Babi Yar, a name synonymous with the Holocaust. On the 29th and 30th of September 1941 alone 33,171 Jews were killed by SS Einsatzgruppen death squads, assisted by the Wehrmacht and Ukrainian collaborators. The mass shootings continued until November 1943. The final death toll, which also includes non-Jewish victims, Romani, Soviet Prisoners of War and Ukrainian nationalists, is estimated somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000.
Beyond the tragic events, Babi Yar offers a window into the commemoration of the Holocaust and the Second World War in the Soviet Union and modern Ukraine. Initially buried by Moscow, the tragedy was rediscovered by Ukraine and now exists as part of a politicised and contradictory memorialisation of the wartime experience.
The post-war Soviet silence over Babi Yar and the Holocaust in general was part of the Kremlin’s effort to reassert its control over its multi-ethnic and multinational superstate, parts of which had been occupied by and collaborated with the enemy. Stalin sought a binding, patriotic, narrative which spoke solely of German fascist aggression against the Soviet Union as a whole.
The western establishment of the Holocaust as a specifically Jewish tragedy did not fit this narrative. Thus, even after Stalin’s death, when monuments were eventually erected at Babi Yar in the 1960s and 70s, they made no reference to the Jews. They were devoted simply to the “Soviet victims” of “the fascist terror”. This blindness did not go unnoticed. In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was rebuked by Nikita Khrushchev when he drew attention to the forgotten massacre, and to contemporary anti-Semitism in the USSR, in his haunting poem Babiyy Yar.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The anti-Semites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
With the fall of the Soviet Union, there came what French historian Pierre Nora termed an “ideological decolonisation”. Ukraine, and the post-Soviet space as a whole, began to examine its history free from the party line. The first official ceremony at Babi Yar came in 1991 with the 50th anniversary of the September 1941 massacre. In explicit reference to the Jewishness of the tragedy, a large bronze menorah monument was erected.
Of course, there are always political dimensions to commemoration. An optimistic observer would have seen Ukraine recognising the repressed grief of its Jewish minority, and asserting itself as a sovereign nation, master of its own past and future. A view based in realpolitik would hold that by embracing the western Holocaust narrative, Ukraine sought to ingratiate itself with potential new allies.
Indeed, Ukrainian commemoration seems somewhat performative. Large international ceremonies like those of 1991 are held on major anniversaries. At the sixty-fifth anniversary in 2006, the President of Israel and Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv were in attendance. In contrast, Ukraine’s guardianship of Babi Yar itself leaves much to be desired. When the country was awarded the 2012 European Championship, plans were mooted to build a fan hotel on the site. Linda Kinstler from The Atlantic perfectly captured this dichotomy. Visiting in 2016, she wrote:
“Today Babi Yar is a popular local hangout, complete with a makeshift soccer field and playground. When I visited the field on a sunny afternoon this summer, two young Ukrainians sat on the edge of the ravine smoking cigarettes, their legs dangling over a picnicking couple sprawled out in the valley below… On the ground beneath them, seven decades prior, the retreating German army exhumed and burned the corpses of their victims.”
Again, a cynic would argue that the opening of a synagogue on the site in May 2021, a full thirty years after Ukrainian independence, was driven by a desire for plaudits from the West. A logical motivation given current Russo-Ukrainian relations.
Contemporary and historical Russo-Ukrainian relations feed into Ukraine’s conception of the war as a whole. Ukraine suffered immensely under the Soviet Union, the foremost example being the Holodomor famine of the 1930s. When the Germans invaded in 1941, peasants emerged from their homes with traditional gifts of bread and salt to welcome their apparent liberators. While the Germans turned out to be simply another set of brutalisers, they found tens of thousands of willing collaborators. Ukrainians served in the Waffen SS Galician Division, and the Einsatzgruppen at Babi Yar were assisted by Ukrainian volunteers in the Auxiliary Police.
This complex past is intrinsically linked to contemporary politics. In a violent explosion of anti-Russian sentiment since the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine’s Nazi past has been legitimised, even venerated. In January and April 2021, thousands turned out in Kyiv to honour first Stepan Bandera, an anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator, and then the Galician Division. Bandera’s portrait and Galician Division flags were held high, reenactors wore SS uniforms, members of the crowd made Nazi salutes, and local women held bouquets of flowers.
Ukraine has ended the Soviet era silence over Babi Yar and outwardly at least it has recognised the suffering of its Jews. Yet, by hosting grand memorial ceremonies and opening new synagogues, while simultaneously honouring Bandera and the Galician Division, Ukraine is conducting its own flattening of history. It whitewashes the role played by its people in the fate of the Jews, justifying this as part of a patriotic, anti-Russian campaign. Babi Yar will continue to play a central role as Ukraine simultaneously evaluates and manipulates its post-Soviet flood of memory.