Traces of The "Russian Spring" in Eastern Ukraine
14 May, 2017

Mariupol, a city in Donetsk region, Ukraine, experienced the wave of pro-Russian demonstrations called the “Russian spring" with shootings and killing in the center of the city, the liberation of the city by Azov soldiers and Grad rocket launchers shelling the Eastern district. May 9, 2014 was an extremely important day for the city. The risk of losing control of Mariupol was very high. A lot of people gave their lives to keep this from happening.

The Victory Day rally turned into an attempted seizure of the city police department. Later, this was recognized as a terrorist act. The so-called “Mongoose” group broke into the building. There were shootings and then a fire started. The cause of the fire is still unknown. 6 policemen and military personnel died.

Hromadske journalists came to the Mariupol frontline the day before May 9 to find out what has changed in the city in the last three years.

Security measures are traditionally increased on May 9 at the station. There are a lot of policemen and National Guard soldiers with dogs. Locals have already gotten used to it and show documents to the police without any questions.

The head of the National Police in Mariupol Mykola Poboynyi witnessed the events of May 9, 2014. According to him, the police are to some extent at fault for what happened. “We knew about the seizure of administrative buildings in Slovyansk, Luhansk, but weren’t ready for it to happen in Mariupol. Now there is no chance for such events to take place in the city. The patrol police was launched; a center for administrative services, cultural centers and modern cafes for the youth were opened. There are a lot of IDPs. The population of the city was 450-470 thousand people in 2014, now – almost 700 thousand,” he said.

Each year local people gather near the burnt police department building to honor the victims. The mother of the deceased head of the police department Viktor Sayenko said that her son had no other way to get out of the building, but to jump. “They killed them when they were already on the ground,” she said.

“He had a year to serve until seniority retirement. He was my only child. His three sons are left without a father. They receive aid, but I don’t. I went to find out whether I can get a pension supplement, but was told no, because my son died not in the anti-terrorist operation area,” Valentyna Sayenko said.

The burnt building looks the same as before: burnt windows, holes in the walls. The authorities haven’t decided what to do with it yet. There are rumours that it will be torn down and a new office will be built.

On May 9, three years ago, almost simultaneously with the seizure of the building the shooting between the National Guard of Ukraine and separatists, who were then called pro-Russian activists, happened on the street that locals call “Arbat”. The video published by the Security Service of Ukraine after the investigation shows how people in civilian clothes were hiding behind locals and opened fire on the National Guard. 13 people died.

Volodymyr Kalivanov, a former businessman, now a member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, whom we met in the street, said that at the time the police got cold feet.

“They had weapons, it was within their authority to stop everything. They took all the technical equipment, computers from there and were hiding in the cellars with full bellies,” Volodymyr said.

He was outraged that all the former police officers who were organizing the AntiMaidan movement are still in office. He said there is a need to declare martial law in the frontline city.

Only the billboards with the “sincere greetings” of politicians remind one about Victory Day. Mainly representatives of the “Opposition Bloc” are on the billboards. They remain a key party in the region. Mariya Podybaylo, head NGO “New Mariupol”, said that a reboot of the team has happened. Not such experienced managers as Khotlubei (former mayor of the city), but new people, who also consider themselves good managers came to power. A lot of things have changed, but there is still a lot of work to do. There are also a lot of limitations on changes. She is extremely happy about the fact that powerful civil society institutions were formed on the basis of volunteer movement.

Local residents feel more or less safe. They hear shootings from the Shyrokyno side, but, say that it’s calm in the city. Oleksandra mentioned that people have become more positive and pro-Ukrainian. “It’s not scary now to express your position,” she said.

Mariupol has changed in the last three years. Lenin Square was renamed Freedom Square. Now there is a monument to Sviatoslav I of Kyiv instead of Lenin. It was a present from the Azov battalion. However, it seems that the locals aren’t happy about this gift. But taking into account that Azov soldiers liberated the city in 2014, people make concessions to them.

75 streets with Soviet names and a couple dozen monuments were removed last year. Monuments to the Soviet heroes are kept in the yards of the museums now.

The new Police has been launched in the city. The Police Academy is about to open soon. A center for administrative services, cultural centers and modern cafes for the youth were opened in Mariupol.

However, among the people we talked to, there are those who think that there was no seizure of the police department building in 2014. They say that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were shooting at the former militia members for their intention to join the so-called DPR. These people attended the “referendum” with good intentions, or so they say. A lot of people miss Lenin and the fugitive president, they are sad about the “quarrel” with Russia. Such people live in a parallel reality created by Russian TV. They blame police for inaction, the military for their presence, and journalists for lies.

/Translated by Olga Kuchmagra