Anatoli Kuznetsov’s harrowing depiction of a Nazi mass murder, that echoes down to this day
Eric Segal, Kent Socialist Party
I own a copy of a powerful book titled ‘Babi Yar’. I have read this book so many times that it now has a broken spine. But it is not a comfortable read.
It was written by Anatoli Kuznetsov from notes written as a 14 year-old teenager from scenes he witnessed and heard of at Babi Yar, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Babi Yar was the site in Kyiv where the occupying Nazis murdered nearly 34,000 Jewish Ukrainian people over two days in September 1941.
His mother discovered and read his notes. She cried and advised him to save them for a book he might write someday. The book was first published in censored form in 1966 as seen through the eyes of Anatoli who was half-Russian, half-Ukrainian.
Under the Stalinist dictatorship of the countries constituting the USSR, artists and writers had to glorify the military/police state. This book exposed the fear that Stalinists had of any opposition to their version of the truth.
Anatoli documents the occupation of Kiev by the Nazis, the subsequent liberation by the Red Army, and the attempt to erase all memory of the mass murders.
He does this through the lives of his mother, grandmother, grandfather (‘Gramps’) and his cat, Titus, throughout the occupation. Anatoli describes his family: “That’s the sort of people we were before the arrival of the Nazis and of the war in general: quite unimportant, not liable for military service, elderly people, a woman and a little boy – the sort of people, in short, who want the war least of all and who nevertheless seem to suffer most from it.”
Anatoli writes that on Sunday 28 September 1941, nine days after conquering Kyiv, the Nazis ordered every Jew in the city to collect their belongings and march to the cemetery at the edge of Babi Yar, a ravine. They were told that any Jews who refused would be killed. They believed that they were to be deported.
The following day on arriving at the entrance to the Babi Yar area, tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children were ordered by German soldiers and Ukrainian police to undress, to leave their belongings and documents.
They were led in small groups to the edge of the ravine, shot and thrown into the ravine.
Russians, Ukrainians, and other people, who had come to see their relatives and friends “off to the train,” were murdered. They didn’t shoot children but buried them alive, and didn’t finish off the wounded. The fresh earth over the mass graves was alive with movement. 33,771 of Kyiv’s Jews were killed.
Throughout 1941 an additional 15,000 were killed in a similar fashion. In total, more than 100,000 people were killed over two years by the Nazis. Among those were 50,000 Jews, the others being socialists, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, prisoners of war, and citizens accused of ‘rioting’.
An old woman, Maria Lutsenko, who lived in the cemetery house overlooking the ravine, told Anatoli of the atrocity that she saw. She describes how the hair of those ordered to take their clothes off quickly turned grey before being sent to their death.
In the pages of Babi Yar, the writer describes the ravine as a site of destruction and extermination, but also documents the attempt in 1957 by the Ukrainian central committee of the Communist Party to erase the memory, as it ran counter to their narrative.
A dam was built across the end of Babi Yar and a mixture of water and mud from the neighbouring quarries of the brickworks was pumped into the ravine. But on 13 March 1961 the dam collapsed and a wall of liquid mud swallowed up crowds of people, homes, cars and trams.
The attempts to clear the disaster went on for two years and resembled the excavation of Pompeii with bodies recovered from their homes and beds. He writes: “At the train terminus they dug out a group of conductors who had just gathered to hand over their takings, along with the cashier who was taking the money over. The number of people who had perished was never stated…”
The uncensored work included materials highly critical of the Soviet regime, so working on it was not easy. Kuznetsov recalled: “For a whole month in Kyiv I had nightmares, which wore me out so much that I had to leave without finishing my work and temporarily switch to other tasks in order to regain my senses.” He wrote: “I could no longer write, no longer sleep, no longer breathe”.
The book was heavily censored on its first publication in ‘Yunost’ (Russian literary youth magazine) in 1966. The uncensored and expanded version was first published in 1970 in Britain.
The text of the book is divided into three different sections with the ordinary type representing the heavily censored material published in Yunost.
The heavier type is material cut out by the censor at that time, and material added between 1967 and 1969 is in square brackets. Kuznetsov, defected to Britain in 1969, smuggling out his complete text on film.
The poet, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, met Kuznetsov who told him the story of Babi Yar, and took him to the site. Yevtushenko said: “I knew there was no monument at Babi Yar, but I was expecting to see some sign of respect. But what I saw was absolutely terrible – there were lots of trucks and they were unloading stinking garbage on the tens of thousands of people who were killed. I did not expect that.
“As soon as I got back to my hotel, I sat down and I began to write. It took probably four or five hours, no more,” he wrote:
Yevtushenko continued: “When I recited Babi Yar for the first time in public, there was an avalanche of silence. I was absolutely shocked, paralysed. And afterwards a very, very little old woman with grey hair and a cane – her cane had been knocking against the stage – she came to me in the dead silence. She said just one sentence, ‘I was in Babi Yar’. She was one of the survivors who crawled from under the mountain of dead bodies.”
The Russian-Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich called Yevtushenko, and he said: “You gave words to my thoughts. I have a dream to write music to your poem. Would you be so kind as to give me your permission?”
It is said that the music of Shostakovich made the poem ten-times stronger, and that it was the ‘first hole in the Iron Curtain’ (the political boundary dividing Europe between the capitalist West and the Stalinist East).
The book inspired Yevgeny Yevtushenko, poet; Shostakovich, composer, Vasily Grossman, author; DM Thomas, author; and Dennis Potter, playwright, to ensure that the mass murder of Babi Yar was not sent to oblivion. They turned atrocity and terror into something tangible, something that can be read, watched, listened to and understood.
Once again we see a tragedy unfolding with Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. We demand workers’ unity to end the horror of war, to fight for a socialist alternative to the brutality of capitalism.
We need to listen to the history of the past and bring to life to the words of Rosa Luxemburg: “I want to burden the conscience of the affluent with all the suffering and all the hidden, bitter tears.”
- Eric’s paternal grandparents were refugees from Kyiv in the early 1900s. Research shows that at least 44 people named Segal were murdered in Babi Yar and a further 100 or so were relocated to Russia.
- ‘Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel’, is published by Macmillan