Opinion |

After Ukraine, Putin Will Never Be Forgotten, and Should Never Be Forgiven

The Russian attack on Ukraine, including the bombing this week of Kyiv's television tower, shows that Putin's brutality knows no bounds. What started in Crimea in 2014 should end at The Hague

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Russian President Vladimir Putin attending a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attending a meeting in Moscow on Wednesday.Credit: SPUTNIK/REUTERS
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Now, at long last, we have come to know Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Once the very model of the Trumpists’ stable genius, opaque and enduring as a gold-leafed sphinx, the former KGB lieutenant colonel has shown his hand, staking the core of his legacy to a rolling, heartless, multifaceted, monumental war crime.

After this, it is certain that Putin will not be forgotten.

More importantly, however – after this, he should never be forgiven.

In 1975, the year Putin joined the Soviet secret police colossus, a friend and I were in Russian-ruled Kyiv, there to smuggle prayer books to Jews for whom the religious texts were illegal contraband. Before leaving the city, we visited Babyn Yar (aka Babi Yar), the site of a horrendous 1941 Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews, as well as large numbers of other Ukrainians.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky in Kyiv last week. Credit: /AP

The site was unmarked. No memorial. Not a trace. Not one mention.

There was only one way to know that this was Babyn Yar . Every winter, as the earth froze on the huge open field that was Babyn Yar, the bones of the victims were pushed to the surface. There was no way for the Soviet rulers to disguise the site. Over and over, the bones needed to be reburied. Covered over. And over and over, the next year the bones would again come up.

Only after the Soviet empire fell in 1991 was it possible to begin to build a memorial to the total of some 100,000 people slaughtered by the bullets of the Nazi extermination machine a full 50 years before. After years of effort, a worthy memorial was built at the site.

On Tuesday, gunners of Vladimir Putin’s war machine bombed Kyiv's television tower. The Ukrainian capital’s iconic tower stands adjacent to the Babyn Yar massacre site. The missile attack damaged a Jewish cemetery at Babyn Yar and a building slated to become part of the memorial center, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the advisory board for the site’s memorial center, said Wednesday.

“The building that was damaged was not yet rebuilt and part of the museum,” Sharansky said. “We were just now negotiating,” he added, to move the complex and turn it into the “Museum of Oblivion,” documenting Soviet and other attempts to erase Holocaust history.

And Putin? No apology. No excuse. No remorse. No mention. Not a trace.

That night, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a member of the supervisory board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center and the chief rabbi of Ukraine, was speaking to a Holocaust survivor, a woman who lives in Kyiv. “God is making me live through two wars – why did I have to go through that and now this?” she asked him.

As Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine last week, the Russian president issued a statement that both recalled and surpassed his Soviet and Nazi messaging predecessors in the annals of Orwellian doublespeak.

“We will seek to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetuated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation.”

President Zelenskyy, the principal target of Putin’s supposed “anti-Nazi” attacks, is himself Jewish. During a 2020 ceremony in Israel marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Zelenskyy said he wanted to tell Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a story about a family of four brothers.

“Three of them, their parents and their families, became victims of the Holocaust. All of them were shot by German occupiers who invaded Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “The fourth brother survived … two years after the war he had a son, and in 31 years he had a grandson. In 40 more years, that grandson became president, and he is standing before you today, Mr. Prime Minister.”

Early on Wednesday, Zelenskyy issued a call to his fellow Jews. “I am now addressing all the Jews of the world,” he declared. “Don’t you see why this [is] happening? That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent right now. Nazism is born in silence. So shout about the killings of civilians. Shout about the killings of Ukrainians.”

Asked how he felt when he heard Putin state that his “special military operation” was aimed at “denazifying” Ukraine, Rabbi Bleich was direct. “You know what I feel? It reminds me of World War II.

“The Nazi who should be denazified – his name is Vladimir Putin.”

Putin should not be forgiven. If he is not stopped in Ukraine, there is every reason to believe that he will go on, invading, murdering, destroying.

If the world does not stop Putin in Ukraine, it will never forgive itself.

This is a man whose battle plan is shelling civilians with horrific weapons. This is a man whose first response to military setback and Ukrainian courage, is to threaten the entire world with nuclear Holocaust. This is a man who has earned his place in history - in the defendant's dock in the International Criminal Court.

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