A few weeks after the Ukrainian soldiers left Mariupol last May, Russian construction crews moved in.
“A wonderful Russian resort city will emerge here,” promised newly appointed mayor Konstantin Ivaschenko as work began.
Mariupol, situated on Ukraine’s southern coast, has seen some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and 90 per cent of buildings were damaged as Russian forces laid siege to it last spring, according to Ukraine.
But the port city now features a sparkling new district with colourful, modern apartment blocks with their own playgrounds. New schools and hospitals have sprung from the rubble.
These additions, triumphantly paraded on Russian TV, are just a taste of the Kremlin’s vision for the city.
A leaked masterplan from Russia’s state planning department revealed a target for 875 hectares of housing by 2035.
Mariupol’s port is to be rebuilt. The Azovstal steel plant – scene of the Azov Battalion’s last stand – will become a technology park. Redesigned streets will feature cycle lanes. Flights will return to Mariupol airport for the first time since 2014.
The wave of construction has been accompanied by sweeping “Russification”. Mariupol is now part of the Moscow time zone, uses Russian currency, and receives Russian TV channels. Residents require Russian passports to receive their pensions.
Signs of Ukrainian identity – from a famous mural of a child with a toy bear to a memorial for the victims of the Holodomor famine – are being systematically erased.
The blueprint for Mariupol is similar to that of a typical, modern Russian city, says Dr Oleg Golubchikov, a Moscow-educated urban planning specialist at Cardiff University.
“There is a big programme of making cities in Russia ‘comfortable and liveable’, and I see principles of that here”, he says. “It’s about combining living conditions and social infrastructure – so wherever you are building homes, you need kindergartens, schools, shops.”
Dr Golubchikov points to the prevalence of green infrastructure, such as cycle lanes, the promise to develop thriving industries, and the provision of modern housing as efforts to win hearts and minds in a city where the Russian language is widely spoken and war-weary residents might be persuaded to switch allegiance.
The city has assets such as the port and metal industries that give it greater economic potential than other occupied cities, he adds, which makes it a logical focus for development. The surge of construction also provides work for Russian companies suffering under sanctions.
Owen Hatherley, culture editor of Tribune magazine and a specialist on the history and architecture of former Soviet Union countries, suggests the reinvention of Mariupol is inspired by Catherine the Great, the 18th century Russian empress who founded Ukrainian cities such as Odessa.
Reconstruction is focused on “city centre splendour,” says Mr Hatherley, in line with the wider mission of “recreating great imperial Russia.”
Much of this is done with an eye on domestic consumption, he suggests, reinforcing the idea that Russia is bringing civilisation to a backwater devoid of its own identity and culture.
Reconstruction is unlikely to prioritise the needs of residents living in the mass housing projects that were heavily shelled during Russia’s assault on the city, Mr Hatherley adds.
Russia is maintaining a tradition in seeking to make examples of conquered cities. In 2016, the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra played in Palmyra shortly after Russian forces helped retake the ancient city from Isis.
Following the destruction of the second Chechen War, which ended in 2009, Moscow poured resources into the reconstruction of the capital city, Grozny, building skyscrapers and one of Europe’s largest mosques on top of the ruins.
This may have served its purpose as the secessionist uprising died out. “Russia’s defeat of the heart of the rebellion in Chechnya appears to flow, in the simplest sense, from a two-stage formula: extraordinary violence, followed by extraordinary investment,” a foreign correspondent wrote from Grozny as hostilities wound down in 2007.
But Russia’s record in the Ukrainian cities it occupies suggests this kind of pacification is unlikely, Mr Hatherley believes.
“Cities that have been part of the Donetsk pseudo-republics have been economically devastated over the past eight years in terms of wages and living standards,” he says. “They have also been disproportionately conscripted with huge numbers flung into the gunfire.”
The Kremlin also underestimates how much hostility the invasion has sown among Ukrainians, Mr Hatherley adds, including in traditionally pro-Russian communities.
There are already cracks in the facade in Mariupol. Tenants in the new apartment blocks have complained of structural issues and floods, while other residents of the city languish on waiting lists that show no sign of clearing.
The extent of damage across the city adds complications to construction projects that are working to demanding deadlines.
Russia has benefitted from the location of Mariupol, out of HIMARS rocket range and relatively removed from fighting, to implement its masterplan.
But the city’s previous owners have not abandoned Mariupol and are preparing their own plans.
The Mariupol City Council – now based in Lviv – is preparing a programme in partnership with other local authorities, business leaders, and international supporters with a focus on humanitarian issues, public services, and resettlement of residents whose homes were destroyed.
Vadym Boychenko, Mariupol’s mayor in exile, said earlier this month: “We believe in our armed forces and the inevitability of Ukraine’s victory.
“Having high-quality plans in place… will greatly simplify and accelerate the revival of our great city.”
In another city previously occupied by Russian forces, Kherson, Ukraine’s armed forces took great pleasure in removing billboards that proclaimed “Russia is here forever” after reclaiming it.
To lose Mariupol after making it a model Russian city would be an even greater humiliation.