Babyn Yar Memorial Was Funded With Russian Money. The War Puts Its Future at Risk

The center, and with it the memory of the execution of over 33,000 Jewish women, men and children, are once again in danger of fading away

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A view of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv in March this year.
A view of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv in March this year.Credit: DIMITAR DILKOFF / AFP
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

When the memorial center in Babyn Yar, Kyiv, was dedicated about a half-year ago, it seemed that despite the criticism leveled at the project from various directions, it was a historic event.

For the first time since World War II a memorial and research center was being built on the site of the killing fields. The “Holocaust of bullets” that was shrouded in silence in the Soviet Union for decades and appeared only sporadically in public discussion and research in the former Soviet Union, was finally supposed to receive recognition and an impressive institutionalized memorial in the most symbolic of places.

Raisa Maystrenko, 78, one of a few survivors of the Babyn Yar massacre, stands near a memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babyn Yar in Kiev, Ukraine.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP

This was the place where all the Jews of Kyiv who remained in the city after the Nazi invasion, over 33,000 women, men and children, were executed within several days. To mark the dedication of the center and the 80th anniversary of the massacre in Babyn Yar, three presidents came to the ceremony - Vladimir Zelenskyy, Isaac Herzog and Germany’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The center’s artistic director, the admired and controversial Russian movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, spoke about the importance of the memory of the Holocaust in general and Babyn Yar in particular as the “destruction of the world – an event that must not become distant from us as the years pass.”

Now it seems that the center, and with it the memory – are once again in danger of fading away.

Less than five months after the dedication of the memorial center, the war broke out. Russian forces invaded Ukraine and tried to besiege Kyiv. Missiles aimed at the city damaged the television tower located next to the memorial site – an event that in Kyiv was described as firing missiles at Babyn Yar. But along with the tragedy that has afflicted the entire country, the Russian invasion has also caused serious problems to the memorial project.

The criticism of the center included its sources of funding. The project’s two main donors were Russian Jewish oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, and the opponents claimed that through them, the long arm of the Kremlin was interfering in historical memory in Ukraine. At the start of the war, the connection of the businessmen funding the project to the Russian government destroyed the economic foundation of the memorial center. Shortly after the Russian invasion, Western sanctions were imposed on Fridman and Khan, and as a result they resigned from the supervisory board of the Babyn Yar project and discontinued its funding.

Russian businessman Mikhail Fridman.Credit: POOL/REUTERS

According to the center’s new CEO, Maksym Rabinovych, who assumed the position only 10 days before the start of the war, the project originally was planned to receive more than $300 million over 10 years, and “the activities were budgeted accordingly.”

In an interview with Haaretz, Rabinovych did not name the sum that now remains, but said the project’s activity has shrunk to 10 percent or even less of what it was supposed to be. Rabinovych and artistic director Khrzhanovsky told Haaretz that they are investing only in maintaining the existing installations.

Four additional museums were supposed to be built on the site. The construction of the first, the Hill of Memory – an underground complex that includes a three-dimensional simulation of the killing ground – was supposed to be concluded this year. Now construction has been frozen until further notice.

But even the research and the virtual activity have been significantly reduced. The salaries of the team of researchers who worked on the project was reduced and most of the plans for the coming year have been canceled. While Khrzhanovsky, who brings his status in the international art world but also is the target of complaints over megalomania and ethically questionable work methods, now says he realizes he won’t be able to direct the artistic side of the center for long.

The center’s artistic director, the admired and controversial Russian movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky.Credit: Igor Maximishin

“Clearly it’s difficult, impossible, to work now with images. We can work with the reality that will in turn dictate the future images. Will the war and the tragedy now taking place cancel Babyn Yar and the subject of the Holocaust? Absolutely not. But the Ukrainian public will be the ones to decide to what degree it will be practical, as long as the project is in the territory of Ukraine,” he says.

“I think that whoever deals with it should rightfully be more connected to Ukraine than I am. Not because I have Russian citizenship along with my Israeli citizenship, and not only because I was born and grew up in Russia, although that’s also an important reason. I think that it wouldn’t be correct, at this stage of the war, for me to lead such a project. But I also think that it wouldn’t be correct for me to leave the project at this time, before I bring it to the point where it can be handed over to someone else.”

Evidence of ‘Holocaust of bullets’

In the shadow of the war the nature of the activity has also changed. The third major donor, Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, asked that his donation be used only for the humanitarian projects related to the present war. On the center’s home page there is now only one project – raising donations to help the Ukrainians. On social media the center is promoting several initiatives, the main one being to gather testimony about the war crimes of the Russian army in Ukraine. This is being handled by Father Patrick Desbois, the French priest in charge of the project to collect testimony about the “Holocaust by bullets” in the former Soviet Union, and the discovery of the mass burial sites mainly in Ukraine. Now Desbois is focusing on documenting and collecting information about the crimes taking place before the eyes of the world right now.

Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babyn Yar massacre, in October, 1941.Credit: Johannes Hhle

In addition, the center in Babyn Yar is helping to preserve and protect the Ukrainian cultural heritagel. The center arranged for protection around the statue of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in Kyiv, the irony of which is hard to ignore given the riots led by the Cossack warlord against the Jews in the 17th century. The center has also helped evacuate Holocaust survivors and their families from Ukraine, along with the descendants of Righteous Gentiles, and it is about to organize virtual conferences dedicated to a comparison and to the connection between the present war and World War II.

In addition to the “Names” project, which is devoted to finding the names and basic details of those murdered in Babyn Yar, there is now a “Martyrology” project – to collect the names of people now being killed in Ukraine.

The focus on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is justified and completely understandable, but it seems the supreme goal of the center in Babyn Yar – to extricate the Holocaust in Ukraine from oblivion – has gotten lost along the way.

“The Holocaust is an immortal subject,” says Rabinovych. “Now the genocide of the Ukrainian people is taking place, and I think that we haven’t spoken enough about ‘never again,’ and we must talk about it, that’s why I’m sure that we’ll continue to build the center. We’ve reduced our activity as much as possible, and we’re in need of new donors. Now we’re waiting for the end of the war, for victory.”

The head of the center’s supervisory board, Natan Sharansky.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP

Khrzhanovsky takes a similar position. “I think that the project I proposed remains totally practical, independent of the circumstances, because it deals with mechanisms of evil and mechanisms of memory and purification,” he said. “Now it will have a different meaning and it will have to be done differently. We can only discuss it responsibly after the end of the war.”

Since the announcement of the center’s establishment, its leadership has been forced to walk between the raindrops when it comes to the project’s image, due to the difficulty of openly dealing with the role of the Ukrainians in the Holocaust. Khrzhanovsky stresses that although the discussion of the dark aspects of the past was difficult in Ukraine, it exists – and that, he claims, comes in contrast to what took place in Russian society, where Stalin’s crimes have never been properly acknowledged.

“I’ve spoken about the tragedy of the Holocaust even with the most right-wing circles in Ukrainian society, and there was a willingness to talk about it. It’s a difficult discussion, but it has begun,” says Khrzhanovsky, who then adds: “Can it disappear? I don’t know. But I believe in Ukraine and I believe in the strength of this society, which was raped by Russia. And I believe that although the present war sends the tragedy of the Holocaust backward, the experience of the war will also make these issues more current.”

I ask the head of the center’s supervisory board, Natan Sharansky, whether dialogue with Ukrainian society regarding the Holocaust and the part played in it by the local population will even be possible after the end of the war. “I think that it will be not only possible, but even more important,” he replies. “Today the Ukrainian people are subject to crimes against the civilian population, to terrible war crimes. I think that the basis for dialogue with the Ukrainian government and with the Ukrainian public will only expand. But there’s no point in predicting how this dialogue will develop in relation to the war, in half a year from now.”

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