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Babi Yar... as a staging area for the “Russian World”

Vitalii NAKHMANOVYCH: “The Ukrainian government as represented by the president of Ukraine must genuinely assume responsibility for solving complex problems around the Holocaust Memorial”
8 August, 2017 - 11:51
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

A quite surprising situation is developing around creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv. On the one hand, a number of interviews have been published recently by Ukrainian mass media, including ones with director of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Foundation Marek Siwiec from Poland and a member of the supervisory board of that foundation, Russian oligarch Pavel Fuks. Both advocated for the quickest possible implementation of this project. In particular, Siwiec said that the 100-million-dollar memorial would be built by 2021, and fundraising had already started, with the early design of this exhibition scheduled to appear in the fall.

On the other hand, government bodies have remained silent about such a turn of events, which makes one think of the government’s irresponsibility regarding such an important issue for Ukraine, which historical commemoration surely is. The Day has requested Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine for Cultural Issues Viacheslav Kyrylenko and Head of the Main Department for Cultural Policy of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine Yurii Ruban to comment on the situation around the creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial. However, we have not yet received an answer from them. The Day turned to historian and expert in nationalities issues, leading researcher of the Museum of Kyiv’s History, executive secretary of the Public Committee for the Commemoration of the Victims of the Babi Yar Massacre Vitalii NAKHMANOVYCH, asking him to tell us how it happened that an organization including three Russian oligarchs is effectively imposing its own vision of the commemoration of the Babi Yar victims, namely viewing it through the Holocaust prism. This is despite it being well known that apart from Jews, prisoners of war, members of three Roma camps, Ukrainian nationalists, Soviet underground activists, sailors of the Dnieper Flotilla, and psychiatric patients were all killed in Babi Yar, as well as representatives of still other groups.


“I believe that in this case it is necessary to use the global situation as our starting point. In fact, what is happening in Babi Yar can be compared to what happened in Crimea and the Donbas. One must clearly understand: indeed, there is Putin, there is an aggressive Russia, but they went there where they were allowed, where there was a favorable environment, or, in other words, where Ukraine was ‘absent.’ But they could not go where already ‘more’ of Ukraine was present.

“The absence of a conscious nationalities policy for 25 years created a situation where a portion of Ukraine (to be honest, it turned out to be much smaller than expected) was actively prepared to accept the idea of integrating into a new Russian-Soviet empire.

“We are witnessing absolutely the same situation with Babi Yar. While the Soviet-era government’s conscious policy involved forcible introduction of its own and clearly distorted model of the Babi Yar memory and fighting the public, who tried to defend their own vision of memory, the government has radically changed its approach from the late 1980s on. Now, it supports any civic initiatives in this location and promotes them, but, so to speak, ‘at the level of pure ideas.’ That is, they give permissions, then come, honor the dead, lay wreaths, make speeches, and go away. However, we have seen no active stance being taken by the government, much less a policy being pursued.

“The government has completely recused itself from the problems of Babi Yar. All the time, any ideas about commemorating the victims of Babi Yar, whether at the level of ceremonies or the installation of monuments or projects of museums and memorial centers, come exclusively from the public.

“But the public is not united, and this disunity manifests itself on two levels. On the one hand, there are objective circumstances that have to do with the fact that besides Jews, many other groups of victims were shot in Babi Yar. Although Babi Yar is, of course, associated with the Holocaust in the world and general Ukrainian perception, but real historical memories have it as a place where many different groups of people were shot, and other post-war events, first of all, the Kurenivka Disaster happened. And all this is actually commemorated, and more than 30 different monuments or monument groups have been erected to honor the memory of these events. Obviously, this is done by various communities that identify themselves as descendants of the victims.

“At the same time, these communities practically do not interact with each other. Each of them is interested in its own memory and absolutely does not care about the memories of other groups. At best, they simply ignore each other. In the worst case, we see competition and public disputes as people debate whether this or that group should be commemorated there at all, whether someone has a better claim to memory or a worse one.”

“This is an objective situation that cannot be ascribed to the evil will of some specific people. It is a reflection of the general state of Ukrainian society, because it is still very divided. Indeed, the Ukrainian political nation is only being formed.

“The second problem, which is subjective, is that even within these communities, there are many different organizations that compete with each other. Obviously, Babi Yar is an iconic site and one who will control the memorial side there will reap additional political dividends. This situation has existed since independence.”


What conclusions do we need to draw from all this?

“As a result, we see a lot of monuments in the landscape, which are totally unconnected and not correlated with each other, even in the artistic sense. Overall, we have a completely neglected site, which is partly a recreation park, and partly just a forest park, and at the same time a site housing dozens of monuments that are incomprehensible to most passers-by. There is still no museum, because it requires a large investment on the one hand, and on the other, every attempt to build a museum involves locating it right on the massacre site or on the cemetery, that is, closer to the epicenter of the tragedy. This logic is clear, but it is completely barbaric. People totally fail to take into consideration that there should be some kind of respect for the burial places. This, again, is absolutely a Soviet legacy, because the Soviet government destroyed Babi Yar and the surrounding cemeteries. This nihilistic attitude to burial places is a Soviet legacy, and nothing more.

“So, we see that however many new monuments they would erect, it will still be obvious that this is not a memorial territory. And they all see it, but they think: the solution is that one has to erect other, better monuments or build a large memorial center. In fact, first of all, it is necessary to organize the territory, since the construction of a grand memorial would not change anything, because it will still be a memorial on a garbage heap.”

 Fuks argues that the project of the memorial center has received support from all Jewish organizations. What do you say to this?

“This is an obvious manipulation. Fuks sees ‘all Jewish organizations’ as synonymous with the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress, headed by Vadym Rabynovych. However, first of all, the fact is that it is not Rabynovych who supports Fuks’s project, but rather Fuks who has now become one of the leading figures in the project started by Rabynovych as early as a decade ago. Of course, the latter supports him. Secondly, while Rabynovych supports project, say, co-chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine Yosyp Zisels opposes it. Furthermore, there are about a dozen all-Ukrainian and three to four dozen Kyiv-only Jewish organizations, which have not declared their position on this issue at all. Thirdly, in such matters it is impossible to take into account only the positions of the NGO leaders. This is a national matter, and it is obvious that the views of well-known journalists and artists, human rights activists and scholars are no less important than the opinions of people whose main virtue lies in the ability to deftly distribute foreign grants.”

Probably, a lot depends on the city government as well. But how should we then take Fuks and Siwiec’s claim that the initiator of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial was Mayor of Kyiv Vitalii Klitschko?

“This is also not true. Yes, Klitschko publicly supported this project past year, and his brother became a member of the Center’s Supervisory Board. However, all this happened against the backdrop of the international commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, when our high-ranking officials, true to the abovementioned habit, were ready to support any initiatives, the more so such high-profile ones.”


Has this project undergone any changes lately?

“Already when it appeared, this project was, to put it mildly, very controversial. Firstly, the memorial museum center was to be dedicated exclusively to the Jewish tragedy of Babi Yar, which was also reflected in the architectural design. Secondly, from the very beginning, it was planned to be built at the former Jewish Cemetery, where the group of initiators who created the Babi Yar Memorial Foundation managed to lease a land plot. Incidentally, the last factor contributed to the fact that the implementation of the project was opposed by well-known Ukrainian and foreign rabbis, including the chief rabbi of Ukraine Azriel Haikin. This, among other reasons, prevented its implementation then.

“However, past year, at the initiative of Fuks, the project became internationally important, and therefore, it was to be transformed from the Babi Yar memorial into a memorial and museum of the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union. From a scholarly perspective, this is nonsense. Across the former Soviet Union, persecution and extermination of Jews took place in completely different ways. However, from a purely political-ideological perspective, everything is clear. In this way, the initiators are trying to push through the historical memory of the Jewish community the idea of the ‘Soviet unity,’ which is in fact the well-known ‘Russian World.’

“And I am sure this is not just their personal initiative. It is clear that Fuks and his partners in the project Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, and Viktor Pinchuk have thoroughly post-Soviet minds, especially since the first three have spent all their adult lives in Moscow, where they studied, created businesses, and became billionaires. Moreover, Fridman is an iconic figure in contemporary Russia, and I do not believe that he could have launched an international political-ideological project in Kyiv during a Russo-Ukrainian war without a direct Kremlin approval. The idea of commemorating ‘the Holocaust in the USSR’ was, in my opinion, approved in Staraya Square. At the same time, this project is a winning proposition for Russia from almost every side.”

 Why do you think so?

“If they do build this memorial and it functions as intended, it will work even better than the Rossotrudnichestvo (the Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation) operations. After all, the project is designed not only for Ukrainian citizens, but first and foremost for numerous tourists from all over the world, who will be told how Ukrainian collaborators exterminated the Jews. If they build it and the expected scandals begin around the Memorial or if they are not allowed to build it at all, then this is also wonderful, as it can be presented as anti-Semitic Ukraine disallowing the creation of the Holocaust Memorial. However it goes, Vladimir Putin will be fine with it.”

And how can we prevent this?

“Ukraine faces an urgent challenge, and there is only one way out of this situation. The Ukrainian government as represented by the president of Ukraine must genuinely assume responsibility for solving the Babi Yar issue in its totality. That is, they need to finally do what was not done in all previous years.”


 And exactly what, in your opinion, should the Ukrainian government do in this situation?

“This should be a triune concept. Firstly, it is necessary to create a memorial park and clean up the site. Secondly, the Babi Yar Museum should be created. Thirdly, the Holocaust Museum should be created.

“These should be two separate museums. Unfortunately, we are not ideologically mature enough today for it to be a single facility. The Holocaust is totally absent from the national history of Ukraine. This is a complicated process of not just reflecting on a world phenomenon, but developing a Ukrainian perspective on it. The complexity of this task is due to the fact that the Holodomor happened here. In fact, there are no other countries where almost simultaneously such a number of large-scale genocides were carried out by the two most terrible totalitarian regimes of the past century. It provides exceptional opportunities for intellectual reflection, but we still have to go a long way to achieve it.

“In principle, the museums of Holocaust and Babi Yar can be amalgamated into a single facility. The destruction of the Kyivan Jews is a point in which the Babi Yar story, which began during the war and continues, in fact, to this day, intersects with the Holocaust story that encompassed all of Europe. But, I emphasize, this is a very complex intellectual challenge, and we are not ready for it at this time. Therefore, what is doable today is to create two museums, dedicated to Babi Yar and the Holocaust, as well as to clean up the site. Moreover, the museums should be under no circumstances located at the burial places, and the creation of a memorial park should stop dead any further development exercises in this space.

“Now, the president of Ukraine is the only person who can by the virtue of his office, so to speak, force all the interested groups to the same table and say: ‘Now we will really look for an agreement.’ That is, the government should be the leading force in this process. As for funding, a foundation should be established on the principles of public-private partnership.

“We have the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance as well, which has actually been excluded from most memorial projects. When the Institute was created during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, it had the Babi Yar Sanctuary, memorials to the victims of the Holodomor and the Bykivnia Graves subordinated to it. However, under Viktor Yanukovych, the Institute was turned into an exclusively research institution, and all these facilities were transferred to the Ministry of Culture, where they have remained ever since. Still, it would be proper to concentrate them under the Institute of National Remembrance’s umbrella, because we need a coherent policy of memory regarding the Soviet and Nazi repression.

“Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Ukrainian History should be the leading institution that would develop the concept of the Holocaust and Babi Yar museums. Of course, it ought to recruit specialists from other institutions and even from other countries as well.”


Siwiec said that they have recruited precisely that – an international group headed by the Dutch scientist Karel Berkhoff.

“Director General of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Siwiec has also been saying that they are conducting some kind of discussion all the time. But when the Institute of National Remembrance responded to his appeal by proposing to hold a series of public discussions with the participation of their sponsors with provisions for recording and publishing the positions of the participants and with the obligation to take into account the results of these discussions, that same Siwiec backtracked on his word and said that he had no authority to accept it. That is, all these meetings take place pro forma only, to enable them to then submit a long list of scholars with whom they have allegedly ‘consulted.’ All this sounds very similar to the numerous stories of scandalous property developments with false ‘public hearings’ involving hired grandmothers, while the building plots are guarded by tough guys.

“Indeed, Berkhoff is a well-known specialist in the history of the Nazi occupation regime and was directly involved in Babi Yar research. But the problem is that he, like almost all members of this working group, is an outsider and has a completely different perspective. Western Europeans saw nothing more terrible than the Holocaust, and it is natural for them to separate it from the entire history of the 20th century. However, although the Holocaust was, by its very nature, a world-wide phenomenon; the perspective on it must be different in every country, because it also was (or was not) a part of local history. Therefore, of course, Berkhoff, as well as some other specialists, can be invited to cooperate. It is always good to listen to a person from the other side of the divide, since they will offer a different vision and you will see something new. However, the core group should be made up of Ukrainian scholars who have to offer a Ukrainian vision of the Holocaust and Babi Yar stories.

“At present, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center project is being created as a typical colonial design. Ukraine is perceived exclusively as a territory inhabited by illiterate natives, where civilized Russians, Poles, and other Europeans should create a museum for tourists from all over the world. However, in fact, it is Ukrainians who should create a museum and a memorial there, not for tourists, but for their children, both schoolkids and college students, who will come here to reflect on their own past and think about their own future.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day