“20 Days in Mariupol” Shows Russian Brutality Up Close

“20 Days in Mariupol” Shows Russian Brutality Up Close

Ukraine’s first Oscar-winning film speaks volumes about its people’s courage and the direness of their circumstances.

Just over two years into Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine, Ukraine continues to face grave danger—both on the battlefield and in Washington. The documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, Ukraine’s first Oscar win, shows the horrific destruction Russia imposed in the Ukrainian city Mariupol through first-person accounts from Ukrainian journalists who bravely stayed in the city to show the world the depravity of Russia’s crimes. During the siege, Russia destroyed the majority of infrastructure in the city, bombing hospitals and maternity wards. It implemented ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians and a campaign of destruction of their Ukrainian identity since occupying the city. 

Mariupol’s destruction remains central in the Ukrainian consciousness, symbolic of the horrors the nation’s people face today and every day, serving as an acute example of Russia’s genocidal intentions in Ukraine. The journalists and filmmakers behind the documentary embody true courage. As the military closed in on Mariupol, they captured heartbreaking scenes of dying children, imagery of mass graves, and the shelling of hospitals, risking their lives to show what was happening in Ukraine, all while trapped in the besieged city now marked by over 8,000 deaths.

However, courage and how Ukrainians handle their war effort are up for increasing international debate. Over the weekend, Pope Francis enraged many with his recent comment that Ukrainians should have the courage to negotiate an end to the war. The comment sparked anger not just in Kyiv. Poland’s Foreign Minister responded by asserting, “How about, for balance, encouraging Putin to have the courage to withdraw his army from Ukraine?”

The documentary’s win also comes as U.S. aid to Ukraine remains dangerously stalled. Speaker Johnson refuses to bring forward the Senate-passed supplemental spending package, and discussions about the need for Ukraine to negotiate are gaining momentum as former president Trump looms on the political horizon. Without renewed aid, Ukraine’s ability to fight and defend against continued acts of Russian violence, like those seen in the documentary, dangerously decreases. Reflecting on the film, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote, “This documentary serves as a reminder of why international assistance—without delays or interruptions—is so critical to Ukraine. The Russian evil does not pause and does not seek peace. They want to inflict the same fate on every city that they can reach as they did on Mariupol.” 

20 Days in Mariupol speaks volumes about the Ukrainian people’s courage and the dire nature of their circumstances. When a nation’s people suffering under ongoing violence use every lever at their disposal to reach out to a wide global audience and confront them with the reality of ongoing horrors, the message cannot be clearer. To those who deny our support, including those who block critical aid in Congress, you must bear witness to these crimes and your own culpability. 

Without continued aid, Ukrainians risk losing more territory, more people, and more vestiges of national culture—critical to the survival of Ukrainian identity—to Russia’s violence.

Supporting Ukraine must mean standing by the Ukrainian people’s efforts to regain their own territory and rebuild their infrastructure. A recent report determined that 93 percent of all high-rises, eighty-six of Mariupol’s eighty-nine schools and universities, and all of the city’s nineteen hospitals were destroyed by Russian attacks. But Russia doesn’t just attack buildings. Under Russian occupation, soldiers capture and rape Ukrainian civilians, and the physical devastation evident in Mariupol in the film is characteristic of much of Ukraine’s embattled cities and villages. It is critical to hold Russia accountable for all its crimes on Ukrainian soil. 

Support also means securing reparations for the Ukrainian people—for the economic, environmental, physical, and psychological destruction Russia has imposed—and helping Ukraine bring its stolen children home. As the documentarians show how children suffer, we must be reminded that Russia’s campaign of violence also includes a systematic attempt to deprive Ukraine of its future by forcibly deporting its next generation. There is no freedom or peace for Ukrainians under Russian occupation. 

Kremlin rhetoric around their occupation of Mariupol shows that the city is their priority. In the days following those shown in the film, Russia immediately began work to gloss over devastating crimes and reframe the story of Mariupol. Putin claims that the death and destruction was entirely the fault of the Ukrainian military and that the Russian state was generously working to rebuild and transform Mariupol, all the while importing Russian citizens, imposing special passports, and working quickly to rebuild to cover up and erase evidence of war crimes. Russia also claims to be the city’s “liberator” rather than its annihilator—yet it works around the clock to stamp out Ukrainian identity and memory. 

Yet 20 Days in Mariupol ensures that this memory cannot be hidden. Film director Mystyslav Chernov states, “The people of Mariupol and those who have given their lives will never be forgotten because cinema forms memories and memories form history.” Mariupol’s bloodied history shows the world what the Russian government values—not life but power and possession. Ukraine’s first Oscar shows what the Ukrainian people value—lives and the vitality and sovereignty of their nation.

Chernov gave a heartfelt and bittersweet speech at the Oscars, calling out Russian crimes and recognizing the Ukrainians fighting for their nation, as well as those who have died, are being held hostage, and are tortured in Russian jails. Every leader pushing for negotiations and Ukraine’s capitulation to Russia should take an hour and a half out of their lives to see up close what Russian control of Ukrainian land means. Those who deny the reality and extent of Russia should be confronted with the faces of those who survived or fell victim to Russia’s war crimes and possible crimes against humanity in Mariupol. The realities made so stark in this film can indeed change history; the film can help us see and feel the besieged city, so we cannot avoid or deny the tragedy captured so bravely by these journalists.

Ukrainians are fighting a war of survival, trying to protect every other city and town from looking like Mariupol. The Kremlin does not just want to redraw lines on the map; it wants to erase a people and a culture. As President Biden recently reminded us at the State of the Union, there was a time when America knew that this was wrong, when FDR armed our allies to fight against a tide of fascist violence. Sometimes, courage is taking an honest look at the pain and suffering of people under siege and committing to stand with and for them.

Shelby Magid is Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow her on Twitter @shelbyjmag.

Mercedes Sapuppo is a program assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Follow her on Twitter @MKSapuppo.

Image: Shutterstock.com.