Contentious choice of Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex is a win-win situation for Russia
A large number of prominent Ukrainian Jews have voiced opposition to the current Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex (which they refer to as Russian) and have called for the Ukrainian concept for a memorial complex to be accepted. Their appeal is of particular importance in countering the widespread assumption that the choice is somehow between a highly contentious memorial complex and no formal memorialization of Babyn Yar, where on 29-30 September 1941, the Nazis murdered almost 34 thousand Jewish men, women and children.
There has been considerable public reaction to the plans concerning the memorial complex, especially following the appointment late in 2019 of a controversial Russian art director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky. An appeal to Ukraine’s leaders in May this year was endorsed by around 700 prominent Ukrainian public figures, historians, writers and others. While President Volodymyr Zelensky has often presented himself as eager to hear public opinion, he ignored this and other appeals, and, on 29 July, publicly expressed his support for the disputed Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex [BYHMC].
Zelensky’s words during a video conference with members of the BYHMC Fund’s Supervisory Council were not in themselves contentious. He spoke of the need to implement an important project for Ukraine, namely a memorial centre for the remembrance of victims of the Holocaust.
The sentiments were fine, except that nobody is disputing the need for a memorial complex. What is in question, and what the President has totally ignored, is whether the current project is the right one for Ukraine. The reasons for concern about this include the decision to abandon a project drawn up by Ukrainian historians at the request of the Ukrainian government; Khrzhanovsky’s deeply shocking proposals for the museum and the plans to build the museum on the territory of old Jewish and other burial sites. The other key reason is that the financial strings behind this essentially private project are being pulled by Russian businessmen, known for their success under the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The alarming plans for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex gained considerable publicity after its Academic Director, Dutch historian of the Holocaust, Karel Berkhoff resigned in April 2020, saying that he could not, for ethical reasons, continue to support the plans. Berkhoff spoke of the danger of the memorial complex being turned into ‘an art project’ under Khrzhanovsky. The latter’s plans have been discussed in detail by Vladislav Davidzon in Turning Babi Yar Into Holocaust Disneyland and Yohannan Petrovsky-Shtern in Savior on the Blood, or Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s Babyn Yar Experimental Museum. Petrovsky-Shtern, members of whose family were murdered at Babyn Yar, writes that Khrzhanovsky’s “project transforms the Babyn Yar tragedy into a roleplay, and the commemoration of the victims into a roller-coaster nerve-tickling. The memorial project that should help cultivate moral attitudes in fact devaluates any ethics. What Khrzhanovsky suggests is not only brutal; it is despicably cynical”.
While public concern over this grotesque ‘experiment’ prompted assurances that the plans would be assessed at the end of this year, there are compelling reasons for not feeling reassured. Khrzhanovsky clearly has the backing of the main sponsor, Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman, and, as Petrovsky-Shtern notes, “Given its financial support, it will definitely be constructed with the help of international nouveau-riches eager to see the institution eclipse the most well-financed Jewish or Holocaust museums in Berlin, Frankfurt, Moscow, Paris, Tel-Aviv, Warsaw, and Washington.”
“Jewish pain and Jewish memory”
In a bitter address to Zelensky just after the President came out in support of BYHMC, Vitaly Nakhmanovych, one of the authors of the Ukrainian project, expressed horror that many of the projects for a memorial centre, including BYHMC, envisage building the centre on old burial sites. He suggests that those who can so flagrantly ignore the prohibition of such desecration grew up on the Soviet disregard for graves, and asks how we can hope to preserve hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and places of mass burial if Jews themselves begin to build on them.
The BYHMC complex would build on Jewish, Kyrylivsk Orthodox and Karaim graveyards.
Those following the controversy over the Babyn Yar Memorial Complex may have noticed an apparent change in the nationality of some of the key businessmen who are providing the funding. The sponsors, it should be stressed, remained the same, only Mikhail Fridman and German Khan went from being referred to as Russian businessmen to being described as ‘Ukrainian Jewish’, They and Pavel Fuks were certainly born in Soviet Ukraine, but all made their money in Russia, with only Fuks having, reportedly, severed his business interests in Russia because of the latter’s aggression against Ukraine. The deft switches in focus, through concentration on the men’s place of birth, have only exacerbated the suspicions of those concerned about the project. Fridman, the main sponsor, may have been born in Ukraine but all his business has been in Russia, and in 2018 the US Treasury Department reportedly put him on a list of figures with ties to the Kremlin.
The authors of the Appeal by Ukrainian Jews call on their fellow Ukrainians to understand the tragedy of Babyn Yar as a part of Ukraine’s history and Ukrainian historical memory. They ask people to support the Ukrainian project for the memorialization of Babyn Yar which was drawn up by Ukrainian historians at the request of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers.
“We must not allow the tens of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Babyn Yar, even 80 years after their terrible deaths, to become the hostages and weapon for Russian propaganda against Ukraine.”
There are currently over 30 monuments or memorial plaques on the territory of Babyn Yar or around it, but these are not united into one memorial space. The authors note that, throughout the (29) years of its independence, Ukraine has not managed to properly honour the tens of thousands of victims, and “the lack of a memorial space and museum only exacerbate the sense of state helplessness.”
There has generally been insufficient attention paid by the state to the development of Ukrainian policy of memory, and “from the very beginning, Russia, in particular, as well as some other countries have tried to become the arbiters in our history, in issues of Ukrainian politics of memory.” Such interference, they say, is unacceptable and a threat to Ukraine’s state identity.
The authors view the above-mentioned projects for the memorialization of Babyn Yar as “Ukrainian” and “Russian” and believe that the emergence of two such projects “has become a powerful factor in the continuation of the ideological conflict between the old – Eurasian, post-imperialist position, and that which is new, Ukrainian and pro-European.”
They were therefore unpleasantly surprised by President Zelensky’s open support for what they consider the Russian project, and point to the above-mentioned attempts to refer to the sponsors as ‘Ukrainian Jews’. You could just as well call one of them a British Jew by that logic, since Fridman is currently living in the UK. “The fact of their absolute affiliation with Russia, and particularly with Putin, is thus assiduously masked.”
The authors call the appearance of the Russian project the kind of game with many moves that Putin’s propagandists are so fond of, with Ukraine forced into a lose-lose situation.
“If this project is implemented, it will not only demonstrate to the entire world that Ukraine is supposedly incapable of properly honouring the memory of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Second World War, but the project itself will become a powerful weapon of Russian propaganda which tries to present Ukrainians as radical nationalists and anti-Semites. If it is not [implemented], then that will be presented as “proof of anti-Semitism” in Ukraine which prevented it from honouring the victims of the Holocaust.
The appearance and implementation of the Ukrainian state project, with the support of Ukrainian civil society would, therefore, destroy this game of Putin’s. “
The two projects vary considerably with this not merely about fundamental differences in Russian and Ukrainian policy of memory, or the differing views of Ukrainian or Russian historians regarding events, especially in the twentieth century.
A telling example, the authors believe, of a totally different approach is seen in the fact that “the Russian project, while making declarations about preserving the memory of Jews who died, is planning to build a museum on the site destroyed in Soviet times of Jewish and Karaim cemeteries.“ The Ukrainian project, in contrast, categorically prohibits any construction on places of burial, execution or the burning of victims’ remains. This, the authors say, reflects the Ukrainian project’s active respect for a fundamental tenet of Jewish tradition.
“We Ukrainian Jews call on civil society to view the Holocaust and specifically the tragedy of Babyn Yar not merely as Jewish tragedies, but as parts of Ukrainian history and Ukrainian memory politics, just like Holodomor and the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars and Stalin’s repression of the 1920s – 1950s. “
“For us, the struggle to properly honour the memory of the victims of Babyn Yar is an act of conscience and, at the same time, a national and civic duty. We believe that a Ukrainian project for the memorialization of Babyn Yar, which unites the honouring of victims of the Holocaust with other, non-Jewish victims, including memory of the Jewish Tragedy in the total historical context, and which makes it an integral part of Ukrainian historical memory, should be implemented in this tragic area.”
The introduction provides some important information as to why the history of Babyn Yar , as a place of memory, has been different from other places where the Nazis committed mass murder of Jews during the Second World War. These include the fact that during the Nazi occupation, Babyn Yar was used to execute other targets of persecution as well (Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and partisans, Ukrainian nationalists; communists, psychiatric patients; civilian hostages and also prisoners from the Syrets Concentration Camp). The authors state that around a third of the total number of 90-100 thousand victims were not Jewish.
Another crucial reason was the attitude of the Soviet regime which was essentially silent about the fact that Ukrainian Jews had been murdered at Babyn Yar as Jews. The pompous monument erected was to Soviet victims of the occupation.
The website of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center can be found here in Ukrainian, English and Russian. The Historical Narrative was drawn up before Karol Berkhoff resigned over concerns after Khrzhanovsky became artistic director. Although there is a section on non-Jewish victims, the narrative is rather more focused on Babyn Yar as part of the Holocaust.