A Russian attack in Kyiv Tuesday by the site of the Babyn Yar massacre — where over the course of two days in September 1941, Nazi forces murdered more than 33,000 Kyiv Jews — was just one of many wrenching reports out of Ukraine last week.
But the missile strike, which killed five people and damaged Kyiv’s iconic TV tower as well as a building that was slated for use as a Holocaust museum, underscored more than the tragic consequences of this Russian war of aggression. It serves as a reminder that older Soviet dreams of empire — the same dreams now being revived by Vladimir Putin — have always been shadowed by a devastating war on memory itself.
In the case of Babyn Yar, this was not Moscow’s first attack. In fact, when Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, was informed of the strike during an interview, his reaction was caught on video: “That is Russia.”
Those three words summon an entire history.
Babyn Yar is rightly recognized internationally as the site of some of the most horrific Nazi atrocities committed in the former Soviet Union. But from the moment the German army withdrew from Kyiv in 1943 all the way through the collapse of the Soviet empire, it also became ground zero in the Soviet Union’s sustained campaign to suppress the memory of the Holocaust on Soviet soil.
This was where the Nazis conducted the so-called Holocaust by bullets, the town-by-town massacres committed by special Nazi commando units that traveled behind the front lines of the advancing German army following its surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. These special “operations” sought to wipe out entire Jewish populations — down to the last woman and child — of towns across Ukraine.
At that time Babyn Yar — also known in Russian as Babi Yar — was a vast and deep ravine just outside of Kyiv. After rounding up the city’s Jews and shooting them into the ravine, the Nazis continued murdering “undesirables” at the same site for the next two years (including Jews from elsewhere in the Soviet Union as well as Roma, prisoners of war, Ukrainian nationalists, and others). Historians now estimate that up to 100,000 people were murdered there between 1941 and 1943. Before withdrawing from Kyiv, the Nazis used forced labor to exhume and burn countless bodies in order to hide the evidence. And it was only one of many similarly gruesome massacre sites across Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and beyond.
In the West, we tend to know much less about this Holocaust, in part because it has largely been overshadowed by the horrors of extermination camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Many reading about last week’s attack at Babyn Yar were no doubt encountering the name for the first time, and news organizations duly supplied countless stories explaining what the Nazis had done at the site.
But as I discovered while researching a book-in-progress on music and the cultural memory of the Second World War, the gaps in our knowledge of these horrors are not an accident. As historian Timothy Snyder observes in his landmark “Bloodlands,” this is partly because Western armies never reached these places. And as others have documented, it is also because of the Soviet Union’s own powerful, ideologically motivated efforts to suppress the memory of genocide.
For decades after the war, the authorities refused to permit any memorials at Babyn Yar. An early publication known as “The Black Book,” prepared by a committee of Soviet Jews with the intention of “speaking for those who lie in the earth” was entirely suppressed, and some members of the committee were arrested and executed. The committee’s symbolic head, the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, was brutally murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, his killing then passed off as a traffic accident.
The Communist Party feared that the truth about Babyn Yar, if it were actually acknowledged at the time, would subvert the Stalinist myth of Russia’s “Great Patriotic War,” in which the Red Army’s heroic feats were extolled and the enormous Soviet losses were collectivized. It helped that Soviet authorities dramatically underreported the staggeringly high numbers of its own war dead. But those who had fallen, in this myth, did so for the sake of the people as a whole, and everyone suffered equally — or as it was said at the time: “Do not divide the dead.”
There was no room in this myth to acknowledge the special targeting of Jews. Doing so might also have implied that Nazi ideology had been driven in part by antisemitism, while the Communist Party preferred to cast Nazism as an extreme form of capitalism.
In case destroying early documentation was not enough, the Soviets had other methods for wiping away the memory of Babyn Yar. The most ultimately tragic of the schemes took aim at the topography of memory: If the old ravine could serve as a physical reminder of the gruesome crimes committed there, it would simply need to be erased from the landscape. The authorities built a giant dam on the site and flooded the ravine with silt. When it dried, the hope was that the terrain would be flat, the ravine vanished, and the earth’s own memory expunged. There were even plans for a park and sports stadium. But the dam burst in 1961, creating gigantic mudslides that tore through Kyiv’s Kurenvika district and killing hundreds of people. Some spoke of Babyn Yar’s revenge. But bulldozers would later accomplish what the dam could not.
The Soviets’ erasure of the original landscape came back to mind last week, as news organizations published differing accounts of whether the missile attack was at or near the site of Babyn Yar. There are competing political narratives behind each claim, of course, but the details may also be hard to pinpoint since the original ravine has been air-brushed away. The same air-brush is now in use once more, as Moscow empties its shelves of Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian artworks burn.
The story of Babyn Yar also reminds us of why art can be such a threat to totalitarian regimes: It remembers. During the relative liberalization that followed Stalin’s death in 1953, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his now legendary poem “Babi Yar” which boldly challenged the Soviet memory void, opening with the line “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” It caused a sensation. Then Dmitri Shostakovich vastly deepened the poem’s resonance by setting its verses in his mighty Thirteenth Symphony, which premiered in 1962.
It nonetheless took another 14 years before the Soviet government finally erected a memorial at Babyn Yar, a single giant bronze monument, with a plaque that read: “Here in 1941-43, the German fascist invaders executed more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.” There was still no mention of the massacre of the Jews — and there would not be until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Ukraine’s joyful independence also meant a release from the heavy shackles of Soviet war memory, and in the 1990s, a wide range of memorials sprung up at Babyn Yar like mushrooms after a rain. There are now monuments to the murdered Jews, to the murdered Roma, to the murdered priests, and many other groups. (According to reports, none of the site’s major memorials was damaged in the recent attack.)
Still, the legacy of forced amnesia has not been easy to overcome. When I made a research visit to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in 2018, it was still not even known where, within the large park-like stretch of terrain, the shootings had actually taken place. (New research since that time has determined the locations.)
It was extremely moving to witness the new crop of post-independence monuments, reflections of the genuine yearning among various communities to finally honor the unspeakable suffering of earlier generations. To be sure, the dissolution of the long-reigning Soviet memory narrative also kicked off a new chapter of difficult political tensions, some of them related to the fraught subject of Ukrainian collaboration during the war.
But at the time of my visit, momentum was gathering toward the creation of a long-planned museum on the site. I met hopeful young Kyivites who had participated in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, and were striving to keep its values alive. I dined in a restaurant whose menu proclaimed its dedication to preserving “the spirit of sympathy, altruism, social alertness and uprising which helped to create Ukrainian revolutions of the last three decades.”
The post-independence resurgence of grassroots memory also took place within a larger geopolitical frame. Across the former Soviet Bloc, the war years were now buried beneath the painful traumas of the more recent communist past. Nevertheless, as the late historian Tony Judt observed, countries hoping to join the European Union were expected to transform their own societal norms, and Holocaust recognition emerged as a key requirement for “full participation in the family of Europe.” Judt wrote in 2007: “The recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.”
In this sense, if we view the recent memorialization and education projects at Babyn Yar as inseparable from the country’s longstanding and suddenly intensified aspirations to join “the family of Europe,” the Russian attack also becomes a blow aimed at the heart of those aspirations.
In less metaphorical terms, Russia says the strike — part of a larger campaign, as Putin absurdly insists, to “denazify” Ukraine — was directed at the TV tower. But its forces must have also known the tower’s proximity to this newer infrastructure of memory.
Judging by the stories of heroic acts of resistance that have been flooding international media, Ukrainians seem resolved against turning back the clocks.
If nothing else, the attack brings into sharp relief one fact upon which Putin and Zelensky clearly agree: A country’s right to determine its own future is inseparable from the right to determine its past.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.