Research by Clare Barloon ’24

Title: “Remember the smell of Mariupol”
Artist: Zoya Laktionova
Format: Video
Placement: Social media

Zoya Laktionova’s piece, “Remember the smell of Mariupol,” is a four-minute-long video incorporating the author's own writing, videos, photography, and family photos.  The piece, which was shared across Vimeo, Facebook, and Instagram, was created in response to the siege of Mariupol that took place between February and May 2022 and marked the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

This eastern Ukrainian city in Donetsk Oblast has witnessed massive violence: by the middle of April 2022, roughly 95% of the city had been destroyed in the bombing, and the Ukrainian government had recorded approximately 25,000 civilian deaths. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba remarked that the city effectively “doesn’t exist anymore.” 

Remember Still 2 Web 1600x900 For Clare Barloon
Still from Zoya Laktionova's "Remember the smell of Marioupol." Video available on Vimeo.

Mariupol was the childhood home of Laktionova, who was forced to flee Ukraine at the start of the February invasion. Her work primarily takes the form of short films expressing “micro-histories” of human experience, bringing the abstract ideas of politics, history, and war to a personal level.  In “Remember the smell of Mariupol,” Laktionova works from an auto-biographical perspective, recounting her struggle to comprehend the destruction of her home as, during her displacement, she is haunted by echoes of Mariupol.

The video opens with a view of a slag heap in Mariupol. The piece is decidedly calm, detached from the violence and destruction that characterize the city’s present state. Words appear only in the form of silent subtitles. Laktionova produced the text during a residency in Barcelona where the warm sea air brought her back to the Mariupol she knew before the invasion. In the video, she expresses her realization that pieces of the city are alive within her, at least in the form of memory.

"They destroy every photo, and people’s pasts, because everything burns with the houses… They are trying to destroy my memory too." - Zoya Laktionova, "Remember the smell of Mariupol."

This realization prompts her to simultaneously understand her detachment from the destruction— “I began to understand…that I hadn’t been killed like all those people in Mariupol, and that I was actually alive.”  The text and image of the video respond to one another to highlight this detachment. At the line, “I suddenly felt there was a mask on my face,” the image of the Alps appears to cover the slag heap, literally masking a representation of a piece of the artist’s identity. This image was the view Laktionova had while working on the film in Austria, another refuge during her exile from Ukraine. Unable to forget Mariupol, Laktionova began to see the slag heap in the outline of the mountains.

Despite the subdued nature of the film, Laktionova’s piece is a powerful form of resistance to the destruction inflicted by the Russian invasion, to the idea that Mariupol “doesn’t exist anymore.”  In Laktionova’s words, “They destroy every photo, and people’s pasts, because everything burns with the houses… They are trying to destroy my memory too.”  The work fights to preserve memory, to hold onto the echoes of that past that the artist uncovers in the present.

As dusk sets in the video, the final shot expands our view of the slag heap, showing the smokestacks of the factory beside it. This final image seems to be an explicit reference to the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works factory where, after months under siege, Ukrainian troops were forced to surrender on May 20, 2022 and concede to a Russian victory.  Laktionova released her video in June 2022, by which time Russia had successfully occupied significant portions of eastern Ukraine. Thus, the viewer is left in the dark to ponder the fate of Ukraine and her citizens, never forgetting what they saw.

Research by Clare Barloon ’24

Header image: “St Javelin” by Chris Shaw, acrylic and metal leaf on canvas, completed in March 2022. Image used with permission from Chris Shaw and

Remember the smell of Mariupol from Zoya Laktionova on Vimeo. Shared with the filmmaker’s permission.

Read the project introduction and background.

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