Lviv, Ukraine — Few beyond the metals industry had heard of Mariupol’s Azovstal Steel and Iron Works before it became the scene of a desperate last stand against Russia’s invading forces.
Until recently Azovstal was a major player on the global stage, producing 4 million tons of steel annually and exporting the majority across the globe, according to its owner Metinvest Holding, Ukraine’s biggest steelmaker.
From London’s Shard skyscraper to Hudson Yards in Manhattan to Genoa’s San Giorgio Bridge (which replaced the collapsed Morandi Bridge), steel produced at Azovstal is used in some of the world’s most recognizable landmarks.
But for weeks now, the world has been gripped by the battle raging over the steelworks on the coast of the Sea of Azov.
The pocket of Ukrainian fighters entrenched at the plant has become a symbol of the country’s unwavering resistance in the face of an enemy that far outnumbers them.
Yuriy Ryzhenkov, CEO of Metinvest Holding which owns the plant, is devastated by what he sees happening to the plant and to Mariupol.
“The city’s literally under siege for almost two months now. And the Russians, they don’t allow us to bring food into the city or water into the city,” Ryzhenkov says.
“They’re not allowing us to take the civilians out of the city in a centralized manner. They make the people either move out in their own automobiles or even walk by foot through the minefields. It’s a humanitarian disaster there.”
Asked why Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to take Azovstal so badly, Ryzhenkov tells CNN, “I don’t think it’s the plant that he wants.”
“I think it’s about the symbolism that they wanted to conquer Mariupol. They never expected Mariupol to resist.”
At least 150 employees have been killed and thousands remain unaccounted for, he says.
“What we know is that out of the 11,000 employees at Azovstal,” says Ryzhenkov, “only about 4,500 people got out of Mariupol and got in contact with us so we know their whereabouts.”
He seems haunted by the fate of Azovstal’s workforce.
“For the last two months, the whole company tried to do anything possible to get the people to the safety. Unfortunately, at the moment, we’re still not even half-way there.”
The company’s staff includes family dynasties who have made steel for as long as they can remember.
Ivan Goltvenko, a 38-year-old human resources director at the plant, is the third generation of his family to work at Azovstal.
“I hoped I would work for Azovstal all my life and will contribute a lot to the fabric and to my city,” he says sadly.
“Seeing your city being destroyed is horrible, You could compare it to a relative dying in your arms … And seeing him or her dying gradually, organ after organ failing, and you can do nothing.”
From the city of Zaphorizhzhia, he finds it hard to watch the scale of the devastation wrought by Russian airstrikes “because you want your city to remain the same as it was in your memory.”
News of what’s happening back home is filtering through from friends and colleagues who are still trapped in Mariupol.
“Today, for example, I was shown a video of my apartment. Despite the fact that the house survived, my flat is completely looted by Russian soldiers. Nothing valuable was left – they even rummaged among the children’s toys, and many of them were stolen.”
He says he spoke to one colleague on April 24 who revealed some of the horrors with which residents are being confronted.
“From one of the employees, who has a connection, we know that he is in the city, he didn’t manage to leave, and he has been involved in debris removal and transporting the bodies of dead citizens,” Goltvenko says.
“And yesterday he told me that for one day from only one district of the city, I would even say ‘from only one street’ he loaded four trucks of bodies.
“He said: ‘I was drawn to volunteering at the morgue to collect bodies in the city and take them away.’”
“For that,” says Goltvenko, “he receives a dry ration.”
His colleague, 49-year-old Oleksiy Ehorov, deputy head for repairs, has lived in Mariupol since he was a child.
“I studied there, I started working there, there I’ve become the person who I am now. And seeing how it has been destroyed … You can’t tell it without tears, without a lump in the throat,” he says.
The agony is not over. Russian jets and missiles continue to pummel the site despite Putin saying last week there was no need to storm the industrial area around the plant.
The defenders of Azovstal have repeatedly refused to give up their weapons. There are thought to be hundreds of soldiers and civilians still in the plant.
Before the war
What has happened at Azovstal is a mirror image of what’s happened to a city proud of its history and industrial heritage.
The industrial port city was perhaps never conventionally beautiful, with chimney stacks emitting smoke and steam into the sky over the plant. At the port, blue and yellow cranes moved heavy items around the bustling shipyard. But Mariupol had its charm and was beloved by its residents.
In recent years, major improvements had been made, green spaces were developed and quality of life for the working-class communities was at last improving.
“The last eight years we’ve spent on building a modern and comfortable city there … a good city to live in,” Ryzhenkov says.
“We’ve completed some major environmental projects, and there were still plans to make sure that we have clean air, that we have clean water and so on and so forth. And now we’re seeing all that is being destroyed in less than two months.”
Maryna Holovnova, 28, says “it was like a living dream” because “we had worked towards turning the city from just industrial small town to a cultural capital.”
The Mariupol native returned in 2020 after a 10-year absence to find a burgeoning social scene. “It was completely different,” she tells CNN, proudly adding it had even been designated Ukraine’s Cultural Capital last year by the Ministry of Culture.
“We had so many festivals and we had so many people coming from other cities and from other countries as well,” she continues. “We got a chance to tell the people about the city not only from the perspective of industrial development, but also from a cultural point of view [and] from the historical point of view – because Mariupol has an amazing history.”
A beaming smile spreads across her face as the former city guide remembers the route she’d take visitors on. It would start at Mariupol’s century-old Old Water Tower, she says, before winding around the city center, taking in its many historic buildings and locations tied to home-grown personalities.
Holovnova says with the waterfront metropolis continuing to thrive, a sailing tour was introduced last year, and plans were underway to launch an industrial-themed excursion complete with a factory tour showcasing the process of steel production.
“One of my favorite places, which was weird as locals wouldn’t understand me … was an observation point from where you could see the whole Azovstal factory and you could see how big it was, how huge it was, how great it was,” she says. “For locals it was nothing special because we get used to it but all the foreigners, people from other cities, they were amazed by the view.”
City under siege
The blossoming of Mariupol was an unlikely story, because it was swallowed by the violence of the 20th century. It was the scene of bitter fighting in World War II.
This time, the devastation is even greater. Ukrainian officials say less than 20% of the city’s buildings are unscathed. Russia’s merciless bombing campaign has left rubble where landmarks like the Drama Theater once stood. Ukrainian officials say about 300 of the estimated 1,300 civilians who had sought sanctuary in the cultural institution are believed to have died when it was bombed in a brazen attack by Russia on March 16.
The same applies to Azovstal. Built in 1933 under Soviet rule, it was partially demolished during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s before being rebuilt.
Now it is gone again – its carcass sheltering Ukrainian soldiers and around 1,000 civilians in a maze of underground chambers, according to Ukrainian officials.
An estimated 100,000 people remain in the city. On Thursday, local authorities warned Mariupol was vulnerable to epidemics given the appalling sanitary conditions in much of the city and the fact that maybe thousands of bodies remain uncollected.
Oleksiy Ehorov can’t bear to think of what has happened to his city – and his family. His mother-in-law died from injuries sustained from shelling during their first attempt to flee to Zaporizhzhia.
“My emotions disappeared already there in Mariupol. That’s why there’s nothing but hate,” he tells CNN.
Ehorov says he loved living by the sea and had hoped to stay at the steelworks until he retired.
Now all he can do is watch as Russia continues to blockade the city and his former workplace.
When asked if he’d work under the Russians if they take the factory, he echoes Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the main shareholder of the group behind Azovstal steel.
“No. I’m not going to. After what they did … never.”
CNN’s Tim Lister contributed to this report from Lviv, Ukraine and Kostan Nechyporenko contributed from Kyiv.