Numerous monuments in Ukraine commemorate the victims of National Socialism and Soviet Communism – such as this one in Pyatykhatky on the outskirts of Kharkiv. The Cemetery for the Victims of Totalitarianism serves as the final resting place for the thousands of people who were shot by the Soviet secret police and buried in a forest. Those who died under German occupation and during the great famine (“Holodomor”) are also remembered at many different places.
The memorial to the victims of the Ukrainian famine in 1932/33 rises above Kiev like a burning candle. The 30-meter-high bell tower, which culminates in a golden flame, was inaugurated in 2008. A museum that opened beneath it the following year explains how orders from the Soviet leadership led to the death of at least 3.5 million people in Ukraine. Remembering the Holodomor, which was not spoken about for decades, also serves to strengthen Ukrainian national consciousness.
Before the country established its independence, it was forbidden to research and write about the severe famine of the early 1930s in Ukraine. After the forced collectivization of agriculture, despite widespread crop failures, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin drastically raised the tax rate for peasants. Because he preceded to export most of the forcibly requisitioned grain while refusing humanitarian aid from abroad, it is assumed by historians that he deliberately caused the mass death in an effort to break resistance to Sovietization. For this reason, the Holodomor – a combination of the words “holod” (hunger) and “mor” (death, mass death) – is considered a genocide in Ukraine.
The National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide was created on the basis of a resolution of the Ukrainian Council of Ministers. It contains a memorial complex and an exhibition hall. The entrance to the complex is flanked by two statues of angels. Halfway to the memorial site, 24 millstones are arranged in a circle, as a reminder that nearly 24,000 people a day starved to death in Ukraine. In the center stands a statue of a malnourished girl clutching a handful of wheat ears: the memorial is dedicated to the children who died of starvation. The black paved path symbolizes the fertile topsoil of Ukraine.
The permanent exhibition is located beneath the bell tower in the circular “Hall of Memory.” A 20-minute film is projected on the white walls. Various objects from agriculture and farm life are presented in front. Black panels engraved with the names of 14,000 villages and towns that suffered severely from the famine stand at the center.
In a “National Book of Remembrance,” visitors can research famine victims or provide information about victims from their own families. The museum lights candles on Holodomor Remembrance Day, which is celebrated nationwide on the fourth Saturday in November. The exhibition can also be viewed on the Internet through a 3D animation. Although “Holodomor” refers to several famines in Ukraine, the word in the museum’s name was later changed from plural to singular to emphasize the singularity of the 1932-33 famine genocide.
The museum, which is administratively subordinate to the Ministry of Culture, also conducts research on the Holodomor and secures documents and eyewitness testimonies. According to its website, its main mission is to “warn society against repeating crimes of genocide by accumulating and spreading knowledge about the Holodomor.” It creates “awareness of the need to preserve the Ukrainian state as one of the main defenses against genocide.” One of its main tasks is to “remind people of the Ukrainian identity, after efforts were made to replace it with the Soviet identity.”
Virtual tour of the Holodomor Museum (Ukrainian)
After the Dictatorship. Instruments of Transitional Justice in Former Authoritarian Systems – An International Comparison
A project at the Department of Modern History at the University of Würzburg
Instagram: After the dictatorship
With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development
These crosses in a forest near Kiev resemble people taking flight. They commemorate the dead who were buried here during the period of the Soviet Union. Nearly 130,000 people are believed to be buried here, all of them murdered by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. The mass grave was discovered in 1941, when the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR. But a cloak of silence descended over the site after the war. The dead were not commemorated until after Ukrainian independence.
By 1930 at the latest, the Soviet secret police began shooting thousands of people in various Kiev prisons. When space for their burial became scarce in the Ukrainian capital, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) was allocated a site “for special purposes” in the nearby village of Bykivnia in 1937. Trucks transported the bodies here at night and buried them in anonymous mass graves. The site, surrounded by a two-and-a-half-meter-high wooden fence topped with barbed wire, covered more than 15,000 square meters and was guarded by armed watchmen in front.
The German occupiers discovered the mass graves in September 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Wehrmacht. During excavations, they found human bodies at a depth of half a meter. Many graves were still fresh because the NKVD had hastily shot many prisoners in reaction to the approaching Germans. The mayor of the village at the time made efforts to establish a memorial at the site. He was arrested for this after the Soviet Union recaptured the area in 1943. Under torture, he confessed that he had fabricated the pre-war executions. He was subsequently sentenced to ten years in prison.
During the thaw in the Soviet Union, a group of young dissidents organized around the poet Vasyl Symonenko discovered the mass graves beneath planted trees. They sent a memorandum to the Kiev City Council in 1962 but it had no effect. Militia members brutally beat Symonenko a year later, causing him to die of kidney failure.
Following public inquiries, several government commissions were set up to investigate the circumstances of the victims' deaths. They all concluded that they had been killed by the Nazis. Not until April 1989 did the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office determine that the dead had in fact fallen victim to the Stalinist repression of the 1930s.
Further investigations were carried out following the end of the Soviet Union. Polish and Ukrainian archaeologists found a total of 210 mass graves. During the excavations, they also came across the remains of over 3,000 Polish officers who had been captured after the Red Army invaded eastern Poland and executed at Katyn in the spring of 1940. Three hundred Italian executed soldiers are also believed to have found their final resting place there. In addition, the site contains the bodies of several thousand Red Army soldiers who deserted during the Wehrmacht invasion and were consequently shot by the NKVD. According to Ukrainian intelligence, documents show that 14,191 identified execution victims, including 1,199 NKVD personnel, were buried there.
In 1994, the first memorial to the victims of communism was inaugurated on the site. Seven years later, the Ukrainian government under Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko declared the site a memorial. In 2006, Yushchenko became the first Ukrainian president to attend the annual commemoration ceremony. Other memorials were erected later: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Polish counterpart Bronisław Komorowski opened their own memorial to Polish victims in 2012.
It took 50 years for the victims of one of the largest mass executions of World War II to be commemorated. In 1991, a seven-armed candelabrum was erected in memory of the more than 30,000 Jews who were shot outside of Kiev. Following the Wehrmacht invasion in 1941, they were killed in the Babi Yar ravine within 36 hours. Another 25 years passed before Ukraine agreed to build a museum here. But now, with the Russian invasion, its future is uncertain.
When the Wehrmacht’s 6th Army entered Kiev on September 19, 1941, nearly 50,000 Jews still lived there – mostly elderly people, women and children; the men were serving in the Red Army. Just over a week later, leading officers of the Wehrmacht and SS attended a meeting during which the decision was made to kill them. To avoid panic, the mass murder was disguised as an evacuation.
The decision was made in response to sabotage actions by the Soviet secret service, the NKVD. Immediately following the German invasion, the NKVD set off several bombs in central areas in the city. Nearly 1000 buildings burned down and several hundred German soldiers were killed. After a Jewish man was caught cutting a fire hose, the Kiev Jews were held collectively responsible for the explosions.
On September 28, the German occupiers ordered all Jews from Kiev and the surrounding area to gather near the freight station the following day with their documents, valuables and warm clothing. They were told that anyone who defied the order would be shot. Guarded by units of the SS, SD and Ukrainian police, the gathered Jews were taken in groups of hundreds to the Jewish cemetery near the Babi Yar (“Women's Ravine”).
At the edge of the ravine, the people had to hand over all their belongings and strip naked. Ukrainian auxiliary policemen used kicks and blows to make them obey. Then they were led in groups of ten into the ravine, where they laid down and were shot by members of the SS and the German order police. According to eyewitnesses, several layers of corpses were arranged over one another in three 60-meter-wide rows. Evidently many more people had turned up as were expected, causing the shootings to drag on until September 30. SS Einsatzgruppe C, led by Standartenführer Paul Blobel, oversaw the executions and reported a little later that 33,771 Jews had been subjected to “special treatment.”
This was not the only mass execution carried out at Babi Yar. On September 27, 752 patients of a nearby psychiatric hospital were also shot there. Further executions of Jews took place in early October. In January 1942, 100 Soviet prisoners of war were killed there, followed by 621 members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), who were shot there in February and March. Several Ukrainian writers were also among the victims. In addition, the residents of five Roma camps were executed in the ravine. It is estimated that between 70,000 and 200,000 people were killed at Babi Yar. Because the executed people were not registered by name, only a fraction have been identified.
As the Russian front drew closer, the Nazis tried to remove evidence of the mass murder in August 1943. Some 327 inmates of the nearby Syrez concentration camp were forced to “disinter” the bodies. They used iron hooks to lift them out of the mass graves and place them on gasoline-soaked railroad ties, where they were burned. Remaining bones had to be crushed with a mill and scattered; gold teeth and hidden rings were picked out and handed over to the Germans. Afterward completing this task, most of the inmates were shot.
The massacre of the Kiev Jews was not spoken about in the Soviet Union. In the 1944 investigation report published by the CPSU, the word “Jews” was replaced with “peaceful Soviet citizens.” In the mid-1950s, the ravine was partially filled in and built over. In 1961, a dam broke, further altering the landscape. In the mid-1960s, the Jewish cemetery was leveled so that a television tower could be built there.
A commemorative granite obelisk was erected at the site in 1966. Ten years later it was replaced by a bronze monument with the title: “Memorial to Soviet citizens and POW soldiers and officers of the Soviet Army, shot by the German occupiers in Babi Yar.” Finally, in 1991, a seven-branched candelabrum (menorah) and a “Street of Mourning” were erected in memory of the mass execution of Kiev Jews. In 1992, a monument to the executed OUN members was added; in 2000, a cross for the murdered Orthodox priests was erected at the site, joined in 2001 by a monument to the murdered children. The memorial has been extended to include monuments to Ukrainian forced laborers and German prisoners of war and to the mentally ill and Roma who were executed there.
On the initiative of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a decision was passed in 2016 to establish a Holocaust memorial center in Babi Yar. Plans include a modern museum, an installation with the victims’ names, a memorial room, and a research and educational center with a library, archive and collection. The internationally designed complex was scheduled to open in 2025/26 – but whether this will happen is now uncertain given the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In March 2022, a missile attack on the TV tower hit a building that was going to be incorporated into the memorial.