The city of Zaporizhzhia, currently on the front line in Ukraine’s attempt to repulse the Russian invasion of the southeastern part of the country, is a fascinating metropolis with an intriguing and gory history with parallels with the present. The town was founded as Alexandrovsk in 1770 (later Alexandrovac), as an outpost of the Russian Empire with a fortress to protect itself from Crimean Tartar invaders. The city started industrialising in the early part of the twentieth century, after the first rail bridge over the River Dnieper was constructed in the environs. The city became an important military centre again during the Russian Civil War between 1918 and 1921, as the warring parties struggled for control of the rail bridge for the purposes of transmitting munitions and armaments to support their respective war efforts. Both the Soviets and, surprisingly, the Americans invested in Zaporizhzhia’s infrastructure in the 1920’s and 1930’s, with the construction of a dam, a hydroelectric power plant, and various steel and aluminium producing facilities. The establishment of Zaporizhzhia as a major industrial base in the heartland of the western Soviet Union was complete.
Upon the collapse of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the declaration of war by Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Soviet government in Moscow dismantled Zaporizhzhia’s industries and moved them eastwards in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Likewise the principal political dissidents in Zaporizhzhia, that might have become political puppets for the Nazis, were murdered. For the most part these were ethnic Ukrainians; the city had been of mixed Russian and Ukrainian ethnicities for as long as it had existed, with the Ukrainian group having more significant western-leaning sympathies and the Russians having greater leanings towards Moscow: much as is the case today. The Soviet authorities also blew up the dam at Zaporizhzhia, in an act of callous ruthlessness echoing the way Russia is fighting the war in Ukraine today, killing between 20,000 and 100,000 people down the Dnieper River in the course of a massive flood that extended at least as far as the city of Nikopol 80km to the southwest, on the north bank of the river. The Nazis occupied the city until late 1943 and murdered or deported to Germany well over 100,000 people, principally of Russian origin. So Zaporizhzhia suffered colossally in the course of World War II, much as did the rest of Ukraine.
After the end of World War II, Zaporizhzhia was deindustrialised but great efforts were made to rebuild it, particularly under the reign of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The city became the centre both for heavy industry based around its hydroelectric dam and also for a variety of lighter industries such as car building. Efforts were also made to beautify a previously somewhat industrialised city, by renovating the historical (pre-twentieth century) parts of the city including Lenin Avenue (now renamed Sobornyi Avenue) to attract more affluent and educated people to live in the city and to work amidst its industrial infrastructure. Those people came from both Russia and Ukraine during the Soviet era, and the city has long enjoyed a multi-ethnic quality with a mixture of both people speaking Ukrainian and Russian languages side by side. However the city became partitioned on a de facto basis, with Russians as a general rule living in the north of the city and Ukrainians living closer to the heart of the city, in its south.
Sobornyi Avenue in happier days; in the midst of war, the street is a pale comparison of its former vibrant self.
The next enormous change to come to Zaporizhzhia was the construction of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant facility in Enerhodar, some sixty kilometres to the southwest of Zaporizhzhia but on the south bank of the Dnieper River approximately opposite Nikopol. Light water nuclear reactors require constant cooling, and the presence of the Zaporizhzhia dam and hydroelectric power plant upstream in Zaporizhzhia, together with the substantial reservoir in the Dnieper River the dam had created and a new hydroelectric power plant constructed in Enerhodar itself, made Enerhodar the perfect location for a substantial new light water nuclear power station.
In fact the project morphed into the largest nuclear power plant construction ever witnessed, as six light water reactor power plants were built adjacent to one-another in a row. This late Soviet project would become responsible for generating as much as 25% of Ukraine’s electricity, until the Russian Armed Forces scuttled the entire facility following their occupation of the south bank of the Dnieper, including the Enerhodar site, in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February and early March 2022. At the time there was great concern about the Enerhodar facility, as the Russians seemed to have occupied it incompetently and without having adequate nuclear scientists participating in the supervision of this gargantuan complex; then reports emerged of bored Russian soldiers firing their weapons at the concrete domes of the power plants; then it appeared that part of the facility was on fire. At one point the International Atomic Energy Agency sent inspectors to investigate the condition of the site but it is not clear to what extent their presence remains substantial at the time of writing. Enerhodar is now deep inside Russian occupied Ukrainian territory, as the front line around the south bank of the Dnieper River, that has not moved significantly for some time, begins just a few kilometres outside the city.
The Enerhodar facility under Russian occupation, apparently on fire.
It appeared early in the Russian invasion of Ukraine that there was an intention on the part of the Russian Armed Forces either to occupy the city of Zaporizhzhia or to destroy it substantially. The city is an important railhead and its occupation would greatly facilitate the completion of a rail transit corridor from the Russian-occupied Donbas through to Crimea without using the controversial Kerch strait bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea that is subject to periodic attack. Moreover the industrial infrastructure in Zaporizhzhia would be a major reward for the invading Russian Armed Forces. Hence Zaporizhzhia came under ferocious attack in the first months of the war, and it remains under periodic attack to this day. Many of the ethnic Russians have fled, making Zaporizhzhia feel rather empty. The fact that the Russian front line is so close gives the city a sense of profound unease. The departing ethnic Russians have been replaced with members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a number of substantial military bases, so Zaporizhzhia is now a military town and this is likely to remain the case for as long as the war continues with the front line so close.
The Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, has recently declared that the front line in Zaporizhzhia is the most important strategic issue in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and therefore we may expect that the Russian Armed Forces will devote still greater efforts to attacking Zaporizhzhia and undermining the Ukrainian Armed Forces presence in the town. The Russian fear is that the current (admittedly slow) Ukrainian offensive in the Zaporizhzhia region might, if successfully pushed further, result in severing an essential road artery between Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea, which would surely severely hamper Russian logistics efforts in maintaining their war footing in occupied southeastern Ukraine.
In the interim, the occupying Russian forces seem to have shut down Zaporizhzhia completely and on 6 June 2023 they blew up the dam at Nova Kakhovka, near Enerhodar, flooding the downstream city of Kherson from which they had recently evacuated their occupying forces, realising that they could not maintain their supply lines that far west to so substantial a city as Kherson (in the region of 290,000 people). Zaporizhzhia remains under a state of siege, although the Russians have again shown that they are unable to occupy substantial Ukrainian cities west of the Donbas region. This is surely because their supply lines are brittle, and this is what the Ukrainians are relying upon in their agonisingly slow offensive in the Zaporizhzhia region. One thing we can be certain of is that the war in the Zaporizhzhia region will continue to be hot for a significant period of time.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.