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Ukraine commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy

Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University, explained how we should remember Babyn Yar today

Ukraine commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy
Estimated Reading Time: 18 minutes

Hello this is Ukraine Calling. A weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine, with a focus on a main story. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo, currently with Democracy Reporting International in Ukraine, standing in at Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here are the some of the main stories from Ukraine.  Hello this is Ukraine Calling. A weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine, with a focus on a main story. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo, currently with Democracy Reporting International in Ukraine, standing in at Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here are the some of the main stories from Ukraine.  


Babyn Yar Commemorations

This week Ukraine commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacres. During World War II, the ravine was on the outskirts of Kyiv. It and became a Nazi massacre site during the German occupation. On 29-30 September 1941, 33,771 Jewish children, women and men were marched there and executed, in what was to become one of the first mass exterminations of Jews. During the Soviet era, this was largely silenced. This year massive commemorations were organized by the Ukrainian state and various organizations, including the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Ukraine Calling listeners will remember that last week we reported that many events were planned, including official commemorations at the site, a scholarly conference, a remembrance concert, and much more. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin travelled to Ukraine for the occasion, as did German President Joachim Gauck. We’ll bring you an in depth interview about this with Yale Professor Timothy Snyder later in the show. 

MH17 Report

Ukraine made the international headlines this week when the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team held a news conference about the MH17 flight that was shot down over Donets’k over 2 years ago, on 17 July 2014. The chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen announced that they had concluded, “that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation.»Russia disputed the findings. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated Russia’s familiar line, «We’ve been ruling out the fact that any Russian weapons were shipped to Ukraine, any Russian army members, any Russian troops were inside Ukraine. And we’re still ruling out that possibility.» Ukraine’s President Poroshenko welcomed the findings, saying «We have solid proof of who is to blame for this dreadful crime.» 


Over the past week, despite the relative calm at the front in the war zone, 2 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, and 15 were injured. One of Ukraine’s spokesmen, col. Andriy Lysenko, came up with a proposal on his FaceBook page. He noted that during the decrease in hostilities, some of the men on the front were looking to earn a bit of extra pocket money. Why not start a programme he called, “Make some money by saving lives.” His idea is to offer those fighting against Ukraine money for any intact heavy military equipment that they bring over to the Ukrainian side, in addition to consideration for reduced charges.

8 Judges Fired

This week 8 more judges were removed from their positions by President Poroshenko. Nataliya Volotkina from Kyiv, and Taisa Matiash from Odessa, were dismissed for violating their oath. According to a report on Channel 5, six other judges fired in Donets’k, Vinnytsia, Kirovohrad, Kyiv, and Sevastopol. 

Russian Court Upholds Ruling Banning Crimean Tatar Mejlis

Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the ban on the Crimean Tatar Mejlis this week. The ban was imposed a year and a half ago, when the Mejlis, the Crimean Tatar executive-representative body, was labeled an extremist organization. Ukraine Calling listeners will remember that a few weeks ago we reported on the detention of Ilmi Umerov, deputy chairman of the Mejlis, who chose to remain in Russian occupied Crimea. He was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for weeks. To protest against the Russian court decision and support the Mejlis people gathered in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, on Wednesday 28th September. 


J. K. Rowling’s latest work, the two-act play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is now available in Ukrainian. The Ukrainian translation is available ahead of any Russian or Polish ones, thanks to the efforts of Ivan Malkovych. He created and runs the children’s publisher A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, and has been translating Rowling’s work for years. The Ukrainian translation will be formally presented in Kyiv’s Ukrainian House, on Khreshchatyk 2, on Friday September the 30th. Everyone’s invited, admission is free, and Malkovych is promising prizes! 


Nahaylo: What a sombre week…A week of remembrance…I remember, as a young boy, my mother telling me how she saw Jews being marched in columns for execution to a place we now know was called Babyn Yar.  Walking over to the studio to record this discussion I was very pleased to see that 75 years later the flag of Israel was flying alongside the Ukrainian flag along the Khreshchatyk [Kyiv’s main street], presumably to welcome the Israeli president for the commemorative events associated with the 75th anniversary of the Babyn Yar executions and tragedy. To discuss the significance and meaning of all of that and where we are today with understanding of what happened and what it means for all of us, Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, human beings generally, I am very honoured to have in the studio with me a leading authority on this part of the world – a figure, a writer, who has done more than any other in recent years to jolt our memories and to refresh our memories, but who forces to think differently about what happened in “Bloodlands” of Europe. Of course, you guessed from the title that I am talking about none other than Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University and a leading intellectual figure of our time. Professor, I am very happy to welcome you today. Let us begin by focusing on Babyn Yar itself. You gave a brilliant presentation yesterday in which you so lucidly talked about such complex and tragic events. I will be very happy if you could share with us your main thoughts, your main theses that you presented. From todays’ point of view, what do we know about what actually happened at Babyn Yar?

Snyder: We know a great deal. Although we continue to learn more and it’s very important as we remember Babyn Yar, as we commemorate Babyn Yar, as Ukrainians think what kind of museum to establish, how do they want to institutionalise the memory of Babyn Yar, to remember that Ukrainian and Western historians are still at work to figure out some basic facts. We know the following. We know that on the 29th and 30th of September 1941, 33,771 Jewish children, women and men were marched from Kyiv to a meeting point from which on one day or the next they were shot, kneeling over the ravine at Babyn Yar, or lying on top of people who had already been killed.  We know that the killing, the shooting was carried out was carried out by so-called  Sonderkommando of  Einsatzgruppe, a special group led by the SS, assisted by two battalions of German police, and also assisted by some local inhabitants of Kyiv and perhaps some other Ukrainians as well. This we know. This event, horrible and significant to us as it was, is in a way only a beginning of a larger event which is the mass killing, the Holocaust of Jews on the occupied Soviet Union.

Nahaylo: I wanted to ask you. What is the significance, what is the broader meaning of Babyn Yar for our understanding of the Holocaust?

Snyder: It is very appropriate that Jews who come from the Eastern Europe would remember Babyn Yar as a symbol. It is very appropriate that scholars of the Holocaust turn their attention to Babyn Yar as well because Babyn Yar demonstrated how the Holocaust could be carried out. It was at this moment, the summer of 1941, that the Germans realized that the thing Hitler and others called “the final solution” could become the horrible reality that we remember as the Holocaust. This method that was carried out by in Babyn Yar – the cooperation of German institutions, the mass shooting in the open air, the increasing collaboration of local people – this was the method that was applied all over the occupied Soviet Union, not just in Ukraine, but in Belarus, the Baltic Sates, western Russia, everywhere the Germans went killing (not on this scale – this was the largest), killing of this kind was carried out as the German army moved to the east, and even as they came back to the west as in Kerch, for example, there were further mass killings. In this way Germans learned that the Holocaust was possible. In this way more than 2 million human beings lost their lives and in this way we also learn what human beings are capable of. When we think of Auschwitz, of later methods of killing, we often separate ourselves from the horrible reality of our own capabilities by metaphors like “death factories” or “machines.” Whereas Babyn Yar and the way the Holocaust begins teaches that getting large number of people to kill even larger number of people is unfortunately not as difficult as we might think.

Nahaylo:  At the end of the day, how could it have happened? How could it have happened, that only after a few days after the Germans marched in [to Kyiv] they were able to round up tens of thousands of people and just shoot them?

Snyder: Part of the answer, unfortunately, I have already given. Namely, it does not actually take much to turn a human being into a killer. Unfortunately, the question is the opposite. How do we preserve the institutions, the ways of life, the laws, the habits that prevent us from doing things like this? But back to your question. I think most historians would emphasize three factors. The first one is an idea, a big idea, an ideology in which Jews have a specific and central place. In Hitler’s world view Jews are responsible for all evil because it is Jews who prevent Germans from being always victorious, from taking what they want, which is the second idea. The second idea is Lebensraum: empire, colonies, and the notion that Germans as a superior race deserve to conquer Eastern Europe and, in particular, need to control the fertile soil of Ukraine. Without the idea of racial war in Ukraine, without the quest for Lebensraum, German forces would not have come to Kyiv in the first place. That is another very important component of what happened. The third idea is lawlessness, statelessness, the separation of Jews and everyone else from the normal pattern of daily life by the alteration, mutilation or even the destruction of the Rule of Law, and the states themselves. The Germans, wherever they went, created a legal or political chaos.  We stereotype Germans as being orderly. In fact, the German march into the Eastern Europe through Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and finally the Soviet Union was a constant generation of chaos, of lawlessness, of statelessness, which allowed people to do things they would not have done in other situations. Those are three big factors.

Nahaylo: We recall that for many decades Babyn Yar as the place where so many Jews and others – including Ukrainians, gypsies, and invalids – were killed. This fact was hushed up. It was presented by the Soviet authorities as simply a place where many Soviet citizens had been killed. I was also struck by the fact yesterday that a renowned German historian said, “You know, we did really not know that much until recently about Babyn Yar itself. We knew about the Holocaust.” How would you explain this, and how this affected remembrance of what happened?

Snyder: The history of the Holocaust shows that history is hard work. Even the events that seem to discriminately demand our attention can be forgotten or altered in such a way that they seem less significant. In the case of Babyn Yar and the Holocaust in the East there are several kinds of forgetfulness. There is forgetfulness of Nazi perpetrators who, in order to hide their tracks, forced the Soviet prisoners of war in 1943 to cover the site. There is the forgetfulness of the Soviets themselves who, wanting to define German aggression as fascism against communism, ignored the specific hostility of the Nazis against Jews. There is forgetfulness of some nationalists in Ukraine and elsewhere who in a time said, “Jews deserve this, therefore there is no reason for us to remember it because no harm had been really done.” And finally, there is forgetfulness of the West. According to the model of the Holocaust we generated during the Cold War in the West, the Holocaust was mainly about West European Jews or German Jews. Something that mainly happened after deportation in trains to some distant gas chamber, which meant metaphors of the Holocaust like confusion: people were sent to places they did not know, and in the end it was kind of mechanised form of death. Whereas, in fact, half of the Holocaust happened in a very different way in places Jews lived as well as died: Poland, the Baltics, the Soviet Union. Face to face. This never reached western consciousness for a couple of reasons. The first is that in order to have Holocaust memory you need the survivors.  You need survivors in places like France and Italy where they can write and where Western Europeans can read them. The second is that even German memory of the Holocaust impressive as it is contains a minimization. Germans associate the Holocaust with Auschwitz, but in doing that they protect themselves from the basic reality that long before the Auschwitz tens of thousands of Germans were killing millions of people as hundreds of thousands of other Germans looked on. In other words, German society knew about the Holocaust even before there was Auschwitz. When Germans accept Auschwitz, which of course they should, they have been displacing the other part of the Holocaust. Our German colleague was right. It was really after 1991 that this half of the Holocausts began to impose itself on the German memory. Of course it forces Germans to ask other questions. The main question during the Cold War was “How could had this happened without our knowing?” which is a false question. The real question is  “How could people like us do things like these?”

Nahaylo: How should we remember Babyn Yar today? The way that the Ukrainian–Jewish Encounter and the state of Ukraine today are trying to commemorate it 75 years on? Is this a good start? Is enough being done at this stage to remember it in a dignified way, in a way that has lessons for all of us?

Snyder: I should say as an outsider, and as a historian, that I am always impressed if the politicians giving all the demands on their time and all the pressing concerns especially in places like Ukraine can find the time and place, a moment of dignity to recall an event like this. It seems to be it is a good thing that the state of Ukraine is taking this week and devoting so much attention to these events. How should this be done? Now I offer what I think, but very modestly and as a proposition. Because the business of memory is a business of national societies and they have to work things out. As I see it, there are three levels. There is the Holocaust as a general problem, a problem how humans behave. This is a universal meaning. It is relevant for you and me as well as for Ukrainians in Kyiv. Then there is a problem of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, which we have been discussing today. The history of the Holocaust in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia is very much the same. Trying to explain why local people took part in shootings, for example, is just as relevant for Russians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, as it is for Ukrainians. Because that is how the Holocaust happened here. That said, and this is the third level, we cannot expect that Russians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians will carry out remembrance together. Remembrance should be done nationally. It seems to me that the history you share might be universal or might be broader than your own nation but how you choose to remember is characteristic of your nation. Or better yet, how you choose to remember is how you choose to build your nation. It’s very much my sense that if Ukrainians wish to build a political nation with a future they have to be able to look reflectively upon the past. Not to take responsibility for everything because that would be too much, but to find a way to take responsibility for something. If there is zero responsibility, there is also zero nation.

Nahaylo: At this stage of historic development, at least in Europe, we do not try to build nation states anymore.

Snyder: That is an excellent point. A political nation means an ability to converse within the political society where not everyone has the same cultural origins, maybe not even the same language. Political nation means the ability to converse. And it could arise only through the ability to converse about the past. If we have no ability to get over our own position with the past events, than we have no ability get beyond our political narcissism in the present.  For me the process of creating a political nation is always a historical process as well.  It always involves the ability to be reflective on the people you identify with in the past and to see other points of view in the past. If you cannot do that, if you cannot create a conversation about the past, it is going to be very hard to do it in the present.

Nahaylo: It is obviously a very interesting set of questions that you raised. On one hand Ukrainians need to have an inclusive view of their past and the past of their neighbours who shared the territory, who suffered or may have suffered on this territory. On the other hand, in a parallel process, as your books indicate, there is a need for the western audience to understand more globally the inter-dependence or interconnectedness of these tragedies and atrocities in terms what they mean for the human psyche and the human development. I think that we must be very grateful for your books because you have made us think yet again. You have also made those who perhaps felt they have a clear understanding of what happened to look again.

Snyder: Thank you.

Nahaylo: Where do you see Ukraine in the scheme of things? You are a historian of not just the 30s and 40s and these tragic times, but you are also someone who is looking at the positive developments and movements. You are interested in Poland, for example. You show your interest in Europe more broadly. Where would you place Ukraine in the scheme of things now, before and after the Maidan?

Snyder: This goes back to your previous comment that the westerners need to understand. I think the fate of Ukraine was central in the entire history of the 20th century and is also central in the history of 21st, at least in the West. Ukraine was at the centre of the rivalry between two different kinds of empires. The national-socialist attempt to conquer Ukraine for their own purposes. But also the Soviet Union’s attempt to exploit Ukrainian territory to build what Stalin understood as socialism. Ukraine was right in the middle. That is why so many people died in Ukraine. That is why Ukraine was the most dangerous place in the world between 1933 and 1945. Happily, the nature of political composition today is different from what it was in 1930s-1940s. But nevertheless Ukraine is still in the centre. After the end of the empires we have a new Europe. It is an age of integration where European nation-states rather than seeking to dominate people around the world have built a construction. That construction is called the European Union. It is awkward. It is imperfect.  It is sometimes funny. But it is the largest zone of peace and prosperity in the world. It has a bigger economy than China. It has a bigger economy than the United States. It has a better-developed set of social welfare regimes than anywhere else. It is on the list of the least corrupt countries (most of them are members of the EU) and so and so forth. In other words, it is a success. It’s a non-imperial success. Ukraine is once again at the edge. If the European model is going to continue, it is because it continues to be attractive. If the Ukrainian state is going to succeed, it is going to succeed because it joins the European Union at some point. In the meantime the crucial question is, “Can the West help Ukrainians to build a Rule of Law state that functions?” If so, that state will eventually move closer to Europe. Likewise, as we look even further down the line, Ukraine is basically the only hope for Russia. I mean if one thinks the current Russian model of development is not ideal, there has to be a success in the post-soviet sphere, which shows people from here can also follow the Rule of Law. It is terrifically unfair for Ukrainians that they are in the centre of things. But they are. It is just the way it is.

Nahaylo: As Poland was for many decades and centuries…

Snyder: And some people in Poland now seem to be longing now to return to that state. Yes, exactly…

Nahaylo: Finally, as we have to round up, I want not only to pay you another compliment and thank you on the writing you have done, not simply to set the record straight. As a result, people may look afresh at, rethink, the schemes and their view of things, their understanding of things. I’ve been struck by the fact that the younger people here seem almost treat you as a star. When they hear “Timothy Snyder” they want your autographs, they want to be photographed with you. It is clear that you as a writer, as an academic, as a historian, that you have really made a splash in this part of the world, not to mention in the West.  I’d like to thank you once again and wish you success and perseverance in your work. I am sure you have made a lot friends, but you also undoubtedly must have made some enemies …

Snyder: I’ve made the right kinds of friends. I am very happy I have friends among Ukrainians that came out of age in the 21st century because it is fantastically interesting generation. I think it will be a transformative generation.

Nahaylo: Thank you, Professor Snyder.

Snyder: My pleasure.


This week’s song is called Pustelia, which means Desert. It’s a new song by the Kyiv band ‘Oleum.’ Among other phrases, the lyrics include, ‘I’ve had it with this war’ and ‘the desert will end, and the war will end.’ 

Looking Forward

We will continue to watch all the stories in Ukraine. Tune in next weekend for a new episode of Ukraine Calling. If you have any suggestions or comments, please write to the show at: [email protected]. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.

Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko; Headlines, Culture, and Music, Sections prepared by Marta Dyczok; Sound Engineer, Andriy Izdryk.


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