The agony of Ukraine: Anatoli Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar

One of the many incredible things about the book Babi Yar, by Anatoli Kuznetsov, is that it exists at all – that its writer survived the experiences he describes, that he managed to get the narrative of the events, his own and others’, down on paper, that he navigated the labyrinth of Soviet censorship and self-censorship, and was finally able to evade it altogether and get his book published, uncensored, in 1969.

Aerial view of Babi Yar. Photo taken by German air force.

Aerial view of Babi Yar. Photo taken by German air force. Unless otherwise stated, photos are from

Babi Yar is, or rather was, a ravine on the outskirts of the city of Kiev, Ukraine, which in 1941 became the site of one of the earliest and most horrific acts of the Nazi holocaust: the extermination of the Jews of Kiev. Within a week of occupying Kiev in their eastward invasion of the Soviet Union, the German occupation regime ordered the Jews of the city to report to the railway station, near the Babi Yar ravine, from where they expected to be deported. Instead, they were herded into the ravine, beaten about the head to disorient them, then stripped naked, and lined up in batches on a specially-excavated ledge in the ravine, where they were executed by machine-gun fire. As the bodies of the dead fell from the ledge into the ravine below, the next batch was brought out. Over the course of a few days, about 70,000 people were murdered in this way.

Cover of the original edition of Babi Yar

Cover of the original edition of Babi Yar

The book Babi Yar opens with an account of this atrocity, based partly on the author’s own recollections of those days and partly on a detailed account from one of only two Jews who came out of the ravine alive. Dina Pronicheva jumped into the pit of dead bodies just as the machine-gun fire started and succeeded in playing dead when, at the end of the day, soldiers walked over the pile of bodies finishing off the few that were still moving or groaning. She gives her account of the vague but deep sense of unease among the Jews lining up for deportation that something dreadful was happening, and despite that, of her own strange psychological inability to face the truth, even though there was no train, the queue kept moving up, and everyone could hear the periodic bursts of machine-gun fire. It is truly harrowing.

Dina Pronicheva

Dina Pronicheva.

As Kuznetsov notes, “When the order was first published nine Jews out of every ten had never heard a word about any Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Right up to the outbreak of war Soviet newspapers had been doing nothing but praising and glorifying Hitler as the Soviet Union’s best friend, and had said nothing about the position of the Jews in Germany or Poland.”

Anatoli Kuznetsov was twelve years old when the Nazi occupation began in September 1941. Babi Yar had been his childhood playground. His age was important: although he was old enough to understand the meaning of the events he witnessed, there were many occasions over the next few years in which he managed to survive simply because ‘no one notices’ a boy of that age. Too young to be caught up in the dragnets recruiting for forced labour in Germany, yet old enough to learn how to survive and find sources of food amid mass starvation, he slipped through the cracks of the occupation. The art of anonymity he learned early and well.

Kuznetsov’s mother had been a primary school teacher under the Soviet regime, his father a partisan fighter in the civil war in Ukraine who had joined the Bolshevik party in 1918. (His parents separated in 1937, and Kuznetsov senior was no longer living in Ukraine at the time of the occupation.) The other members of his family were his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a Ukrainian peasant who hated the Soviet regime and who welcomed the German occupation. The book is mostly the story of those family members left to live under the German occupation.

Kiev was at the time a very cosmopolitan city. Jews made up about 20% of the population. The boy reflects on the meaning of the first Nazi poster that appeared, which said, ‘Jews, Poles and Russians are the bitterest enemies of the Ukraine!’

“It was in front of that poster that I began to wonder for the first time, Who exactly was I? My mother was Ukrainian, my father Russian. So I was half Ukrainian and half Russian, which meant I was my own enemy. The more I thought about it the worse it seemed. My best friends were Shurka Matso, who was half Jewish, and Bolik Kaminsky, who was half Polish.” [p67] The details of one’s nationality were recorded on their Soviet identity documents; these documents largely determined the fate of their owners.

He tells later of meeting up with a childhood friend of Finnish ancestry, during a period of starvation among Kiev residents, when his family was reduced to gathering horse chestnuts, scavenging in the fields after harvests for any potatoes left in the ground, and making pancakes out of potato peelings. Invited into her home, he is amazed to see a fresh loaf of bread and jam on the table.  “She showed me a circular they had received. It said that Volksdeutsche were to report to a certain shop, and bring their shopping bags. “What’s that mean – Volksdeutsche?” “It means we’re half German – almost Germans.” “Are you really Germans?” No, we are Finns. But the Finns are an Aryan people, Volksdeutsche. My aunt says I am going to attend a school for Volksdeutsche…” [p165]

By this time, most of people filling the pits at Babi Yar were not Jews. Gypsies were hunted down; like the Jews, it appeared they did not know what was happening to them until the last minute. All the patients at a large psychiatric hospital were gassed in mobile gas chambers – windowless vans which had the exhaust fumes directed into the back of the van. People who broke the curfew or any other of the proclamations of German martial law, including a ban on keeping pigeons, former Soviet officials, and many others falsely denounced as such by informers, were arrested and executed. The sound of machine-gun fire in Babi Yar now went on almost unnoticed.

Soviet prisoners of war 1941

Soviet prisoners of war 1941

The German army continued to advance towards Leningrad and Moscow, and with each advance brought vast numbers of Russian prisoners of war. One of the largest prisoner of war camps was at Darnitsa, a working-class suburb just across the Dneipr River. The German army enclosed a vast area here to hold prisoners from the five Soviet armies, half a million soldiers, which had been surrounded and routed in the fall Kiev. One day Kuznetsov’s family hid a prisoner named Vasili who had escaped from there.

Sixty thousand prisoners were herded into Darnitsa camp on the first day; thousands more arrived each day. Within the camp there was a special enclosure for officers, political instructors, seriously wounded soldiers, and Jews. There were fields nearby with unharvested beetroots and potatoes which could have been used to feed the prisoners, but it appeared the decision had been taken to starve them. Each prisoner was given one ladle of beetroot water a day, except for those in the inner enclosure, who were given nothing. They scratched over the ground and ate whatever grass they could; by the fifth and sixth day they were chewing on their belts and boots, by the twelfth day almost all in the inner enclosure were dead. Vasili managed to survive in the outer enclosure by hanging around the German kitchen rubbish bins and scavenging onion and potato peelings. The prisoners died at the rate of thousands each day. Vasili was assigned to bury the dead outside the wire; he took the opportunity to escape.

Equally brutal was the treatment of thousands of workers shipped off to work in German factories. Few of these ever returned. Many were killed in Allied bombing raids on the factories.

The young Kuznetsov found ways to ward off starvation – selling matches in the market, collecting chestnuts and selling them, trading the last family possessions for food. For a time he worked for a man who bought up old horses near starvation and slaughtered them to make sausages. Another sausage-maker was hung when it was discovered he was making his sausages from human beings which he lured to their deaths with promises of food. Another sausage-maker, who had a pig farm near the cemetery, was discovered to be feeding his pigs on human bodies which he dug up the night after they were buried. These were not the only stories of depravity and degradation in times of starvation.

Soviet POWs forced to remove evidence of the crime 1943

Soviet POWs forced to remove evidence of the crime 1943

After two years of Nazi occupation, the tide turned against the German invaders after the German defeat at Stalingrad. Once again the war front neared Kiev, and now the German army was in retreat. The German command returned to Babi Yar to remove the evidence of their crimes. Prisoners of war were ordered to dig up what remained of the bodies. Sixty gigantic pyres were built and the remains of thousands of human beings incinerated on each, along with many newly executed, including most of the prisoners carrying out the task. Towards the end, one group of prisoners, anticipating their fate, organised a breakout. Against all odds, a small group of fifteen survived the escape attempt. Their incredible story, too, is told in this book.

As the Soviet army approached, the German occupiers emptied the city of all its remaining inhabitants at gunpoint. All except a tiny few who managed to evade the dragnet once again, which included Kuznetsov’s family. They hid in the ruins of their house in the silence and darkness of the emptied city, waiting for the arrival of the liberators. Some German soldiers decided to lodge themselves in the house on the eve of the battles, and discovered the family in hiding; but incredibly, after some tense moments, they took no action. The relationship of forces was changing, and relations with these already half-defeated German soldiers were quite different, almost friendly.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet counter-attack that drove the German army right back to Berlin and total defeat, was the biggest single military engagement in the whole of the Second World War, and therefore in all of human history. It was fought by forces equipped with the most modern weaponry, aircraft, and tanks, as well as by irregular partisan bands using obsolete guns and home-made explosives. Upon the outcome of this war the fate of all humanity rested. At the beginning and end of the occupation, the battlefront of this titanic struggle passes over Kiev, and we get a few glimpses of what that fighting was like in the book.

But for the most part, Babi Yar is not an account of that military struggle, and its point of view is not that of a combatant. This is an account of the civilians caught in the cross-fire, struggling to survive under a capricious and violent regime which treated them as enemies, or more commonly as less than human, and was as willing to kill them by starvation as by machine-gun. While the author generally sympathises with the struggle against the German occupiers, he is also critical of the callous disregard for civilian lives displayed by the Soviet forces.

Kiev 1941, showing destruction caused by bombs

Kiev 1941, showing destruction caused by bombs

In the first week of the occupation, as the German occupation forces settled into the offices and apartments abandoned by the fleeing Soviet forces, the entire city centre of Ukraine was destroyed by a series of massive bomb blasts prepared by Soviet NKVD agents. Whatever was not destroyed in the explosion was consumed by the resulting fires. Hundreds of German soldiers were killed, including officers, along with many times that number of Ukrainian civilians. The defenceless civilian population of Kiev was then left to face the German reprisals, the first of which was the anti-Jewish pogrom at Babi Yar.

At several points in the book the narrative is interrupted by a cry of despair and anguish from the author. “The USSR’s ‘holy’ war against Hitler was nothing but a heart-rending struggle by people who wanted to be imprisoned in their own concentration camp rather than in a foreign one, while still cherishing the hope of extending their own camp to cover the whole world. There was no difference in principle between the sadism of either side,” he writes. [p263]. Bitter comments are scattered throughout the text, such as this one describing the desolate scene of a destroyed village, “there had been a battle here between one lot of benefactors to humanity and another – and all, of course, for the greater happiness of the whole world.”

Yet this remoteness from the military combat and its tendency towards bitter neutrality is not a defect of the book; quite the contrary. Even if the reader has a different assessment of the character of that war (as the writer of these lines does), it is nonetheless one of the great strengths of the book. It permits the author to construct his narrative with almost child-like frankness, even naïveté, and is all the more compelling for it. And in doing so, I think it provides some insights into the national psychology of Ukraine, a country of great natural wealth, that was coveted, ravaged, and abandoned in turn by both of its larger, more powerful neighbours.

Dina Pronicheva testifies at war crimes trial in Kiev.

Dina Pronicheva testifies at war crimes trial in Kiev.

Genocide is not just mass murder, but also the erasure of the historic memory of a people. After the killings, after the exhumation and incineration of bodies by the Germans as they prepared to abandon the city, came the final act of genocide at Babi Yar: the total obliteration of the ravine itself and the memory of the terrible events that occurred there. This happened under the Soviet regime, in the decades that followed the defeat of the German occupation.

Having been treated as Soviet sympathisers by the German occupiers, the ‘liberated’ residents of Kiev were now treated as Nazi collaborators by the Soviets. Those who had been repatriated from forced labour in German factories were sent directly to the Gulag labour camps. There followed, in the last years of Stalin’s life, anti-Semitic political campaigns that made it impossible to mention the particularly anti-Jewish character of the genocide.

The first plan to expunge the memory of Babi Yar involved an attempt to dam the open end of the ravine and flood it with muddy water, in the expectation that over time layers of silt would be laid down over the scene of the crimes and bury them forever. After six years, the dam burst following some heavy rains, flooding the benighted city with sludge and killing hundreds more people. Excavators and bulldozers eventually achieved what the dam could not. The ravine was filled, the neighbouring Jewish cemetery razed; apartment blocks and a highway were built over it.

As late as 1976, a memorial was built at Babi Yar “To the Soviet citizens – the victims of fascism,” which made no mention of the fact that they were disproportionately Jews. Meanwhile, Kuznetsov notes, one of his neighbours who had hunted for Jews who were hiding from the Nazis in order to extort from them their valuables, only to then denounce them, and tear the clothes from their backs as they were taken away to Babi Yar, went on living in Kiev with total impunity.

A footnote on editions: Kuznetsov wrote the book in the form of a diary at the time of the events themselves. He kept this manuscript well hidden, and only attempted to publish it in the early sixties in the Soviet Union, after the memory of Babi Yar had been revived by the poem of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was published in the Soviet periodical “Youth” in 1966, but heavily censored by about one-third of its length to remove all material criticical of the Soviet regime. Kuznetsov later smuggled the complete manuscript out of the country on a trip abroad, evaded his KGB minders and sought asylum in the UK. He added some further explanatory material at this point. The complete, uncensored version was published in the UK in 1969, with the censored parts in bold type and the later additions in square brackets. It is important that anyone seeking to read the book get hold of this edition, because the censored version is still being offered for sale.

7 responses to “The agony of Ukraine: Anatoli Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar

  1. This is an amazing book. It is bitter, sad, and at times, morbidly funny. Every citizen of this planet needs to read it.

    • It certainly is all of those things. It was widely discussed at the time it was first published, and I’m surprised it didn’t receive more attention during the recent crisis in Ukraine.

  2. Dear James, thank you very much for your attention to Babi Yar by Anatoliy Kuznetsov – it is a brilliant promotion of his novel in New Zealand. I live in Kiev, the city where Kuznetsov was born and where the events took place. As a side note, Babi Yar was translated into Ukrainian and published in 2008, and there is a monument to Anatoliy Kuznetsov in Kiev. A full-length documentary about Anatoliy Kuznetsov, where I am a scriptwriter, is now at post-production stage and is expected to be released by early next year. So I couldn’t agree that Kuznetsov and his novel didn’t receive attention in today’s Ukraine.
    Best regards,
    Stanislaw Tsalyk

    • Thank you Stanislaw, both for the appreciation and for the important correction! It would be great if you could post a note when your documentary appears – I would be very interested.

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  5. One hell of a book! It’s much more than just an account of the atrocities at the Babi Yar ravine. It’s about the Soviet Union, the Ukraine and about war in general. A must read. I myself have read it three times. I don’t think enough people in the west really grasp what operation Barbarossa was really like. It was total, merciless war.

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