Recollections of Kyiv

By David K. Shipler

An event that now seems sadly remarkable occurred in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in 1975, when it was part of the Soviet Union. At the time, Kyiv enjoyed such a pleasant ambiance of broad boulevards and relative prosperity that Communist rulers made it one of a few “closed cities,” along with Moscow and Leningrad, where no Soviet citizen could reside without a government permit. Otherwise, millions would have flocked there to escape the deprivation of the countryside.

Now, thousands are fleeing.

In September 1975, I accompanied three American and two Soviet astronauts on a tour of tentative friendship. During a partial thaw in the Cold War, they had joined with handshakes in space during the Apollo-Soyuz mission, then came down to the hard gravity of Earth, traveling through the Soviet Union together in a pageant of hope. They were received with warm bear hugs and flower-bearing children as they tried jokingly to speak each other’s language and toasted their two countries’ exploratory steps toward cooperation.

Russian hosts made sure to feature World War II’s Soviet-American alliance that had defeated Nazi Germany; the seven-city trip took the astronauts to significant spaces of wartime memory. Wreath-laying and somber pilgrimages at tombs and monuments were woven into the itinerary: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Kyiv, which had been occupied by Germany from 1941 to 1943; a war memorial on the way from the airport to their hotel in Leningrad, which endured a 900-day siege; an evocative monument with religious overtones in Volgograd, the site of the ferocious battle of Stalingrad with its two million dead.

At a dinner in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, the Soyuz 19 commander, Maj. Gen. Aleksei A. Leonov, raised his glass in a passionate toast likening the rendezvous in space to the meeting of American and Soviet soldiers at the Elbe River near the war’s end. The Soviets created a collage of two photographs overlapping: the American and Soviet astronauts and the American and Soviet soldiers reaching out to shake hands at the Elbe.

If any American president ever again wants to strive for an emotional connection with the Russians, here is some simple advice: Remember and celebrate that noble partnership of victory.

A monument was missing, however. While in Kyiv with the astronauts, I visited the place where it should have been: Babi Yar, the ravine where Germans slaughtered tens of thousands of Jews in 1941. The absence of memory had been etched in the world’s awareness by the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who wrote in a cry against Russian anti-Semitism: “No monument stands over Babi Yar./ A drop sheer as a crude gravestone./ I am afraid.”

As if to illustrate the official amnesia, a guide with the government Intourist office, trained to burnish the state’s denial that Jews were particular victims of the Nazis, tried to discourage me. It was thirty miles from the city, she lied. In fact, it lay on a trolleybus line that ran along a busy street at Kyiv’s northern edge.

Yevtushenko wrote his poem in 1961. When I got there, fourteen years later, a bulldozer was finally working the earth. “It will be finished in two months,” said the driver. The excavators had found bodies, he told me.

Initially, the monument did not recognize Jews as the primary victims; that happened in 1991, shortly after Ukraine became independent, when a large bronze menorah was unveiled. Part of the complex was reportedly damaged today by a Russian missile strike on Kyiv’s television tower nearby.

And now my personal entanglement with history comes around again. Today’s attack prompted a condemnation from Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet Jewish dissident who was jailed by the Communist government and is currently chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. He became a friend in those Moscow days; I covered his trial by standing outside the courthouse, which was as close as I could get. Years later I met him at Ben Gurion Airport when he flew to Israel after his release from prison. And today he issued a condemnation from Israel.

For Russia to open its attack on Kyiv by hitting Babi Yar “is symbolic,” he said. The memorial’s purpose is “to preserve historical memory following decades of Soviet suppression of historical truth, so that the evils of the past can never be repeated. We must not allow the truth to — once again — become the victim of war.”

It’s curious how war evokes celebration along with lamentation. In Volgograd during the astronauts’ trip, I stood at the foot of a massive statue of Mother Russia cradling a dying soldier in her arms. It could have been a pieta in a cathedral. I fell into a conversation with a Soviet journalist from Tass, the Soviet news agency, a woman about in her fifties, solid and gray-haired, her face slightly flushed with a glow of fervor and reverence.

She pulled out a plastic jewelry box and removed the lid. Inside, cushioned on a bed of cotton, lay several rusted, corroded shell casings — from the Battle of Stalingrad, she said. She took one out as gingerly as if it had been a precious gem, wrapped it carefully in a piece of paper, and presented it to me as a gift of honor and friendship. It still stands on my bookcase, an archeological find from the ruins of heroism.

By late in the trip, all three Americans — Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford, Donald K. Slayton, and Vance D. Brand, began to talk about the war as well. Slayton, a combat pilot, told the Volgograd City Council of the contrast between the ugliness of warfare and the beauties of space flight. “Let us hope,” he said, “that there are no memorials built to our children or to their children.”

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David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

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David K Shipler

David K Shipler

David K. Shipler is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 7 books and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

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