In the Spring of 1978 the Whitworth College study tour of the Soviet Union made the last major stop on our visit, at Kiev. As usual, our group was posted to a tourist hotel, provided with buses and a suave trained tour guide, and directed to all the major tourist sites in the area. Having spent the summer before reading some chronicles of ancient Russia in which the origins of the empire of the Rus were placed at Kiev, this was one of the places I most looked forward to seeing.
From the bluffs above the river outside the walls of the medieval Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery I looked down on ragged forests that I was sure concealed the remains of the Viking camps that became Kiev’s first royal halls. But the tour guide had a schedule to keep and he herded us all inside the church hall. It was somewhat disconcerting to find Ukrainian peasants inside the church, gamely trying to worship while the guide led us from icon to icon, pointing out the hollow jars buried inside the heavy columns with their mouths exposed to provide reverberation. As I stood gape-mouthed and amazed at the intricate details of the church an old woman in a head scarf and a brown apron shifted past me, muttering the warning, “Ne smeyatsia!” She had mistaken my appreciation of the building for mockery of the worshipers.
The tour guide summoned us to a narrow stairway, dimly lit by sconces on the walls. He gave a succinct history of the caves beneath the monastery, where monks had lived in tiny dark chambers alongside the accumulation of bones and bodies of priests and monks who had been buried there since the founding of the catacombs in 1051. One of my classmates had a hysterical fit when she heard that we were about to pass through the catacombs. I have to confess that several of us looked uncomfortable. Dead bodies didn’t seem like tourist attractions to me. But we plunged down the stairway into the half-lit corridors. They smelled damp and moldy, but there wasn’t a stench of death. Piles of naked, disjointed bones and heaps of skulls were stacked in alcoves alongside the passage. Certain alcoves were draped with dusty velvet, where the bones of bishops who died hundreds of years before protruded from the fancy embroidery of their robes. Skulls leered from beneath their jeweled hats.
Later that evening a few of us strolled along Kiev’s main thoroughfare, enjoying a mild night and whatever nightlife the Soviet city offered. Not much, in fact. But we were spotted by some young Russians who immediately pegged us as foreigners. They “wanted to practice their English” with us, so we struck up a conversation. It was pleasant after all, not like the pusher who had tried to set me up with “gashish” in the Hermitage Art Museum at Leningrad a couple of weeks before. These young men were well educated and interesting. They wanted to trade for jeans, which they would later take to Siberia to sell for a handsome profit. One of them was an aspiring artist whose father was a practicing artist with books of pictures on sale in the stores. This young man later emigrated to America and is now selling his art in galleries in Los Angeles. He and I corresponded for a few years after my return to America.
Our buses took us along one of Kiev’s showpiece boulevards to a park with broad fields of mowed grass and quiet groves of swaying trees. On a brick pedestal loomed a huge bronze statue, a war memorial we were informed. When the tour guide let us wander off a few of my buddies and I ran to defensive trenches that wove across the fields, remnants of the final battles around Kiev. We posed, pretended, laughed, unconscious of the gross sacrilege of our actions.
In the early 1980s a family of Jews from Kiev, freshly released for emigration by the easing of Soviet rules, moved into an apartment down the hall from me on Capitol Hill in Seattle. I befriended them, charming them with my stumbling Russian language. At some point I revealed that I had actually been to their home town and I shared a few photographs, including the pictures of the park. Yelena faced me, her anger making iron fists on the photographs. “Eta Babi Yar.” Though we couldn’t really communicate in each other’s languages, her story soon became clear. Here at Babi Yar the Nazis had executed Jews during the war. I left that interview understanding that Yelena was angry at the Soviets who built the monuments because their inscriptions hailed Soviet heroes and the soldiers who died in the siege of Kiev.
But it wasn’t only that. In late September of 1941, after the Nazis occupied the city, secret agents of the NKVD bombed several buildings with connections to the Nazi occupiers. In reprisal, and to carry our their grand genocidal mission, Nazi officials issued an order that all Jews in Kiev were to report on the morning of September 29, Yom Kippur, at a site near a railroad station. Tens of thousands obeyed the order, believing they were to be sent to labor camps. Instead the Germans and their Russian sympathizers began a four day killing spree at the ravine of Babi Yar. From dawn to dusk every day through October 3, groups of prisoners were stripped and marched to the bloody edge of the pit to be shot. An estimated thirty thousand Jews were executed by gunfire on the edge of the ravine that lies beneath those carefully manicured fields. By the end of the war the Germans had used the fields to liquidate another sixty or seventy thousand prisoners. One hundred thousand hearts and minds lay beneath that lawn.
How could we, romping across the clipped grass and leaping those preserved trenches…why did we not know that we were trampling the dead of one of the Nazis’ most ghastly atrocities? Some things we only learn later. I have always wished I could go back there to stand in silent reverence to honor the dead of Babi Yar.