It is a long drive from Warsaw to Kyiv, through the dead, mythic Jewish cities where my ancestors were born. Lublin, Zamość, Chelm. In Chelm – a town, I was told, made up entirely of idiots – the bicycle lane was twice the size of the main road. Maybe they are not so stupid after all.
The border crossing was the first surprise. There were long queues of cars going into Ukraine, and not many leaving. I picked up a cup of tea from a deserted refugee reception kiosk on the Polish side.
We are taking the high road just south of Belarus. Painted corrugated-iron roofs sit on neat bungalows, behind trees that line the road. It is late spring and the force of nature is ferocious and fecund. Flowers and grass force their way up through the tarmacked road. The ugliness of the strip-mall shops, garages and Khrushchev-era flats seems flimsy compared with the natural abundance of so much of Ukraine, with its fertile lands and huge open skies. The golden domes of churches gleam, and car parks are clogged with lorries. There is little sign of war other than the public-health announcement in the urinals, in yellow and blue, which reads: “Bravery is always a good idea.”
[See also: Can Ukraine win the war?]
And then the road blocks start. You see singed grass, craters and burned-out cars. Charred flats next to pristine houses. It looks like Switzerland, and then it looks like Dresden. And then you reach… Borodyanka, Bucha, Irpin. There are collapsed bridges, charred buildings and bullet-scarred churches. In the rubble next to the bridge, I can make out abandoned children’s shoes and plastic bags full of rotten food. The Russians hit this area hard during the first days of the war when they attempted to encircle Kyiv.
I ask the driver the name of the town we are driving through. “Manhattan City,” he says. His cockpit is a shrine to Ukraine: two flags in front of him, a pair of Ukrainian boxing gloves hang from the rear-view mirror, and two icons are stuck to the window at the side of his head. The only other words he said to me, during a 15-hour journey, were: “Boris Johnson, good.”
We arrived at our hotel at 9.20pm. The curfew in Kyiv starts at 10pm, and I was desperate for a walk and a drink after such a long drive. I dumped my bag in my room and headed out. I found a bar that served only cider, with a green outdoor space where locals were sitting on bean bags, drinking and smoking. Inside, a bust of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, sat beneath a neon sign of a hot dog. I thought of his poem “Kateryna”, which I’d read on the long journey to Kyiv. It is about a doomed love affair between a Ukrainian woman and an officer from Moscow: “Fall in love, O dark-browed maidens,/ But not with the Moscali,/For Moscals – they’re foreign folk,/Cruel before your grief.”
Statues of Shevchenko are everywhere in Ukraine, and everywhere the Russians go, they blow them up. When I visited Borodyanka, the statue of Shevchenko had two bullets in its head, like a mafia hit. I can’t think of anywhere other than Russia and Ukraine where the central symbols of war would be 19th-century poets. All over Ukraine they are dismantling statues of Pushkin, but the one in Odesa still stands, with the poet in his top hat and tails. The fate of that statue will indicate the outcome of the war.
[See also: The banality of Vladimir Putin]
All roads lead to Odesa. I called a friend there and his only question was, “Will they really bomb the opera house?” I replied that he knew the answer already, to which he responded with one word: “Blyat.”
I sat outside the bar in Kyiv, marvelling at the sight of benign bean-bag chatter and laughter. And then the air-raid siren sounded and the outside lights flashed on and off. But no one rushed to finish their drink. As I rose to leave, a young man asked for a cigarette, trailed by about ten others.
“Britanskiy?” he asked.
Yes, from London.
“Boris Johnson is the f***ing best,” he said. “The best.”
He hugged me. His friends joined in with a chorus of “Boris, Boris” and each insisted on hugging me. “The best,” they kept on saying. And it was only then that I realised how far I was from home.
The next day I was taken to Babi Yar, once the site of the Jewish cemetery in Kyiv. After the German invasion in 1941, all the Jews of Kyiv were ordered to Babi Yar on 29 September. Over the next two days, more than 33,000 were shot, in batches of 100, and the bodies fell into the ravine after which the massacre is named. The night of 30 September 1941, when the shooting finally stopped, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began and there were no Jews left in Kyiv to pray for forgiveness. It was just the beginning.
Two weeks later, on the festival of the rejoicing of the Torah, the same happened to the Jews of Dnipropetrovsk; 15,000 were shot in a public execution. On the same day in Kryvyi Rih, the home town of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, 7,000 were shot and thrown into a coal mine. That number doesn’t include the children who were thrown in alive for good measure. This was before the death camps and the industrial slaughter. All of this killing was done by hand. In 1941, there were 2,500,000 Jews in Ukraine; by the end of 1943, there were 100,000. Babi Yar was the start of something. And it is still not over.
Most of the Jews who survived in Ukraine joined the Red Army. That is also Zelensky’s family story. And when they returned from war, there was no family left. The Communist Party refused to recognise any unique injury to Jews and erected a multi-headed statue to all “Soviet citizens” at Babi Yar. Later, an enormous television studio complex was built on the site of the cemetery, including the tallest hand-welded aerial tower in Europe. In the early days of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the Russians bombed Babi Yar, hitting the TV aerial but not bringing it down. The Nazis killed the living, but the Soviets murdered the dead. All around Babi Yar, they built football pitches and sports clubs.
[See also: Volodymyr Zelensky behind the mask]
Babi Yar continued to cast its shadow. In the 1960s the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem about it, and the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a symphony to accompany Yevtushenko’s words. It marked the birth of the anti-Soviet dissident movement in Russia.
One of Putin’s main justifications for the Russian invasion of Ukraine is “denazification”. During the Second World War, the massacres of Jews were done in a partnership between the German Einsatzgruppen, so-called mobile killing squads, and the Ukrainian People’s Militia, which was part of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) led by Stepan Bandera. With strong support in western Ukraine, the OUN argued for an ethnically pure Ukraine free of Poles, Russians and Jews. Both the Azov Battalion and the Right Sector, now part of the Ukrainian army, claim a heritage that goes back to that period.
Since my last visit to Babi Yar three years ago, a beautiful wooden synagogue has been built. It is based on the design of the village synagogues that were destroyed across Ukraine, with Hebrew prayers in gold lettering, the signs of the zodiac, and a deep-blue ceiling with flowers and biblical imagery. They have built a memorial wall, also for people to pray and mourn. They have even erected an incomprehensible art installation on the site of the football pitch.
One afternoon I met old Jews from the Donbas who remember being bombed out of their homes by the Nazis. They stared at me with numb grief as they said that they couldn’t believe they were now being bombed from their homes by the Russians. An old lady called Helena said: “And now they want me to go to Munich to be safe. It is the end of the world.”
I held her hand and she started to cry, but I could not quite say the words in my head: my dear, the world ended long ago.
Maurice Glasman is professor of politics at St Mary’s University, London, and director of the Common Good Foundation
[See also: Can Ukraine win the war with Russia?]
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson