, another BBC interlocutor, is concerned about the development of events at the front and the return of the Ukrainians. However, she emphasizes: “I’ve always dreamed of living by the sea.” He assures that he does not intend to give up these plans.
BBC Verify’s analysis reveals a completely different picture of the city from the perspective of Ukrainians returning to it. Officially, people who have lost their homes as a result of warfare can apply for housing in newly built housing estates. However, the process of handing over flats is slow and burdensome. Residents of the city are entered on a waiting list and do not immediately learn the details – even the location of the future apartment.
According to Aleksander, interviewed by BBC Verify, in practice apartments are allocated to people with “clearly pro-Russian views”. Interlocutors of the station talk about bizarre reasons for refusing to grant new accommodation. The authorities refuse people who, in addition to the destroyed property, own another house or even a piece of land.
Anna, whose block of flats was demolished, told the local pro-Russian TV station Mariupol 24 that she had not been given a replacement apartment because she still had an eight-square-metre shed in the countryside 40 km outside Mariupol. A new one, built by a Russian company, is being built on the site of its destroyed block. According to BBC Verify, the apartments are to be sold on credit. The 35-meter apartment is to cost about 3.5 million rubles (equivalent to about PLN 140,000).
Main photo source: Abaca/PAP