war crimes in Ukraine

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The Path through Bykivnya

25.05.2006    source:
Yaroslava Muzychenko
An Institute of National Remembrance will seek answers to the question how, in peacetime, 10 million human lives in Ukraine could have been lost

“We need to know the truth. How, without any war, could our nation have lost over 10 million people?”. These words formed part of Viktor Yushchenko’s address to the memorial gathering to honour the victims of communist terror in Bykivnya.  In his speech to the thousands who attended, the President stressed that the tragedy of Bykivnya should be remembered together with other such crimes, those of Oświęcim (Auschwitz), Buchenwald and Dachau.  “We speak today not only about Bykivnya, but about the Vinnytsa, Kharkiv, Sumy and Lviv graves. They are not only in each regional centre, and in district centres. They are also “parts” of the Bykivnya Mass Graves”.

More than 2 thousand people came to the Bykivnya Memorial to honour the dead. Leaders of Ukraine’s Churches held a requiem service near the mass grave.

From 1936 to 1941, each night the bodies of political prisoners, shot by the NKVD, were buried in this pine forest on the eastern outskirts of Kyiv.  A special zone was organized for the secret burials. The archives of the Kyiv land development service have a document on allocating land to the capital’s NKVD in 19 – 20 quarters of the Darnytsa forest area near the village of Bykivnya “for special purposes”. The first victims were buried there at the end of the 1920s, being taken there from the Lukyanivska Prison (in Kyiv).

The bodies of approximately 100 thousand people murdered in the NKVD torture cells were thrown into deep graves between the roots of the pine trees.  Some decades later bad weather washed up bones from the sandy earth. However, the number of victims, as well as the “political affiliation” of the perpetrators of this bloody carnage, were made public only fifty years after the crime.

For a long time the Soviet bodies of state security assured anxious local residents that the terrible forest held the graves of victims of Nazism. However precisely the Germans, who had an interest in exposing the previous region, made public information from their own excavations of the massive grave in Bykivnya which stretched for 15 thousand squared metres.  P. Kolmus wrote about this as early as September 1941 in the newspaper Berliner Morgen Zeitung.

After the area again came under Soviet rule, at various times three state commissions “worked” in Bykivnya, “trying to find out the truth” about the mass burials. At the same time the poet Vasyl Symonenko with likeminded friends from the “Klub tvorchoyi molodi” [“Club for Creative Young People”] “stirred people up” circulating information about the real, not the fictitious, perpetrators of the atrocities. In 1963 the poet died after being brutally beaten by unidentified individuals[1].  Then in May 1968 at the fork in the road coming up to the forest, the guardians of hammer and sickle consciousness erected a stone with a sign reading: “Here lie buried 6329 Soviet fighters, partisans, underground activists and civilians tortured by the fascist occupiers from 1941 to 1945”. 

“A window into memory” opened at the end of the 1980s. Today, thanks to the historical and educational Society “Memorial”, scholars and publicists, the truth about Bykivnya is available to all. And on the Day in Memory of the victims of communist repression, the relatives of those murdered in the labour camps of Siberia and Solovky, as well as the dissident - “Shestydesyatnyky” [“Sixties activists”] who themselves were subjected to “Soviet re-education”, come here as a central symbolic place of remembrance near the capital 

“We need to stop being frightened to talk about our history. We have to write truthful pages of that history”, the President said, adding his disappointment that a car show and concerts with stars performing would today attract more people, than those who would come to honour the memory of those murdered. “However I am not trying to reproach the people”, he stressed, “there will come a day when tens of thousands will come to the Bykivnya Graves to honour the dead”.

In 2001, the Cabinet of Ministers which was at that time headed by Viktor Yushchenko, passed a Resolution “On creating a state historical memorial protected land “Bykivnya Graves”.  Now in the last few days Yushchenko as President signed a Decree on giving “Bykivnya Graves” the status of national protected land. 2005 was a crucial year for objectifying knowledge about the past. For the first time at state level the question was raised of an Institute of National Remembrance, of the need to make museums up-to-date and support them, and of the creation of a memorial for the victims of Holodomor [the artificially-induced Famine of 1932-1933].  And on the eve of this year’s Day in Memory of victims of the communist terror, on the instructions of the President, and carrying out two of his Decrees, the government passed a decision on creating an institute of National Remembrance as a central executive body. The President’s Press Service reports that, in accordance with the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, the newly created State Committee of National Remembrance should deal with a number of issues, among them being to ensure the implementation of state policy as regards  renewing and maintaining the national memory of the Ukrainian people, coordinating the activity of other bodies of power and promoting a comprehensive teaching of the history of the Ukrainian nation, and the dissemination of objective information about Ukrainian history in the world. The new State Committee will also work on immortalizing the memory of the victims of the Holodomors[2] and the political repression in Ukraine, as well as the participants in the national liberation struggle.

“This program is entirely new for us”, our “UM” correspondent was told by the Minister of Culture, Ihor Likhovy.  “It will be a state executive body which has never existed before in Ukraine”. The Minister believes that one of the main objectives for the newly created Committee will be to coordinate the efforts of the various ministries and museums.  These museums and protected reservations are presently divided between several executive bodies and need to be coordinated. Questions of national heritage, the history of Ukraine are today dealt with by the Academy of Sciences, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the Ministry of Construction. The Minister does not deny that the creation of an Institute of National Remembrance could be the starting point for a change in attitude to Ukraine’s historical legacy, however he stresses that this is “only the form, the vector”, while filling it with specific work will not be easy. For example there is no provision in the staffing of regional state administrations for a subdivision dealing with issues involving the protection of cultural heritage. «Last year the issue of activity for ensuring remembrance was submitted at sessions of the Verkhovna Rada three times. The majority of deputies did not vote, not wanting to have any influence on the situation”, the Ministry of Culture explained.

In Bykivnya, the President announced the name of the Head of the newly created State Committee of National Remembrance. The new Head will be academician Ihor Yukhnovsky, a major figure in Ukrainian science and in civic life, a State Deputy from the bloc “Nasha Ukraina” [“Our Ukraine”] and the Head of the All-Ukrainian Association of Veterans.

[1]  While this attack certainly took place, Vasyl Symonenko in fact died of cancer.  More about the attempts to reveal the true crimes committed can be found in the KHPG History of Dissent section (specifically Vasyl Symonenko, Alla Horska and Les Tanyuk)  (translator’s note)

[2]  There were three major famines in Ukraine under Soviet rule.  It has become common to call them all Holodomor, since none was a purely natural catastrophe, but rather involved political motives.  However Holodomor still usually refers to the Famine of 1932-1933 when the harvest was literally taken away, and from 7 to 10 million people starved to death.  (translator’s note)


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