The Cultural Colonization of Mariupol: How Russia Erases the Ukrainian Memory in the City

February 29, 2024
How does Russian propaganda destroy Ukrainian places of memory in occupied Mariupol?

This autumn, Russians destroyed the last Ukrainian mural in temporarily occupied Mariupol. Earlier, the mural "Milana," dedicated to a 5 y.o. Ukrainian girl who survived a Russian shelling in 2015 was torn down and replaced with a Russian tricolor. Instead, a mural depicting a "girl suffering from NATO bombs" was erected in its place

While the occupation authorities justify the fight against Ukrainian street art as necessary measures for repair and insulation of buildings, the removal of Ukrainian memorials honoring victims of the Holodomor and a monument commemorating Ukrainian military casualties during the Russian-Ukrainian war, testify instead to the systematic approach to the destruction of Ukrainian historical memory in the city.

Source: Petro Andriushchenko

The deliberate erasure of Ukrainian places  of memory is one of the most productive Russian colonial strategies - and now it is actively used in the temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories. Through assimilation, neo-colonization, and the displacement of Ukrainian cultural symbols, Russia seeks to reshape Mariupol's collective memory, obscuring the traumatic events of war crimes and promoting a narrative that aligns with its own imperial agenda.

Against the backdrop of Mariupol's occupation and the resettlement of migrants (the number of which has already exceeded 50.000, according to Petro Andriushchenko, adviser to the Mayor of Mariupol), Russia's strategy to eradicate Ukrainian memory spaces, filled with symbols and events, is multifaceted. The cultural colonization tactics, including assimilation and neo-colonization, aim to erase the memory of Russian war crimes and subjugate the cultural identity of the citizens. By producing palimpsests, Russia attempts to transform the dead city into a hallmark of "Russian liberation." 

The city was known as one of the biggest sites of modernist art, including the mosaics of Alla Horska, Viktor Arnautov, and Viktor Zaretskyi, which were destroyed due to Russian shellings. And the rest of the city's architectural and monumental heritage is now being thoroughly cleared to make room for Russian cultural codes. The brutal discrepancy between the latter and the city's war experience shows how the imperial narrative subdues the local context - and leaves no place for reflecting on the traumatic experience.

Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi
Photo: Ivan Stanislavskyi
Photo: Yevgen Nikiforov/Facebook
Photo: Yevgen Nikiforov/Facebook

Aleida Assman, the researcher of cultural memory, in her book Spaces of Recollection: Forms and Transformations of Cultural Memory, notes that interrupted history materializes in ruins and relics that stand out against the background of the environment as fragments of something alien. Such a fragment freezes and remains isolated from the local life of modernity, despite being filled with events and ideas. 

Describing the influence of wars on the shaping of cultural memory, Assman concludes that the сontinuity of history, destroyed by conquest, losses, and oblivion, cannot be restored in the future, but people can connect to it through memory. However, Russia's occupational strategy aims to erase and reshape the memories of Ukrainians, - clearly visible in the example of Mariupol's drama theatre, where approximately 600 Ukrainians were killed due to a Russian airstrike. The ruins were later used not for the memorialization of the tragedy but for the "opening of the new theatrical season" and for propaganda means. 

Source: Petro Andriushchenko

Such tactics indicate that Russia attempts  to subdue the past, while the deliberate destruction and replacement of significant Ukrainian memory spaces, such as murals and monuments, as part of a broader colonization strategy. This is a classic example of how the oppressor uses imperial symbols to mark the space of the oppressed, trivializing resistance efforts as barbaric. The figure of the "noble" colonizer perpetuated by Russia portrays the imposition of its culture as a benevolent act of enlightenment in the aftermath of devastation. 

The colonial nature of Russian cultural practices includes accusations of bias and trauma among Ukrainians. In contrast, the long-term impact of cultural dominance on the unhealing cultural trauma in Mariupol aims to completely erase the Ukrainian presence and reshape the cultural identity. This is also followed by propagandistic statements about the city's "reconstruction" following the widespread destruction of its housing stock.  This strategy mirrors the approach previously employed by Russia in Grozny following the Chechnya invasion. In fact, Russian propagandists make little effort to to hide this continuity of tradition. Thus, the so-called chairman of parliament of  the occupied Crimea, Sergei Konstantinov claimed that

Mariupol repeated the fate of Grozny, which was destroyed during the battles to liberate it from international terrorists. There is complete confidence that the city on the shores of the Azov Sea will repeat the future fate of the Chechen capital, which has now become one of the most beautiful cities in Russia.

Also, within its strategy of establishing ties with the countries of the so-called Global South, the Kremlin tries to whitewash its reputation as a colonizer through cultural diplomacy. Thus, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov makes statements as follows: 

"Our country, which has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism, has always sincerely supported Africans in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression." This  column was published in Egyptian, Congolese, Ugandan, and Ethiopian newspapers on the eve of Lavrov's visit to these countries.

The erection of a monument to a Russian war criminal, General Kutuzov, who participated in the occupation of the city, demonstrates the symbolic implications and the attempt to impose a distorted hero narrative. Russia's use of victim-blaming and dehumanization in propaganda is illustrated by the destruction of a memorial mural and the creation of a mural portraying a "girl suffering from NATO bombardments."

Source: Mariupol City Council Source: Mariupol City Council

The paradoxical nature of an expansive state with an imperial background manifests itself in attempts to build solidarity with postcolonial nations, employing tactics such as luring the colonized. In such conditions, Moscow turns the occupied urban space into a palimpsest, which is continuously rewritten by the oppressor, and makes resistance efforts such as the preservation of Ukrainian art and cultural elements impossible, and thus "reactionist."

Russia's tactics resonate with the typical tactics of totalitarian regimes, emphasizing how memory deprivation serves as a tool for mental enslavement. In some way, the murals perform the function of temporary mediums (as did mosaics in Soviet times), and their destruction can be regarded as part of Russia's strategy to control the narrative and legitimize its expansive actions. Aleida Assman states that places of memory are scattered fragments of lost and destroyed life connections. 

However, even in the aftermath of a place's destruction, its history endures; it preserves material remains that become elements of stories and the starting points of new cultural memories. These places always demand  an explanation, as their significance must be articulated additionally through language. This explains why Russia invades memories so brutally: to win the war for memory, it aims to break the continuity of Ukrainian cultural and historical traditions in the occupied territories, replacing them with the perverse imperial memory space filled with simulacra.

The article was originally published on the Kremlin's Voice platform.

Inna Polianska
Journalist and Analyst at Internews Ukraine