Opinion | Russia’s Missiles Are Burning the History of Ukraine’s Babyn Yar Ravine – The New York Times

Posted By on June 14, 2022

For many, Babyn Yar symbolizes the horror that largely preceded the gas chambers, the local Holocaust in which victims were shot at close range. Before the Nazis retreated, they had the corpses exhumed from the ravine and burned, an attempt to destroy the evidence of their crimes. The remains of their victims were dispersed throughout the land, mingling with the air, earth and groundwater. The full story of what happened to them went untold for decades, submerged and banned by Soviet authorities.

For the past six years, a group of historians, activists and designers has been working to correct the narrative and commemorate all that occurred. They hoped to build a series of museums on the site, to definitively bring to light what happened at Babyn Yar, to make the memory of its successive horrors inextricable from the land itself.

The current war in Ukraine is so oversaturated with historical meaning; it is unfolding on soil that has absorbed wave after wave of the dead, where soldiers do not always have to dig trenches in the forest because the old ones remain. In this environment, we cling to the images and ironies that remind us that the past is always present, that we are not so very far removed from its ravages. For some, it might be a photograph of the grand Odesa opera house, sandbagged and barricaded just as it was in 1942; for others, it might be images of bombed-out Ukrainian buildings, destroyed in the precise manner that they were during the last world war.

For me, it is this: The missiles aimed at the TV tower the missiles fired to denazify Ukraine, as Russias president has described the goal of his operation destroyed what was supposed to be a museum to the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Now both the building and the history that it promised to tell are collateral damage in a war that seeks to pervert historical meaning. Irony of ironies, destruction without end.

For two years before Russian missiles started to rain down on Kyiv, Maksym Rokmaniko, the director of the Kyiv-based Center for Spatial Technologies, had been studying, mapping, and forensically modeling the area around Babyn Yar to try to understand the complex and overlapping histories of the territory. The window of his office in Kyiv, where I visited him in September, gave him a perfect view of the TV tower that Russia targeted in early March. In peacetime, he had looked out every day at the landscape that he and his team were studying. We drank tea and shared cakes as he and his colleagues showed me how they were working to reconstruct some of the worst atrocities of World War II.

On Feb. 25, one day after the full-scale invasion began, Mr. Rokmaniko fled Kyiv with his family, driving amid the sounds of air raid sirens and explosions. They took shelter in the Carpathian Mountains with colleagues who were also working to commemorate what had happened at Babyn Yar, and they began to take stock of all that they had lost.

Around that time, Eyal Weizman, the head of the London-based research group Forensic Architecture, reached out to Mr. Rokmaniko to see if he was OK. The two men had corresponded as colleagues, as Mr. Rokmaniko sought to build on Forensic Architectures techniques. Both men head institutes engaged in the collection, analysis and reconstruction of war crimes evidence, but while Mr. Rokmaniko recently focused on the historical crimes of the Holocaust, Mr. Weizman works on, among other things, contemporary human rights violations, compiling artifacts for submission to international legal bodies.

Its the same kind of work, but it has a different speed, a different texture, a different kind of media that you need to work with, Mr. Weizman, a professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, told me recently. They began discussing how Mr. Rokmaniko and his team could transition from working on war crimes from World War II to documenting the crimes unfolding before his eyes all over Ukraine. The two men and the research organizations that they lead have collaborated on a new project, released last week, investigating the strike on Babyn Yar. They are now working together to begin collecting evidence at other sites in Ukraine.

Mr. Rokmaniko was in the mountains when the missiles hit the TV tower he used to look at from his window.

Sources: Vitali Klitschko, Ukrainian Independent Information Agency of News.

A sports complex, which was designated to become a museum to the Holocaust, was heavily damaged; the windows of other structures exploded from the impact. The colleagues Mr. Rokomaniko was sheltering with had also worked at Babyn Yar; together, they watched with horror as reactions to the strike started pouring in online.

On Twitter, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine wrote that the strike illustrated the worlds failure to prevent genocidal atrocities from recurring. To the world: What is the point of saying never again for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? he wrote. History repeating

Every town here has its own Babyn Yar, Ukrainians have told me again and again in my years reporting from the country. Killing fields where Nazis shot Jewish civilians, sometimes with assistance from local collaborators, dot the land. The Russian missiles that have been falling all over Ukraine for the past 110 days, murdering civilians and destroying cities, have been exposing old, barely healed historical wounds. On Saturday, March 26, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that a Russian missile strike had directly hit a Jewish memorial in a ravine called Drobytsky Yar, outside Kharkiv, where approximately 15,000 Jews were killed in 1941. The Nazis have returned, the ministry stated in a tweet.

In a televised address in late February, President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that the aim of his war is to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine, to protect Russian speakers from purported persecution. It is the kind of cynical justification that we have come to expect from his cynical regime a fabrication tailored to exploit historical pressure points, designed to provoke and confound. By using these words, Mr. Putin framed his attack on Ukraine as a successor battle to World War II, a fight to liberate Kyiv once more.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians have started calling the Russian soldiers raschists, a neologism that, as the historian Timothy Snyder writes, means something like Russian fascists but connotes much more. It is a term that underscores the fact that Russian troops are committing the very same crimes that, in many cases, their grandparents fought to end. Their commanders claim to be preventing genocide, while their soldiers are engaged in committing one; they are destroying the same cities that their predecessors liberated. And, Ukrainian officials have said, they are doing their best to cover up the evidence along the way.

I do not think that Ukrainians have much doubt that the aim of this operation is genocide, Mr. Rokmaniko told me. He had come to see Mr. Zelenskys tweet as a prophetic warning. The missile strike hit the Kyiv TV tower in the early days of the war, before Mariupol was completely encircled and besieged, before its citizens were forced to bury their neighbors and relatives in makeshift mass graves, before the war entered its current grim and grinding phase, in which more than 100 Ukrainian soldiers are said to be dying every day. Mr. Rokmaniko has learned that Russian soldiers had confiscated peoples SIM cards in Bucha and forced them to delete media files that would testify to war crimes committed there.

It takes seconds to claim a genocide is being committed, but it can take decades to prove it in a legal forum. Whether or not the war in Ukraine is indeed a genocide will be argued over for many years to come, first by legal scholars and then by historians. They will mobilize the particular logics of their fields to try to answer this terrible question, and still they may not agree.

The law frequently cannot take for granted what in history would count as common knowledge, the historian Richard J. Evans writes. In convicting a killer, the law does not need to prove that he committed a thousand murders if it can prove he committed a hundred. Thus the carefully defined and circumscribed purposes of a trial often fail to satisfy the wider remit of history. Law can work only with evidence that has been preserved. It cannot levy judgments based on what has been erased. And we may never know just how much has been lost, how many incriminating files have been deleted from confiscated cellphones, how many stories have now been silenced.

Genocide is a crime of negation. It is not merely the mass murder of a people; it is also the systematic erasure of their history and culture, the bombing of archives, the burning of artworks. Genocide does everything it can to deprive its victims of justice. It swallows up testimony the moment it is uttered and tries to mobilize it for the purposes of denial. This is what Russian forces have done all over Ukraine.

History tells us how quickly denial can unfold: At Babyn Yar during World War II, the negation began immediately after the murders.

When Soviet troops arrived at the site, they documented as much as they could; they brought American journalists to the site, took photographs and interviewed witnesses for the purpose of future trials. It was a Soviet Jewish jurist, Aron Trainin, who came up with the category of crimes against peace, for which the Nazis would be tried.

And then, after the trials, the Soviets buried what happened at Babyn Yar, literally and metaphorically. They flattened the site and forbade survivors from gathering there. In 1968 construction began on the TV tower, which would become the tallest structure in Ukraine.

Authorities banned compilations of testimonies, poems and even a famous symphony composed in honor of the dead, fearing that any expression of Jewish solidarity would threaten Soviet collective identity.

This is what Mr. Rokmaniko and his colleagues, organizers of what was to be a new museum complex at Babyn Yar, call the Soviet oblivion of the site, an oblivion that began to relent only after 1991, when the process of reckoning with history became an important part of Ukraines gradual reintegration with Europe.

The organizers were going to build a museum to document the Soviet oblivion near the old ravine, but now their work has been indefinitely postponed, their remaining funds diverted to pay for military ambulances and civilian aid.

After all of these years, the history and complexity of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe are still not widely understood. This is one of the reasons the Kremlins talking points can take hold. The danger is that after this war, this history will become even harder to tell.

But we are not without tools to combat these forms of obliteration. Mr. Rokmaniko and Mr. Weizman specialize in the painstaking technical work of forensic data collection and spatial reconstruction, in the "very careful, slow, analytical work to show what's what," as Mr. Weizman put it.

After the strikes on the TV tower, they decided to begin a collaborative project and to collect evidence on airstrikes, bombings and other attacks on sites of urban and historical significance to shed light on Ukraines heritage, the reality of the war, and to try to preserve its record and they hope to contribute factual findings to the trials to come.

As with all investigations, time is of the essence. Once evidence is destroyed or tampered with, it cannot easily be reclaimed. It took 80 years to uncover the truth of what happened at Babyn Yar: Mr. Rokmaniko was the first to discover the particular ridge that the victims walked to reach the killing site. It was literally hard to reconstruct what happened, Mr. Rokmaniko said. While I think now it is quite easy to see what happened, to make people look at it, he said, it can be far more difficult to get people to agree on what it is that they see.

Visual evidence and reconstructions like these aid the investigation by Forensic Architecture and Center for Spatial Technologies into the destruction of a theater in the city of Mariupol. Oleksandr Malyon via Wikimedia Commons, Reuters and Center for Spatial Technologies.

Today, war takes place on the ground and also in a warp-speed media environment, in which a surfeit of documentation testifies to what is occurring, often as the crimes are ongoing. When things get circulated online, they are hyperinterpreted, Mr. Weizman said. They often come without time. They come without metadata. Forensic reconstructions allow researchers to cut through this oversaturation, to show exactly where the missiles landed and try to find the civilians they killed, to construct a lasting narrative of the event. The method of this work tends to reveal connections that previously went unseen: This process teaches you things, Mr. Rokmaniko told me. Once you start modeling, you start to notice things: Where is the fence broken? Where is the building burning?

It also helps connect the present to the past, to show how the catastrophes of prior generations literally structure the terrain upon which todays unfold. The bodies of those killed in the TV tower strike, for instance, are now kindred not only with the tens of thousands murdered there during World War II but also with all those who were buried there in the centuries before: Beneath the craters lie the remains of a 19th-century cemetery, where Jews, Muslims, Crimean Karaites and Russian Orthodox Kievans were once laid to rest.

I think the deeper question is, How do we relate to these events? What do they mean for us? What do they mean to others? How has this actually changed peoples lives and well-beings? This isnt something that can be ultimately addressed in the analytic, forensic language, said Nick Axel, an architect who had been running a design competition for Babyn Yar.

But the reconstructive work that his colleagues are engaged in, he said, is nevertheless an absolutely essential starting point for the more messy but ultimately more meaningful process of reckoning with the fact of these events. With the fact of the matter, with the fact that these things actually happened.

All wars are fought first on the ground and in public perception and second in courts and in history. Mr. Weizman and Mr. Rokmaniko hope their work will intervene at both stages. They are already collaborating with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights to submit a case on the TV tower strikes and have begun investigating the attack on the Mariupol theater.

The strike near Babyn Yar, Mr. Weizman explained, is notable because the fact that it was against a media network is directly related to the entire point that we are trying to make that this war is about creating messages and resonance with historical facts, he said. Journalists in Kyiv reported that the attack temporarily interrupted Ukrainian news broadcasts and that authorities were preparing alternative ways of disseminating Ukrainian news sources. In areas now under Russian control, Russian outlets are the only publicly broadcast source of news.

Part of what Mr. Weizman and Mr. Rokmaniko aim to do is to identify patterns in Russias assault to establish that the atrocities being committed in Ukraine are systematic and widespread, as Mr. Weizman explained. The minute you can establish systematic and widespread, the responsibility goes up the command chain.

The first war crimes charges against Russian soldiers were filed by Ukrainian prosecutors in late April. These are aimed at 10 individuals from the 64th Separate Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, low-level personnel who are accused of mistreating civilians in Bucha, where Ukrainians say they discovered the bodies of more than 400 civilians after Russian troops retreated from the area. (Moscow has said that allegations that its troops committed war crimes are fake news.)

It has become one of the most visible cases of Russian brutality. In late May the first Russian soldier to stand trial was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 62-year-old Ukrainian man. The same day of his sentencing, the leader of the separatist Donetsk Peoples Republic announced that captured Ukrainian soldiers from the Azovstal steel complex were in his territory and that they would be subjected to an international tribunal. Last week, a separatist court sentenced three foreign fighters who had joined the Ukrainian army to death by firing squad.

After Ukrainian forces retook Bucha, prosecutors and forensic specialists were able to reach the destruction and document its scale, something they may not be able to do in territories that remain under Russian control. (In Mariupol, Russian authorities have their own investigators combing the city.) The one thing that is certain is that there will be more charges to come Ukraines prosecutor general announced on May 31 that about 80 criminal prosecutions of Russian soldiers are already underway and advocates hope that one day we might see a special tribunal akin to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg for the Russian high command. As the historian Francine Hirsch has pointed out, Russians and Ukrainians are both looking back to Nuremberg but are taking dramatically different lessons from its example.

As more trials begin, there will be further echoes of the past. The first public war crimes trial of Nazis was conducted by Soviet authorities in the city of Kharkiv in 1943, in the citys drama theater. Today, Ukrainians are calling for a new Kharkiv tribunal, a Nuremberg 2022. These words circulate as hashtags online, appeals for a justice still to come.


Opinion | Russia's Missiles Are Burning the History of Ukraine's Babyn Yar Ravine - The New York Times

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