Idée D&B: Babi Yar, a new DAU project?

Babi Yar is a fascinating place. Despite the dozens of thousands of victims that lay under the trees, the park is quite pleasant in autumn. Despite the crushing memory of the 1941 tragedy, the place is marred in controversy. Latest in a long series, the appointment of Russian Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director. Madman or genius, does he want to reproduce his DAU project at Babi Yar?

Autumn would be the perfect time to take a walk through the Kyiv Dorohozhychi park – were it not for the thousands of Shoah victims that lay under the trees. 33,771 persons, mostly Jews, were shot dead here on 29-30 September 1941, a few days after the storming of then Kiev by Nazi troops. It was one of the worse episodes of the “Shoah by bullets”. By the end of the Soviet reconquest in December 1943, more than 100,000 persons were to be buried here in mass graves.

Archive.

The “yari” (canyons) were filled up and flattened. Soviets did not try to dig out the dead after the war. It took the devastating Kurenivka mudslide in 1961 (145 dead according to official figures, up to 1,500 dead according to later investigations) to bring the bones and the skulls back to the surface.

Monument to Kurenivka mudslide at Babyn Yar

Soviet authorities then felt compelled to acknowledge the Babi Yar massacre and to erect a monument. The 1976 brutalist statues are dedicated to “Soviet victims”, with no distinction of religion, ethnicity or social class.

Monument to Soviet victims at Babyn Yar

Following the collapse of USSR, various communities tried to fill in the gap and to erect monuments dedicated to their own community tragedies. The park of Babyn Yar (Ukrainian spelling) now counts no less than 10 monuments to Jews, Soviets, Christians, Roms, children, etc.

Monuments to Jewish victims at Babyn Yar

To overcome the various attempts at commemorating differentiated – sometime contradictory and conflicting – memories, an ambitious project to build a memorial complex was launched during the 2016 official commemorations, 75 years after the tragedy. The museum was supposed to open in 2021, on the occasion of the 80 years following the massacre. Constructions still didn’t start.

Monument to children victims at Babyn Yar.

The project is marred in controversy because of several factors. First, the conceptual approaches to which perception of memory should be promoted have been different from the very start. Second, the co-financing by some Russian oligarchs has caused an uproar among Ukrainian society. Last but not least, the appointment of Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director of the project raises continuous criticism. The Russian artist is the mad – or genius – director of the titanic DAU project. His idea for the Babi Yar memorial are not yet clear yet Vladislav Davidzon sees two risks in his eccentric personality to run the show. First, the import of immersive and emotionally ruthless aspects of the DAU projects (experienced last year by visitors at an exhibition in Paris) may lead to some of the visitors at Babi Yar to undergo fake shootings and live burials. The pedagogical value of such experiences is questionable. Second, the fact that Khrzhanovsky took 14 years to complete the DAU project instead of the 2 that were initially planned hints that the Babi Yar memorial is nowhere to being started, let alone completed.

For more information on the controversy, do read Vladislav Davidzon’s brilliant article in Tablet

As previous years, official remembrance events will take place on 29-30th September. A temporary structure has already been installed to welcome participants.

Monument to Soviet victims at Babyn Yar

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