October 1, 2021

Moscow seeks to use Babyn Yar against Ukrainians; Ukrainians want a memorial to the victims


There are two competing projects for a memorial at Babyn Yar, the site of a mass murder of Jews and others during the Nazi occupation. One of these projects, the Russian, is heavily funded by Kremlin allies and seeks to use the memorial to blame Ukrainian anti-Semitism for this crime against humanity.

The other, less well-funded and lacking even the enthusiastic backing of the current Ukrainian president, is being developed by a group of Ukrainians, Jewish and otherwise. Its purpose is not some information war with Russia, but rather a respectful memorial to the victims of this tragedy.

Joseph Zissels, a former Soviet political prisoner and vice president of the Association of Jewish Organizations of Ukraine, is the leader of the latter. In an interview with Galia Ackerman, he discusses his objections to the Russian project (en.desk-russie.eu/2021/09/24/josef-zissels-putin-is-sending-us.html, desk-russie.eu/2021/09/24/josef-zissels-poutine-nous-envoie.html and graniru.org/Politics/World/Europe/Ukraine/m.282647.html).

“Each people has its own culture and its own politics of memory,” Mr. Zissels said. “We consider the Russian project as derivative from the imperial Russian policy of memory, at the center of which is the Great Victory” and in which the Soviet people, “which hasn’t existed for 30 years,” is the key player.

Ukraine doesn’t want anything to do with the notion of a Soviet people, the former dissident said. It wants its memorial to reflect the history of Ukraine and its peoples as one of occupation and the history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine as part and parcel of this larger historical problem.

The Russian project for Babyn Yar ignores the Soviet period entirely and, without an understanding of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s in Ukraine, one cannot understand Babyn Yar. The Ukrainian project seeks to understand the roots of the problem rather than use the single event for public relations, Mr. Zissels said.

Without an understanding of the pre-war period, he said, one can’t understand why so many Soviet soldiers surrendered to the Germans or why local residents behaved as they did when the Germans came and why some collaborated with the occupiers.

“Yes, in all countries, there were collaborationists, but here was a special situation which must be studied,” Mr. Zissels said.

But the Russian narrative ignores all this and thus offers “no explanation why local residents in some cases cooperated with the occupiers … and even took part in repressions against the local population, including Jews.” And because it does not do that, it creates a completely false impression.

That impression is that “the Holocaust spread not from Germany but from Babyn Yar,” an impression that serves Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal to denigrate the Ukrainians and label them “a nation of anti-Semites,” Mr. Zissels said.  The Kremlin leader further wants to suggest that Ukrainians have done nothing about that tragic event, completely ignoring the 35 different memorials that Ukrainians have erected.

“In the Ukrainian conception,” Mr. Zissels said, “there are three main elements.” First, there is a memorial park of 70 hectares on which nothing is to be built. Then, there are two other objects, a Museum of the Victims of Babyn Yar and a Ukrainian Museum of the Holocaust. “That in brief is the Ukrainian conception.”

Unfortunately, the Russian conception is backed by Russian money, and the Ukrainian conception does not have the active support of the current Ukrainian president, despite widespread public support in Ukraine for its program. Hopefully that will change. But it is critical that everyone understand just what is going on with regard to Babyn Yar now.


Paul Goble is a long-time specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. The article above is reprinted with permission from his blog called “Window on Eurasia” (http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/).