- Written by Sarah Fowler and James Landall
- in London and Kiev
Driving through the ruined city at night, Vladimir Putin pays his first visit to Mariupol – which was destroyed when Russian forces surrounded the city earlier in the war.
The BBC traced part of the route he took, which passed near the sites of several notorious attacks during his army’s months-long offensive. Russia finally overran the city in May.
A video clip released by Russian media shows Mr Putin speaking with a companion as they head towards the city’s concert hall. The Kremlin says the visit took place late on Saturday and Putin decided to tour the city “spontaneously”.
The mayor of Mariupol, Ukraine in exile, Vadym Boychenko, told the BBC that Mariupol was “personal” for Putin because of what happened there.
“We have to understand that Mariupol is a symbolic place for Putin, because of the rage he has wreaked on the city of Mariupol. No other city has been destroyed like this. No other city has been under siege for so long. No other city has been under carpet bombing.”
“He came himself to see what he did,” he added.
Driving through the scene of Russian attacks
The BBC has identified some of the major milestones along the path of the Russian leader. Putin appears to be driving down Kubrina Street, turning into Miro Street and then onto Metalurhive Street, where the Philharmonic Concert Hall is located and which he visits later in the footage.
He is seated next to a man in a black hat, who has been described by Russian media as Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khosnullin.
To the left of him as they drive down Miro Street are sculptures of birds in Mariupol’s Freedom Square.
Further, on the right rather than in the footage, is Maternity Hospital No. 3 in Mariupol, which was bombed in an infamous accident last March.
Images of Marianna Vyshgirskaya, pregnant in a gestational position, her face covered in blood, descending steps strewn with rubble amid anger at the attack, have gone viral. She survived and was born the next day. Another pregnant woman was among the victims.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called it a war crime, but Russia’s embassy in London claimed the hospital was no longer in use, instead being used by personnel from the Azov Regiment, which was set up as a volunteer militia with far-right links. in 2014 but has since been incorporated into the National Guard of Ukraine.
Putin turned off Myru Avenue just before the road reached Theater Square — the scene of a deadly bombing believed to have killed at least 300 people and possibly as many as 600 civilians.
Civilians were using the building as a refuge from the siege and a large banner reading “The Children” in Russian appeared in front of the stage. The building collapsed when it was hit. Russia denied bombing and blamed the Azov battalion. In December, the Ukrainian city authorities in exile said Russia was demolishing the ruins of the theatre.
Russia, Mr. Boychenko said, “understood the places where people are concentrated, and deliberately destroyed these places, killing people. They systematically worked on this.”
Visits a new Russian complex in Mariupol outer
The footage then shows Putin on a walking tour of a new apartment complex said to be located in Mariupol’s Nevsky District. He is mentored by Mr. Khosnoli, who shows him some plans for the reconstruction work. He was also seen talking to people Russian media said were local residents, and also visiting an apartment he was told consisted of three rooms.
Nevsky is a new district with dozens of apartment buildings in the west of the city. It is named after the Neva River, where St. Petersburg, the birthplace of President Vladimir Putin, stands.
Mayor Boychenko said that many of the buildings built by Russia were on the outskirts of the city. “They built this just to prove that their version of what’s going on there is correct. But they’re lying! They’re lying that they came to liberate the city. But they destroyed it. This city doesn’t exist anymore. And it takes 20 years to liberate it. To restore it!” he said.
Mariupol residents told the BBC that new buildings were under construction and that some buildings destroyed by the Russian army had been removed. The United Nations estimates that 90% of residential buildings were damaged or destroyed in the Russian attack.
Norwegian journalist Morten Risberg, who visited Mariupol in December, said he saw “large-scale rebuilding and restoration” amid “destruction everywhere you look”.
He told the BBC: “They’re changing street names, painting Ukrainians with Russian colours, putting Russian flags everywhere.” Most of the civilians remaining in the city, he said, were “only focused on staying alive”.
Walking into the Mariupol Philharmonic Concert Hall
In another part of the footage, President Putin is seen walking inside a concert hall in Mariupol. Russian state media said it was the Philharmonic’s concert hall – and the BBC has verified that the footage matches the interior of the venue.
This is the same building that the United Nations has warned against being used for trials of Ukrainian forces who have held out against Russian forces for months at the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol. Russia finally gained full control of Mariupol in May after the defenders surrendered.
Pictures posted on social media in August – including those posted by the Ukrainian authorities – show metal cages being built on the stage. According to the United Nations, the trial of prisoners of war for their participation in hostilities is a war crime.
But the trials never took place, as the POWs later became part of a prisoner exchange for 55 prisoners from Ukraine, including a pro-Kremlin former deputy, Viktor Medvedchuk.
Recent shots from inside the concert hall show that the interior of the building has since been redecorated and the cages are no longer visible.
During the siege, the Concert Hall, like the Drama Theatre, was used by civilians as shelter. Boychenko said the cultural institutions were “where people hid in basements and waited for the Russian terror to end”.
Before the invasion it was the venue of the Mariupol Classic Classical Music Festival. Mr Boychenko said that the festival was “a great celebration of classical music for the people of Mariupol” which attracted artists from abroad and other parts of Ukraine.
“A lot of people always gathered at this festival to feel the mood that has always been in Mariupol,” he said.
In a later shot, President Putin is seen visiting a World War II memorial constructed to commemorate the Soviet forces that retook the city from Nazi Germany.
Additional coverage by BBC Oscent’s Benedict Jarman
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