Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel

Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel; by Anatoly Kuznetsov
Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel; by Anatoly Kuznetsov Picador/ Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York; copyright 1966, 1970, and 2023 Translated by David Floyd Introduction by Masha Gessen

According to one review, Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar is:

“A disturbing book that screams to be read.” 

Truer words were never written.

Despite its titular reference to the ravine in Kyiv known as Babi Yar, only the first part of the book deals with the murder of Kyiv’s Jewish population there on September 29 and 30, 1941.  Beyond Babi Yar, the majority of the book is an account of the invasion, destruction, and occupation of Kyiv by Nazi Germany, as eye-witnessed by the young Anatoly Kuznetsov himself.  (The subtitle of the book, “A Document in the Form of a Novel” would more accurately read “A Memoir in the Form of a Novel.”)

The prescribed edition of the book came out in 2023, to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.  

As can be seen from the copyright dates listed above, this is not a new book.  Nevertheless, given that yesterday’s Music History Monday post dealt with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, subtitled “Babi Yar,” and given that today’s headlines continue to talk about whether factions within the Congress of United States will be willing to support Ukraine against its current invaders, Anatoly Kuznetsov’s Babi Yar is, in fact, beyond timely.

Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-1979) in his apartment in London, February 1974, five years after his defection from the Soviet Union in 1969
Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-1979) in his apartment in London, February 1974, five years after his defection from the Soviet Union in 1969

Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-1979): An Eyewitness to the Unthinkable

Kuznetsov was born to a Russian father and a Ukrainian mother in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (then part of the Soviet Union) on August 18, 1929.  Having defected to the West in 1969, he died in London on June 13, 1979.

Kuznetsov grew up in Kurenivka neighborhood of Kyiv which was, as he later wrote:

“a stone’s throw from a vast ravine, whose name, Babi Yar, was once known only to locals.”

To say that Anatoly Kuznetsov grew up in an “unstable environment” is an understatement on the lines of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito, who announced Japan’s surrender in August, 1945, by saying:

“The war in the Pacific has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favor.”

The “Holodomor,” or Great Ukrainian Famine, killed between 3.5 and 5 million Ukrainians in 1932 and 1933: over 10% of the Ukrainian population at the time.  The famine was initially an unanticipated result of the disastrous program of farm collectivization ordered by Joseph Stalin.  But once it set in, according to the historian Andrea Gaziosi:

“starvation was selectively weaponized and the famine was ‘instrumentalized’ and amplified against Ukrainians to punish them for their rejection of the ‘new serfdom’ and to break their nationalism.”

The Holodomor ended just in time for the “Red Terror,” the campaign of political repression and executions throughout the Soviet Union between 1936 and 1938. According to an article marking the 80th anniversary of the Terror published by the Ukrainian Government on November 15, 2017:

“The results of the ‘Great Terror’ are hard to put in numbers. [From] November 1936 through November 1938, at least 1.71 million people were arrested by the NKVD, 1.44 million were convicted and 724,000 were shot. Additionally, ‘police troikas’ convicted around 400,000 citizens as ‘socially harmful elements.’ Moreover, 200,000 people were deported and no less than two million were convicted by courts under various articles of the criminal code, including 800,000 who were sent to the Gulag. In Ukraine, 198,918 people fell victim to Stalin’s terror in 1937-38, including 123,421 (62 per cent) who were shot. In analyzing these horrible statistics, it should be kept in mind that every figure signifies not just one individual but an entire family.

In Kyiv those tragic events are annually observed in the horrible Bykivnia Forest, the place of last repose of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Jews, and people of other ethnic groups who were condemned to death by the tyrannical Stalinist government, often in retaliation for their desire to think like free individuals.” 

Young Anatoly Kuznetsov was four years old when the worst of the Holodomor ended in 1933, and not quite ten years old when the Terror petered out in early 1939.  But in terms of sheer depravity, these Stalin-created, Communist Party-perpetrated events of the 1930s pale in comparison to what Hitler, his Nazi Party, and German Army did in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1944. 

Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Stalin’s Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The Germans surrounded Kyiv less than three months later, on September 16, 1941, and the city fell three days after that, on September 19.  And while many Ukrainians initially embraced the Germans as liberators, they were soon enough disabused of that notion when the oppression, roundups, and reprisals began. …

Continue reading, only on Patreon.

Become a Patron!