OSW Commentary

Ukraine’s disputes over the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre

Zdjęcie przedstawia pomnik w Babim Jarze

On 29 September 2021 and 6 October 2021 in Kyiv two competing ceremonies were held to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the massacre in Babi Yar, which is a site of extermination of Kyiv Jews and representatives of other ethnic and political groups. No comprehensive commemoration of these crimes was offered both in the Soviet era and in the recent 30 years of Ukraine’s independence. It was only in recent years that two projects for the commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre emerged, however, a sharp dispute is ongoing between their initiators. The first project, proposed by the Academy of Sciences and supported by “patriotic” groups, presents the Holocaust against the backdrop of the history of martyrdom of other nations, and views Ukraine as a victim of two totalitarian systems. The other project, which is a private initiative, focuses on commemorating the tragedy of Jews on Ukrainian soil. However, it has sparked controversy mainly due to the involvement of sponsors and contributors from Russia in it. Due to its advanced stage of implementation, its modern form and its focus on issues related to the Holocaust, this project received backing from both Ukrainian and Israeli authorities.

The dispute over the Babi Yar massacre goes beyond historical issues. It has become a tool in the political fight between the camp of President Volodymyr Zelensky and that of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, as well as a field of personal conflicts and a clash of different models of remembrance. The contentious issues include Ukrainian nationalists’ collaboration with Nazi Germany, discussed in the private project, and the involvement of Russian individuals in the initiative, which enables them to impact on Ukraine’s politics of memory. As a consequence, an important project, which has the potential to both shape domestic debates about the past and affect the perception of Ukraine abroad, is being devised without the participation of the state which – at least at this stage – has abandoned any active policy in this area.

The history of the Babi Yar massacre and its place in Ukraine’s politics of memory

On 29–30 September 1941, in the Babi Yar ravine located on the outskirts of Kyiv German soldiers assisted by the local police killed almost 34,000 city residents of Jewish origin.[1] Although the site is mainly associated with the mass murder of Jews, back in the 1930s it had also served as a place of burial of victims of the Holodomor and of acts of repression perpetrated by the NKVD. In 1941–1943, aside from Jews, other victims buried there were Ukrainians killed by German soldiers, including members of nationalist organisations, people of Romani origin, communists, prisoners of war etc. The total number of individuals buried there is estimated at around 100,000, with Jews accounting for the majority of them. The most recent chapter in the tragic history of this site – the so-called Kurenivka disaster – happened in 1961. In an attempt to erase the memory of the crimes perpetrated there, the Soviet authorities repeatedly dumped industrial waste from the near-by brick factory in the Babi Yar ravine, which resulted in a disastrous mudslide that killed 1,500 city residents.

Efforts to erase the memory of the Holocaust, including the Babi Yar massacre, were continued until the final years of the USSR’s existence. Having themselves launched several anti-Semitic campaigns after World War II, the Soviet authorities attempted to conceal the fact that Nazi Germany’s policy had targeted not only Communism but also Jews – a nation that suffered more than other nations as a result of the war.[2] In the Soviet era, the Holocaust was presented as an element of a greater crime, i.e. the genocide of the Soviet nation, and in sites of the mass murders of Jews monuments were built to commemorate “murdered Soviet citizens”. The 1961 mudslide in Babi Yar caused certain landscape changes resulting in the elimination of the ravine, which in turn was intended to be the final stage of the process of erasing all physical objects associated with the events in Babi Yar from collective memory. The knowledge of the tragic history of this place was only spread through unofficial channels – in private conversations, works of art, family stories.

It was only on the 50th anniversary of the massacre (and one month following Ukraine’s declaration of independence) that Leonid Kravchuk, then Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine, admitted during the ceremony in Babi Yar that Jews were the main victims of Nazi Germany. In addition, on behalf of Ukrainians he apologised to the Jewish nation for the crimes it had suffered and admitted that some Ukrainians were also involved in these crimes. However, in the following years no single state-sponsored large memorial to commemorate the crimes committed in Babi Yar was built. Two likely reasons behind this situation are the mental heritage of the Soviet politics of memory and the fact that the process of spreading the actual version of the events in Babi Yar proved to be long-lasting. In their initiatives, the authorities failed to consider the issue of the Holocaust as a priority – instead, they focused on the commemoration of the Holodomor, on de-Communisation, as well as on glorification of Ukrainian nationalist organisations. They had no political will to reveal the dark episodes in Ukraine’s WWII history, and to hold debates based on reliable historical research on anti-Semitic attitudes among Ukrainian citizens and members of nationalist organisations, and on their collaboration with Nazi Germany. The volume of Ukrainian historiography in this field is limited. These issues are mainly studied by foreign researchers and Ukrainian historians living abroad, some of whom have links with nationalist organisations.

Although post-2000 several projects focused on commemorating the Babi Yar massacre were proposed, including one submitted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (in 2001–2003) and another one proposed by businessmen Ihor Kolomoysky and Vadym Rabinovych (in 2011) – none of them has materialised due to the lack of political support and to the fact that they were blocked by other Jewish organisations.[3] In 2012, in a sense instead of his proposed commemoration project, Kolomoysky opened the Menorah centre in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro). It includes Ukraine’s only and – what is important – privately-owned Holocaust Museum, as well as a synagogue, business, educational and cultural facilities.

For many years, in Babi Yar the only object commemorating the tragic events was the monument “to the murdered Soviet citizens, prisoners of war and Red Army officers” built in 1976. Following the collapse of the USSR, several other smaller monuments were built there (at present there are around 30 such monuments) to honour the victims belonging to specific ethnic or political groups. In 2007, ownership of a major portion of the site was transferred to the National Historical Memorial Preserve Babyn Yar supervised by the Ministry of Culture. However, due to insufficient funding this institution’s activity was purely symbolic. The legal and ownership situation of the site as a whole continues to be complicated – its administrators include around fifteen entities with a vague legal status, including a sports centre and a shooting range. Most of the site is arranged as a park and serves as a popular strolling area for local residents.

The competing concepts for commemorating the Babi Yar massacre

It was only in recent years that two projects involving comprehensive concepts for the commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre were put forward. At the same time, a sharp dispute flared up between the two groups which proposed these projects over their historical-ideological and political aspects, as well as certain personal issues.

  1. The “state-sponsored” project

The first project was devised in 2017, i.e. during Petro Poroshenko’s presidency. It was developed under the aegis of the Institute of History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in collaboration with the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR) and other institutions. Its authors consistently refer to it as a “state-sponsored project”. A detailed concept of the project was revealed in 2019.[4] It presented the tragic events in Babi Yar in a broad perspective which was not limited to the mass murder of Jews – instead the Holocaust was discussed in the broader context of the martyrdom of representatives of various nations and political affiliations. The project presented Ukraine as a victim of two totalitarian systems – the German one and the Soviet one. However, it avoided providing any assessment of the collaboration between Ukrainian forces and Nazi Germany. The authors emphasised that formulating generalised judgments regarding this issue was not recommended and that each event should be analysed separately.

This project is supported by some historians and museologists, the UINR, as well as several Jewish organisations including the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Ukraine (VAAD) and its head Yosyf Zisels, former dissident and prisoner of Soviet forced-labour camps. The project has never entered the implementation stage and has remained in its conceptual stage despite the fact that in 2017 in the state budget 27 million hryvnias (around US$ 1 million) were earmarked for its implementation.[5] The likely reason behind this situation is the fact that it no longer enjoyed political support following Poroshenko’s defeat in the 2019 presidential election. At present, the project’s authors and supporters are cooperating with media outlets and giving public statements focused not so much on commemorating the victims of the Babi Yar massacre as on offering sharp criticism of the competing concept.[6]

2. The private project

The other project, which in the Ukrainian media is often referred to as the “Russian” project – was initiated by Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, Russian oligarchs of Jewish origin born in Soviet Ukraine. In 2016, they established the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) which is mainly intended to commemorate the extermination of Kyiv Jews, i.e. one of the stages of the so-called Holocaust by bullets.[7] Aside from commemorating the martyrdom of Jews, this project is intended to reflect on the attitudes of Ukrainian society and nationalist organisations during the Nazi German occupation. The concept envisages the creation of a large centre combining museums, research activities, education and archive studies, modelled on Yad Vashem. It is to include museums commemorating all victims of the Babi Yar massacre and of the Kurenivka disaster (in fact this plan to expand the perspective results from the fact that demands voiced by the supporters of the competing project have been taken into account).[8] The authors have decided to use innovative visitor interaction methods and cutting-edge multimedia technologies. The project is heralded by the “Babi Yar. Context” documentary written and directed by Sergei Loznitsa, which received the Special Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

The project’s implementation is to be completed in 2023 and the total value of the investment is estimated at US$ 100 million. The project’s initiators introduced a requirement that 50% of the cost should formally be covered by Ukrainian citizens (oligarchs Viktor Pinchuk and Pavlo Fuks, former boxer Wladimir Klitschko), 49% - by citizens of Russia and Israel (Fridman and Khan), and 1% – by a US citizen (Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress).[9] Due to the initiators’ assets and contacts (Fridman and Khan have been involved in extensive charity work worldwide for years), their project received support from influential politicians, prominent Holocaust researchers from several countries, and world-famous artists. In addition, the project received backing (according to media reports – at the request of the President’s Office) from the majority of Ukrainian Jewish organisations, including those linked with oligarchs.

The competing celebrations

Separate anniversary celebrations have become one of the manifestations of the dispute over Babi Yar. The main celebrations organised by the state took place on 6 October 2021 (the initially planned date, i.e. 29 September, was postponed due to several consecutive Jewish holidays, in order to enable foreign guests to attend the ceremony). The event was attended for example by presidents of Ukraine, Israel and Germany, as well as speakers of parliaments of several states. The ceremony was held at the BYHMC, making the Centre a co-host of the celebrations and confirming its important role in the efforts to commemorate the Babi Yar tragedy.

Representatives of the “state-sponsored” concept, e.g. the UINR and the Institute of History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, held their celebrations on 29–30 September, i.e. on the massacre’s anniversary. Most of the proponents of the “state-sponsored” concept failed to attend this ceremony, which was held in Babi Yar, and some of them only honoured the anniversary by posting commemorative messages on social media. President Zelensky, for his part, did visit Babi Yar and took part in a separate, small ceremony. A special lesson focused on the history of this crime was held in Ukrainian schools on that day.

The political aspect of the conflict over Babi Yar…         

In July 2020, President Zelensky publicly supported the BYHMC project and Andriy Yermak, Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, was appointed member of the initiative’s supervisory board. In addition, the project received backing from Kiyv’s mayor Vitaly Klitschko. The support offered by the authorities was most likely due to the project’s grand scale and advanced implementation stage, to the fact that it is not funded from the state budget and to the involvement of world-famous artists, prominent figures and former heads of state in its activities. For Zelensky, whose several family members had perished in the Holocaust, this support likely had a partly personal aspect. The project’s attractiveness is additionally boosted by its modern, multimedia form of commemorating the victims, developed by world-famous visual artists, and by its publicity abroad. The president began to “privatise” the project’s success during his recent visit to the United States by emphasising that this memorial is being built during his rule.

The actions carried out by the authorities have mobilised the opponents of the BYHMC, including the group affiliated with former president Poroshenko, who used issues related to the Babi Yar tragedy as a tool in their political attack targeting Zelensky. Although they were right in emphasising the absence of active steps on the part of the state to shape Ukraine’s politics of memory, their reservations also included inflated accusations suggesting that Zelensky is serving the Putin regime. The project was referred to as a hybrid war instrument and as Putin’s Trojan horse which is to facilitate efforts to discredit Ukraine on the international stage and to promote the image of Ukrainians as anti-Semites, nationalists and fascists.[10]

…and the risks associated with it

Despite the fact that these accusations are largely motivated by the ongoing political fight, criticism of the involvement of Russian oligarchs in this pivotal project relating to Ukrainian historical memory is far from irrational, especially in the context of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and of Ukraine’s actions focused on de-Communisation, de-Russification and its emancipation from Russia. Although Fridman and Chan are not among Putin’s close collaborators, they are linked with the Russian leadership by a number of political and business initiatives.[11] This triggers the risk of Russia’s interference in the memorial’s project, and at the same time – in the sensitive realm of Ukraine’s politics of memory.

At present, it is difficult to tell what the overall narrative offered by the Memorial Center will be like. One hint may be Loznitsa’s documentary, created under the aegis of the BYHMC. One element in this film that may seem convergent with Russia’s historical policy is the fact that its account of the history of World War II starts in 1941 and omits the previous Soviet-German collaboration. Another such element are the film’s opening scenes (taken out of context) showing residents of Ukrainian cities giving a warm welcome to German troops. At the same time, both the documentary and the achievements of the BYHMC thus far have a clear anti-totalitarian overtone and emphasise the tragedy of the war and the plight of human beings as its victims. This makes them fundamentally different from Russia’s politics of memory which is focused on the state as the subject of the fight and of the resulting victory, which overshadows the tragedy of the victims.

The personal aspect of the dispute

The wave of criticism focusing on the BYHMC seems to be motivated by certain personal aspects as well. When it was in its conceptual stage, the project received support from Ukraine’s then authorities including President Poroshenko, who attended its presentation back in 2016. Prior to taking his present post, the UINR’s head Anton Drobovych worked as the project’s manager responsible for educational programmes. Back in 2015, Yosyf Zisels, who at present is the project’s fervent opponent, applied to Fridman for funding for a project involving the establishment of a Jewish museum in Lviv, to no avail. [12] It is worth noting that since the 1990s Fridman and Khan have been involved in numerous charity and cultural projects in several countries, including in Ukraine (Fridman is the initiator and sponsor e.g. of the Leopolis Jazz Fest in his home town Lviv).

This criticism increased when Poroshenko’s camp lost power and this group’s representatives were no longer involved in the project. This time, it targeted the project’s artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, a recognised, although controversial, film director born in Moscow, who emphasises the personal and family-related aspects of his mission (his mother is a descendant of a Jewish family from Vinnytsia). He was accused of attempting to create Disneyland-style memorials in Babi Yar and to build installations “on the bones”, i.e. in places of burial of the victims of the Babi Yar massacre and in cemeteries which had existed there since the 19th century. The criticism did not subside even when Khrzhanovsky withdrew from his controversial commemoration ideas and when results of a land survey were published and consent was obtained from the rabbinate to build these facilities. This suggests that the criticism may be motivated by the project’s success and publicity, and the very fact that it is being implemented, whereas the competing project remains in its conceptual stage.

The historical aspect of the dispute

The dispute over Babi Yar is taking place in the realm of historical memory as well. The main line of division is between the groups supporting the view that Ukraine should be considered a “victim of two totalitarian systems” and the proponents of the concept focusing on the Holocaust and viewing Ukrainian society and nationalist organisations either as victims or perpetrators of crimes, depending on the context. In these disputes, one particularly contentious issue involves the assessment of the activities of OUN-UPA, of anti-Semitic attitudes promoted by these organisations and of their involvement in collaboration with the Nazis, motivated by their hope to restore an independent Ukrainian state.[13]

Post-2005 (i.e. during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency), recognition of OUN-UPA’s role in the fight for Ukraine’s independence became an element of the process of shaping the Ukrainian awareness and national identity, which is distinct from the Russian one. The importance of this role increased post-2014. Groups that support this view tend to adopt a selective and uncritical vision of OUN-UPA’s activities and to emphasise their members’ martyrdom and pro-independence ambitions, and frequently refuse to acknowledge certain incriminating facts. These groups react negatively to any attempts to start a debate on the crimes perpetrated by these organisations, which is the reason behind the outrage on the part of patriotic groups in response to reports that Loznitsa’s documentary mentioned earlier in this text contains references to OUN-UPA’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

Society’s attitudes towards the Babi Yar massacre and Jewish issues

The dispute over the strategy for commemorating the Babi Yar massacre is only insignificantly reflected in attitudes of Ukrainian society. A recent poll has shown that a mere 55% of the respondents were able to provide the exact location of Babi Yar. When asked about the identity of the victims, 37.5% of the surveyed individuals replied that these were “people of various nationalities”, 27% – “Ukrainian Jews”, 14% – “victims of totalitarian regimes, the German one and the Soviet one”, and 11% – “Soviet citizens”.[14]

At the same time, recent years’ events confirm that Jewish issues form an integral and neutral element of Ukraine’s everyday life. Research shows that compared with other countries in the region Ukraine has the most friendly attitude towards Jews,[15] and the number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in Ukraine in recent years is insignificant.[16] This is reflected in the country’s political developments – a candidate of Jewish origin won the 2019 presidential election by a landslide. In addition, it was frequently emphasised that Ukraine has become the only country, aside from Israel, in which both the president and the prime minister were individuals of Jewish origin: Volodymyr Zelensky and Volodymyr Hroysman.

Another proof of the country’s neutral attitude to this issue is the fact that Zelensky’s ethnic background was not considered important in his electoral campaign. Zelensky himself assessed the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine as very low, which makes the present situation different from the Soviet era. A similar opinion was voiced by representatives of Ukraine’s Jewish organisations.[17] Influential and popular figures in Ukraine’s political, business, media and cultural life include many individuals of Jewish origin.[18] A partly humorous term “zhydo-banderivtsy”, coined in Ukraine, became solidified following Russia’s 2014 aggression against this country, when many Ukrainian Jews (there were 103,000 of them according to the 2001 census, at present this community is much smaller) took part in the country’s defence and became involved in close cooperation with representatives of nationalist organisations. In September 2021, the Verkhovna Rada passed the law on preventing anti-Semitism, which was in line with the standards set by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and recommended by the European Union to its member states and to countries aspiring to EU membership.

Is Ukraine facing a debate on its difficult history?

In the rivalry between the two competing concepts for commemorating the Babi Yar massacre, the Holocaust Memorial Center, which is being dynamically developed, has now seized the initiative. Due to the fact that the Ukrainian authorities have de facto abandoned their will to shape the country’s politics of memory, in the coming years the leading part – in particular regarding the issue of the Holocaust in Ukraine – will be played by the private project in which the state is formally not involved. The fact that this project is autonomous from the state triggers a potential risk that Russia may attempt to stoke Ukraine’s internal disputes over the country’s past, to steer the narrative focused on the Holocaust and to propagate Ukraine’s image abroad in line with the intentions of the Russian leadership, i.e. as a “country inhabited by Hitler’s collaborators”. In addition, Ukraine’s image worldwide may be impacted by the attitude of the state of Israel – on the one hand it has expressed satisfaction with the Memorial Center’s establishment, but on the other hand it has voiced expectations, resulting from the unique nature of Israel’s Holocaust remembrance policy, that the non-Jewish victims should not be treated equally with the victims of the Holocaust, and that Ukraine should launch a comprehensive debate on the Holocaust, including on the attitudes which encouraged Ukrainian citizens to collaborate with the Nazis.

In this context, the BYHMC is filling a major gap in Ukraine’s politics of memory pursued thus far, which used to focus on presenting Ukraine’s tragedy in a more general context as a victim of two totalitarian systems, and on recognising the role of nationalist organisations as independence fight subjects. Ukraine has insignificant achievements as regards its historiography focused on nationwide Holocaust remembrance, which would offer a critical analysis e.g. of collaboration attitudes within society and of the involvement of nationalist organisations in the crimes targeting the Jewish population. However, the disputes over the BYHMC, combined with the attractive, modern form of this memorial centre, may contribute to increased awareness of Holocaust-related issues and encourage the researchers to launch historical studies, to reflect on Ukrainian society’s wartime attitudes and to organise a substantive debate on these attitudes – both the heroic ones and the disgraceful ones. However, it should be expected that this process will be turbulent and long-lasting.


[1] See K.C. Berkhoff, ‘Babi Yar’, SciencesPo, 27 May 2015, sciencespo.fr; The Babi Yar massacre, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, August 2021, hmd.org.uk.

[3] See Л. Величко, ‘Гроші на пам’ять’, ЛІГА.net, 24 July 2021, liga.net; Y. Zisels, ‘What is Happening around Babyn Yar Today?’, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, 4 September 2018, khpg.org/en.

[7] The terms refers to the initial stage of the extermination of Jews – the mass shootings which started when Nazi Germany attacked the USSR in 1941. See P. Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest's Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews, St Martin’s Griffin, 2009.

[8] Creative concept of the Memorial, Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, babynyar.org/en.

[11] See I. Zaslavskiy, ‘Mikhail Fridman, Pyotr Aven, German Khan, and their connections to the Kremlin and the FSB’, Underminers, 21 May 2018, underminers.info. Despite the fact that Fridman’s business empire was built in the 1990s (i.e. prior to Putin coming to power), which was also the peak of his political influence, post-2000 he had to take the Kremlin’s demands into account. Alfa Bank offered loans to state-controlled companies operating in strategic sectors, e.g. the Uralvagonzavod tank factory. Although the loan offered to this company had been spent several years ahead of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, tanks and flamethrower systems produced by it were sent to the Donbas post-2014. See М. Крутов, ‘Не только танки. "Эксклюзивное" российское оружие в Донбассе’, Радио Свобода, 19 August 2019, svoboda.org.

[14] Що думають українці про вшанування загиблих у Бабиному Яру, Фонд «Демократичні ініціативи» ім. Ілька Кучеріва, 9 July 2021, dif.org.ua.

[15] D. Masci, ‘Most Poles accept Jews as fellow citizens and neighbors, but a minority do not’, Pew Research Center, 28 March 2018, pewresearch.org.

[18] A. Balcer, ‘Wielokulturowe elity i obywatelska tożsamość narodowa niepodległej Ukrainy’, The Batory Foundation, 9 September 2021, batory.org.pl.