The Babyn Yar ravine is one of the symbols of the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Here, according to various estimates, up to 150,000 Jews were shot. But the Soviet government did not want to perpetuate the memory of this tragedy. The Soviet leadership’s attempt to erase the executions of Jews at Babyn Yar from historical memory eventually led to the deaths of hundreds of Kyivans during the Kurenivka mudslide in 1961. Journalist Alyona Savchuk explains why this happened, who is to blame for it and why old wounds are irritated once again.
March 13, 1961. At 9 am, a mountain stream of slurry from sand and clay, several stories high, broke through the dam at Babyn Yar and with all its might fell on Kurenivka, a neighborhood in Kyiv. The swift, mighty river of dirt uprooted trees in its path, demolished and swallowed houses with people, dormitories and kindergartens, electric poles, concrete rings and sewer pipes, the remains of a cemetery, and overcrowded traffic on Frunze Street (now Kyrylivska). The wave engulfed a trolleybus, a bus and two tram cars. Some managed to get out. Most passengers traveling by bus that day were burned alive – they were set on fire by broken power lines.
Later on, the rescued passenger M.N. Novgorod would recall: “The inside of the bus was so crowded that I was literally pressed against the back door. After driving a little, the bus was stuck in front of the Spartak Stadium. The water began to reach the windows. Drivers got out from buses and were swimming to the opposite side, towards the stadium fence. There were terrible screams inside the bus. People realized that they had been buried alive. And suddenly everything darkened. A wave was coming at us – a solid foamy mass of gray color. The wave was higher than the houses and covered the sky.”
The main blow was dealt to the city hospital №15 and the tram depot named after Krasin; half a hundred of its employees died in the workplace. Forensic experts would later determine that some of the workers remained unconscious under the rubble for several days. Within an hour, the neighborhood was flooded by a slurry lake with an area of 30 hectares. In a calm state, the slurry hardened like a stone, encasing both the bodies of the living and the dead.
Later, writers and historians would call this day “Kyiv’s Pompeii”, “Black Monday” and “Kurenivka Apocalypse”. Locals would attribute the trouble to mystical forces: “Babyn Yar took revenge.”
Place of death
In the post-Soviet territory, there are few spaces similar to Babyn Yar. This area in a cozy green area of Kyiv has been constantly changing since the mass shooting of Ukrainian Jews, Roma and other minorities took place – and now it is not at all like the Babyn Yar it was in 1941.
Prior to the construction of Syrets, this ravine was one of the largest in Kyiv – more than 2.5 km long, 10 to 50 m deep. Earlier, between Babyn and Repyahov ravines in Kyrylivsky grove there was an Orthodox cemetery, and on the other side of Melnykova Street – a Jewish one; on its western border – areas of Karaite and Muslim burials, on the side of Melnikov – a military cemetery.
The whole world heard about Babyn Yar during the Second World War. It was there from the 29 to the 30 of September in 1941 that the Nazis shot 33,771 Jews. In all, during the two years of occupation of Kyiv, about a hundred thousand people died at this place: Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians and victims of other nationalities, Soviet prisoners of war, Ukrainian nationalists, patients of psychiatric hospitals. Only a few dozen people managed to escape death in Babyn Yar.
The scale and speed of the brutal massacre made Babyn Yar a symbol of the Holocaust for Eastern Europe – as the Auschwitz death camp did for Western Europe – and its name has become a go-to reference for hundreds of other similar execution sites in Ukraine and beyond. However, this was later on; the Soviet leadership tried to “cover up” the tragedy in the following years.
“From the very beginning of the war, the Soviet authorities did not want the struggle for the Soviet Union to be associated with the cause of saving the Jews. Nor did it want the extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany and its allies to be the greatest crime of the war,” said historian Serhiy Yekelchyk, a researcher of Soviet history and historical memory. The Soviet leadership was not alone in its decision, he notes, as were other countries in the Anti-Hitler Coalition. In particular, Franklin Roosevelt, in order to form public support for Jewish emigrants from Europe in the United States, called them political refugees instead of Jews.
However, the situation in the Soviet Union was more complicated: “It was impossible to deny the tragedy of Babyn Yar, so no one did. Much was written about it, but in a specific way: emphasizing that Soviet citizens of all nationalities were killed there. In the list of victims, Russians and Ukrainians went before the Jews, although everyone knew that it all started with the Jews,” Yekelchyk said.
In addition, the Soviet authorities were aware that collaborators were involved in crimes against Jews, but did not want to draw attention to this fact. “It is interesting that during the first post-war trials in the USSR (and even during the war), Nazi accomplices were also tried. And already during the Kyiv trial – the trial of Hitler’s war criminals in Kyiv in January 1946 – only the Germans were accused of killing Soviet citizens. The signal was clear: we will not talk about it, we must remain silent, explains the historian.
In the years following the war, Babyn Yar was not the focus of the city authorities. All efforts were made to rebuild the city: clear the streets, dismantle the blockades, start businesses, establish connections, rebuild destroyed housing and build new ones. Families returned from evacuation, soldiers from war, and everyone needed work and a roof over their heads. At that time, Babyn Yar remained untouched, except to the tireless seekers of “Jewish gold”.
In the 1930s, they planned to build a district park on the site; on the eve of World War II, they had planned a ski base and a springboard; and after the deoccupation they talked again about a park, as if there was no fresh wound. However, this idea remained on paper, as did the monument to the “victims of fascist terror in Babyn Yar”, which was to appear there by 1950. Instead of honoring the dead, officials decided to level the problematic area to the ground, and replaced awkward moral issues with a criteria of usefulness. On March 28, 1950, the Kyiv City Executive Committee decided to create a dump site for the quarries of the Petrivka brick factories in the spurs of Babyn Yar. From that moment, the flooding of the area with loose soils had started. Later, there were plans to build something on the transformed territory, including a road between Lukyanivka and Kurenivka.
“It was clear even then that Babyn Yar divides Kyiv in two, that the city limits would exceed it and develop further in that direction: Syrets, Nyvky, Vidradny,” says Volodymyr Pinchuk. In the late 1950s, he worked as a senior engineer in the production and technical department of the Kyivmiskbud-1 trust and coordinated the construction of a residential area in Syrets. He witnessed the Kurenivka tragedy, and then was responsible for the construction of a new neighborhood at the site of the flood.
“Babyn Yar was an inconvenient place for officials. Every year some people would come, stand around and cry; we would say that Soviet citizens died there, and they would talk about the Jews; officials wanted this story to end. I have no evidence that everything was exactly like that, but I understand the logic of events, and how the city executive committee decided to get rid of Babyn Yar forever,” Pinchuk said.
Volodymyr Pinchuk was born and raised in Kyiv, and before the war his large Jewish family lived in the city. Not everyone was evacuated in 1941. The family miraculously managed to get out of Kyiv on one of the last trains before German aircraft bombed a bridge across the Dnieper. “Thirteen of our family members went to Babyn Yar, including nine close ones – aunts, uncles, cousins,” he said. “Went to Babyn Yar” was the name given to the shooting in Soviet times.
No official public mourning events were held in Babyn Yar in the 1950s. Then there were some declarations to honor the heroes of the war, not its victims. Pinchuk says that the Jews told each other on “radio”: “We are going on the 29th” and went to the place of the tragedy every year on mourning days. They were quickly dispersed, and city officials considered such gatherings to be unauthorized rallies. People stopped coming. He also does not remember protests against the leveling up of Babyn Yar – the times were “uncertain”.
Technology of death
In the 1950s, housing construction in Kyiv depended largely on bricks. Petrovsky brick factories explored large deposits of good clay on Syretska, but it lay under an 8-meter layer of alluvial soil. This stratum had to be removed and then moved somewhere else. The All-Union office “Budhydromechanization” undertook efforts to find a solution to this problem. Its designers proposed developing the soil with hydro jets – these are guns through which water is supplied under such a high pressure that it washes away the earth without aids (such as excavators). And the formed mixture of water and small particles of soil was decided to be transported by pumps through pipelines to the spurs of Babyn Yar.
To fill the ravine, the Moscow trust “Budhydromechanization” used a special technology, because the forest rock subsides as soon as it mixes with water, and also does not give off moisture (which is why houses in the capital are built mostly on stilts). This technology foresaw that meter layers of pulp from a brick quarry and sand from the Dnieper would be pumped into Babyn Yar in turn. A drainage system was planned in the thickness of the sand – special pipes with holes through which water from the flooded area would be drained. In addition, the project was about the preliminary cleaning of the “sides” of the ravine, so that they do not form terraces and do not retain moisture.
However, none of the above was performed.
“When they started to calculate the cost, it turned out to be very expensive: due to the sand from the Dnieper, the capacity of the ravine was halved and costs increased, because it also had to be transported. And then, as I understand it, under the leadership of the mayor at the time, the chairman of the executive committee of the Kyiv City Council Oleksiy Davydov, they decided to do without sand,” Volodymyr Pinchuk explained. The slurry was pumped all year round, although the project provided stops for the winter. As a result, every summer under the sun the upper layer of the wash dried up, and below it in the depths remained underground lakes of pulp.
The alluvium in the third spur of Babyn Yar – the one that towered over Kurenivka – was restrained by an earthen dam, which was gradually built in a cascade. Such water lenses were just formed in her performances. By the spring of 1961, the slurry had practically reached the top.
“It was a surprisingly rainy spring that year,” Pinchuk recalls. “On the territory where the park is now, there was a lake one meter deep. And so this water, weighing a ton per square meter, began to press on the upper compressed layer of dried rock, which in turn pressed on a 20-meter layer of compacted pulp, and outside the waves hit the sandy roof of the dam. On March 13th part of it collapsed. Now imagine a tube of toothpaste under pressure – the same thing happened there: 700,000 cubic meters of pulp managed to escape with terrible force, until the compressed lid fell down and covered the leaching. And it was only a small part of the alluvium. If everything had escaped, there would be no trace left of Podil and Kurenivka. “
Tradition of silence
Local authorities tried to hide the tragedy. On that day, Kyiv radio reported that a pipe had been broken in Kurenivka, and Vecherny Kyiv was completely silent. On March 21, a brief obituary appeared in the newspaper: “The Kyiv City Party Committee and the Executive Committee express their condolences to the relatives and friends of those killed in the accident near the Kurenivka housing estate.”
The affected area was taken under military control, and no one was allowed to the site of the tragedy. Kyiv was disconnected from long-distance communication for a few days. The post office received telegrams and letters, but they were carefully checked by special services, especially of those who went abroad. “In connection with the catastrophe in the Podilskyi district of Kyiv, the state security bodies are carrying out the necessary intelligence and operational measures to identify those who are trying to use this fact for anti-Soviet and provocative purposes,” the KGB report to the Ukrainian Council of Ministers of March 14, 1961.
Soldiers, builders and volunteers cleared the streets and blockages, removing the bodies of the dead.
How many people died that day remains unknown. The accident was investigated, but the case materials, including eyewitness accounts and photos from the scene of the tragedy, were destroyed by the KGB a few years later, allegedly due to the statute of limitations. As a result, the government commission reported 145 deaths, but on the day of the disaster, a reference to the Presidium of the Central Committee of the Communist Party referred to the destruction of 68 residential and 13 administrative buildings, 298 apartments, including 163 private houses owned by 353 families. Researchers would later say that there were actually more victims. In particular, historian Oleksandr Anisimov would write in the book Kyiv Flood: “According to unofficial data, the Kurenivka tragedy took the lives of one and a half thousand Kyivans.”
People did not believe the reports of the radio and newspapers; they were scared and angry at the officials. In daily inquiries and reports, the local KGB leadership noted: “Most of the people with whom the agency and proxies spoke responded positively to Kyiv radio reports of the incident, but some expressed unhealthy and incorrect judgments.”
Among the “unhealthy and wrong”, for example, are: “It was not necessary to blame the memory of those killed in Babyn Yar, that’s why such a disaster happened” or “Are the perpetrators of the catastrophe listed? No. This is disgraceful! The culprits, of course, are. These are the people who were responsible for safety on the construction site. They must be brought to justice. “
The trial of those involved in the accident took place in August 1961. Six people were sentenced to various terms for “abuse of office, which led to serious consequences”: the chief engineer of the trust “Ukrhydrospetsbud”, chief, chief engineer and chief of the Petrivka section of the Construction Department №610, as well as two Moscow designers.
“Davidov was terribly shaken. He thought that he could even be imprisoned,” Volodymyr Pinchuk recalls. “However, [someone from the top of the nomenklatura] called Nikita Khrushchev and asked how Davydov was feeling. That turned out to be enough for no one to touch him. Although Davidov was to blame for both the catastrophe and the fact that Babyn Yar had ceased to be a place of remembrance.”
Two years later, Alexei Davydov passed away. In October 1963 he died of a heart attack, although rumors spread that he shot himself. The mayor’s grave at the Baykovo cemetery for some time was under guard – fellow party members feared retribution from Kyiv. And in 1964 they decided to perpetuate his name – they named the boulevard in Rusanivka.
Variety of emptiness
The Kurenivka tragedy did not change the policy of the party leadership towards Babyn Yar. In the following years, it was strengthened with a concrete dam, covered with hardened slurry from the crash site and a park was established there. Several residential areas were built on the adjacent territory, and the Kyiv TV Center and the sports complex exist where cemeteries once did.
The first monument to Babyn Yar was erected in 1976, 35 years after the Nazi occupation, a massive monument with the long title: “Soviet Citizens and Prisoners of War and Soviet Army Officers Shot by German Nazis in Babyn Yar.” For some it was a compromise and politically correct, for others it became an offensive misunderstanding. It was not until Ukraine’s independence, in 1991, that the Menorah, a Jewish seven-candlestick in memory of the Jews killed during the German occupation, appeared at Babyn Yar too. In the same year, for the first time since the Kurenivka tragedy, an official memorial service was held in Kyiv for the victims of the catastrophe.
Since then, Ukraine has not developed a unified state policy on the Holocaust. Babyn Yar was not kept silent, but it also failed to attract proper attention.
“The Ukrainian authorities did not take an initiative. At the same time, it is clearly understood that this is an important aspect of international relations, that the attitude to the Holocaust is measured by the readiness of states for democratic transformations, joining Europe, and equal partnership in the world community. The politics of memory was utterly destroyed during the Kuchma era, which transferred its foreign policy multi-vector nature to it. At the same time, it became possible to pursue its own policy in each region of the country, so that it would not prevent the oligarchs from getting rich. It is from that time that both uncertainty and underfunding of this industry remain,” says historian Serhiy Yekelchyk.
Over the past nearly 30 years, memorials to Jews, Roma, children, Orthodox priests, Ukrainian nationalists, prisoners of war, and victims of the Kurenivka tragedy have appeared in and around Babyn Yar. At some point, this process, which historians call “victim competition,” has partly lost its internal logic and place. A person who tries to understand what happened in Babyn Yar through the inscriptions on the monuments is unlikely to succeed.
Agent of change
In 2020, probably for the first time since independence, there was such a heated and wide-ranging discussion about Babyn Yar’s significance and place in Ukrainian history. It was caused by the staffing decisions of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Charitable Foundation, including the invitation of controversial Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky to become the artistic director of the Memorial Center and the publication of his controversial DAU project. The expediency of involving Khrzhanovsky in the project and the questionable ethics of his methods, the Russian origin of the Fund’s capital and possible threats of external influence on the concept of the Memorial were discussed at different levels with different degrees of professionalism.
But Babyn Yar as the site of two tragedies – the Jewish people and Kurenivka – remains largely of interest to a professional circle of historians. Sometimes the theme comes into the field of view of artists, including foreign ones, at the initiative of the Ukrainian side, then there are projects such as a video installation “Garden of Memory” by French artist Olga Kiselyova or an exhibition dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the tragedy “Loss: Memories of Babyn Yar”, which brought together the works of world-famous Christiana Boltanski, Jenny Holzer and Berlinde de Bruykere.
Ukrainian artists work with the theme of crimes against Jews as part of a broader problem.
“The theme of historical memory, trauma and the Holocaust as its deepest and most tragic embodiment is quite active in Ukrainian critical art,” says documentary filmmaker and publicist Oleksiy Radynsky. “The artist Mykyta Kadan has been seriously working with these themes for a long time. He has an important body of work, including on the events of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Another obvious example, when we talk about contemporary art, is the work of Mykola Ridny on the theme of historical trauma. “
In particular, in 2019, Mykola Ridny created an installation “Lost Baggage” for the Kaunas Biennale, dedicated to the Jewish artist Esther Lurie, who managed to survive the Holocaust in the Kaunas ghetto. Nikita Kadan raises issues of ethnic cleansing and mass violence in his works from the series “Chronicles”, “Pogrom” and “National Landscape”.
Separately, Oleksiy Radynsky notes Ivan Orlenko’s short film “In Our Synagogue”, based on the unfinished short story by Franz Kafka: “So far, this is the most notable statement on the Holocaust in Ukrainian cinema.” The 20-minute black-and-white tragicomedy tells the inner feelings of a 12-year-old Jewish boy who is just beginning to comprehend the world around him. The events of the film take place during the Holocaust.
Radynsky agrees that the theme of Babyn Yar is generally not sufficiently studied by Ukrainian artists, but adds: “I would not underestimate the degree of its silence. Where awkward questions of history arise, we have a solid white spot. Admittedly, the art scene in Ukraine has been weak on this. On any topic, except those that are politically advantageous for official circles, there is little serious work. “
The territory of Babyn Yar itself is also to some extent a white spot: on the one hand, the obvious and direct function of space today is recreational, on the other hand, its multi-level tragic history has not disappeared and at the same time has not been worked out. Babyn Yar needs to be rethought.
“Places of this type are unique and require an individual approach,” said Oleksandr Shevchenko, an urbanist and co-founder of Comixans. “Western European practices of working with memorial sites are increasingly losing utilitarianism – that the place should have only one function. Instead, they work with the space on a more precise level: at certain locations, where certain events took place, ‘anchors’ are fixed, and the rest of the territory is left neutral. In other words, people are reminded of the history of the place, but unobtrusively, at certain points, they are not made to worry and feel depressed all the time. “
In his opinion, the project of rethinking such a large territory with a global context would become significant not only for Kyiv, but for the whole country, provided a conceptual approach and deep study.
“Our places of remembrance are mostly of Soviet origin. We inherited them without rethinking them,” adds Shevchenko. “Babyn Yar could set a precedent, a signal that other similar places across the country, even if they do not have such a resonant history, can hope for a new approach.”
Translated by Kate Garcia