April 3, 2021
The battle for the right to create a Holocaust museum at the location in Kyiv where the Nazis massacred Jews, Babyn Yar (Babi Yar), is proving no less hot than the “live” battles in Donbas.
Two projects, one Ukrainian and the other Russian, are competing for the right to build a Holocaust museum there. While the project backed by Russian-linked oligarchs Mikhail Friedman, Pavel Fuks, and German Khan has already rented land on the site of the massacre, the Ukrainian historians’ project must rely on public support and the protected status of the land.
The competition took a new turn on 19 March 2020 as 30 MPs submitted their draft resolution to parliament forbidding Russian influence over the Babyn Yar memorialization process. At the same time, a Ukrainian team of historians finally presented their concept for a museum to the parliamentary committee, to underpin the resolution.
Last but not least, the 60th anniversary of the Kureniv Tragedy in Kyiv remembered how Soviets tried to destroy Babyn Yar, flooding it with waste, and why they can’t be glorified by the new Memorial.
The Russian project is indeed a “Trojan horse”, as Yosyf Zissels, a Ukrainian dissident of Jewish origin and president of the Association of Jewish Public Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, named it.
“[This project comes] more from politics than from culture – from the so-called pobedobesie (victorrage) that Putin has proclaimed at all the crossroads – the role of the Soviet Union in victory, the role of the Soviet army, as if no one else fought against Nazism. This is the basic point today that the policy of today’s Russian leadership is based on,” Zissels said.
Problems with the Russian-linked project
As pressure mounts, Russian propaganda may start crying about “the oppression of philanthropists who wanted to commemorate the Holocaust in Ukraine.” In fact, there are several problems with the Russian-linked project, as MPs see it.
The land Russian oligarchs rent and plan to use for construction is located literally on the graves of the Jewish cemetery, as was proven in 2020 during excavations. It is not ethical to build anything at that place.
The appointment of notorious Russian director Khrzhanovskyi as art director of the Russian project turned Holocaust memorialization into Disneyland. According to the presented concept, visitors will participate in psychological experiments and virtual reality simulations (VR), and further immerse themselves by taking the roles of Nazi soldiers, collaborators, or even victims.
And last but not least, the planned concept of the museum promotes a Russian version of WWII history. Soviet troops are portrayed as innocent, while Ukrainian nationalists who were killed together with Jews in Babyn Yar are not mentioned. Instead, the emphasis is put on members of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police who in Babyn Yar were responsible for the custody of Jews. This is portrayed as “the crude participation of Ukrainians generally.”
Babyn Yar is a ravine in Kyiv, an infamous site where Jews were killed en masse during the German occupation of Ukraine. On 29-30 September 1941, over 33,000 Jews were executed at Babyn Yar. Overall, 100,000 to 150,000 Jews, Ukrainians, Roma, and other peoples were killed at Babyn Yar. The Soviets refused to allow a memorial commemorating the Holocaust and partially destroyed the ravine in the 1950s.
Despite these crucial precautions, Zelenskyy publicly supported the Russian oligarchs’ project and has so far ignored the statement issued by 750 Ukrainian intellectuals drawing attention to the Ukrainian project.
Zissels indulgently hopes that the president has just “not figured out” what the details of the two projects are and supported the Russian one after oligarchs brightly presented it to him. Yet, after the Ukrainian intellectuals’ statement and the issue being discussed in parliament, it is time for him to change his mind.
Vitaliy Nakhmanovych, Ukrainian historian and executive secretary of the Babyn Yar Public Committee which developed a Ukrainian project of memorialization, is more radical in his latest article, describing the “brutal seizure” the Russian project has conducted during recent months.
“Since the fall of last year, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, sponsored by Russian oligarchs and supported by President Volodymyr Zelensky, has brutally seized the new spaces of Babyn Yar and Ukrainian historical memory. Terrible dementors howling day and night in the Jewish cemetery, a ‘synagogue for reflection’ on the Orthodox Christian cemetery, an installation in memory of the Kureniv catastrophe [when the Baby Yar was flooded by industrial waste from brick production during Soviet times], made of bricks – will there be a limit? What can Ukrainian society do to oppose this mental aggression?” writes Nakhmanovych.
Soviet attempt to destroy Babyn Yar during Kureniv mudslide
One more historical detail playing against the Russian and essentially Soviet narrative at Babyn Yar is the Kureniv Tragedy or Kurenivka mudslide in 1961. It draws attention to Soviet efforts to destroy Babyn Yar.
An important fact is that the Nazis destroyed almost all the corpses of those killed in Babyn Yar in 1943. For some reason, the Soviet authorities decided in the 1940s to destroy Babyn Yar, allegedly “to level the landscape.” Loam pulp from a brick factory was dumped in the Babyn Yar ravine, just at the place of the mass killings. On 13 March 1961 the dam could no longer withstand the amount of waste and failed. Pulp came out from Babyn Yar and immediately flooded downtown Kyiv at a height of five to seven meters. Hundreds were killed.
This tragedy was hidden and downplayed by Russian propaganda. Nonetheless, witnesses reported that many corpses were transported down from Babyn Yar by the liquid pulp. The question remains whose bodies these were, if the Nazis had burned almost all they had killed at Babyn Yar.
Oksana Zabuzhko, a famous contemporary Ukrainian writer, thus writes about the Kureniv tragedy on its 60th anniversary, commemorated this year: “Today is the 60th anniversary of the ‘Kureniv Apocalypse,’ or ‘the revenge of Babyn Yar’ – according to many sources, the largest man-made catastrophe in the USSR in the postwar period up to Chernobyl. By the way, this is one of the reasons why I consider the Russian project of memorialization of Babyn Yar to be categorically unacceptable, and I am extremely suspicious of the haste with which they are trying to push it. Humanity has the right to know for sure what exactly the Stalinist authorities wanted to hide, when, instead of telling the whole world about Nazi crimes in Kyiv, they began to ‘wash in’ the ravine in 1950. Or did something sinister continue to happen in this portal of hell even after the Germans left Kyiv? Knowing how the NKVD used Nazi execution sites in Europe after 1945 – the ‘Gulag Barracks’ of 1946-49 even survived in Sachsenhausen – it is easy to assume that in the USSR such a Babyn Yar ravine could not stay vacant.”
Whatever the truth may be, the efforts of the Soviet authorities to destroy instead of memorialize Babyn Yar leave no moral right to glorify the Soviets in contemporary memorialization and adopt a pro-Russian narrative.
The Soviets refused to allow a memorial commemorating the Holocaust in Babyn Yar. Instead, in 1976, they erected a memorial to all the Soviet people killed.
What MPs claim
The recent resolution submitted by MPs is just another step to draw the president’s attention to the Ukrainian project instead of the Russian one, as well as formally forbid Russian influence in Babyn Yar by parliament.
According to one of the initiators of the resolution, MP Volodymyr Viatrovych, this project instructs the government to:
- immediately expand the borders and protection zones of the Babyn Yar National Reserve, including all objects related to honoring the victims of Nazi and Communist crimes in this territory to the register of immovable monuments of Ukraine;
- officially approve the state Concept of the Development and Memorialization of Babyn Yar, developed by historians at the request of the Ministry of Culture and the National Reserve. The Concept does not honor the Soviets and includes all victims of Babyn Yar along with Jews;
- on the basis of this concept, develop a state program that will provide both sufficient funding from the budget and the possibility of private donations;
- The resolution also states the inadmissibility of the representatives of the aggressor state in any form to the implementation of measures honoring the victims of Babyn Yar, in particular through dummy organizations.
Ukrainian Concept of the Memorialization
As for the Ukrainian Concept of the Memorialization, presented to the parliament on 17 March, Oleksandr Lysenko, PhD in history and deputy head of the workgroup which developed the Concept, thus summarized its key points:
First, the controlling interest in the memorialization of Babyn Yar should not belong to non-governmental organizations or corporate players and private projects with unlimited improvisations, but to the Ukrainian state.
Second, the memorialization of this place of remembrance should be inclusive, contribute to the cessation of the wars of remembrance and the consolidation of the Ukrainian political nation, which does not mean any detraction from the Holocaust tragedy.
Third, capital structures cannot be built on the territory of the Memorial.
We can expect that Russian propaganda will try to slander the Ukrainian concept of memorialization or portray the growing pressure against the Russian project as “rampant Nazism” in Ukraine. However, the fact that Russia often exploits WWII history to honor itself and claim its role as a European peacemaker and liberator is no secret. It is very much Putin’s Trojan horse now, for it will be much more difficult to replace the propagandist Holocaust memorial if it is already built.