Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces have imposed a ruthless siege on Mariupol. At the location of this strategic industrial port, there was, less than two hundred and fifty years ago, only the steppe: Mariupol (“the city of Mary”, in Greek) did not yet exist.
The Pontic steppe, on which it will be built, has long been called the “wild plain”. Sparsely populated, it was the scene for centuries of violent clashes between Muscovy, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Crimean Tatars and a Mongol confederation, the Nogai horde.
Founded by 18,000 Greek immigrants
In 1775, Russia seized the region, which previously depended on the Crimean Khanate. In order to consolidate her hold, Empress Catherine II wanted to populate the shores of the Sea of Azov with Christian settlers. It was in this context that one of his generals, Alexander Suvorov, transferred 18,000 Greeks, Armenians, Vlachs and Georgians from Crimea to the region.
→ READ ALSO. Kievan Rus’, the medieval state used by Vladimir Putin to justify the invasion of Ukraine
Upon their arrival, the Greek migrants founded Mariupol. They are probably the descendants of the Crimean Greek colonies, founded between the 8th and 5th centuries BC. The Russian authorities grant them many privileges: they have their own schools, their churches and their Court of Cassation.
The fishing village becomes an industrial center
In 1870, the city put an end to these concessions: Greek schools were closed or Russified and religious services were given in Russian. At the end of the 19th century, the population still comprised 34% Greeks, against 50% Ukrainians and Russians. The first practiced the trade and craftsmanship of leather, the others constituted the bulk of the large landowners and the military and administrative elite.
→ TESTIMONY. Ukraine: “The Russians don’t want to capture Mariupol, they want to turn it into a field of ruins”
It was at this time, in 1882, that the construction of a railway connected Mariupol to the mining basin of Donbass. An industrial port was built between 1886 and 1889, mainly to export coal and cereals. In 1900, 1,000 tons of goods passed through the docks in Marioupoli. Ten years later, that number had doubled.
The city of steel
The city also becomes a metallurgical center. Americans founded the Nikopol company in 1897, which later became Illitch – the surname of Lenin. It is still today one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe.
Industrial development continued in the following decades, with the opening of the Azovstal metallurgical plant in 1933, one of the largest in the whole of the USSR. From 1948 to 1989, during the Soviet period, the city was also renamed Zhdanov, after Andrei Zhdanov, a close collaborator of Joseph Stalin and born in Mariupol.
Easy access to raw materials, abundant labor in the surrounding villages and a port connecting the city to the world: these three ingredients made Mariupol a major industrial center, the third in the country in the 1920s. partly explain its importance in the war that is tearing Ukraine apart today.
Already attacked by the French and then by the Germans
This is not the first time that Mariupol has experienced violence. During the Crimean War, which opposed the French, the British and the Ottoman Empire to Russia between 1853 and 1856, the city was burned down. “The fleet traveled in all directions the sea (from Azov, Editor’s note), and caused the Russians to suffer considerable losses. Mariupol, Berdyansk, Taganrog were burning with their immense supplies”says at the time the Baron de Bazancourt, sent on a mission to the region by Napoleon III.
→ TO REREAD. Russia accused of deporting civilians from Mariupol to its territory
Mariupol was also not spared during the Second World War, during which the city was partially destroyed. It was again at the center of the fighting in 2014, during an offensive by Moscow-backed separatists. That year, the city had been taken by the pro-Russian militiamen, before the forces of kyiv, including the Azov battalion, accused of being neo-Nazi, drove them out.
Now under fire again, Mariupol has seen three quarters of its population flee the city. Out of 430,000 inhabitants before the war, only 100,000 would remain.