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How can Ukraine’s leaders hand Babyn Yar into private Russian hands?

18.06.2021
Halya Coynash

The Menorah at Babyn Yar Photo DT.ua

Despite widespread protest, Ukraine’s leaders appear determined to hand control over memorialization of Babyn Yar, site of one of the worst massacres of the Holocaust and a place of huge significance for Ukraine, into Russian hands.  President Volodymyr Zelensky talks a great deal about listening to public opinion, yet his administration and the government appear deaf, not only to the protests from prominent Ukrainian figures and organizations, but also to unequivocal warnings from the Security Service [SBU] of the danger this poses. Having allowed the shocking construction of a synagogue on graves, they are now planning to lease out the office of the former Jewish Cemetery, reconstructed with state funding, to a Russian-funded organization over which Ukraine will have no control. It is hardly surprising that opponents of the move draw an analogy with Ukraine’s leasing to Russia of Sevastopol, a move that ultimately led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Rather than heeding public opinion, Ukraine’s leaders first sought to manipulate it, relying on the complexity of the issue and the fact that most people do not have all the information.  On 29 July 2020, for example, Zelensky tweeted that he had discussed with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre [BYHMC] Charitable Foundation “the need to implement a project that is important for Ukraine”.  He added that “there have been many tragic pages in our history. We must remember them and tell following generations about them”. 

All of this would have sounded quite uncontentious for most people, which may explain why the project has some prominent supporters abroad, as well as in Ukraine.  What would not have been understood was that there are, in fact, two projects for memorialization of Babyn Yar *, and that the President was coming out in support of the one that is based on private funding, from three Russian oligarchs.  Although Mikhail Fridman, German Khan and Pavel Fuks were born in Soviet Ukraine, they all made their fortunes in Russia, and the US Treasury Department has placed both Fridman and Khan on their list of oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin (and therefore potential targets for sanctioning).  It was noticeable that, after protests intensified against this ‘Russian project’, those lobbying for it began calling Fridman and Khan “Ukrainian Jews”. 

Support for this private ‘Russian project’ is all the more baffling as the other project was commissioned by Ukraine’s government back in 2016.  An organizing committee was established that same year, with a memorial museum planned on 44 Melnikov St, in the one remaining building – the former office of the Jewish Cemetery and the building that the government is now planning to lease out to the other, Russian-funded project. Considerable amounts of state funding have been allocated since then,  with the money used in part for the full restoration of the building on Melnikov St.  60 million UAH has also been put aside for 2021, although none of this money has yet been issued.

The efforts at manipulation have largely failed, with several major appeals in support of the Ukrainian government-commissioned project, including from prominent Ukrainian Jewish organizations, the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, cultural and academic figures, and others.

Instead of organizing public debate and confronting the legitimate concerns, members of the President’s Administration and the government have facilitated the contentious ‘Russian project’, or BYHMC. 

A crucial difference between the two projects is that only BYHMC allows for the construction of a synagogue or any buildings on the territory of former graveyards at Babyn Yar.  Any suggestion of this is impossible in the Ukrainian project since, as  the Appeal from Ukrainian Jews and Civil Society points out, “Jewish religious tradition unequivocally prohibits any construction on the sites of graveyards and mass burials. The attempt to build a synagogue on the land of an Orthodox cemetery is an affront to Jewish spiritual and moral values, as well as overt provocation against Orthodox Christian believers, against all of those whose relatives lie buried at the Kyrylivske Cemetery.”

As reported, it became clear in November 2020 that BYHMC was planning to build a synagogue on the site of the former Kyrylivske Christian Orthodox graveyard behind the Menorah at Babyn Yar and had asked the Ministry of Culture for a permit.  The construction was to be finished in time for the eightieth anniversary in 2021 of the Babyn Yar Massacre on 29-30 September 1941 when over 33 thousand Jewish adults and children were murdered, with their bodies thrown into what was then a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv.  

Ukraine’s leaders have behaved with shocking dishonesty over this, breaking promises that no decisions would be taken before there had been public debate.  In January, it was learned that the Minister of Culture, Oleksandr Tkachenko had issued a permit for the synagogue, or what BYMHC is calling ‘a place for contemplation’.    According to Josef Zisels, Co-President of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine [Vaad] and former Soviet dissident, Tkachenko had for some time heeded the warning from the SBU that the construction of a synagogue, whatever name is given, on a graveyard, would result in inter-ethnic and inter-faith tension and be damaging to Ukraine’s reputation.  Zisels understands that Tkachenko gave in after two meetings at the Office of the President on 22 January, one of which was chaired by President Zelensky.  He has suggested that the pressure on Tkachenko came from the Head of the Office of the President, Andriy Yermak..

There was still further dishonesty since BYHMC applied for and obtained a permit to build a so-called ‘small architectural structure’.  According to Ukrainian legislation, such structures must be movable; cover an area of no more than 30 m² and be no more than four metres high.  The so-called ‘Place for Contemplation’ is taller than allowed, and on a concrete foundation, meaning that it is certainly not movable.

A civil suit has been lodged against this move and is presently awaiting consideration by the (notorious) District Administration Court in Kyiv.  Zisels is adamant that they will take this case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary, and points out that the move has breached several Ukrainian and international laws on cultural heritage, on burial sites, etc.

In a recent interview, Zisels pointed to new dishonesty, this time from Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denis Shmyhal.  While approving funding in 2021 for the Ukrainian project, Shmyhal has instructed the Ukrainian State Property Fund to lease out to BYHMC the building at 44 Melnikova St, which, according to the Ukrainian project, would house the memorial museum.  Worth noting that the building was only reclaimed by the state, through efforts from the public prosecutor and courts, following an earlier dodgy arrangement, in 2016.  Now, a mere five years later, the government, for reasons that are anything but transparent, is planning to hand over a building of critical significance for the memorialization of Babyn Yar to a project over which Russian oligarchs will have the main say, and not the Ukrainian authorities.

Efforts are now underway to ensure that the Kyiv city authorities agree to public hearings over all plans for Babyn Yar.

On 15 June, the Ukrainian Catholic University issued a statement, endorsing the position set up in earlier appeals from Ukrainian Jews and Civil Society and from the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations.  It is flawed policy, UCU says, to ignore clear warnings, and writes that “Something very tragic is happening around this symbol of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes”.

It is important to remember how much the Soviet regime tried to blur memory of what happened at Babyn Yar.  Historian Anatoly Podolsky writes that during Soviet times, there was a policy of silence over anything that did not fit the regime’s narrative about World War II, including the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  He says that it was only really after Ukraine gained independence, that you could read the truth about the Massacre at Babyn Yar.  During the occupation, the Nazis also used the ravine to murder Roma; prisoners of war; Ukrainian nationalists and others, with this too an important and highly sensitive part of any proper memorialization of Babyn Yar.

In its statement, UCU recalls the manner in which the Soviet regime tried not to see the forgotten graves at Babyn Yar and notes that Ukraine’s leaders now have moved from such an optical feat to one that is strictly acoustic. “The authorities are not hearing the voices of warning.  Collective appeals to prevent this project such as that from cultural and academic figures, appear one after the other in the Ukrainian media, yet the allure of big money is ensuring that the authorities remain deaf.”

UCU considers this situation to be extremely unhealthy and states that they would like to hear an explanation from both Ukraine’s leaders, and the Mayor of Kyiv, as to why public voices of warning are being ignored.  The authors stress that it is not the fact itself that money is being provided for a memorial by Russian businessmen of Jewish background.  “We respect their national and ethnic remembrance and recognize their right to join in immortalizing the memory of the victims of Babyn Yar through financial means.  We are, nonetheless, worried by the fact that memorialization of this place of memory of state significance is effectively being handed over into private hands, with the state’s control reduced to a minimum.”

This would be inconceivable in any other country, the authors write, and recall the stark assessment given by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, Professor of Jewish History at Northwestern University.  The planned project, financed by three “Russian Jewish nouveau riches with Kremlin support”, would mean that Ukraine issued a lease giving exclusive right to the land around the memorial and the synagogue for 25 -30 years.   There needs to be outrage over this, Petrovsky-Shtern says, since giving those in charge of this project the right to do whatever they want with the land for that period is as good as creating a new Sevastopol in Kyiv.  Russia received a long lease on Sevastopol from Ukraine, and that was where Russia’s annexation began.  Russia can do something similar here, he warns.  They could stage some kind of provocation, with supposed ‘Right Sector’ nationalists setting fire to the synagogue, and then say that Russia cannot tolerate this.  “That’s how the occupation of Kyiv could begin”.

Petrovsky-Shtern is certainly not alone in believing that the current situation is one with serious implications for Ukraine’s security, and that the construction of a synagogue on a former cemetery is unadulterated, cynical provocation.

UCU also considers the current situation to be dangerous since the Ukrainian government-commissioned Concept for the Memorialization of Babyn Yar, completed at the beginning of 2019 by a working group from the Academy of Sciences Institute of History, has been rejected for no comprehensible reason.  Instead it is planned to hand this memorialization into private hands, and specifically those Russian citizens who are financing the project and who will therefore be able to determine its ideological direction.

The Ukraine state must, the authors stress, take control over the concept and implementation of memorialization of Babyn Yar and share this responsibility with Ukrainian civil society.  The latter is especially important since the recent stubborn refusal by those in power to heed warnings over this project has seriously undermined public confidence.

UCU shares concerns already reported about the controversial Russian art director,  Ilya Khrzhanovsky.  There has been near total silence about his likely role in the project, however he is known to have the support of the main financer of BYHMC, Mikhail Fridman, and there seems no reason to believe that his services, however contentious, will be rejected if BYHMC is fully implemented.  It was mainly because of the danger of the Babyn Yar memorial complext being turned into a Khrzhanovsky ‘art project’, that Dutch historian of the Holocaust, Karel Berkhoff resigned from his post as Academic Director in April 2020.  This art project has 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

The UCU community ends their statement with the following words:

“Memorialization of Babyn Yar is of huge importance for Ukrainian society and the smallest mistake could cost us all very dear. And on the contrary, consolidation of the Ukrainian public around the Ukrainian project for memorialization of Babyn Yar would help not only us, the living, to understand the painful trauma of the past, but also the souls of the innocent slain to at last find longed for peace”.

More details about the above-mentioned appeals, and instructions on endorsing one of them here:  Zisels: Synagogue on Babyn Yar graveyard is ‘super provocation’ aimed at discrediting Ukraine

*  The Ukrainian concept can be found here in Ukrainian and in English (press under the name in English, where it says ‘PDF’).

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 UkrainianEnglish 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.

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