Andrei Kirilenko is a professor of finance at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge.
I was born and raised in Mariupol, Ukraine. My 85-year-old immobile mother was there when the Russian invasion began. I last spoke with her five days into the war. She was alone. There was no power. Her phone battery was dying. I have not heard from her since.
During subsequent weeks, Mariupol has become a global symbol of heroic resistance. A handful of spirited Ukrainian fighters continue to resist an overwhelming Russian force. The remaining fighters are holed up inside the maze of industrial structures at Azovstal, a vast steel mill where I worked as a cooling systems repairman the summer before my senior year of high school.
The repair brigade that I was a part of consisted of a dozen gritty men whose job it was to fix massive systems that cool tons of liquid steel by exposing it to cold water. Cold water was pumped from the Sea of Azov and circulated through thousands of pipes onto which the freshly smelted steel was poured. Exposure to contrasting temperatures and salt in seawater quickly made the pipes brittle. Every day, pipes were bursting somewhere and the cursing repairmen had to go neck deep into pools of hot, orange, foul-smelling water to find leaks and fix them. The repairmen chain-smoked and were always short on money. They wore dirty rags for work clothes and swapped stories about skipping alimony payments. They were perpetually hungover. They educated me about the harm of alcohol and nicotine. They told me to study hard, finish high school and go to a good college. They told me not to come back.
I took their advice to heart. I studied hard. I finished high school and went to college in what was then the capital of the Soviet Union. I continued to study hard in graduate school in the U.S. There, I specialized in market microstructure – a field of finance that analyzes how the “pipes” that channel money inside stock and derivatives markets are laid out. Exposure to “hot” moving money constantly corrodes these pipes. Every day, regulators parse through pools of transaction records to find new “leaks” and fix them. As an economist with the International Monetary Fund, I went around the world dealing with the aftermath of these financial leaks. During and after the global financial crisis, I joined a “repair brigade” inside a U.S. federal regulator of derivatives markets, where my colleagues wore suits and encouraged me to become a professor, leading to my current position at Cambridge.
It is from Cambridge that I last called my mom. She said: “My life started in poverty and it ends in war.” Then she said goodbye. She spoke Russian to me. I spoke Ukrainian to her. That was not always the case. From my birth up until the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine in 2014, my mom and I spoke Russian to each other. In 2014, Mariupol was taken by the pro-Russian separatists, but then liberated by volunteer Ukrainian fighters. These volunteer fighters called themselves the Azov Battalion for the sea that the city sits on. Those fighters, now absorbed into the Ukrainian military, are at the core of the resistance against Russian forces that surround them on all sides. They know they will not be spared for chasing Russians out of Mariupol in 2014.
I last visited Mariupol in 2019. The city that had long been a corrupt industrial backwater was becoming a model of inclusive development and openness. A new IT hub was being built. An international festival of contemporary arts was being planned. The city’s football team was playing in the UEFA Europa League. Ukraine itself was quickly moving toward the EU, while Russia was quickly regressing back into the USSR. Ukrainians were traveling visa-free throughout Europe. Russians were building tanks, planes and rockets with the money they made by selling oil and gas to Europeans. In Ukraine, new presidential and parliamentary elections were coming. No one could predict their outcomes. In Russia, the same aging cult leader remained in power for nearly two decades. Ukrainian movies about the War of 2014 won awards at Cannes and Sundance. Russia was producing ever more movies about the Second World War. At the end of my visit, my mom asked me if war with Russia was imminent.
I answered that I switched to speaking Ukrainian with her because speaking Russian is an open invitation for the Russians to invade. They view the use of their language as a precursor to invasion. If you do not want them to come and enforce their values, why do you speak their language? This makes any place where Russian is heard not safe. Any place. Starting with Mariupol. That’s why not only economic, but cultural ties with anything Russian must be severed. Otherwise, it’s an invitation for invasion. It is only a matter of time.
It took Russians three more years after my last visit to amass enough armies to attack Mariupol again. This time they turned it into an apocalypse. They do not want any Ukrainians – whether Russian-speaking or not – to remain there. They do not want anyone there who can witness what it was like before they invaded and destroyed it. They want to sacrifice everyone. That includes hundreds of thousands of moms and their sons and daughters. That includes my mom.
I will never forgive them for that.
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