In a forested park on the western edge of Kyiv, Ukraine, near the ravine known as Babyn Yar, Oleh Shovenko leads me to a 20-foot-tall steel frame that looms over a weed-choked field. This half-finished art installation is called the “kurgan,” a word for a type of prehistoric burial mound found in Ukraine and Russia. When it’s completed, Shovenko tells me, visitors will enter the roughly 260-foot-long tumulus through one of two portals. Then they will descend ten feet into an artificial canyon illuminated by a skylight.

Here a series of miniature dioramas, built to scale and making use of plasma screens and virtual reality displays, will bring to life an unfathomable horror: the murder of 33,771 men, women and children—a huge portion of Kyiv’s remaining Jewish population—at the ravine on September 29 and 30, 1941. The atrocity, carried out by an SS Einsatzgruppen mobile killing unit, Nazi police and several dozen Ukrainian collaborators, was by many accounts the single deadliest mass killing of Jews during the Holocaust. (As many as 70,000 more people, including other Jews, Soviet POWs and Roma civilians, are believed to have been murdered in the ravine in the two years that followed.) Remarkably, until now, the massacre of Kyiv’s Jews has never been properly memorialized.

To recreate the ravine as it looked 80 years ago, artists, architects and historians studied geological and aerial surveys carried out before the war by czarist and then Soviet authorities, plus all available historical maps, some dating to the 19th century. The images showed the original network of ravines as well as five cemeteries, including a Jewish one, which existed on the site before the Nazi invasion. The research and design team also had access to snapshots taken by a Nazi photographer immediately after the massacre. The plan for the kurgan, which is constantly evolving, now calls for using 3D printers to fabricate thousands of two-inch-tall, individualized figurines of victims and their Nazi executioners to recreate scenes from the massacre and its aftermath. Visitors will observe the gathering of Jews on the outskirts of Kyiv, their march to the execution ground, the mass shootings in the ravine and the Nazis’ desperate attempt, two years later, to cover up their crimes as the Red Army advanced toward Kyiv. “Finishing this is our priority,” Shovenko tells me. “It’s important to put a roof on it, so that people can spend some time here and get to know the story from beginning to end.”

The steel frame of an unfinished installation known as the “kurgan,” or burial mound, a centerpiece of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
The steel frame of an unfinished installation known as the “kurgan,” or burial mound, a centerpiece of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Timothy Fadek / Redux
A boy passes renderings of what the kurgan will look like when finished. The exhibit will feature detailed dioramas telling the story of the killings.
A boy passes renderings of what the kurgan will look like when finished. The exhibit will feature detailed dioramas telling the story of the killings. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Shovenko is the deputy artistic director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a $100 million complex, years in the making, that aims to combine meticulous research and artistic innovation to create the most grand-scale World War II memorial in the world. Originally, the center was conceived as a single large museum, but beginning in 2020 those plans evolved into a vastly more ambitious project, including many art installations plus at least four separate museums. One, the Museum of Victims of Babyn Yar, would recreate Ukraine’s vanished Jewish culture using photographs and the commonplace stuff of life: furniture, candelabra, vintage radios and other memorabilia gathered by the staff. Another, the Museum of Oblivion, would document both the efforts by the Soviet Union to whitewash the massacre after World War II and Jewish acts of resistance against Soviet denialism. Footpaths across the 370-acre former killing ground would link the facilities.

In October 2021, around the 80th anniversary of the massacre, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was joined by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog and Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to dedicate the partially built complex. The Ukrainian government expected that the site would soon take its place alongside other revered Holocaust memorials—Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe—as a hallowed place for remembrance and contemplation. And as a symbol of the belated recognition of the atrocity, it was also regarded as a means of helping to cement Ukraine’s progressive new role in Europe.

Then, on February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Troops occupied Kyiv’s suburbs and besieged the capital. A Russian missile strike near a TV tower adjacent to Babyn Yar killed five people, including four members of a family. Staff members fled the country or went off to fight at the front: Shovenko laid mines along the Belarus border until, he told me, an episode of PTSD compelled him to leave the army. Meanwhile, two of the memorial center’s main funders, the Ukrainian-born Russian Jewish billionaires Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, who had close relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s circle, were sanctioned by Western countries, obliging them to withdraw their support. The center’s staff shrank to a skeleton crew, and the many ambitious projects came to a halt. Today, the kurgan, instead of being the memorial’s flagship installation, stands half-finished as a symbol of a violent disruption. “I lost my inner motivation after the war began,” Shovenko admitted.

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This article is a selection from the December 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Ukraine Triptych
In February 2022, the Russian Army occupied Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv ten miles west of Babyn Yar. Roman Ilnitsky, a church deacon who helped local civilians evacuate to Kyiv, documented scenes of the Russian occupation on his iPhone. The Russians retreated from Irpin after a month, leaving destruction in their wake. Later, Ilnitsky gave testimony to Babyn Yar Center staff members, who were collecting eyewitness accounts and other details for possible use in war crimes investigations. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Now, nearly two years into the conflict, the Babyn Yar Center, an organization dedicated to a distant atrocity, is reconceiving its mission and finding new relevance in the process. It has realized that it can’t ignore the atrocities being committed today—and that staff members can even put their skills as researchers and museum professionals to use. The work now is smaller-scale and lower-budget. But if the center’s ambitions have changed, they have not exactly diminished: They reflect a desire not only to properly commemorate, at long last, the historical injustice perpetrated here, but also to acknowledge and record the crimes and the suffering of this new war. In addition to preserving records of centuries of Jewish life and identifying the massacre’s victims, many of whom remain anonymous, the center’s staff members are compiling details about Ukrainian civilians killed in Russian airstrikes and artillery bombardments. Others have interviewed victims of Russian atrocities as part of ongoing war crimes investigations. “This is our current reality,” says Anna Furman, the center’s deputy CEO. “No one is immune from the risks and threats of death while in Ukraine.”

I visited Babyn Yar in early June, during a short lull in Russian attacks on Kyiv. Almost every night for four weeks Russia had launched Iranian drones and hypersonic missiles at the capital. Patriot missiles provided by the United States destroyed most of the incoming fire, but falling debris killed several people, including a mother and daughter who failed to reach a shelter in time. All through May, sirens and explosions jolted residents out of bed before dawn and sent them scurrying underground. When we met, Shovenko had barely had an uninterrupted sleep in weeks.

Shovenko led me along a tree-lined path through a public park, past bicyclists and couples on benches, to see how far the project had progressed before the Russians attacked. In a clearing near the kurgan, an operator flicked a switch, and an electric motor whirred into action. Slowly, a huge wooden pop-up book opened to transform itself into a walk-in model of Ukraine’s historic wooden synagogues, complete with Hebrew prayers on the walls and a ceiling exquisitely painted with the constellations that appeared on the first night of the killings. Ukraine’s small Jewish community and many visitors prayed here regularly before the Russian invasion. “But most of the Jews and the rabbis have left, and it’s not very much in use,” Shovenko said. I crossed a pathway to confront the somber stillness of the Crystal Wall of Crying, an installation by the internationally celebrated Serbian performance and conceptual artist Marina Abramović. It consists of a lengthy wall of black anthracite embedded with long pink quartz crystals, which represent healing power, and is meant to evoke Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the only surviving remnant of the city’s ancient Jewish temple complex.

A model synagogue opens like a pop-up book.
A model synagogue opens like a pop-up book. The design evokes the style of wooden synagogues from the 17th and 18th centuries, which are all gone. Timothy Fadek / Redux
The Crystal Wall of Crying, an installation meant to evoke Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, designed by conceptual and performance artist Marina Abramović.
The Crystal Wall of Crying, an installation meant to evoke Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, designed by conceptual and performance artist Marina Abramović. Timothy Fadek / Redux
Mirror Field, whose ten reflective steel columns, torn apart by 100,000 bullet holes, represent the damaged “tree of life.”
Mirror Field, whose ten reflective steel columns, torn apart by 100,000 bullet holes, represent the damaged “tree of life.” Timothy Fadek / Redux

Nearby stood the Mirror Field, a stainless-steel platform with ten reflecting steel pillars pocked by bullet holes. The bullet holes had been made in 2020, before the outbreak of the current war, when Ukrainian special forces fired thousands of bullets, amounting to two tons of metal, into the steel—almost the exact amount of ammunition used to murder Kyiv’s Jews. Shovenko and I walked silently among the columns, meant to symbolize the broken “tree of life.” A pipe organ and audio player underneath the platform filled the air with the haunting music of Ukraine’s vanished shtetl culture, archival recordings of Yiddish songs of the 1920s and ’30s, and voices reading the names of some 18,000 Jewish victims—the number of Jews killed at Babyn Yar who had been positively identified when this installation was completed three years ago. (The figure is now up to 29,220.)

Not far away, in the middle of the footpath through the park, we came across a monument to an unrelated tragedy—a 160-gallon glass tank, filled with mud, and resting atop a column of bricks stamped with logos of Kyiv brick factories. The installation, conceived by Shovenko himself, serves as a reminder of the multilayered horrors that played out on this site during World War II and afterward. In November 1943, after the Red Army recaptured Kyiv, Soviet authorities began to fill in the ravine with liquid waste from nearby brick plants. On the morning of March 13, 1961, after heavy rains, one trillion gallons of slurry broke through a dam and inundated the city’s Kurenivka district. The deluge is thought to have killed more than 1,500 people. Soviet authorities, evading responsibility, never confirmed more than 145 fatalities.

Filling in Babyn Yar had a larger purpose than disposing of excess sludge. It was part of a systematic effort by Soviet authorities to erase all traces of the massacre, a coverup that has given the Holocaust memorial project even greater historical resonance. Driven in part by the antisemitism of Joseph Stalin and other Communist leaders, and in part by a resistance to singling out Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis, the Soviets built high-rise apartment buildings and a television tower on the site, turned some of it into a park, allowed much to revert to wilderness, and arrested those who sought to pray here or otherwise memorialize the victims. “They said, ‘Come on, we lost 27 million people, is that nothing because we were not Jews?’” says Patrick Desbois, a noted French war crimes investigator and Catholic priest whose 2008 book The Holocaust by Bullets documented the murder by gunfire of 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe during the first phase of Hitler’s so-called Final Solution. (As late as the 2000s, Desbois and his team faced obstruction from Russian authorities while researching the killings.)

Still, the site was hallowed. In 1961, 20 years after the massacre, the Soviet writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem “Babi Yar,” the Russian-language name of the site, in the prestigious Russian periodical Literaturnaya Gazeta. The opening line—“There are no monuments over Babi Yar”—poignantly evoked not only the atrocity but also the policy of silence enforced by the Soviet regime.

Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician, was a 13-year-old boy in Stalino, now Donetsk, when he heard Yevtushenko’s elegy. “I remember how my father with a trembling voice was reading it from Literaturnaya Gazeta, saying, ‘Finally, we can speak about it,’” Sharansky told me recently. “Days later, they started attacks in the press on Yevtushenko, but the poem doesn’t disappear.”

Combo 1 - The small portraits show unidentified Ukrainians, likely Jews, before the war.
The small portraits show unidentified Ukrainians, likely Jews, before the war. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Five years later, the Soviet monthly literary magazine Yunost published a heavily edited version of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoly Kuznetsov, who had been a 12-year-old boy in Kyiv at the time of the Nazi occupation. In 1969 Kuznetsov defected to the United Kingdom, carrying the unexpurgated version of his harrowing story, based in part on documents and eyewitness testimony he’d gathered in the decades after the massacre. (The book was published in the West the following year.)

In 1975, on the anniversary of the killings, Sharansky and a dozen other Soviet Jewish activists boarded a train to Kyiv to visit Babyn Yar; the KGB arrested them before they reached the city and detained them for two days. “Babyn Yar is not only the biggest grave of the Holocaust,” says Sharansky, who is now chairman of the memorial center’s supervisory board. “It’s also the biggest symbol of this effort of the Soviet Union to erase it from the memory.” After concerted pressure from international and Soviet Jewish groups, the Soviets agreed in the 1970s to place a small memorial at the site—but it referred only to “Soviet” victims.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s leadership lifted the veil of secrecy and denial. In 2016, President Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire owner of a confectionary company, gathered commitments to fund the project from Fridman, Khan and the Ukrainian-born Jewish oligarchs Victor Pinchuk and Pavel Fuks. But in 2014 Russia had illegally annexed Crimea and started the war in the Donbas, and many Ukrainians bitterly opposed any Russian participation. Some believed that Fridman and Khan planned the project as a Trojan horse to somehow push a pro-Putin agenda. But Sharansky says that Fridman, who lost several family members at Babyn Yar, never made any attempt to disseminate Russian propaganda.

Besides donating millions of dollars to the project, Fridman also recommended that the supervisory board bring on Ilya Khrzhanovsky, an enterprising, avant-garde and sometimes controversial Russian Jewish filmmaker, to design the memorial. Fridman had visited the production offices of Dau, Khrzhanovsky’s ambitious series of films about the Stalin-era physicist Lev Landau. To shoot the films, the director had constructed a vast mock-up of a fictional Soviet research center in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and populated it, Truman Show-like, with thousands of extras who lived there around the clock for years. Dau reflected the kind of grand-scale cinematic vision that Fridman and the board hoped would energize the Babyn Yar project. “He mobilized a huge field of people,” Sharansky told me. “He brought in dozens of talented young Ukrainians, specialists in history and art.”

I met Khrzhanovsky on a summer evening at a café in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of western Berlin, where he lives for much of the year. (He has Russian, Israeli and German citizenship.) A baby-faced 47-year-old, wearing a black trench coat and black pants, he had taken a break from the editing room, where he was finishing work on a new film.

When he arrived in Kyiv in 2019, he told me, lighting a cigarette, the board envisioned a single large museum on the site of the killings. Khrzhanovsky, whose mother fled central Ukraine on the last train ahead of the Nazi onslaught in July 1941, tossed out the plan. “If you’re a child and have no connection to the Holocaust, how can we make you want to come?” he said. “I felt we needed to build something interactive, different installations where people can feel something about evil, about the fragility of life, and can understand what a Jew was, what kind of world disappeared.” Oleksiy Makukhin, the center’s chief executive, told me that Khrzhanovsky’s arrival marked the moment that “the idea of a single museum was replaced with a new concept—taking over the whole territory.”

Oleksiy Makukhin, the center’s chief executive.
Oleksiy Makukhin, the center’s chief executive. The staff’s experience “investigating crimes of the past,” he says, prepared them to track Russian crimes in real time. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Khrzhanovsky poured forth hit-or-miss ideas that delighted some observers and infuriated others. His first idea was to dig a 300-foot-deep “scar” at the exact site of the killings, build a museum at the bottom and place the soil in a huge glass container; the project was abandoned because it would have meant excavating part of an old Jewish cemetery. Another proposal aimed to use videorecorded testimonies of Holocaust survivors gathered by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation to generate holograms of people from the past, who would share their stories with visitors. Yet another potential project, only briefly discussed, would have taken advantage of “deep fake” technology to transport a visitor into the execution scene at the ravine—and plant the viewer’s face onto a Jew about to be executed. Critics accused Khrzhanovsky of seeking to turn the site into a “Holocaust Disneyland.” The attacks against him widened, focusing on his Russian background and on an unfounded accusation that he had violated child labor laws on the set of Dau. (Charges against him were later dropped.)

Khrzhanovsky endured the attacks on his leadership. He attended the opening of Mirror Field in 2020. Soon afterward he broke ground on the kurgan, named after the tumuli that Bronze Age nomads on the Caspian steppe erected over graves and filled with chariots, weapons and other possessions meant to accompany the soul in the afterlife.

Months later, Putin began massing troops at the border. Khrzhanovsky was at his parents’ home in Israel when he received a call that Russia had invaded Ukraine. In Kyiv, Makukhin, a former media consultant for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, helped organize an evacuation from the capital and nearby towns. Dozens of staffers, a handful of nonagenarian survivors of the Babyn Yar massacre and the descendants of “righteous” people who had hidden Jews during the Nazi occupation piled into cars and headed to safety in the Carpathian Mountains. Makukhin and his colleagues had reserved most of a hotel at a ski resort, where many evacuees remained for weeks.

Khrzhanovsky has not returned to Kyiv since the invasion, and in September 2023 he publicly announced his resignation from the project. His Russian identity, he had told me back in June, had made it impossible for him to continue. “When I was growing up, there was no difference between ‘the Germans’ and ‘the Nazis,’” he said. “And it’s logical that it’s this way with Russians now. It doesn’t matter what I did for Ukraine or what I want to do. They don’t want it and they don’t need it.”

One afternoon I went with Iryna Irchak, a Babyn Yar Center researcher, to the State Archive of Kyiv, a hulking brick tower built in 1972, where the center is in the midst of an ambitious digitization project to preserve millions of historical documents. The trove dates back to the late 17th century and contains important records pertaining to the 1941 Nazi occupation and killings, including, for example, the original posters in Russian, Ukrainian and German that appeared days after the Wehrmacht occupied Kyiv on September 19, 1941. The placards ordered Jews to gather their “documents, money and valuables, also warm clothing [and] linen” and assemble at 8 a.m. on September 29 at the corner of Melnikova and Dokhterivskaya Streets. Anyone who failed to appear, the poster warned, “will be shot.”

Desbois, the French author and war crimes investigator, said that most who gathered that morning believed they were going to be deported or sent to labor camps. “The Germans were forbidden to kick Jews,” he told me. “The Jews had to think that they were just moving somewhere else.” Reality didn’t sink in until moments before their execution, when they were stripped naked and marched to the edge of the ravine before being shot with Mauser semi-automatic weapons. Bodies fell on top of bodies. To save bullets, children were sometimes pushed into the pile alive to be smothered and crushed.

Nazi Photo Triptych
In September and October 1941, a Wehrmacht photographer named Johannes Hähle produced 29 color slides from Kyiv and Babyn Yar. These images documented preparations for the massacre and its aftermath, although Hähle was careful not to show actual killings, per Nazi policy. The selections here show Kyiv’s Jews marching to the ravine, bypassing murdered civilians; Soviet POWs burying piles of corpses; and German soldiers picking through belongings left by victims before they were shot. Johannes Hähle / Hamburg Institute for Social Research

Desbois himself turned up lurid details about the murders in German archives, including an account of a food vendor who accompanied the executioners and provided them with sandwiches and drinks during the killings. “He had to walk with his small van around the naked people who had come to be shot,” Desbois tells me. “He had to set tables and make tea, and each team was shooting, stopping and going to eat.” Desbois also studied rare color slides taken by a Nazi photographer who captured the massacre’s immediate aftermath, when Soviet POWs were ordered to collapse the walls of the ravine on top of the bodies. The images show arrangements of the belongings Jews left behind—the artificial leg of one victim with a coat and hat, a woman’s boots beside a canteen, and a small family photograph.

When I arrived at the archive in Kyiv, employees were examining the “interrogation protocols,” or interview transcripts, of 18 Soviet prisoners who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp in November 1943. That summer, the Red Army had launched a massive offensive, rolling back German lines along the Eastern Front as it advanced toward the Dnipro River and Kyiv. With the Soviets moving swiftly across Ukraine, the Nazis rushed to destroy all evidence of their crimes; the Soviet prisoners were among 321 captives whom the Nazis ordered to reopen the mass graves and cremate the corpses of Jewish victims just before the Wehrmacht’s withdrawal. Prisoners who didn’t escape were shot upon finishing their gruesome work. After the war, two dozen Einsatzgruppen leaders were put on trial for war crimes, and 14 were sentenced to death, though only four were ultimately executed. The vast majority of the participants in the killing were never brought to justice.

The Russian invasion has given the digitization program a new sense of urgency: In the war’s early days, Russian missiles leveled the Ukrainian Security Service archive in Chernihiv and badly damaged the municipal archive in Kharkiv. “All these documents are at risk,” an archivist told me. She was digitizing a notebook listing the names of 2,088 Jews from the Petrovsky district of Kyiv who were murdered at Babyn Yar. It was, she said, one of only a handful of registries of victims compiled by Soviet authorities. I thumbed past page after page of names penned in Cyrillic script, compiled from interviews with house managers and surviving relatives and neighbors. “And this is only a partial list,” she said. Among the names of the dead I read were 28-year-old Evgenia Direktor and her three daughters, Genya, Roza and infant Lyusya. Babyn Yar Center staffers are also working in the state archives in the cities of Mykolaiv, Sumy and Chernihiv to digitize records of Jewish life there from the 18th century to the years immediately after World War II. So far, they’ve scanned 3.5 million pages of documents, including records of births, deaths, weddings, and relocations both within and outside Ukraine, with about 13 million more pages to go.

Babyn Yar Center researchers consulting records at Kyiv’s State Archive to compile a complete list of victims along with biographical details.
Babyn Yar Center researchers consulting records at Kyiv’s State Archive to compile a complete list of victims along with biographical details. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Another ongoing archival project is called “Names,” overseen by Furman, the center’s deputy CEO, which focuses on adding biographical details to the 33,771 Jews murdered at Babyn Yar—including about 1,200 previously unidentified victims discovered by staff researchers over the past two years. In 2020, the center signed an agreement with Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, and obtained access to its database. Staffers cross-referenced those records with documents from Ukrainian state, synagogue and military archives; digitized the material; and made it available online. The result has been a flood of new information—photos, personal testimonies—from victims’ relatives, who for the first time have access to material once buried in hard-to-access archives.

After the Russian invasion, Furman realized that her team could use their skills and experience to a new purpose: documenting current atrocities. The “Closed Eyes” project uses materials such as digitized media records, relatives’ testimony and information gleaned from state authorities to identify civilians killed in Russian missile and artillery strikes and summary executions stretching back to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. More than 3,800 people have been named so far. Their names and, whenever possible, photos and short biographies, appear on a website hosted by the center, what Khrzhanovsky calls “a digital cemetery.” This effort has gone hand in hand, Furman told me, with the compilation of filmed testimony from eyewitnesses and survivors.

As evidence of widespread torture and other abuses mounted, half a dozen staff members received training from Yahad-In Unum, a Paris-based nonprofit founded by Desbois, in how to gather testimony as a part of war crimes investigations. Desbois, who has extensive experience interviewing war crimes survivors in Guatemala, Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones, has himself visited Ukraine three times since the war began, compiling eyewitness testimony in Kherson, Mariupol and other cities. Last year he signed a contract with the Babyn Yar Center to collect testimony for Yahad-In Unum to use in future war crimes trials.

Mariana Teklium, a former memorial center staff member who assisted in investigating Russian war crimes.
Mariana Teklium, a former memorial center staff member who assisted in investigating Russian war crimes. Timothy Fadek / Redux

One morning I accompanied a young Babyn Yar Center war crimes project researcher, who asked not to be named given the sensitive nature of her work, to Irpin, outside Kyiv, to interview a church deacon who had survived the city’s monthlong Russian occupation. Every day Roman Ilnitsky drove around Irpin, eluding Russian tanks and troops, to pick up civilians who were too frightened, sick or frail to leave their homes and bring them to the church. From there, he organized their evacuation on foot across a heavily damaged bridge to Kyiv.

A burly man in his 50s, Ilnitsky said that the Russians fired artillery at a stretch of road used only by civilians, and he named a fellow church member, Anatoly Berezhnoy, who was killed by a Russian shell. He had seen the bodies of a woman and her two children struck by shrapnel while walking toward the bridge. He described a friend in Bucha who was tortured by Russian soldiers for three weeks, and another who, he said, was shot twice in the leg for talking on his cellphone and was forced to crawl back to his home. But Ilnitsky had not personally observed these assaults, which meant that his testimony, however searing, would probably be of limited use in court. Desbois says that the Babyn Yar Center is doing the best that it can with limited resources. “They lost their staff and their funding,” he told me. “Suddenly they’re a small team, they’re trying to survive, and it’s not easy.” Most testimony gathered by the Babyn Yar team, he says, has fallen short of Yahad-In Unum’s rigorous standards, though the interviewers have provided valuable leads in tracking down eyewitnesses and victims. Last summer, the center staff decided to stop conducting interviews to focus instead on organizing visits and providing other logistical support for Desbois’s investigative teams.

On my last day in Kyiv, Makukhin led me on a tour of the neglected forest that forms the outer reaches of the former killing ground. Leaving the art installations and the landscaped public park behind, we followed a dirt-bike trail and found ourselves swallowed up by sunless, mosquito-infested woods. “For decades this whole area has been abandoned ground,” he told me. I stared into a forested abyss—one of the last surviving spurs of the original ravine. “All these trees are younger than 80 years old,” Makukhin observed, many planted by Soviet authorities, perhaps to further obscure the area’s history. Near the ravine, we came across a few broken gravestones from the 19th century, all that was left of a cemetery that had fallen apart.

Makukhin and I soon arrived on the campus-like grounds of the historic Ivan Pavlov psychiatric center at the eastern boundary of Babyn Yar, the largest state-owned psychiatric institution in Ukraine. In the days after occupying Kyiv, Nazi troops seized 752 patients from the hospital, shot them and dumped their bodies into the ravine. “They were the first victims at Babyn Yar,” Makukhin told me. Two years ago, the Babyn Yar Center’s board entered negotiations with the Pavlov hospital to lease a derelict, three-story structure that was allowed to fall into ruin in the 1970s, and to turn it into an arts therapy center for war veterans and other victims of trauma. It was to be part of a development project aimed at radically reshaping this wasteland.

Combo 2 - The small portraits show unidentified Ukrainians, likely Jews, before the war.
The small portraits show unidentified Ukrainians, likely Jews, before the war. Timothy Fadek / Redux

Illuminated pathways, ravine overlooks, an elevated walkway at treetop height and several museums would have transformed a forbidding expanse of wilderness—now “used mostly as a drop zone for drug dealers,” Makukhin said—and connected it with the rest of the memorial in the more frequented part of the Babyn Yar grounds. “The psychiatric center was happy about our interest,” Makukhin told me. Because the Soviet regime often imprisoned and tortured dissidents in mental institutions, he said, “all these clinics inherited this negative reputation.” Incorporation into the Babyn Yar project would not only have memorialized the murders of the psychiatric patients but also lifted a decades-long stigma. But the Russian invasion put those plans on hold. “It’s hard to say what will happen here,” Makukhin told me as we stopped in front of a squat building peeking out from behind a concrete wall topped by barbed wire. It was the hospital’s wing for criminals diagnosed with severe mental illness, and is still in use today.

As we walked back through the forest, Makukhin insisted that, even without a resolution to the conflict, at least one more installation will soon be finished. The center is raising money to finish the kurgan—the burial mound-museum. “If we have this kurgan, we can tell much of the story,” he told me. “The basic circle will be completed.” The war, however, is compelling the staff to reconsider its original idea of assembling vivid dioramas of roundups, murders, exhumations and incineration. In the face of ongoing violence and suffering, there’s a feeling that such horrors can’t simply be relegated to an exhibit devoted to the past, however viscerally evocative it is. “We will have to rethink how to memorialize the tragedy,” he went on.

In late August, fragments of a Russian missile or drone shot down by Ukraine’s air-defense system landed beside the Babyn Yar synagogue, damaging the wooden walls and a window. They were “quickly repaired,” said Makukhin, but the shock of the impact lingered. At a hallowed piece of ground that has become synonymous with the unthinkable horrors of war, the final chapter has not been written.

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