Multiperspective Memorials: Babyn Yar

Multiperspective Memorials: Babyn Yar

Babyn Yar Memorial. Photo © REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

In March 2022, Russian missiles hit and damaged the Babyn Yar memorial site in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, causing national and international uproar. What is the story of Babyn Yar and what does it teach us about Ukraine’s changing relationship with Russia and the EU?
Babyn Yar is the site of one of the worst tragedies during World War II. Between 29-30 September 1941, 33,731 Jews were shot dead there. The suffering continued at the site in the following months and years with an estimated 100,000-150,000 Jews, Soviet POWS, Romanis and Ukrainian nationalists all being executed here during the Nazi occupation.
In the years after World War II, there was no monument to commemorate those who perished at Babyn Yar. Famous Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his 1961 poem commented on this absence when he wrote, “Над Бабьим Яром памятников нет” (“There are no monuments at Babyn Yar”).

This changed in 1976, however, when a monument to Soviet citizens and POWs was erected, but still no special mention to the particular suffering of the Jews was made. This reflected the dominant Soviet memory culture at the time that focused on the homogenised suffering and eventual victory of the Soviet people as a whole, rather than explicitly naming and speaking about the trauma Jews and other stigmatised minorities suffered.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, a Jewish menorah was built to commemorate the specific suffering experienced by Jews at Babyn Yar. This represented a shift in how the site was predominantly remembered in Ukraine and can be understood within the context of the country’s gradual move away from Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the country’s subsequent deepening integration with the EU, in which the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust is the dominant memory of World War II.

In recent years commemoration events have taken place at the site with leading EU politicians, such as current president of the European Council Charles Michel and German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visiting the site. However this is a memory that still faces resistance today with the menorah being defaced with swastikas by far right Ukrainian nationalists in both 2014 and 2015.

The story and memory practices of Babyn Yar teach us that there is no single memory of historical events and that memory practices can be fluid, evolving over time. To create a more constructive dialogue and space for all to express their trauma there is a need to adopt a multiperspective approach.
To learn more about the remembrance and memorialisation of events from World War II, see our lesson material on the topic.

by Noah Harris

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