Babyn Yar is a Complete Mystery—Vladyslav Hrynevych

Vladyslav Hrynevych. Copyright: Hromadske Radio

A talk about the new monograph Babyn Yar: History and Memory

Vladyslav Hrynevych is our guest on the program “Encounters.” He is a doctor of political science (Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine), as well as an author and complier of the book Babyn Yar: History and Memory. We discuss his new book today.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  This book has gone to the printers. It is called Babyn Yar: History and Memory and is dedicated to one of the greatest tragedies in human history—Babyn Yar. The book brings together two fundamental layers: historical research and events around Babyn Yar, and the stratum of cultural, political, and historical memory of Babyn Yar. Previous books on Babyn Yar have never been created in such a context.

It seems that we, the people of Kyiv, always know or hear about Babyn Yar. My family memory includes this because my mother, grandmother, and grandfather were in Kyiv during the occupation and I heard about it a lot. It struck me even more the first time I faced this tragedy as a researcher and author. I think the aim of this book that we set for ourselves is to preserve memory, to attempt to try to penetrate, to touch, so to say, a society, to address this tragedy, and to feel it with the soul. What happened during those two days? Thirty-four thousand Jews —from young to old—were brutally murdered. This is one of the greatest tragedies of the Holocaust. It differs from the classical images of the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews during the Second World War in Western Europe. The Jews there were mainly exterminated in gas chambers and in concentration camps. In Eastern Europe and Ukraine in particular they were shot with bullets.

Iryna Slavinska:  This is called the Holocaust by Bullets.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  Yes, the Holocaust by Bullets. In this case, the classic case is Babyn Yar. The book is divided into three major sections: Before Babyn Yar, Babyn Yar itself, and After Babyn Yar.

When we talk about the part dedicated to the events before Babyn Yar, we talk about the effort to understand what this place is, why this place became the scene of a crime, and what was there before. The thing is that people lived in Kyiv since the Paleolithic era. In Babyn Yar there is Kyrylo settlement—a Paleolithic settlement. This is very ancient place.

Iryna Slavinska:  It is, in fact, one of the cradles of Kyiv.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  And a cradle of civilization in general. In the twentieth century this location was called the Kyivan or Ukrainian Switzerland for its beautiful scenery. It has thе ravines, the greenery, where everything is wild, beautiful, and lovely. Perhaps, that is why this place was chosen. It was hidden from view, and it was difficult to escape from there. This location became the scene of German crimes perhaps because it was easy to conceal things there,

Iryna Slavinska:  When it comes to Babyn Yar and the urban and natural contexts you mentioned, do you mean the articles by urbanists and historians who write about that or are those memories a part of oral history?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  You know, when we talk about the authors and the content of this book, we can say paradoxically that Babyn Yar is a complete secret even though everybody knows about it and it is a symbol. There is almost nothing known about it. Every moment, every point, and every problem, is unclear and is not researched. This starts from the point where people were killed, where they walked, how many people were killed, when the shootings started... If we attempt step by step to determine these things—everything remains a secret.

Iryna Slavinska:  We will talk about these blank spots and figures of silence in more detail a bit later. But first let’s finish our discussion about the structure of the book.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  There are different authors here, including culture specialists, historians, museum workers, political analysts, and people who study Kyiv. For example, Mykhailo Kalnytskyi is a famous researcher of Kyiv history, and he wrote an interesting story about what happened before Babyn Yar. There are people from different countries. The authors include Americans, Canadians, French, and Israeli people. There are representatives of different fields of research. The special thing is that the basis of research and the researchers are Ukrainian. This book is also Ukrainian. We do not have any foreign researcher who would open our eyes on Babyn Yar. The one exception is perhaps Karel Berkhoff, a Dutch researcher, who wrote a book about the Reichskommissariat Ukraine where he devoted particular attention to Babyn Yar. He is one of our contributors. He wrote two chapters: one on films about Babyn Yar and another about the Nazi regime in Ukraine in the context of the crime at Babyn Yar.

The book addresses such areas as political history. I wrote the text about the political history of Babyn Yar, which is about how Babyn Yar became not just a place of memory, but also a place of silence, about which we are trying to forget.

This book focuses on how memory and oblivion constantly battled with each other; how society and individuals tried to preserve the memory, and how the government and the regime tried to destroy all of this, and how contemporary Ukraine views all this. There are separate chapters on literature, painting, music, ego-documents, i.e. private memoirs and diaries that describe how it all happened. This enables us to look at this in a very stereoscopic manner because at that point where we lose the historic beginning, we capture it through cinema, literature, or painting, and we see different angles of the problem. This is the most interesting thing. To look at some historical issue in the context of very different views. For example, how does a painter imagine the image of Babyn Yar?

Iryna Slavinska:  The representations probably also let us better comprehend how ideology works because a certain representation is also created within certain templates or frames predicated by a system.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  Of course, especially if it is a totalitarian regime. This could be a separate art monograph where all these aspects would be considered. The book itself points to directions for future research. This is actually a separate angle of view, and this is the most evident in painting. But also in literature. For example [Anatoliy] Kuznetsov’s book Babyn Yar. On one hand it was written during the Soviet era, and on the other hand it came out later with explanatory notes, and we can see...

Iryna Slavinska:  We already talked about several aspects: the works of art, and the work of space that is Babyn Yar, which today is something like a park or like an entrance to the Dorohozhychi metro station. It is also a place where recreation is possible regardless of horrifying events that took place there. Besides, there are about thirty various memorials to the victims. All of these separate aspects and details show that the memory of Babyn Yar does not function in a very uniform manner. Let us talk about that a little bit. The memory of Babyn Yar in today’s Ukraine. What is it? What is it about? What do we remember and what do we not remember?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  This book is an effort to somehow organize this memory. Indeed, this memory started to be created and stored immediately after these crimes were committed. But because of a number of ideological and political reasons, the Soviet Union, while not completely hushing up this crime in 1941, talked about it less, especially with the end of the war approaching. At the end of the war and after the victory, it was completely muted. This complex problem—how to maintain the Soviet ideology of internationalism and not talk about the Jewish component of this tragedy—is described in this book. I will not get into it now. From the year 1945, when it was decided to create a monument at Babyn Yar, the victims were not called Jewish victims of the Hitler Holocaust. That word was not used in the Soviet Union. They were called “peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes, and in many cities there are similar memorials “to commemorate the memory of those who were killed by German fascists—peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  In the USSR, the Jewish element of the crimes of the Nazis was not talked about for many different reasons. One of the reasons was the fact that any “excessive” stress on Jewish tragedy was considered a manifestation of Jewish nationalism and impermissible. The emergence of the state of Israel and its cooperation with the U.S. and not the USSR was also layered over the memory of Babyn Yar and the silence of memory. All those who were associated with this country also became criminals and traitors.

Starting from 1945, there was a struggle between those who tried to preserve the memory and the official authorities who wanted to completely erase it from public consciousness. It is interesting that Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews, through poetry, paintings, music, and memories, tried to build a monument or demanded to build it on the site. They waged a battle that ultimately ended in victory.

The memory has been preserved, but the memory has become multiple. From the very beginning it has not been straightforward because Babyn Yar was the site of the killing of not only Jewish people, but also people of other nationalities, or the mentally challenged as the Pavlov hospital was situated nearby and it was also was the scene of a crime. First, mentally challenged Jews were killed, and then all the mentally challenged people were killed. Members of the Soviet underground were killed here. Ukrainian nationalists were also killed here. Military prisoners were killed here as well. This diversity in the victims of Babyn Yar eventually led to the fact that the plurality of memory of Babyn Yar became a difficult issue for any government administration.

Iryna Slavinska:  I just wanted to ask you about this. In fact, the complexity of the topic of Babyn Yar and its many elements is a very important topic of how to deal with it in terms of a political point of view. Ukraine, as an independent state, forms this discourse. From the political point of view, how does this memory work? Does the official state memory pay enough attention to this? In marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Babyn Yar, is it possible today to think about some general “umbrella” that can somehow bring everything together if, of course, this is necessary?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  The Ukrainian authorities have treated this memory with caution. There were many conflicts in this area. These conflicts were sometimes dangerous. One memory tried to confront the other, and sometimes even to deny or delete it. In this sense, the government was inclined to just distance itself from it and let it go, leaving it to the will of public organizations. This led to a further complication of the situation. Thus, the monuments to Ostarbeiters were built (although one could ask how are the Ostarbeiters related to Babyn Yar?), as well as monuments to different religious communities. Besides, the Russian Orthodox Church started to become very active. The priests were really killed, and the church began building a chapel, grabbing some land to build something like church structures. For the authorities, the people in power, for those who make policies, it would perhaps be useful to see, to read, and to think what to do with all of this in the future, because this is not a decision by just one person or an academic. This problem is too difficult and complex.

Iryna Slavinska:  This obviously requires a comprehensive and integrated policy, including a policy of memory.

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  This does not exist.

Iryna Slavinska:  I will broaden this question, and ask how does Ukraine as a state and the state policy of memory appear when we view for example the work with memory about Babyn Yar?

Vladyslav Hrynevych:  My text in the last section of the book is devoted to the memory of independent Ukraine. When independence arrived in 1991, Ukraine genuinely opened the door for this memory. 1991 was the first year when the anniversary of the Babyn Yar was commemorated at the state level, with ambassadors of different countries attending, and many people came. This is the apogee, the point of recognition. Then all of this returns to their starting points. Presidents Kravchuk and Kuchma would come in September to lay flowers, at best, to commemorate the anniversary. Later [President] Yushchenko came and changes everything radically, as he starts to bring flowers to the monument of Ukrainian nationalists who were shot there. At the same time, he is actively working to make Babyn Yar a protected historic landmark. It was during Yushchenko’s tenure when the Holocaust started to be incorporated into the school curriculum. The process started. Then the famous “professor” [former President Yanukovych—Ed.] arrives and does not pay any particular attention to it. But during his tenure Ukraine for the first time recognizes Babyn Yar as a site of the Holocaust.

Nowadays we have what we have. Babyn Yar is a site of the Holocaust and other tragedies. It is a multiplication of memory. Babyn Yar is directly tied to the Holocaust. Many other different memories have been formed around it, and the authorities are trying to decide what to do with all of them. In 2016, the seventy-fifth anniversary will be celebrated at the state level, but I cannot say that some public policy regarding all this has been formulated. The fact that NGOs such as the UJE and others actively work in this area allows the authorities to cooperate, and they work together to decide what to do with this Babyn Yar. The last chapter in the book is called “Babyn Yar: Perspectives.” What will happen next? How can it be made better? How can it be made a place of memory? This should be a place of memory where people go not only to cry and remember, but also to be calmed. It should be multifunctional. I was a member of the competition commission to make this space better. As a result, there were very interesting solutions and ideas offered that we will continue to work with.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (podcast) here.

Translated by Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger