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  • Constructing the Memory of the Holocaust:The Ambiguous Treatment of Babii Yar in Soviet Literature
  • E. W. Clowes

One of the dominant traits of the old Soviet regime was its unwillingness to confront the serious moral shortcomings of the Soviet past. Until the perestroika years of the late 1980s, when President Mikhail Gorbachev challenged Soviet citizens to "fill in the blank pages" of Soviet history, it was a regime with a singularly bad conscience.1 The bad conscience extended beyond the mass murder committed by the Bolsheviks and later by Stalin to the genocide committed by the Nazis on Soviet soil, beyond the massacres of the Civil War period (1918-1921), collectivization (1929-1932), and the Great Terror (1936-1938) to the blank pages concerning the Nazi Holocaust on Soviet soil. As is well known, until perestroika, the Soviet political and ideological leadership did as little as possible to acknowledge the historical facts of the crimes against the Jews committed on Soviet territory. The enforced silence immediately leads one to suspect some sort of complicity after the fact, and this impression is reinforced by the defensive tone of the scant official or officially sanctioned commentary that appeared in the press. In the Soviet press, indeed, the Holocaust was treated as someone else's problem—particularly the problem of the "capitalist" countries. The specifically anti-Jewish focus of the Holocaust and the virulent racism impelling Nazi actions were systematically downplayed. The memory of those atrocities was largely suppressed, much as were the [End Page 153] facts about the various waves of terror in the Lenin and Stalin years and the facts about the scale and nature of the Gulag. It is entirely likely that Soviet citizens' experience of the Holocaust did not receive due coverage partly because such coverage could immediately bring to mind the parallels between the two totalitarian regimes and their repressive measures.

While Soviet rulers were hushing up the history of murder in the Soviet period—no matter who the perpetrators had been—behind the scenes, among writers, there persisted a whispered conversation that spilled into the public discourse by fits and starts. The 45 years between 1943 and 1988, when Gorbachev's policy of glasnost' functionally declawed the censorship, saw a number of efforts to disclose the facts of the appalling slaughter of Jewish citizens by the Nazi Einsatztruppen and the local Polizei across the Ukraine. For most of the post-war period those efforts were contained by the censorship and the secret police and were known only within tight circles of writers and the upper levels of the party leadership.

The present essay concentrates on those parts of the discussion that did reach the reading public in the form of literary works and published responses to them. It is through such works that public memory was formed. This public segment of the discussion started in the immediate post-war years, predominantly with Ilya Erenburg's novel The Storm(Buria, 1947); it revived in the so-called Thaw years of the 1960s, spearheaded by two literary works, Yevgeny Yevtushenko's pathbreaking poem "Babii Yar" (1961) and Anatoly Kuznetsov's documentary novel bearing the same title (1966, published in book form in 1967). The last major pre-glasnost' work of this small corpus was Anatoly Rybakov's important novel Heavy Sand(Tiazhelyi pesok, 1978). Throughout this debate, the central symbol of the Nazi "final solution" on Soviet soil—and of Russian and Ukrainian anti-Jewish racism—was Babii Yar, the ravine near Kiev, where more than 30,000 Jewish residents of the Ukrainian capital were massacred over two days, September 29-30, 1941.

A complicating factor of the Holocaust in Slavic countries is that, although it was directed mainly against Jews, according to the Nazi plan, Slavs—whether Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, or people of other nations—were to serve as slave labor under the harshest conditions that would ultimately kill most of them (Der Prozess III: 455). The goal was eventually to reduce and then completely wipe out the Slavic populations in the "East Zone" (Der Prozess V: 376, 651). When Soviet [End Page 154] ideologues reluctantly mentioned the massacres, they ignored their specifically anti-Jewish character and...


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