A forgotten Soviet novel, 'Babi Yar,' returns to remind us about a Holocaust massacre that continues to haunt Ukraine
A young boy is playing in a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv.
He comes across a stream, where he notices something unusual.
"The riverbed was of good, coarse sand, but now for some reason or other the sand was mixed with little white stones."
The boy picks up one of the stones.
It is human bone.
So begins "Babi Yar," a remarkable novel about the murder of at least 30,000 Ukrainian Jews (and thousands of other ideological and ethnic "undesirables") by the Nazis in a ravine outside Kyiv that remains a testament to the nadir of human imagination and will. Long forgotten, the book is being republished as Kyiv marks the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
In their initial push to take the Ukrainian capital, Russian forces fired a missile that was supposedly intended to knock out a television broadcast tower. The projectile instead landed on the edge of Babi Yar (also known as Babyn Yar), killing five people.
Written by the Soviet novelist Anatoly Kuznetsov, "Babi Yar" is "a document in the form of a novel" — as reads what has to be one of the very few subtitles in literary history that actually serve a clarifying purpose. Kuznetsov is the boy playing in the ravine, on whose edge he was born and raised.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler broke his nonaggression pact with Stalin, and the Wehrmacht poured into the Soviet Union, across the Baltic marshes and the Ukrainian steppe. For some, the Germans were going to bring relief from the suffering enforced by Bolshevik rule, which had been especially brutal in Ukraine. "Thank the Lord the rule of the down-and-outs has come to an end," Kuznetsov’s grandfather cheers. "Now we can have a decent life."
As the regular German army advanced toward the key cities of Kyiv, Minsk, Moscow and Leningrad, the dreaded and deranged Einsatzgruppen death squads followed, executing Jews in ditches and ravines, a first phase of the Final Solution known today as the Holocaust by Bullets.
Still, these atrocities remained mostly rumor, so horrific that they had to be the stuff of some perverted imagination intent on spreading fear. "It was possible even to find among the Jews of Kiev some enthusiastic admirers of Hitler as an able statesman," Kuznetsov observes.
All illusions are dispelled on Sept. 29, 1941. Kuznetsov watches a procession of Jews, "with their howling children, their old and sick, some of them weeping," is led by Its German tormentors toward Babi Yar. Then he hears the "sound of regular bursts of machine-gun fire: ta-ta-ta, ta-ta…"
The account of what actually happened at the edge of the ravine is provided by Dina Pronicheva, a survivor of the massacre who would later provide her harrowing testimony to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem.
Kuznetsov records her recollections with journalistic equipoise, obviously aware that the events are so unbelievably horrific they do not require his own gloss: "The mothers in particular kept fussing over their children, with the result that from time to time some German or policeman would lose his temper, snatch a child away from his mother, go across to the sandstone wall, swing back and fling the child over the wall like a piece of wood."
What can be said of this, other than it happened?
Improbably, Pronicheva survives. Pushed into the ravine while still alive, she plays dead as the Germans scour the bodies for the still living and, later, crawls out. She seeks help from some Ukrainian locals, who promptly turn her over to the Germans.
Now she is to die, without question. Except she lives, survives again, outlasts her bestial tormentors. "She went back to the Kyiv puppet theatre, where she works to this day as an actress and puppet-handler," Kuznetsov reports, in what has to be one of the more oddly rousing lines in modern literature.
His novel, originally published in 1966, made news again in 1981, when the British writer D.M. Thomas was accused of plagiarizing sections of Kuznetsov’s account. Much more recently, the French American writer Jonathan Littell described the atrocities at Babi Yar in his massive and controversial novel "The Kindly Ones," which was criticized for telling the story of the Holocaust from the Nazi perspective.
Kuznetsov is set apart by his scruples, his obvious awareness that if he does not tell his story, no one else will. "This book contains nothing but the truth," reads the novel’s first line. He cannot take artistic license when truth itself is on the line.
When he published "Babi Yar" in the Soviet Union, any serious discussion of the Holocaust was seen as detracting from the narrative of Soviet valor in defeating Hitler.
Unhappy with the omissions forced on him by censors, Kuznetsov fled to London, smuggling out the unredacted version of the novel in rolls of film that he managed to insertedinto the lining of his coat. He published an unexpurgated version in 1970 under the pen name "A. Anatoli." It was celebrated but then fell into obscurity.
Now "Babi Yar" is being published by Picador. The all-too-timely novel was brought back to life by Farrar, Straus and Giroux executive editor Alexander Star, who discovered an old mass-market paperback edition at his parents' house last year.
"I was really impressed on a literary level by the construction of the book," Star told Yahoo News in a telephone conversation (Picador is an imprint of FSG). Kuznetsov writes in short, episodic chapters with titles like "Business Becomes Dangerous" and "How Many Times Should I Be Shot?" A kind of morbid humor regularly seeps into the prose, but it is never offensive or discordant, because Kuznetsov never fails to grasp the enormity of the crime that has transpired.
Instead, he is trying to show how quickly and completely life returns to normal after the killings, how the tragic and the mundane can coexist without too much moral trouble. "No matter how you look at it, the majority of people are primarily concerned in this life with what they are going to eat," he writes. Across the whole of Europe, the killing of Jews provided opportunities for enrichment. As some fell, others could rise.
"Anytime a writer wrestles with something so dark and complex, that is an accomplishment of the imagination we should value," Star says. Like the complete edition of "Babi Yar" published after Kuznetsov fled to London, the Scribner reissue includes sections of bold print that indicate portions expunged by the Soviet censors in the original, Russian-language edition. There are also bracketed sections that indicate new passages Kuznetsov wrote after the novel was first published.
One can't help but note what the Soviets deemed objectionable in 1966. As the recent controversy over "sensitivity" revisions to Roald Dahl’s classic novels suggests, what a society wants to leave unspoken is just as revealing as what it is willing to say. Kuznetsov is open about the fact that the cruelty of the Soviet regime — and, in particular, of its ruthless and unhinged NKVD secret police — made many Ukrainians all too willing to welcome the Germans. Unsurprisingly, those sections are in bold, having been left out of the USSR edition.
Kuznetsov also makes clear that some Ukrainians gladly helped their new German overlords slaughter Jews. So did some Poles and Lithuanians, an ugly reality both countries have labored desperately to efface. Germany, meanwhile, has become an unlikely model of historical reckoning, one some believe the United States should model in confronting its own past.
And then there is the present. Ukraine has its first Jewish president in Volodymyr Zelensky, while it is Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin who has earned comparisons to Hitler. His invocations of Russia’s defeat of fascism in World War II ring discordantly on Western ears, because while that victory was very much real — and came at great human cost to the USSR — it cannot possibly justify the war in Ukraine.
"Babi Yar no longer exists," Kuznetsov writes at the end of his novel. The war is over, and the battle for memory begins. Back in control, the Soviets bulldoze all evidence of Nazi atrocities, which makes it easier to hide their own. There are attempts to build on the ravine, but all the projects come to naught. "Nothing is being done now on that cursed place," Kuznetsov reports.
He died in 1979, three years after the Soviets reluctantly erected a memorial there. He could not have imagined that one day it would be Russians, not Germans, who would turn to shelling Kyiv. But given what he had already seen, Kuznetsov would likely not have been surprised.
This article was updated to properly reflect Alexander Star's title, as well as to correct the name of the imprint that published "Babi Yar."