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Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern: The new Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is a Trojan horse of Putin’s hybrid war
28 September, 2021
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Professor Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern Ukrainian Jewish Encounter
Ukrainian politicians need to understand that Ukraine deserves its own version of the key twentieth-century events. By allowing oligarchs close to Putin to invest their money into the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv they let the imperial ideologists impose their misleading and harmful narrative on Ukraine, says Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, historian and a descendant of Babyn Yar victims.

Located in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv Babyn Yar is a site of one of the major mass killings during the Second World War. As many as 33,771 Jews were shot by bullets in a ravine on 29-30 September 1941 during Nazi Germany’s campaign against the Soviet Union. The killings continued throughout the occupation, totaling approximately 100,000 residents of Kyiv of all ethnic groups. The commemoration of the massacre was suppressed by the Soviet authorities and the place was turned into an urban park. After Ukraine became independent, a number of initiatives took place but a museum has not been created at the site.

The current commemorative project, Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center sparks criticism because of the involvement of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin and controversial projects put forward by its art director Ilya Khrzhanovsky. As the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre is approaching on the 29th and the 30th of September we spoke with Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern about the controversies surrounding the ongoing project of building a commemoration complex in Kyiv as well as the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian memory politics and its geopolitical ramifications.

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The 80th anniversary of the mass killings in Babyn Yar is approaching. You’ve been coming to these celebrations since you were very young. What will be different this time? 

This year, there will be two different commemorations. This is important because it revives a split in memory culture that has been overcome for a long time. First, on the 29th and the 30th of September, there will be a non-official rally: many people will show up, including representatives of public organizations and representatives of different Ukrainian Jewish communities. They will meet to pay tribute to the victimhood of those who were killed.

But there will also be a different celebration: the representatives of the Ukrainian political elite will hold their official ceremony on the 6th of October, something never done before. They will be joined by representatives of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center – a notoriously renowned project of building a huge Holocaust museum at the site of the Babyn Yar. To me, this looks like the continuation of the Soviet-style official commemorations that had very little in common with the popular commemoration of the Babyn Yar tragedy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also be present at the official ceremony. Is it the split between civil society and official institutions that reminds you of the Soviet Union?

From the 1960s onwards, the popular commemoration of the Babi Yar was unofficial: the relatives of Jewish victims had been conducting their unauthorized rallies until 1967, when the communists hijacked the idea and turned the rallies into the official commemoration of the Great Patriotic War victims, whom they euphemistically called “peaceful Soviet citizens murdered by the Nazis at Babyn Yar”. The unofficial and official commemorations merged in the post-communist times as successive Ukrainian presidents – Kravchuk, Kuchma, Yushchenko and even Yanukovych – were showing up on the 29th September at Babyn Yar for the commemoration of the tragedy. 

So what has changed now?

The split between the official and unofficial became acute again because the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), which had been established in 2016, turned out to be a part of Vladimir Putin's hybrid war against Ukraine. For the reasons of prestige, money, and visibility, influential politicians in Ukraine decided to support the Russian nouveaux riches who want to invest huge money into the establishment of the museum in Babyn Yar. However, Ukrainian public opinion and civil society do not support this project. The majority of them support a Ukrainian project approved by various Ukrainian levels of authority. Nonetheless, this local project has been ignored by President Zelenskyy’s administration.

What exactly do you find so outrageous about the project that is being realized now?

I don't find it ethical to place a museum on the site of mass execution. Besides, this grandiose project promoted as the most spectacular Holocaust memorial in Eastern Europe is an insult to popular memory. Russian artist Ilya Khrzhanovsky and the startup manager Max Yakover who lead the project seek to build a Disneyland-type attraction on the site, where 100,000 people had been massacred. They're constructing a Holocaust amusement park with installations and role-playing games exactly at the place where people were brought in packs, undressed, thrown into the pits, shots by bullets or machine-gunned. This is disgusting.

A number of Ukrainian intellectuals who signed an open letter criticizing the project share your criticism. But on the other hand isn’t it troubling that after 30 years of independence, Ukraine did not manage to build a commemoration complex at the site?

There is a menorah in the park of Babyn Yar. It is an important symbol, established in 1991 on the initiative of city officials. That testifies to the willingness of the Ukrainian authorities to reverse the antisemitic policies of the previous regime. Moreover, many new memorials appeared. There are memorials to Roma, to mentally sick people, to Ukrainian nationalists and others – all murdered at the site. One can say that Jews created a blueprint for the commemoration of different victims of the Second World War.

You have a personal connection to the place yourself.

I am directly linked to the Babyn Yar massacre through my family on both sides. Two relatives, Anna Krzevina and Liolia Krzhevina, were taken to Babyn Yar and shot there on 29th of September 1941. Moreover, my father's grandmother, who had been in occupied Kyiv in 1941, was struck by a rifle and killed on the spot by the Nazi guard on her way to Babyn Yar. Her name was most likely Esther. That’s why “Vielleicht Esther” (“Maybe Esther”) became the title of the novel of my sister, Katja Petrowskaja. I remember Babyn Yar from the time when I was a kid. Later, since the 1970s, I was coming to the rallies and I have a lot of memories from this period.

Babyn Yar is such a strong symbol for the Jews in the so-called post-Soviet sphere, but the place is unfamiliar to many people in the West. How can the story of the Holocaust in Ukraine should get more prominence in Europe?

There is no doubt, Ukraine needs its own Holocaust memorial. Ukrainians need to incorporate the memory of the Holocaust into their national historiography. I support the vision of Ukrainian history that incorporates ethnic minorities, Crimean Tatars, Roma, Jews, Russians, Poles, Czech Mennonites and others. This vision is developed in academic discourse, but it needs to be brought into education and public commemoration. The Holocaust history should be taught at schools and universities, not just as a separate topic, but as part of any course on World War II.

It is crucial to reach out to Ukrainian thinkers, public figures, and politicians and explain to them that Ukraine deserves its own version of the key twentieth-century events. They need to understand that Mr. Putin and his aide Vladislav Surkov are using three or four oligarchs who invest their money into BYHMC as their puppets. By allowing this to happen, the Ukrainians are allowing the imperial ideologists to impose their own – misleading and harmful – vision of events on Ukraine. 

What is exactly wrong about the narrative they are trying to create? What role does the issue of collaboration and Ukrainian nationalism play?

Who loves to talk about Ukrainian collaboration? Those who want to impose a Soviet-type narrative of the Great Patriotic War on the Ukrainian public opinion. That conversation is their favorite subject matter, although they know nothing about the topic, do not draw on researchers engaged in serious archival research, and they don’t understand the complexity of the issue.

They don't know, for example, that the “Hilfspolizei”, the auxiliary police formed by the Nazis from the local dwellers was called “Ukrainische Hilfspolizei” because it was formed in Ukrainian lands, not because it comprised Ukrainians. It comprised Russian POWs, Hungarians, Poles and Ukrainians. But to call it ethnically Ukrainian is wrong. What we know about collaboration is so much on its initial stages of research that any kind of bottom line would be premature to make. To tell that the Ukrainians collaborated in toto or that all Ukrainian nationalists participated in mass executions is misleading. What needs to be done is that people who represent the Jewish side of the story and Ukrainian nationalist side of the story seek to reconcile two histographies, even if it takes a century.

People who are planning to have this new Holocaust Disneyland are not interested in these nuances. Focusing on the collaboration of the Nazi and Ukrainian nationalists is crucial for them because it obfuscates a broader historical perspective, which people at the BYHMC simply ignore. 

What historical perspective do you have in mind and what is the main line of contention?

Russian propagandists and their puppets ignore that the war started on September 1st, 1939, not on June 22nd, 1941. They do not want to recognize that the fate of European Jews was sealed by the partition of Poland between the Nazis and Soviets when Hitler and Stalin put Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact into practice. The entire fate of the Eastern European Jews would be very different if not for what unfolded from 1939 through 1941, because this created what Timothy Snyder calls “double occupation”. First, the Soviets came to Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, then they occupied the Baltic States. Two years later, the Nazis reoccupied these territories and smashed all vestiges of social institutions that had not been crushed by the Soviets. This doubled destruction created a void, a black hole in which violence skyrocketed and mass murder became feasible. 

The discussion of this period is impossible without addressing the major surrogate collaboration of the Soviets and the Nazis from 1939 till 1941. Hence Soviet responsibility for what would become known as the Holocaust. The more people learn about the importance of about a million Soviet POWs who joined the Vlasov army and other German units to fight the Soviet army on the Nazi side, the more they will hear from the hardliners of Russian official historiography about those Ukrainian troops fighting under the Wehrmacht. The Russian cannot bear to hear this story to the point that last year Putin’s administration introduced a paragraph into the Russian criminal law incriminating anybody who is publicly discussing or revisiting the Soviet role in the destruction of Nazi Germany.

Do you think that this historical agenda will be presented in the historical narrative pursued by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center?

They will find out how to present it in a hybrid way. They will talk about the Soviet attempts to uplift the marginalized Jewish minority in Western Ukraine from 1939 onward. They have high-quality historians ready to create their own narratives befitting the insinuations of hardliners. They will know how to go about twisting historical narratives to please their Kremlin sponsors. But they would never say what I have just said because they absolutely deny any kind of responsibility of the Soviet Union for staging up the Holocaust.

Why does historical memory lie at the centre of what you see as a hybrid war?

Any historical discussion today is highly politicized, particularly on what Ukraine was and is: it posts a big issue for the Russians. The official Russian historiography says that there is no such thing as Ukraine. Russia, it claims, appeared as Muscovy long after the collapse of the Kievan Rus and Ukraine is a strange entity that should be incorporated into the Russian lands as it had allegedly always been. The Ukrainian story is much more complex. Whether Kyivan Rus was Russian or Ukrainian is essentially a modern question and an issue for discussion. There is a definite continuity between the Kyivan Rus and the Duchy of Halych–Volhynia, as well as the 16th and the 17th century Cossack state and early Ukrainian autonomy in the times of the Hetmanate. The modern part of this story begins with Ukrainian short-lived independence from 1917 to 1920, relatively autonomous Ukrainian Socialist Republic in the 1920s, and what independent Ukraine has been after 1991. Thus, we are talking about absolutely irreconcilable visions of what Ukraine is and was. The attempt to curb Ukraine of its own historical narrative is very visible in the Russian media. The idea of Ukrainian independence isn't even acceptable for Russian liberals.

If BYHMC is part of Putin's hybrid war, why does the Ukrainian administration and president Zelensky support this project? Why did people such as Belarusian noble laureate Svetlana Alexievich, former German foreign affairs minister Joschka Fischer, Polish ex-president Aleksander Kwaśniewski or President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder join its supervisory board? 

The answer to your question is very simple: ignorance, prestige, and money. Through such costly projects, Ukrainian politicians always manage to enrich themselves, either in terms of commodities or in terms of connections. I do not see any kind of serious understanding or deep reflection about what they are doing. 

And the distinguished people who you mention such as Kwasniewski, Lauder, and also the French priest Patrick Desbois, who recently joined the club, simply don’t know what we are talking about. They are completely ignorant about what Babyn Yar has been for the last 80 years for ordinary Kyivans, for Ukrainian Jews, and for Ukrainian dissidents. Others added their names to supervisory board because they seek prestige. 

What about the people who run the project? Ilya Khrzhanovsky isn’t known to be a supporter of Putin.

Their issue is money. We are talking about around 100 million dollars of investment in this project. It’s more than what has been invested into Polin Museum in Warsaw, which needed about 80 million. I think that Khrzhanovsky is extremely cynical about what he is doing. He might be knowledgeable and talented, and even a good professional, but he is a first-rate cynic – and affordable puppet in the hybrid war against Ukraine. 

There are also negotiations with the German government about co-financing BYHMC. What would you say if Germans decided to support it?

Who knows how to wage a hybrid war? The Germans? The French? The Americans? No, the Russians. It's a Russian know-how and since it is theirs, they know how to handle it very well. They have attracted big names, such as Natan Sharansky and Ronald Lauder, Michael Friedman and German Khan, to the project. They are also convincing the German government to invest into what is practically a Russia's hybrid war against Ukraine. If the German government agree, this will help Mr. Putin promote his imperialist, “Russia Today”-type ideas to Ukraine and Ukrainians. 

Do you see any positive way forward in this situation?

Yes, I do. I think, international governments that are planning to participate in the BYHCM project, most importantly the German government, should support the Ukrainian project. It has been developed over years, approved by numerous academic and administrative bodies, and seeks to carefully navigate different narratives on Babyn Yar. I also think a group of people capable of re-evaluating their actions, such as Patrick Desbois, should step down from this project. The Ukrainian government should stop ignoring massive protests against Russian participation in the project. We need to turn Babyn Yar into a decent and respectful place that will be visited by Ukrainians, Jews and everybody else. It must remain a place for commemoration of the victims.

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Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (born in 1962 in Kyiv, in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union) is a historian, philologist and essayist. He is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in History Department at Northwestern University. He has published more than a hundred articles and seven books and edited volumes. He is also an artist whose conceptualist figurative artwork appeared in several museums including Spertus Museum Gallery in Chicago and Ukrainian Museum in New York.

The interview was conducted by Aleksander Palikot and Jerzy Sobotta. Aleksander Palikot is a Kyiv-based journalist covering politics, society and culture in Central-Eastern Europe. Jerzy Sobotta is a radio-journalist for German public broadcast Bayerischer Rundfunk, covering politics, culture and philosophy. He also writes for Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

/ The Polish version of the text is published at https://krytykapolityczna.pl/. Authors: Aleksander Palikot and Jerzy Sobotta