Babi Yar is a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev where Nazi forces murdered 33,000 Soviet Jews. For a long time there was no monument at the site of the atrocity. Yevtushenko was one of the authors politically active during the Khrushchev Thaw (Khrushchev declared a cultural "Thaw" that allowed some freedom of expression). In 1961, he wrote what would become perhaps his most famous poem, Babii Yar, in which he denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in September 1941, as well as the anti-Semitism still widespread in the Soviet Union.

The usual Soviet policy in relation to the Holocaust in Russia was to describe it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and to avoid labeling it as a genocide specifically of the Jews. Therefore, Yevtushenko's work Babi Yar was quite controversial and politically incorrect, for it detailed not only Nazi atrocities, but also the Soviet's own persecution of the Jews. Following a centuries-old Russian tradition, Yevtushenko became a public poet. The poem achieved widespread circulation in the underground samizdat press, and later was set to music, together with four other Yevtushenko poems, by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled Babi Yar.


Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
  Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
   a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
The Philistine
    is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.
   Beset on every side.
         spat on,
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
             young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
         ‘Beat the Yids. Save Russia!’

Some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
      I know
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites –
          without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
  Anne Frank
  as a branch in April.
And I love.
  And have no need of phrases.
My need
     is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
        or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
      we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much –
embrace each other in a darkened room.
They’re coming here?
         Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
           spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
   Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
             No, it’s the ice breaking…
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
             like judges.
Here all things scream silently,
     and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
   turning grey.
And I myself
  am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
I am
         each old man
   here shot dead.
I am
         every child
         here shot dead.
Nothing in me
        shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’ let it
When the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
        I am a true Russian!

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(Translated by George Reavey)