How Could Thinking About Genocide Help Us Understand What is at Stake in Ukraine?

Babyn Yar, the Holodmor and Ukraine’s Past of Violence

Statue in Ukraine
Monument to the murdered ones in Babyn Yar, Kyiv, Ukraine. It is a site of series massacres carried out by the Nazis during the Second World War. Monument was erected in 1976.(Getty Images)

This blog is based on a story originally published on the UC Davis Human Rights website. Access the original story here.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv is safe for now. A Russian rocket sent to blow up a TV tower nearby missed and early reports were that the memorial to the 1941-1942 mass killings of Ukrainian Jews, Roma, anti-fascists, Soviet POWs and so many others had been destroyed. It was damaged but stands. Still, five people were killed in the attack.

As Russia moves (again) against the Ukrainian people, the country’s past encounters with mass violence and genocide helps us to understand the ferocity of their resistance and perhaps also Russia’s larger agenda to erase Ukrainian culture and history alongside its political independence. This war has always been about more than pushing back against NATO expansion. It is about whether Ukrainians as a people will be permitted to exist. It reminds us of the cost of impunity and the fact that Ukrainian fears of renewed genocide are warranted.

The Great Famine and the memory of death by starvation

Ukraine is the site of two of the 20th-Century’s most lethal genocides, separated in time by only eight years. The first was the Holodomor — the Great Famine. From 1932-1933, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin systematically denied access to food — grown in Ukraine — to Ukrainians; it was accompanied by a brutal assault on the country’s political and intellectual leadership.  The food was sent to factory workers in other parts of the Soviet Union then engaged in a massive industrialization program.  Years of starvation, malnutrition and even the eating of the dead followed, scaring a generation of Ukrainians with the memory of emaciated bodies and a daily struggle of food. Between three and six million were starved to death. The famine was no accident. It was intentional. As much as the food was needed to help industrialize the Soviet Union, it was also a tool with which to Sovietize Ukraine.  

In the popular imagination, genocide is often just mass killing.  In international law, based on the theory of genocide proposed by Raphael Lemkin (1900 – 1959), it is much more. Genocide is about tearing apart the very fabric of a society so thoroughly that even though some may survive, that a people, as a people has ceased to exist.  That is what Stalin intended.  When Lemkin addressed a group of Ukrainian refugee intellectuals in 1953 he was frank in his assessment: “perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification – the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”

He continued:

"As long as Ukraine retains its national unity, as long as its people continue to think of themselves as Ukrainians and to seek independence, so long Ukraine poses a serious threat to the very heart of Sovietism. It is no wonder that the Communist leaders have attached the greatest importance to the Russification of this independent [-minded] member of their “Union of Republics,” have determined to remake it to fit their pattern of one Russian nation. For the Ukrainian is not and has never been, a Russian…This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation. Soviet national unity is being created, not by any union of ideas and of cultures, but by the complete destruction of all cultures and of all ideas save one – the Soviet."

In a March 2, 2021 Hebrew-language post on his Facebook page, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, the son of Jewish parents, paraphrased Lemkin’s conclusion for our time: The Russians “know nothing about our capital. About our history. But they have an order to erase our history. Erase our country. Erase us all.”

Russia perpetuates the Soviet-era denial of the Holodomor.

Babyn Yar and the costs of inaction

In that same post, he referenced the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial, and the history of that place.  Babyn Yar is a large ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv and important site of memory in the study of the genocide of the Jews of Europe. The territory and resources of Ukraine were coveted by the Nazis, who occupied the country in 1941.  As they sought to pave the way for its exploitation and even colonization, destroying the country’s Jewish community and other “undesirables” became an imperative.  In what would be the greatest slaughter of humanity seen to that point in the war in Europe, over two days in late September 1941, more than 33,000 Jews from Kyiv were murdered at the ravine, their bodies dumped at its bottom.

The process of bringing the Jews to Babyn Yar had been made easier by the fact that the Nazis had told them they were being “relocated for their safety,” and had walked from Kyiv to the site in large columns.

Eyewitness accounts, like that of Truck-Driver Hofner, are recorded in Michael Berenbaum’s Witness to the Holocaust (New York, 1997):

"Once undressed, the Jews were led into a ravine…two or three narrow entrances led to this ravine through which the Jews were channeled. When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzpolizie and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot. This all happened very quickly. The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun at the spot where he was lying. When the Jews reached the ravine, they were so shocked by the horrifying scene that they completely lost their will. It may even have been that the Jews themselves lay down in rows to wait to be shot."

Over the next year, Babyn Yar became the preferred execution and mass grave site for the Nazi-occupiers of Ukraine, and Jews from around Ukraine were brought there, as were Roma, the mentally ill, Ukrainian resistance fighters, and anyone determined to be an impediment to the Reich’s plan for the country.

After the war, the Soviet Union refused to memorialize the site. As much for reasons of Soviet nationalism as for Russian anti-Semitism, the systematic destruction of the Jews of Ukraine was officially ignored, even denied. 

In 1961, a Russian poet, Yevgeni Yevtushenko sought to break this silence, publishing first in Samizdat, the poem “Babi Yar,” which is how the site is called in Russian. The poem is beautiful in Benjamin Okopnik’s English translation, one can only imagine how it sounds in its original.  It begins:

"No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid…"

The poem inspired Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony a piece of work so profound in its sadness, I find it difficult to listen to it in its entirety.

Only with independence in 1994 would Ukrainians and the diaspora of Ukrainian Jews be permitted to remember Babyn Yar. Beyond the site that is there now, there are plans to build a much more comprehensive memorial and education center in the future.

In the study of genocide, the date of Babyn Yar’s first massacre is important. It proceeds by three months the January 1942 Wansee Conference, where mid-level German bureaucrats sat around table and under the guidance of Reinhard Heyrich and Adolph Eichmann planned the “Final Solution.” They drew of the lessons learned in Ukraine and places like Lithuania, Estonia and Poland to bring an industrial approach to the killing of millions.

When former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of the Holocaust, visited Babyn Yar in 2006, he wondered out loud:

"Maybe I am not a historian, but maybe, say, this Babi Yar was also a test for Hitler. If on September 29 and September 30, 1941, Babi Yar happen and the world did not react seriously, dramatically, abnormally, maybe this was a good test for him? So a few weeks later in January 1942, near Berlin in Wannsee, a convention can be held with a decision, a final solution to the Jewish problem. We are a problem, of course. Maybe if the very action had been a serious one, a dramatic one, in September 1941 here in Ukraine, the Wannsee Conference would have come to a different end, maybe."

I am a historian. And I am certain that history does not repeat itself.  I am with Samuel Clemens in the observation that it “often rhymes.”  This is a moment when the inconceivable has become conceivable and what is normal in the relations among states is challenged. In the next weeks and months, Ukrainian cities will be placed under siege, people will starve; people will be killed; millions will become IDPs and refugees.

Later in his poem, Yuvtushenkov confesses:

"And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.[…]"

We do not have the luxury of inaction. 

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