‘That’s my neighbour’: Mariupol residents’ shock at Putin’s parade line-up

Survivors’ disgust as children thank ‘rescuers’ in a lavish Moscow celebration

At the climax of the pageantry in Moscow to mark the first anniversary of the start of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale war in Ukraine, the Kremlin wheeled out children from Mariupol in occupied south-east Ukraine to “thank” their invaders.

The star of this orgy of Russian patriotism was Anna Naumenko, a 15-year-old with black hair, who was pushed on to the stage of Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium to thank a soldier nicknamed “Yuri Gagarin” for rescuing her: “Thank you Uncle Yura for saving me, my sister and hundreds of thousands of children in Mariupol.” Anna’s sister, Karolina, covered her ears against the noise of the crowd as she stood nearby.

As the Ukrainian children crowded round to hug the soldier, their former neighbours from Mariupol felt shock and disgust. These were children they had huddled with in basements less than a year earlier, sheltering from Russian bombs and suffering from hunger and cold as Moscow launched a bloody onslaught that destroyed the city. “The abomination is that these are not actors,” wrote one. “They are really children from Mariupol.”

Pointing out another child, he added: “That teenager in a black hat and grey jacket hugging the occupier is Kostya, my neighbour. We lived in the same building, and spent the first month of the war in the same shelter.”

The former resident gave the Observer social media information and other details about the family with whom he had shared a shelter underneath a building in Mariupol’s Left Bank district before being evacuated on 20 March. He described walking over dead bodies with Kostya’s father when they went to a bread factory to search for food and get water from a pump.

Children hug a Russian soldier
Children from occupied south-east Ukraine hug a soldier dubbed “Yuri Gagarin”. Photograph: Sky News

“I assume that they were invited to Moscow for this show. Perhaps for a monetary reward or motivated otherwise,” he said. “I can’t call Kostya’s parents pro-Russian because before the full-scale war, they never expressed a concrete opinion.”

The man’s comments were corroborated by another former Mariupol resident, Daria Shrycheva, who had sheltered in the same basement at the administration building, sharing a room with 40 people.

She has described similar scenes of bodies in the street near the bread factory – blood turning to jelly in the cold – and also told of dwindling food and water supplies, and eight of their neighbours being killed or wounded when bombs landed across the street.

At one point, food was so scarce that she and three other people shared a single chocolate bar, the only food they had had in days. They also fled Mariupol in late March.

“Kostya’s mom and dad were good people,” said Shrycheva, who remembered that Kristina, the mother, worked in a store in their neighbourhood. “We shared food with them, so did they. Kostya is a very kind and good boy.”

“My husband was running with Kostya’s dad to get water and food for us under fire,” she told the Observer. “Igor helped extinguish the fire when our building was set on fire by the Russians. I know their apartment is gone, their whole house burned down and has already been demolished.”

Like others, she was surprised at the boy’s appearance at the pro-Russian concert. “I don’t know why Kostya’s family has changed their attitude towards Russians. I think they’re ‘adapters’ … These are people who don’t care what flag to live under. They are looking for benefits for themselves from either side. Maybe then it was convenient for them to support Ukraine, and now it is convenient for them to support Russia.” Kostya’s mother, Kristina, now works in the “administration” of occupied Mariupol, she added.

Social media profiles for Kostya’s family show they still live in Mariupol. His father, Igor, and mother, Kristina, did not reply to a request for comment. But their stories, and others, have now also been confirmed by Russian and Ukrainian media, with bleak stories of what the children brought to the media circus in Moscow had been through.

Polina Tsvetkova, a Russian state TV presenter who helped organise the event, wrote: “After the broadcast, I met with the children who were saved in Mariupol by volunteer Yuri Gagarin. More than 300 children! They call him an angel, and the team and I also tried to be angels for the kids and organise a joyful time in Moscow! We will show the story about our children on Channel One next week.”

Anna was also confirmed to be from Mariupol by Informator, a Ukrainian news website. “Her mother, blogger Olga Naumenko, is known in the city,” the site wrote. According to the website, Olga was killed in the war. iStories, a Russian news website, later confirmed that the Naumenko family had sheltered in the House of Culture and then the Left Bank administration building, as had Kostya’s family.

In April, Olga was killed by shrapnel from an explosion when she “ran out for cigarettes”, an eyewitness said. She was buried in the grounds of a hospital. A social media post at the time said she had left behind three children: “Anya, Karolina and Danya.” While Anna thanked “Yuri Gagarin” for saving her and her sister, she made no mention of her brother.

Last week’s events were full of pomp, but thin on substance. Putin’s “state of the nation” speech on Tuesday had been hailed by state TV as the “most important political moment of the year”. Billboards in Moscow said, in white text on a black background, that there would be “no going back”, recalling Putin’s 2016 statement that “the borders of Russia end nowhere”.

In the event, it was standard fare: grievances against the west, modest promises of social aid, and assurances that Russia was fighting for national survival and would ultimately win.

Putin made news by suspending compliance with New Start, Russia’s last remaining nuclear arms treaty with the US. But what his speech did not include was any concrete idea as to how Russia would win in Ukraine or prevail in its new conflict with the west.

“This is revanchist rhetoric and it is losing,” wrote Maxim Trudolyubov, a prominent Russian journalist and columnist. “This is extremely far from a sermon – this kind of speech does not make the flock sigh, be touched and see the light ahead.”

Moscow residents at the monument to Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka.
Moscow residents at the monument to Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka. Photograph: Reuters

There were quiet moments of reflection , as a trickle of Russians gathered at the statue of Ukrainian writer Lesya Ukrainka, which has become an informal memorial for opponents of the war. “It is endless pain. It’s a feeling life will never be the same again,” said one young woman filmed there sobbing. “The world has crumbled. All my family are Ukrainians but we live in Russia. If [my grandfather] were alive, he’d probably call himself Russian. But I can’t call myself Russian. I don’t have a home any more.”

But the state’s resources are far larger. It is estimated that 200,000 people were bussed, cajoled or lured to the stadium where, a little over four years ago, Russia hosted the World Cup final. Now, it was decked out in Russian tricolours, army flags and large Zs, the informal symbol of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

These are the images of Russia that Putin imagines to be true: loyal, patriotic, ecstatic at war, slavish. Observers have said it is similar to how he imagined Ukraine.

“Putin has convinced himself that Ukrainian society is the same kind of theatre that he, using murder and threats, has made out of Russian society,” Trudolyubov wrote when the war began. “His television and press have for many years had only one client and one viewer – he himself. He has poisoned himself with his own lie.”

For those watching from Ukraine, the spectacle is unbearable. “I feel sick,” wrote Kostya’s former neighbour. “I am burning from the inside.”


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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