20 Days in Mariupol
by Mstyslav Chernov
I urge everybody, regardless of your views of the Russian war in Ukraine, to watch 20 Days in Mariupol. It is not an easy watch. The film documents what happened during the early part of the Russian full-scale invasion of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in February and March 2022. Watching it makes you think many times over about the abstractions with which people on the Left approach this and other wars.
The film shows the shock that people felt when their homes were destroyed, or when they had to spend hours in crowded basements as bombing took place. They asked “What did I do to deserve this?” and “How can anyone do this to other people like us?” (This struck home to me—these were the same questions I and my co-workers in AIDS prevention research asked each other and ourselves when our workplace in the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11, 2001.)
We see footage taken after a maternity hospital was attacked, and of surgical teams day after day trying to save the lives of injured children and adults. Some survived, tens of thousands did not. We see people raiding food shops in desperation, and toy stores for reasons unknown. Other footage included someone yelling at the reporters, “Who is doing this to us?” “Is it our government? Or the Russians?” And again and again, the repeated questions: “Why us?” and “How could anyone be so cruel as to do this to us?”
In the course of my AIDS prevention work, I went to Ukraine fifteen times between 2010 and the beginning of the COVID pandemic. I spent a day or two in Sevastopol and other Crimean locations, also in Lviv, and in Krivih Rih. I spent many, many weeks in Odessa and in Kyiv, and came to know the road between the two cities quite well. And as I watched the film, I saw buildings just like the ones I knew in those cities destroyed by bombs and shells, and I watched as Russian tanks sent shells into apartment buildings much like those lived in by friends of mine in St. Petersburg, Kyiv, or Odesa. And as I write these lines, I know that Russia is trying to destroy many places I have come to love and people who are my friends.
When we see a mother who lost some of her children holding her surviving child, and speaking of her hatred of Russians, I can only think that the chances were high that she had friends, maybe even relatives, in Russia.
War is hell and hell has a politics
I have been an antiwar and anti-imperialist activist for over 50 years. I spent years struggling against the U.S. war on the Vietnamese people, the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, U.S. support for apartheid South Africa, the U.S. occupations of Iraq andAfghanistan that were “justified” by 9/11, and (unfortunately) many more. I have spent time in jail as a result, and became unemployable in my first career.
And like many others, I at first thought that being anti-war was enough, but then realized that sometimes war forces you to take sides. Like virtually everyone on the Left, I supported the Vietnamese against the U.S. attacks, and supported efforts by other countries to provide the Vietnamese with weapons. And I did this knowing that the government that would result from a Vietnamese victory would be authoritarian and would not be any form of socialism I could support. Nonetheless, the U.S. was wrong, and the Vietnamese had the right to defend themselves.
And like virtually everyone on the Left, I rejoiced at the mass movements that ousted regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. And I supported the mass movements in many other countries, and could not understand how anyone on the Left could support the regimes of Libya and Syria that resisted these movements. And when the battles in Syria led to efforts to destroy the Kurdish resistance forces, I supported the Kurds’ asking for and using U.S. weapons to defend themselves. I did this knowing that if they win, the U.S. would demand repayment of debts and in other ways will impose hardships on the Kurds. But I am a revolutionary, and I recognize the right of oppressed people to defend themselves—even if the results of their victory will be disappointing.
The Ukrainian people face an incredible existential challenge due to the Russian invasion. During and after the war, however, Ukrainians are facing, and will face, another struggle for the future of their country. Although Western aid is essential for Ukrainians to defend themselves, it is creating a monstrous debt. The Western powers, and capital in general, will try to use this debt to exploit Ukraine and to take control of its minerals and crops, and its people’s labor, for decades to come.
The current Zelensky government accepts this, and is actively working to disorganize Ukrainian workers and other sources of popular resistance to what can only be called Western imperialism and exploitation. There are many in Ukraine who oppose this imperial politics and these policies of the Zelensky government. They also support the Ukrainian armed resistance to the Russian invasion.
Unfortunately, some groups who consider themselves on the Left, and who consider themselves leaders of the United States peace movement, see fit to take many high-sounding positions about the war and negotiations without ever seriously talking with the Ukrainian Left and its social movements like Sotsіalniy Rukh, and why they take part in the armed defense against the invasion. Their failure to talk with the Ukrainian Left is inexcusable, and an example of Western arrogance.
Much of the action in 20 Days in Mariupol focuses on how the city’s residents see the reporters. Some see them as vultures, others as letting the world see the truth and the horrors. It also focuses on the reports coming out of Mariupol early in the invasion—most notably the destruction of a hospital maternity ward—and on Russian attempts to paint these stories as fakes. After access to the internet is cut off by Russian destruction, the reporters discuss their (ultimately successful) efforts to escape from Mariupol and get the remaining footage aired. These themes about truth and falsehood, about news and propaganda, are woven throughout the film and are clearly important both politically and philosophically. The film elicits reflection on these issues.
But at its root the film shows some of the most brutal realities of war. It shows why there is no conceivable justification for this invasion and for making the people of Mariupol (and many other places) go through such a Hell. And I think it provides lots of well-based justification for supporting Ukrainians in their resistance to this invasion. Others may disagree with this conclusion.
And for them, I have a few last questions: How could you support arms to the Kurds or the Vietnamese and not the Ukrainians? How can you ask people trying to defend themselves against this Hell not to seek weapons to defend themselves? What is the Left if it does not support those workers and other ordinary people who are attacked? As a long-time AIDS researcher and activist, I and everyone else like me strongly upholds the slogan “Nothing about us without us.” It is a simple and well-based principle. The film reinforces its importance and I wish everyone on the left understood it.
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Samuel R. Friedman is a lifelong social activist and long-time socialist. His writings on social justice topics include about 50 publications on workers’ movements, how we might create socialism, political economy, racism or social movements—including Teamster Rank and File (Columbia University Press, 1982) and “What happened in Ukraine” (2015). He currently is a research professor of Population Health at a leading New York university and previously the Director of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at National Development and Research Institutes in New York. He has published two books of poetry (most recently A Precious Residue: Poems that ponder efforts to spark a working class socialism in the 1970s and after. October 17, 2022. https://imhojournal.org/wp-content/uploads/Friedman-S.-2022.-A-Precious-Residue.pdf) as well as several chapbooks and many individual poems. He is the author of over 500 publications on HIV, COVID-19, STI and drug use epidemiology, prevention and harm reduction. He is a member of the Tempest Collective, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Ukraine Solidarity Network, the Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, and the People’s CDC. He can be reached at email@example.com