21.05.2007 | Halya Coynash

Bykivnya: Вічна пам’ять - Eternal Memory


On Sunday 20 May 2007 thousands gathered in the Bykivnya forest near Kyiv. This was no spring outing, they came to join President Yushchenko in honouring the victims of a bacchanalia of killing which began 70 years ago, in 1937. 

Many present had reason to believe that the remains of their relatives lie in this terrible forest graveyard.

Others came because they have no graves:  

All victims …

The killing began, as it so often did, with monstrous paperwork: the allocation of land to the NKVD “for special purposes”. From 1937 to 1941, the land was used to bury those whom a diseased regime labelled “enemies of the people”.  Murdered in NKVD cells, their bodies were brought to this forest each night and flung into deep common graves cordoned off with a high fence.

Nobody knows the exact figures, although it is believed the forest may hold the last earthly remains of around 100 thousand victims of the Terror.  

So sparse the detail, so glaring the crime …

And yet it doesn’t end there, the grotesque monstrous lies continued throughout the Soviet era.  And even recently this no-man’s land has again been the source of bewildering conflict. 

Each of two regimes of evil competed for political points against the other using the unmarked graves of innocent victims.  The Nazis, as at Katyń, and other places of Stalin’s atrocities, took pleasure in trumpeting the crimes of the Soviet regime.  The latter as conquerors were swift to add their own atrocities to the terrible toll of Nazi crimes.

New generations have grown up, and one can anticipate bewilderment as to how such lies were perpetuated. Were there no witnesses?  Were there no voices crying for the truth to be told?

There were indeed witnesses who had, however, every reason to fear for their lives if they said anything, There were also courageous voices, especially among the Shestydesyatnyky [the Sixties activists], many of whom were themselves to end up in Soviet labour camps.

There was also a State machine with no qualms about using the endless suffering of Ukrainians during the Second World War for their own aims.  Thus, when the terrible graves in the Bykivnya Forest could no longer be concealed, nothing was easier than to attribute the crime to the Nazis.  It was only in 1989 that a commission concluded that Bykivnya holds the remains of victims of the NKVD.  The lies on the memorial plaque were removed, leaving only «Вічна пам’ять» - “Eternal Memory”.

In 2001, with Viktor Yushchenko then Prime Minister, the Cabinet of Ministers passed a Resolution creating a State Historical Memorial Complex – the “Bykivnya Graves”.  

In 2006, just before remembrance services at Bykivnya, President Yushchenko signed a Decree creating an Institute of National Remembrance.

Anything but a “happy ever after” ending, however it would still be good to end on that positive note. 

Unfortunately, in the year that has passed since then, Kyiv “Memorial” has tried desperately to raise public attention to unsanctioned excavations being carried out in the Bykivnya Forest.  Some of these are being undertaken by a Polish team who believe there may be Polish victims of Stalin’s carnage in the forest.  There almost certainly are, however any disruption to this place of horror must be carried out properly and openly.

And a year on, after a speech in which President Yushchenko affirmed: “We need to stop being frightened to talk about our history. We have to write truthful pages of that history”, so very little has in fact taken place. 

It is fitting and proper that we should be united at this time in honouring all victims of Soviet crimes. 

We remember each innocent victim, regardless of nationality, regardless of the diseased pretext for their execution.

On the other hand, while the truth remains sketchy, the graves yet unfound, and pitifully few details known about the true scale of the Terror and its victims, can we truly speak of honouring the dead? 

«Вічна пам’ять» - “Eternal Memory” can and must have no hollow ring.

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