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24 February 2023updated 02 Mar 2023 3:44pm

Babi Yar: a harrowing masterpiece of Ukraine under Nazi rule

Anatoly Kuznetsov’s classic account of the 1941 massacre of Ukrainians is republished as Kyiv suffers the ravages of war again.

By Henry Marsh

The history of Ukraine is complex and written in blood. It has been said that about one quarter of the population of Ukraine died violently in the 20th century – in two world wars, a civil war, two famines and under a communist dictatorship. The present war is only the latest episode in a long and tortured history of the way the country, highly fertile and with few natural barriers, forms the borderland between Russian imperial autocracy and the relative freedoms of the West. Not since the Mongol invasions and the Black Death has there been such carnage in a European country.

A few days after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the Russians staged a missile attack on the Kyiv television centre and tower in the suburb of Kurenivka. The missile was off-target and the tower was not significantly damaged, but several passers-by were killed in the adjacent park – a medical colleague who lives in the area sent me some grim pictures of the dismembered victims. 

The missile did, however, damage a memorial in the park: one dedicated to victims who had died in this same place, some 150,000 of them, including 33,771 Jews killed in just two days on 29 and 30 September 1941. The place is Babi Yar, made infamous by the remarkable documentary novel of the same name written by the Soviet author and exile Anatoly Kuznetsov. Now, after an undeserved interval of 50 years, a new edition of his book is being published.

Babi Yar is one of the classic accounts of life under Nazi rule in occupied Europe and a depiction of man’s inhumanity to man – but told through the innocent and observant eyes of a child. Kuznetsov described the book as a “document in the form of a novel” but it is clearly based closely on his personal experience. Its publishing history encapsulates many aspects of Ukraine’s terrible past. The first version was published in the Soviet Union without the author’s permission in 1966, with 25 per cent of the text censored and additional, politically correct material inserted. The book was an immediate success, even though it was a complete travesty of what Kuznetsov had originally written. An English language version was published in the US in 1970 under the pseudonym A Anatoli, after Kuznetsov had successfully sought asylum in London. 

Kuznetsov had managed to get there by agreeing to become a KGB informer. He was then given permission by the KGB to come to the city and carry out research on a book he was claiming to be writing about Lenin and his time as an exile in London. He was accompanied by a KGB minder – a “mamka” or nanny – from whom he managed to escape. Sewn into the lining of his coat, he smuggled with him the original, uncensored version of his masterpiece copied onto 35mm film. 

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It was this version that was published in English in 1970, and the version that Vintage is now reissuing: in the new edition, parts redacted by the Soviet censors are printed in bold font, and additional material is placed in square brackets. When reading these redacted sections you can see that the book is as much about the suppression of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture by Russia as it is about the equally oppressive rule of the Nazis. One marvels that these passages were originally submitted to the Soviet censors, so explicit is their criticism of the communist regime.

Kuznetsov was born in 1929 in Kurenivka in Kiev, as it was then called. His father was Russian and had fought in the civil war for the Bolsheviks. He had also taken part in the forced collectivisation of peasant agriculture in the early 1930s, which had led to the “Stalin famine” – now known as the Holodomor – in which it is estimated between three and seven million Ukrainians died. His father abandoned the family and Kuznetsov was brought up by his Ukrainian mother and grandparents.

Kuznetsov was 12 years old when the Germans captured Kyiv. As the Russians retreated before the Germans arrived, the NKVD – the Soviet secret police – mined many of the buildings in Khreschatyk, the main street in Kyiv. These were then detonated remotely after the Germans had taken over the city. Hundreds of Germans and an unknown number of Ukrainians were killed, and around 200 buildings destroyed. Kuznetsov suggests that this was done to turn the Germans against the Ukrainian population. (The NKVD had already murdered 40,000 political prisoners in Western Ukraine as the Nazis advanced, presumably to stop them joining up with the Germans.) The Germans used the mining of Khreschatyk as the justification for the mass murder of Jews a few days later at Babi Yar. 

[See also: Artwork from a nation under attack]

The Jews in Kyiv were ordered to report for “relocation”. Instead of being relocated, all 33,771 of them were taken to Babi Yar, a sandy ravine which had been used as both an Orthodox Christian and Jewish cemetery in the past. They were stripped of their clothes and possessions and shot. Over the next two years, it is thought that a further 100,000 people – by no means all of them Jewish – were killed in the ravine. Kuznetsov’s home was a stone’s throw away from Babi Yar, and he tells us that his childhood was spent with the constant sound of machine gun fire in the background, coming from the ravine. 

Two years later, as the Red Army started to recapture Ukraine and approach Kyiv, the Germans used slave labourers to exhume and burn the thousands of corpses, in a futile effort to hide their crimes. This meant that we will never know exactly how many people were murdered there. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial organisation, has only been able to identify 7,000 individual Jews who died at Babi Yar.

At the heart of the book is Kuznetsov’s interview with the only survivor of the initial massacre, Dina Pronicheva, a Jewish actress who had worked in the Kyiv Puppet Theatre, where she returned after the war. Her account makes for nightmarish reading (and she can be seen on YouTube in Sergei Loznitsa’s 2021 film Babi Yar. Context, which features footage from the 1946 trial of the SS men responsible for the massacre, where she appeared as one of the main witnesses). At the age of 14, Kuznetsov started to write down everything he saw, and this formed the basis of the book he later wrote. It starts with the words: “This book contains nothing but the truth.”

It is also about much more than the mass murder at Babi Yar. As a child Kuznetsov was able to go to places unobserved without attracting much attention, and see things that others could not see – as well as escape deportation to Germany as a slave labourer. In a strange sort of way, the book is infused with the optimism of a child, despite being the story of a nightmare (and his own near-starvation). 

In the uncensored version, Kuznetsov is even-handed in the horrors he describes – the terrible cruelty of the Germans and their Ukrainian auxiliaries, the awful treatment of Jews by some Ukrainians, and the history of the Soviet (and effectively Russian) suppression of Ukraine under Stalin and his predecessors. He even meets a few kind Germans. He describes how his grandfather initially welcomed the Germans – as did many Ukrainians. Anything would be better than Soviet rule, and the Germans at first claimed to support Ukrainian nationalism. But Ukrainians soon turned against them when the realities of Nazi rule became obvious. 

After the war, a dam was built across the Babi Yar ravine, and it became a storage reservoir for loam from an adjacent brick factory. After heavy rains in 1961 the dam burst and Kurenivka was inundated with a catastrophic mudslide. The deluge contained many human remains. Upwards of 2,000 people were drowned, but the tragedy was inevitably hushed up by the Soviet authorities. A decision was made to fill the ravine in once and for all, and the TV centre was built over it. In 1971 a memorial was placed at the site, but it mentioned only “Soviet” victims. 

After independence in 1991 new memorials were erected, which specified that all the victims in the initial massacre were Jewish. And now, decades later, it has become a place of death once again, but only one among many such places in Ukraine, as Vladimir Putin tries to resurrect the Russian empire.

Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon who has been working pro bono in Ukraine since 1992. His most recent book is “And Finally: Matters of Life and Death” (Jonathan Cape)

Babi Yar: The Story of Ukraine’s Holocaust
A Anatoli (Kuznetsov)
Vintage Classics, 528pp, £20

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[See also: Ukrainians’ stories of war]

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission