The “Elephant” in Mariupol: Moscow’s grip on hearts and minds

Servicemen stand above a Mariupol city sign. Photo: 

Ukraine, War in the Donbas

Article by: Michael Gentile

The results from a survey conducted in the south-Ukrainian city of Mariupol indicate that the Ukrainian nation-building process needs to overcome major hurdles in this city, most notably its population’s anti-western geopolitical inclinations and widespread identification with the Soviet Union, writes VoxUkraine.

By the results of the first round of the local elections held on 25 October in the mayoral elections of Mariupol, a frontline city located roughly 20 km to the west of the Line of Demarcation with the Russian-occupied Donbas (ORLDLO), the Metinvest candidate Vadim Boychenko., affiliated with oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, obtained the trust of nearly of two-thirds of the electorate, with the pro-Russian “Opposition Platform – for Life” candidate Volodymyr Klymenko earning more than a quarter of the votes.

Most of the electorate of the areas located near the Donbas war Line of Demarcation does not support political parties that promise to recalibrate Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation towards the West.

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Mariupol remains a Russian-speaking city. A whopping 88% opined that Russian should be elevated to the status of second official (state) language.

Asking about feeling Ukrainian or Russian, but also Soviet or “European,” and allowing for multiple identifications and different degrees of identification brought us next results: as shown in Graph 1, well over 80% of Mariupol’s population identifies as Ukrainian. Almost half identify as Russian, although only a small share of this group feels strongly this way.

Graph 1: Self-identification of Mariupol residents as Ukrainian, Russian, Soviet, and European (multiple identifications possible)

At the supra-national level, more than half of the population identifies as Soviet, this stands in contrast with the share identifying as “European.” This identification is associated with age. Those who identify as Russian and/or Soviet are, on average, older than those who do not, whereas the inverse is true for those who identify as Ukrainian and European (Graph 2).

Graph 2: Share of Mariupolitans identifying as “European,” by age.

Graph 3: Share of the population of Mariupol that identifies as “Soviet,” by age.

Soviet identity will slowly disappear as the age groups that cherish it move up the population pyramid, but it is not being replaced by European supranational identification. However, it is unclear whether national identities might be filling in the void.

The geopolitical “mood” in Mariupol should thus be seen against the background of generally weak national identities. From the perspective of Ukrainian nation-building, this is a serious challenge, and it certainly reverberates on the prospects for successful integration into the EU and NATO.

Moscow’s grip on the hearts and minds of many Mariupolitans becomes visible in the answers given to numerous attitudinal questions. The respondents’ assessment of six geopolitically relevant statements sheds more light on this situation (Table 1). Each of these statements is likely to attract some “tactical” answers, so the extent of pro-Ukrainian sentiment is likely somewhat overestimated, whereas anti-Ukrainian opinions are likely underestimated.

Completely disagree Rather disagree Rather agree Completely agree Hard to say Will not answer
1. The “DNR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”) enjoyed considerable support in the city 5.5 14.1 41.3 11.8 24.9 2.5
2. The “DNR” was founded by local residents of the Donbas 3.2 12.0 49.1 13.9 18.4 3.4
3. Mariupol is prevalently pro-Ukrainian 4.6 17.7 47.2 12.8 17.1 0.6
4. Russians and Ukrainians are one people. 3.3 8.1 41.9 41.5 4.4 0.8
5. Russia has the right to control all ships passing through the Kerch strait. 13.8 14.4 34.2 14.7 20.0 2.9
6. Ukraine must be in the Russian sphere of influence and Western countries must respect that. 32.0 23.6 28.3 8.0 6.7 1.4
Table 1. Assessment of geopolitically “flavored” statements (row percentages).

Summing up, Mariupol’s population is divided between a large openly pro-Russian minority of at least 40% and a small explicitly pro-Ukrainian and pro-European minority, represented by between 10 and 20% of the population, probably closer to 10%. The remainder of the population’s allegiances and identities seems to be up for grabs.

Considering the above, it may come as no surprise that the population’s primary blame attribution for the Donbas war falls on the Ukrainian side, while only 13.5% blame Russia.

There is a risk that the imminent threat of a Russian invasion in 2014-2015 may have ignited more hopes than fears in Mariupol. This is an elephant so big that it is easiest to detect when seen from a distance. Certainly, Moscow sees it; in the meantime, Kyiv’s response appears to have been ineffective, while an uneasy silence reigns in Mariupol.

Michael Gentile is Professor of human geography, Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo, Norway



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