Citizens of the now destroyed Ukrainian city of Maryinka are left struggling to remember what their town used to look like.
As Yulia Semendyaeva looks at a photo of the Ukrainian city of Maryinka, the place where she was born and lived 29 of the 30 years of her life, she cannot recognize a single street.
"The ponds are the only things that are still where I remember them," she says.
As Yulia’s hometown had become unrecognizable, the world, for the first time, was beginning to notice it.
When people began to share photos of the completely destroyed city, where seemingly not one building remained untouched, the Russian military boasted of the "impressive" results of what it calls the "denazification" project in Ukraine.
Today, Maryinka only exists on maps. Its streets still have names. But in reality, it is all only rubble.
The city’s old telephone directory is still available online. These maps and telephone directories are a curious thing: form without content. What is the purpose of street names, house numbers, and apartment telephones, if the city has no surviving streets, no houses, no apartments and no people?
On Jan 1, 2014, 9,829 people lived in Maryinka.
By Jan. 1, 2023, that number was zero.
Since 2014, citizens of Maryinka have been under regular Russian fire. Still, they did not flee. Not even in July 2014, when the city was shelled by Russian militants, or in the summer of 2015 when fierce battles swamped the city. They did not leave until the full-scale invasion in 2022.
All these years, Maryinka remained the last border between the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk region and the territory annexed by Russian proxies.
As shells rained down, the city gradually became a ghost. It’s not the only one: there are dozens of these settlements in Ukraine which remain only on maps — and sometimes, if it pleases the Russians, they disappear from maps altogether. This is the result of Putin’s war.
Today, the most reliable, and sometimes only, form of travel to these places is not in space, but in time. To get there, there are no trains or planes or cars — only memories.
Back in 2013
In the spring of 2013, Maria Makarevych, a Kyiv-based artist-architect, arrived in Maryinka for the first time. For the next three months, she and other artists painted the faces of saints on the walls of a newly built church.
I see in colors
“I am an artist, so I see in colors,” she says. “Maryinka for me is yellow-green and green-blue. And also buzzing insects, bumblebees, summer, heat. Apricots, cherries, apples, plums.”
“There was something mystical, indescribable about this place. Perhaps because of the absolute darkness of the nights in Donbas, which gave birth to a new day - bright, flooded with sun.
“We painted the temple every day from 7 am to 7 pm. Then we were brought home, and as respite from work, we went to the pond.
“While swimming, I felt incredibly light. The sort of lightness that only comes in dreams.
“It was surprising that, despite the myths about the united Donbas, the majority of local residents spoke Ukrainian.
“The city center is a typical Soviet architecture. And private houses are all different and well-kept. Old, but very authentic. Light walls, wooden carvings, curtains with ornaments, wooden fences.”
Maria hoped to return soon after she left Maryinka in August 2013. She dreamt of making a photo collection on the windows of Maryinka. But she managed to immortalize only one thing.
"We lived here, we were happy, we worked a lot. In the evenings we swam in the lake, on weekends we went to Mariupol to the sea. We loved this city so much. But we had no idea just what would happen," she wrote on Feb. 27, 2023.
A few days before, on February 23, Russian propagandists reported on the destruction of the cathedral she had painted as a result of "high-precision" shelling.
Dust and small fragments of walls are all that remain.
Maria Makarevych painting the Cathedral of All Saints near Maryinka, summer 2013
The new normal
It is difficult for Yulia Semendyaeva to remember the pre-war city. Too much has happened in the last nine years.
For her, the war began on the night of July 11, 2014, when militants fired at the city for the first time.
Then there were the years when stray bullets could arrive unexpectedly at any moment, from anywhere.
“Houses were destroyed in some places, and windows were boarded up almost everywhere. We did not lose faith that soon peace would come to Maryinka,” she says.
On Feb. 24, 2022, Yulia received a phone call from the Ukrainian military, who had been stationed in Maryinka since 2017. They said: "Now it's definitely not going to go well. You need to leave." Her mother still refused to go: "Where am I going? I have cats, dogs, chickens."
At the beginning of March last year, they finally left, having collected all of their most important belongings in just half an hour.
Portrait of Yulia Semendyaeva's father
All form of life is gone
After the evacuation, they first lived for a month at a school in a nearby village. Then they went to Kurakhovo, and from there by evacuation bus to Dnipro. They are now in Zhytomyr Oblast, west of Kyiv.
"What fascinates me the most about coal and dust is that it is actually the remains of long-lost forms of life. A time capsule that has to be burned," Oleksandr Mykhed writes in his book about trips to the east of Ukraine called "I Will Mix Your Blood With Coal."
Today, all forms of life in Maryinka have turned into remnants, fossils, coal and dust. Buildings, trees — destiny, even. Burnt up in a time capsule, along with streets, phone books and all forms of life, except memories.