What is Happening around Babyn Yar Today?
Josef Zisels, Co-President of the Vaad of Ukraine
Almost two years ago, Ukraine proved herself to be a state and a civil society by marking a day of mourning on the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy. At the time, Ukraine (both authorities and the society, in equal measure) demonstrated that they are capable of a deep evaluation of a tragedy, of giving decent honor to the perished, and of organizing memorial events of international scale. Around fifty events took place in Kiev during that week. Some of them were sponsored by state bodies, but most of them were organized by the civil society. The organizing committee for prospective development of the Babyn Yar National Historical Memorial Preserve was created by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Decree № 331 of October 20, 2017. By this Ukraine fully demonstrated the maturity of her approach to preserving historical memory of those tragic events.
So, what is the situation now, two years later?
The memorialization of Babyn Yar victims has divided into three main projects.
Project 1 is state-run, with the Culture Ministry of Ukraine (hereinafter – the Ministry) in charge. It suggests creation of a memorial museum in honor of Babyn Yar victims at 44, Melnikov Street – the former office of the Jewish cemetery. This decision was made by its organizing committee with our active participation (that is, of the Vaad of Ukraine – J.Z.) back in 2016, even before the memorial date.
To implement this project, the state allocated 27 million UAH in 2017. This money has not been spent because the Ministry has not yet made the necessary conceptual, architectural and design resolutions. This money was transferred to 2018, but even now, more than six months into it, the project is moving slowly, which is typical of all state-run projects.
One of the reasons for the slow development of this important project is the fact that the Ministry does not act directly but through the Babyn Yar National Historical Memorial Preserve (hereinafter – Preserve), which is, first and foremost, an economic rather than an academic structure.
Despite the burning desire of the civil society, in particular, of the Vaad of Ukraine and the International Babyn Yar Memorial Foundation (Andrey Adamovsky being Chairman of its Board of Trustees) to help the Ministry implement this project, there is a lot of red tape on the part of the management of the Preserve.
The concept of the project was developed by a group of historians from the History Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (hereinafter – the Institute). The group is led by Doctor of Historical Science, Fellow Associate of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Assistant Director of the Institute, Gennady Boryak. The group has prepared a narrative of the project. It was published on the Institute’s website for further discussion.
The next stage is going to be the translation of the narrative into English and its review by well-known foreign researchers (Europe, USA, and Israel). The speed of moving into this direction is hampered by the fact that the Preserve is doing its best to sign no agreements with the Institute on any further work. The Foundation is willing to help pay for translation and review (the document contains 80 pages of text) but the Ministry has so far refused any assistance. The process has been at a standstill for three months now.
I mention all of this to describe the speed of the whole process. The state has finally decided to implement its own project, but the process of implementation is extremely slow.
The organizing committee, or rather an ad hoc team that meets from time to time, made a suggestion which the government then passed on as an instruction to the above mentioned group of historians. They are to develop a general concept – not only of the Babyn Yar Museum, but make it part of the concept of the whole Babyn Yar territory, with all its present and future objects. The main obstacle in their way remains the same – it is unclear who would sign the agreement with the Institute.
This is the situation with Project 1. As I mentioned above, the Babyn Yar International Foundation and the Vaad of Ukraine fully support it and give all the help they can to the Ministry for its implementation.
Project 2 was initiated by the Babyn Yar Public Committee (Vitaly Nakhmanovich) and the Vaad of Ukraine (Josef Zissels) and is being implemented by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter group (UJE) headed by James Temerty (Canada).
This landscape and architectural project proposes creating a huge memorial park (over 170 acres), including Babyn Yar and all the adjoining cemeteries. Its preliminary name is Babyn Yar – Dorogozhichi Necropolis.
Back in 2006–2007, the Babyn Yar Public Committee developed and published a scientific concept of creating a Babyn Yar Preserve. The Vaad of Ukraine helped organize a decree signed by President Viktor Yuschenko to create such a preserve.
In 2016, a competition took place (coordinated by Vitaly Nakhmanovich) for the best ideas of a landscape and architectural park. UJE sponsored the competition. No one won the first place but places second through seventh presented the best landscape ideas. It seems it is high time to move forward. I believe the best three ideas are to be made into outline designs in order to determine which of them deserves a full ad hoc design.
The implementation of this project was also halted because neither the city nor the state authorities are giving any indication of whether they are interested in this project or not. James Temerty has been trying to meet with President Poroshenko for the good part of 18 months. He can no longer invest in a project of unclear use to Ukraine and to Kiev.
At our infrequent meetings of the ad hoc group of the Organizing Committee, we discussed the Babyn Yar – Dorogozhichi Necropolis project as something positive and promising. However, it is the state and the city authorities who need to officially respond to UJE’s proposal to implement it. The state should also get involved in the funding of this project since it is quite costly. UJE is willing to make a major investment but it should not be the sole sponsor of such a project. Our ad hoc group believes the project should get a powerful state-supported component.
Finally, Project 3 is the most contradictive one. It is the project of a Babyn Yar Memorial and a Holocaust Museum. This idea came in spring 2016 although it existed before in a slightly different form. It came from a group of major Russian businessmen of Jewish origin born in Ukraine. Among them were Mikhail Fridman, German Khan and Pavel Fuks. Later on, the group found other supporters because it turned out that an idea coming from Russia was not very welcome in Ukraine, which is quite understandable. Then, Victor Pinchuk, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, Natan Sharansky, Yaakov Dov Bleich and others joined the project. I see them as purely “wedding generals” because behind their support of this project stand financial opportunities and interests of the Russian financial Alfa-Group Holding and therefore – of Russia and her leaders.
This problem has caused us (supporters of the Ukrainian project – J.Z.) a lot of problems. They appeared at once, in spring 2016, when I first met Pavel Fuks and explained to him that many characteristics of their project had to be discussed. Without resolving them, we would have to get involved in confrontation as was the case in 2002–2005 around the Heritage project. That project suggested construction of a community center on the site of shootings in Babyn Yar. At the time, the initiator of the project, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, actively insisted on its development. They even laid its cornerstone, and President Kuchma came to cut the ribbon. The stone is still there but for a long time the civil society was fighting against this sacrilegious construction. As a result, all of the staff of the Joint Committee involved in the project were fired and the project was closed. According to different sources, Joint lost around 5 million dollars to this project.
We can see a similarly dubious story developing now, only this time the “idea of the project” came from Russia rather than from the USA. Someone on the outside is making inarticulate suggestions to Ukraine that she should create a Memorial or a Holocaust Museum of ecumenical proportions. However, this raises a whole number of questions.
The first question is very important from the viewpoint of Jewish tradition. The site of the proposed construction held an old Jewish cemetery. There is a document signed by Rabbi Shlesinger from London who leads the main organization monitoring all the Jewish cemeteries in Europe. The document contains a ban on any construction on that site. Project initiators are totally ignoring this fact. This fact is well known to Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klichko who nevertheless gives uncritical support to the project. It is also well known to its other supporters. Those however who are pushing this project after having invested around 5 million dollars into it are ignoring this indisputable fact. They count on finding some rabbi who would agree to give permission to build on the cemetery land, for money. However, the document I quoted was obtained back in 2010, when no real construction was in view. At the time, Vadim Rabinovich simply rented this land to imitate activities of creating something global around it.
The project has developed a powerful promotion. Its participants are traveling around the world advertising their future creation. Note that they peremptorily claim full support of the Ukrainian authorities even though it is not so. Its apologists and functionaries prefer to keep quiet about all the criticism the project is getting from Ukrainian researchers and the civil society. Let us go back to September 29, 2016, when this Russian group (already including Pinchuk, Vakarchuk and Sharansky) presented the project of the memorial at the Taras Shevchenko National Museum.
President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine came to attend the presentation. He spoke first and said he would like to create a Ukrainian project of the Holocaust Memorial and that he would be grateful to all who would help him in this. You can find this event at the president’s website. So, if one wished to argue whose idea it was first, such a statement clearly puts a stop to all debate.
The authors of the project however had gained such a momentum in their promotion by that time, that they “missed” this statement of the President of Ukraine, totally ignoring it. However, one cannot ignore the opinion of the president and public of Ukraine and of most civilized countries.
Any group that wishes to create something in the territory of a sovereign country cannot overlook or ignore the attitude of the authorities and society to what they are doing.
Furthermore, we must understand why the Russian oligarchs who cannot make a step without the permission of Russian President Putin are promising to invest 100 million dollars into a project in the territory of Ukraine that Russia has been waging aggressive war on for the fifth year now. No projects like this can exist without Putin’s interest in them. And even though this question is mostly rhetorical, I believe we must get a clear answer to it. Why do the Russian authorities allow Russian oligarchs under their control to spend significant sums of money on Ukraine? These are the oligarchs who earn their money in Russia, who fund many projects including military ones in Russia, and then these military projects get “implemented” in our Donbass and Crimea by annexing part of the Ukrainian territory and killing Ukrainian citizens. I’m not even mentioning the fact that all these people are on the pre-sanctions list in the USA while Pavel Fuks, as far as I know, has been denied entry to America altogether.
We expect answers to these questions but we haven’t been able to obtain them for two years. Meanwhile, we ask the same questions of those oligarchs and of Marek Siwiec who was director general of this project but turned out to be too intelligent for it. So he was dismissed from this position and became director for international affairs, while Gennady Verbilenko was placed in his position. Mr. Verbilenko, director of a big electronics company, has no experience in international memorial projects whatsoever. It’s all up to their leaders, of course, but there is a huge difference between selling electronics and building a Holocaust Memorial.
Furthermore, an international group of historians who developed a concept of the memorial museum, created a huge narrative of the project. However, only 12–15% of it was presented to the public. A discussion of this fragment took place at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev on February 7–8, 2018. Its participants read it beforehand. Ukrainian historians, representatives of public, including myself, spoke critically about the narrative. You can find all of our statements online. One can also find an Open Letter of Ukrainian Historians online. In it, Ukrainian historians speak categorically against the conceptual approaches used by creators of the narrative.
We still do not know whether our criticism has been taken into consideration or not. And it was only discussion of the narrative, not the full concept. We do not know whether it is going to be used in further work. For we are talking about major construction work in the territory of the capital of Ukraine – Kiev. If this narrative is implemented without any amendments, what will it bring to Ukraine?
I believe that analysis of the narrative predicts great damage to the reputation of Ukraine. We must realize that we are not talking about a simple monument, but of a memorial museum complex with a certain ideological message.
Secondly, the narrative creates a distorted picture of the Holocaust in Europe. It places Babyn Yar and Kiev in the center of it. What does it mean? Ukraine was not even a state at the time, how could it be the center of the Holocaust? Wasn’t it Nazi Germany which exterminated Jewish people in the territory of Ukraine, Poland and other countries? Many participants in the discussion noted and criticized this shifting of accents. But no reaction came from the concept group.
Furthermore, how can one create a narrative of the Holocaust, especially of the Holocaust in Ukraine, without examining the past twenty years of its history – its Bolshevik occupation, the forced coming of Communists to power, the cruel policies of the Soviets, massive repressions that affected all the strata of the society, and as a result – a change in the Ukrainian social identity. This is not a scientifically argued position, but an approach deliberately aimed at distorting the meaning of the past.
All the Holocaust museums in the world always start with history preceding the tragic period. It is especially important for the understanding of the Holocaust in general and of Holocaust peculiarities of this country, in particular. The submitted project totally ignores the preceding Soviet period. It ignores severe repressions that taught people to ignore massive killings, encouraged informing on one another, brought full demoralization of the population under the repressions, the Holodomor and other crimes of the Soviet power. How can all of this be ignored?
The document should certainly be criticized for what it contains rather than for what it lacks. But when a narrative of an important and global project is created, both global and special nuances must be taken into consideration.
We suspect, and not without good ground, that this project is meeting some important political goals of today’s Russia in her real war on Ukraine and in the information war and the distortion of the image of Ukraine that Russia is trying to impose on the whole world. This goal is to present Ukraine as a fascist, anti-Semitic and nationalistic state where human rights used to and continue to be violated. And the museum – in the form that it is presented today – will serve this purpose.
So, is this project in the interests of Ukraine? Certainly not. When we speak of it, its supporters neglect our arguments, ignore them, just as they ignored the will of the President of Ukraine who decided to head the Ukrainian project of memorialization of the Holocaust and Babyn Yar.
And after all is said and done, the authors of the project claim not understanding why their idea is facing such opposition. I want to state clearly and openly that we do not oppose the project itself. The pro-Ukrainian part of the Jewish community, in particular, the Vaad of Ukraine, the most active part of the Jewish community in Ukraine, does not oppose creation of a memorial and a museum – it’s high time to create them. But the way the Russian project suggests it, it will work against Ukraine rather than for her benefit. Unfortunately, I have to state that the “hybrid war” has come to the “Jewish street” now, just as it had come to the Ukrainian society at large.
We want projects of the Memorial and the Holocaust Museum to be Ukrainian projects. The state of Ukraine and the Ukrainian civil society must create these projects jointly rather than letting Russian oligarchs with a clear-cut political purposes to inflict damage on the reputation of Ukraine. It is not in vain that we repeatedly drew attention to the failed Heritage project of the Joint Committee. We warned back in 2016 that we had to agree on the important items of the plan because it would be much harder later on. Disagreement will bring confrontation as was the case back in 2002–2005.
We do not want to fight, we want to reach agreements on important principals. If the clearly stated position of the President of Ukraine and the criticism of Ukrainian researchers and society are taken into consideration, we will be able to accomplish this project together. But you, Russian oligarchs, cannot come to Ukraine and do whatever you wish here. Even more so with a hostile purpose. Try and imagine a similar situation in any other civilized country. Who would let it happen? No one. But since you are from Russia, you show the same attitude as the Russian powers that be. You do not view Ukraine as a civilized state but as a third-world country where anything can be done with a little bit of money, including things that are insulting to the country itself. You stop at nothing, believing anything can be bought for money. Fortunately, not everything can be bought in Ukraine these days.
Our foreign friends and old companions are puzzled at our opposition to “such a fully described and powerfully advertised project”. We would like to disperse their naivety.
Russia claims to never have come to Donbass. Do you believe it? For anyone who watches the events in the east of Ukraine it is clear that for the fifth year now, Russia has been waging a war on Ukraine. Russia assured the world that Crimea had never been annexed but had joined it following a referendum. Today, the whole world opposes the forced annexation of Crimea by Russia. Angela Merkel was once very surprised when she realized Putin had lied to her. Why would anyone be surprised? We are not surprised. The empire lies always, especially an empire that is doing its best to restore its greatness.
It is your right to remain deceived if you wish so, but it is our task to prevent you from being lied to because it will inflict damage not just on you but also on us.
September 2, 2018 Kyiv
Note: I wish to express my sincerest gratitude to Tatiana Khorunzha and Galina Kharaz for their significant help in preparing this material.