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A retro computer museum in Mariupol beloved by children was attacked by Russia

Kids play on retro computers in the IT 8-bit museum in Mariupol, Ukraine before it was attacked.
Dmitriy Cherepanov
Kids play on retro computers in the IT 8-bit museum in Mariupol, Ukraine before it was attacked.

Nearly two decades ago, Dmitriy Cherepanov started a collection of retro computers in Mariupol, Ukraine, that grew into an internationally known assemblage of historic machines, housed in a private museum he called IT 8-bit.

Russia's campaign to take over his city in southeast Ukraine has killed at least 2,000 civilians, destroyed most of the city's homes and turned Cherepanov's beloved computer museum into rubble.

"I'm very upset," Cherepanov, 45, told NPR. "It's been a hobby of my life."

IT 8-bit held more than 120 examples of computer technology and game consoles from the last century. Cherepanov estimates that up to 1,500 people visited the free museum every year before he closed it at the start of the pandemic.

Cherepanov knows the small building housing the museum was bombed, like many other structures in the city, sometime after March 15. He believes that any machines that weren't destroyed by the blast were likely taken, given the desperate circumstances in the city now.

A dangerous escape

In the days before he and his family fled the city, Cherepanov remembers shifting into survival mode as the city was under siege.

"We didn't have water, electricity, gas and no mobile or internet connection," he said during a video chat Friday.

Cherepanov said he saw his neighbor's house get bombed.

"The next night, we couldn't sleep at all, because the planes were flying and dropping bombs constantly," he said.

Dmitriy Cherepanov started collecting retro computers nearly 20 years ago in Mariupol, Ukraine.
/ Dmitriy Cherepanov
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Dmitriy Cherepanov
Dmitriy Cherepanov started collecting retro computers nearly 20 years ago in Mariupol, Ukraine.

On March 15, Cherepanov and his family gathered their belongings and piled into a car to make the treacherous trip out of the city.

Humanitarian corridors have been uncertain, but they were able to get through Russian checkpoints around the city after hours of waiting, and they are now staying in a safer place in southwestern Ukraine.

He learned later from a neighbor that his home sustained damage after five bombs were dropped in their yard.

Turning a hobby into an educational tool for the masses

Cherepanov cannot hide the joy that computers bring to his life.

"I was really interested in computers from childhood and that interest was not usual," he said with a smile, while recalling how his hobby baffled his parents.

In 2003, he bought his first computer for his collection — an Atari 800XL, a computer dating back to the early 1980s.

The collection started in a single room, but eventually expanded "when it stopped fitting in my house," he remembered. The basement of the building where Cherepanov worked as an IT programmer was transformed into a museum with rows of computers lining the walls. People could even play games on some of the machines.

Cherepanov couldn't pick a favorite computer from his collection.

"All of them are dear to me," he said.

The IT 8-bit museum in Mariupol, Ukraine housed historic computers before it was destroyed.
/ Dmitriy Cherepanov
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Dmitriy Cherepanov
The IT 8-bit museum in Mariupol, Ukraine, housed historic computers before it was destroyed.

Many of the machines are ZX Spectrums, an 8-bit personal computer that was common in former Soviet nations. In 2019, Cherepanov gave Gizmodo a tour of the place, which he jokingly called a "nursing home for elderly computers."

Cherepanov is drawn to retro computers because of their uniqueness, in comparison to the relative uniformity of machines today, he said.

"You can find common things between them, but they are all unique in their appearance and their functions," he said. "Back then, retro computers, every computer was an individual entity."

Cherepanov restores the computers and does everything he can to keep them in working order. The amount that he cares about them is very apparent to his cousin, Hanna Smolinskiy.

"For Dmitriy, computers were like living organisms. Every computer is like a person with its own personality," she told NPR. "Like if someone can't turn it on or something, he will say, 'You need to treat it like a person, and it will turn on for you.' And it actually works ... whenever they calm down and start treating it nicely."

An uncertain future

As Cherepanov and others in Mariupol cope with immense loss, the future for his family remains opaque.

He said they don't know where they'll live. He also has no idea whether he'll ever try to rebuild his computer collection.

"The main question of the day is how to continue life, what to do and where to go. And this is our priority now," Cherepanov said. "And there are no clear answers at this point."

Cherepanov said he wants to keep the museum's website going, and he'll continue making podcasts about retro computers. There's also an option on the site to donate to the institution.

He stressed that the loss of this collection — a part of computing history — is one of many examples of cultural institutions destroyed in Mariupol.

"A lot of other museums were destroyed completely. ... And it's very hard to realize that this happened to my city, and it was completely wiped out from the face of the Earth," he said. "I have a really hard time to express my emotions about this."

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