After reading the late Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s groundbreaking 1961 poem “Babi Yar”—about the massacre of over 33,000 Jews at the ravine of that name outside Kiev—the composer Dmitri Shostakovich was immediately moved to set it to music. But doing so risked raising the ire of a regime eager to repress memory of the Holocaust. Alex Ryvchin relates:
In the two decades between the massacre and the publication of Yevtushenko’s poem, the official policy of the Soviet Union was to avoid mention of such massacres or else to deny their fundamental character as acts of genocide. Over 1.3 million Jews were killed in sites like Babi Yar throughout the Soviet Union. Most of the killing fields remain neglected and unmarked.
The Soviet authorities had good reason to deny the nature of these crimes. For one, an invading army freely hunting and massacring over a million civilians throughout the land made a mockery of supposed Soviet power. There was also the deeply uncomfortable reality that Ukrainians and other peoples cobbled together in the officially harmonious Soviet Union had in many cases been willful participants in the killings of their fellow citizens.
By the 1950s, [furthermore], the Soviet Union had also become the foremost proponent of anti-Zionism, provided the Arabs with arms, and stood in visceral opposition to the state of Israel. Soviet propaganda denounced the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” and “bourgeois nationalists” for seeking a homeland of their own—in no small part because of the failure of European states to prevent their wholesale slaughter. . . .
[I]n a state where even laying flowers at a killing field was seen as criminal subversion, a symphony by the most celebrated composer of the day, the lyrics of which chart the history of anti-Semitism from show-trials and pogroms to Anne Frank, could not proceed without incident. The conductor was interrupted during final rehearsals with a request from the minister of culture to drop the offending first movement. He refused. The singer was then conveniently called up to perform at the Bolshoi. The TV broadcast [of the symphony] was cut. Still, the production proceeded at immense personal risk to everyone associated with it, not least Shostakovich himself.
Today, the denial of the Babi Yar massacre of Jews through enforced silence has been replaced by simply drowning out the genocide through a preponderance of monuments and counter-monuments to each group affected by Babi Yar. This reflects the complexity of modern Ukraine and its discomfort with truly addressing how a community [largely] assimilated into Soviet society could be plucked from its ordinary metropolitan existence and delivered to the hell of the ravine under the watch, and in part, by the hand, of their Ukrainian neighbors.