Josef Zissels: “Putin is sending us a Trojan horse”

For several years, Ukrainian civil society has been protesting against the “Russian” project of a memorial at Babi Yar, a place of Holocaust remembrance, because the idea of this memorial belongs to three Russian billionaires closely linked to Vladimir Putin. But the project has received the approval of the current Ukrainian administration, and the Foundation set up to support it has well-known figures on its various boards. The billionaires have put $100 million on the table, while the two-part Ukrainian project (Babi Yar Museum and Shoah Memorial), which is largely supported by civil society, is struggling to obtain funding. As the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre (September 29-30, 1941) approaches, Josef Zissels, former dissident and Soviet political prisoner, co-chairman of the Vaad (Union of Jewish Communities in Ukraine), explains why he opposes the “Russian” project.

Interview by Galia Ackerman

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the project to commemorate the Babi Yar tragedy. Remind our readers what Babi Yar is.

It is a large area in a suburb of Kyiv. There are deep ravines, which makes it impossible to build or plant crops. The land around it was bought by religious communities to create cemeteries. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there were already four cemeteries: Orthodox, Jewish, Karaite and Muslim.

The history of Babi Yar, reconstructed by the working group of the Institute of History of Ukraine, must be written from the middle of the 19th century. There are indications that mass executions took place in Babi Yar during the Civil war and during the Stalinist repressions. Victims of the Holodomor were also buried there. But the most tragic episode in this history is undoubtedly the Holocaust.

What happened on September 29 and 30, 1941?

The Germans entered Kyiv on September 19, 1941. A few days later, mines placed by retreating Soviet troops exploded in Khreshchatyk, the main avenue of the city. Many buildings were destroyed. There were casualties among both the Nazi occupiers and the civilian population. In response, the Nazis took repressive measures against the population of Kyiv, especially against the Jews. On September 28, the German administration ordered the Jews of Kyiv to assemble the next day, on the eve of Yom Kippur. Two German police battalions led columns to Babi Yar. There were few men, as almost all of them had left for the front. There were mostly old people, children and women. The direct executor of the shootings was the Sonderkommando 4A, composed of the SS men whose names are known. This same Kommando shot the Jewish population in other cities before and after Babi Yar. For example, in August 1941, the Nazis shot 25,000 Jews, mostly Hungarian Jews deported from Hungary, in the Kamenets-Podolski area.

The executions by shooting began on the 29th and continued on September 30. People were taken to the edge of some ravines, and there SS officers from Sonderkommando 4A forced them to undress, before shooting them with machine guns and automatic rifles. In two days, 34,000 Jews from Kyiv were shot.

Later, this place was used for other executions. During the two years of occupation, at least 100,000 people were killed in Babi Yar. Of these, two-thirds were Jews. Among the non-Jewish victims were Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies and the mentally ill. There were also more than 600 Ukrainian nationalists who initially collaborated with the Germans, but soon became disillusioned: the Germans had no intention of helping them create an independent Ukrainian state. They went over to the resistance, and many were shot by the Nazis in January and February 1942.

After the arrival of the Soviet army in Kyiv in November 1943, an extraordinary commission of inquiry into Nazi crimes was organized, but no emphasis was placed on the ethnic origins of the victims: they were Soviet citizens. In 1946, the famous Kyiv trial took place and Germans who had participated in the executions, as well as members of the local auxiliary police, were convicted and shot.

How come there are two projects to create a memorial at Babi Yar?

For the sake of simplicity and accuracy, we call these two projects “Russian” and “Ukrainian”. The idea for the Ukrainian project emerged in 2015, when a State Committee was created tasked with organizing events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. This Committee started working on the project of a memorial.

However, in early 2016, Pavel Fuks, a Russian billionaire from Kharkiv, arrived in Kyiv from Russia. Representatives of the Russian project refer to him as a “Ukrainian Jew”; in reality, he made all his money in Russia, which defines his identity. He came on behalf of two other Russian billionaires who also have roots in Ukraine — Mikhail Fridman and Guerman Khan. Fuks met with me in February 2016 and asked me to support their project. He said their trio was willing to give $100 million to create the best museum in the world, much better than the Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yad Vashem. As a citizen of Ukraine and a Ukrainian Jew, I immediately refused.

First of all, I told him that the piece of land in Babi Yar where they want to build is a Jewish cemetery, and it is forbidden to build on a Jewish (or any other) cemetery. He was not prepared to talk about this issue, as he knew nothing about Jewish traditions. Second, I asked a simple question. What is Putin’s interest in allowing three billionaires close to him to invest $100 million in a memorial project in Ukraine, while he is waging war against that country? He was not prepared to answer this question either.

What is the fundamental difference between the two projects?

Each nation has its own culture and its own politics of memory. We see the Russian project as a derivative of the memory policy of imperial Russia, which has at its core the great victory in the Second World War. The narrative of the Russian project is constructed in accordance with the politics of memory: in particular, it uses the notion of “Soviet people”, which has not existed for 30 years.

But Ukraine does not want to work with this notion. It has its own history since 1991, when the independent Ukrainian state was created. The previous history of Ukrainians is a colonial history in different empires: Polish-Lithuanian, Austro-Hungarian and especially Russian.

The Ukrainian project starts from the Ukrainian point of view on the history of this country, on the colonial history of the Soviet period, on anti-Semitism: it takes into account the history of European anti-Semitism and the history of Nazism, and so on. That is, it uses modern Western methodology.

In general, all known concepts of Holocaust museums in the world are based on the history of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is within this framework that the history of Nazism and its visceral and radical anti-Semitism, which ends with the Holocaust, is studied. But there is practically nothing in the Russian narrative about the complex history of European anti-Semitism.

Also missing is a very important part of the Ukrainian narrative: the Soviet history of the Ukrainian territory that was occupied by the Red Army in 1918. From then on, a new period of colonial history begins. There is hardly any history of these twenty pre-war years in the Russian narrative. There is talk of the cult of personality, of repression, but this is not enough.

And without it, it is impossible to explain why there were so many prisoners of war – up to 5 million (none of the countries conquered by Hitler had proportionally so many prisoners of war), to explain why some Soviet inhabitants and prisoners of war collaborated with the occupiers. Many of them hated the Soviet regime because of its crimes: its purges and its artificial famine. Of course, there were collaborationists in all countries, but in the case of the Soviet regime, this is a special situation that needs to be clarified.

The mentality of these people was formed under the influence of ruthless repression and false Soviet propaganda. They were taught to turn their backs when their relatives, neighbors or co-workers were arrested, because everyone could be next. They were taught to write denunciations. All this is absent from the Russian narrative. In other words, there is nothing in it to explain why the local population in some cases cooperated with the occupiers — not just administratively or by fighting with the Soviet army, but by participating in repressions against civilians, especially Jews.

Another point. The Russian narrative works with an image of concentric circles that diverge from one point, that of Babi Yar. This incredible image was not invented by chance. The center is Babi Yar. Not Berlin, not Germany! Because this story conveys a relatively new image — the Holocaust by bullets — and limits itself to it. That there was Kristallnacht, that there were Auschwitz and other concentration and extermination camps, that the Nazis gassed millions of Jews — that is irrelevant. What matters is that the Soviet people were victims of the Holocaust by shooting, which began at Babi Yar.

This too is a lie. I was in Przemyśl, Poland, where the Germans entered in 1939 as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. I was at the cemetery, in front of the mass grave of the Jews of Przemyśl, who were shot in 1939, two years before the moment when, according to them, the Holocaust began. But the Russian narrative insists on Ukrainian responsibility, that is the point!

Then, starting from the Babi Yar massacre, which they consider the epicenter of the Holocaust, concentric circles spread over the whole of Kyiv, then over the Kyiv region, then over other regions of Ukraine, then over parts of Russia, Moldavia, Belarus, then over Eastern and Central Europe. That is, this image gives the impression that the Holocaust did not spread from Germany, but from Babi Yar.

In other words, the Holocaust was born in Ukraine.

This is a very strange picture. And Ukrainian historians have criticized them a lot for that. I criticized them for that too, when I attended the hearings of this concept.

The scientists who worked on the Russian project are not ignorant. But they were paid a lot of money to produce the narrative desired by the Kremlin. However, after two years, everything fell apart, the original team left, slamming the door. The head of that research team, Karl Berkhof, a Dutch professor and world-renowned expert on the Holocaust, declared that he would not participate in the creation of Disneyland.

As far as I know, Berkhof left because of Ilia Khrzhanovsky.

That apparently was the last straw. In 2019, some drafts of the Russian project were published, which caused a storm of indignation in Ukraine. In this museum, psychological experiments were to be conducted: visitors were to be offered to participate in a macabre role-playing game to be in the place of the executioner and in the place of the victim. And this made many people angry.

The author of these ideas is Ilia Khrzhanovsky, who was appointed artistic director of the Russian project in 2019. He is a Russian filmmaker who recently made a fourteen-part film, DAU, and whose 2019 exhibition-performance in Paris with the same title had a mixed reception.

After his appointment, the scandals began immediately. 500 intellectuals and cultural figures signed a letter to the chairman of the supervisory board, Natan Shcharansky, demanding Khrjanovsky’s removal, but got no response.

However, the real problem is not Khrzhanovsky. What do I care who commands the Russian forces in the Donbass — Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov or Khrzhanovsky? What matters to me is that Putin and his gang equipped, financed, armed and sent them to kill Ukrainian citizens. Khrzhanovsky does not bother me. He is already the third or fourth director. If he leaves, there will be another one. The order will still be fulfilled — the one from Russia.

However, the arrival of Khrzhanovsky seems to have strengthened the position of the opponents of the Russian project.

Pavel Fuks felt that there was resistance in 2016. In addition to me, he met with Ukrainian historian Vitali Nakhmanovich, as well as Anatoly Podolsky, director of the Holocaust History Research Center, and they were also opposed to participation in the project.

This alerted the Russians, and the troika (Fuks, Fridman, and Khan) began to build its defenses by luring well-known figures into the project. These people are like crooked gamblers, always cheating and lying. In fact, the lion’s share of the $100 million comes from Russia. Ukrainian billionaire Viktor Pinchuk, boxer Vladimir Klitchko and American billionaire Ronald Lauder are there to make up the numbers, while their donations are not significant. A whole structure was created — a foundation with an academic council, a public relations council, a supervisory board. Famous personalities have been invited to participate in these boards: Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Joschka Fischer, Joe Lieberman, Irina Bokova, Svetlana Alexievitch. After all, the cause seems noble… And behind the backs of these worthy people, scandalous things are happening.

How is the Russian project progressing?

It has been six years since it was launched. There is still no articulated concept. There is no museum project, there is no memorial project. They are doing installations, buying ready-made projects in different countries. They have already spent $25 million practically on public relations: every installation is accompanied by a huge publicity campaign.

Why do they need public relations?

Putin has an objective: to defame Ukrainians, to call them anti-Semites, nationalists, Nazis, to say that Ukraine does not deserve any state, that it is not necessary to help it, that Russians will take care of it… Billionaires Friedman and Khan, on the other hand, have a different reason for investing money. They need PR because they have been on the U.S. Treasury list (the so-called Kremlin list) since 2018 as people close to Putin who could be affected by sanctions. A number of people on that list have already been subject to U.S. sanctions — for example, [billionaires] Vekselberg, Deripaska and others. And very recently Fuks fell under the sanctions!

Why is Putin so interested in the subject of the Holocaust?

First, because of the great victory. The Russian regime is trying to define the foundations of a new imperial ideology. It is important for Putin to boast about the victory in the Second World War and to remind Europe in particular to whom it owes a debt.

Second, Putin is obsessed with reassembling the fragments of the Soviet Union into a new empire. He is delusional about this, it is his paranoia. Years ago he said that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the USSR. For all of us it was a happy event, but for him it was a catastrophe. And he wants to rebuild the USSR, which is impossible with an independent Ukraine. These are phantom pains, like an amputated arm or leg. But you can’t glue an amputated limb back together. No matter how much the Kremlin dreams and plots, nothing will help them, in spite of their money, military force and propaganda. Ukraine will never be with Russia again.

Can Fridman, Khan and Fuks be accused of being anti-Ukrainian?

For them, it’s just business. On the one hand, they want to clear their image in front of the Americans. On the other hand, they are Putin’s henchmen, his servants. They have no right to disobey him, otherwise he will destroy them as he destroyed Mikhail Khodorkovsky who remained in prison for ten years. By the way, the Alfa group headed by Fridman and Khan is financing a program to bring young diplomats, politicians and journalists from all over the world to Russia to recruit agents of influence among them.

Are they known for their anti-Ukrainian views? That is not the question. After all, they lend money to the military industry in Russia. For example, Uralvagonzavod in the Urals is a factory that makes and repairs tanks. Thus, tanks hit by Ukrainian army fire in Donbass are taken there, repaired and sent back to the front. And Alfa Bank lends money to this factory. So I ask you: what country at war would allow its enemy to build a memorial for it? For me, it is clear: Putin is sending us a Trojan horse.

However, the Russian project has managed to mobilize a large number of famous people. Do you have support in the Jewish world and in the Western world?

The problem is not that there is competition between the two projects. This is an absurd point of view. The Russian project is part of a hybrid war of Russia against Ukraine. We must understand this!

The Ukrainian project is developing. Eighteen renowned researchers have created a very good concept. This concept has already been examined in Ukraine, and by dozens of experts around the world, changes have been proposed and discussed, that is, the project is following the proper scientific path. We do not advertise like the Russians, but do a serious scientific work. Once this work is finished, we will look for support.

How do the Ukrainian authorities deal with this situation?

In fact, this project was commissioned by the previous government in 2017, under the presidency of Piotr Poroshenko. In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky came to power, and the attitude of the new government has changed. Last year, in May, 750 celebrities — heroes of Ukraine, scientists, academics, writers — signed a letter to Zelensky asking him to pay attention to the Ukrainian project. He did not even read this letter.

Is it for ideological reasons?

He has no ideological reasons. He doesn’t understand anything, not only this, but many other things.

So what are your chances to prevent the implementation of the Russian project?

Who says it will be implemented? I have been convinced for several years that they do not want to create anything, otherwise this memorial would have been built already. They need public relations. They advertise every installation. This troika is supported and directed by Putin and his gang – Vladislav Surkov, Dmitri Kozak and others – who are all overseeing the war against Ukraine. Fridman and Surkov have been friends since college, they studied together and Surkov worked for Alfa Group. They are provoking us, Ukraine, to ban their project. Then Putin will rub his hands and say: we have always said that Ukrainians are anti-Semites.

The territory of Babi Yar was allegedly given on a long-term lease to this Russian project. Is this really the case?

No, it is not. They are trying to do it, but it cannot be done legally. This area is a nature reserve. Reserves cannot be leased. They want to take over the building, which is part of the Ukrainian project: the state has already spent 30 million hryvnias for its reconstruction. There used to be an office of the Jewish cemetery there, and it was planned to make it a memorial for the victims of the Babi Yar.

Since the government is now supporting the Russian project, it is withholding money and not allowing the reconstruction of the building in question to be completed. The Russians are looking for legal tricks to take over this architectural monument. Legally, it is impossible.

In fact, I am not afraid of the evolution of this project. Because I am sure that Ukraine will win this hybrid war. Russians will withdraw from everywhere, they will also withdraw from Babi Yar. And our guides will give tours and show their facilities as trophies of the hybrid war conducted by Russia against Ukraine.

The Public Relations Council supporting the Russian project includes actors, bankers, journalists…

They act skillfully, but it is all a lie. They lure everyone with money, benefits. They have a lot of money. And some people want to make money along the way, not believing that this project will see the light of day. But the civil society is against this project. There are thousands of signatures of Ukrainian Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities — writers, directors, academics — against the Russian project and in favor of the Ukrainian project.

On the occasion of the 80th anniversary, what will happen?

They are preparing a kind of program, they want to do 100% public relations on this program, two more facilities will be unveiled to the press and diplomats. In May, they opened a symbolic “memorial” synagogue on the grounds of the Kirilovskoye Orthodox cemetery.

This is just a provocation!

The SBU has sent two letters to the government in the past year, stating that this project threatens national security and the image of Ukraine.

Did you try to dissuade famous people from participating in the Russian project?

Some people understood my arguments, like Timothy Snyder, a world-renowned historian. I talked to him in 2016 and he refused right away. But our main task is to support the Ukrainian project, not to break the Russian project. It is important for us that civil society and all of Ukraine support the Ukrainian project.

What is the role of Viktor Medvedchuk and his party [Opposition Platform – For Life] in all this?

He is a pro-Russian politician, he is part of the fifth column. He supports, of course, the Russian project. Vadim Rabinovich, his right-hand man, has earned about 3 million dollars from this project. In 2006, he created a Babi Yar memorial fund and somehow obtained from the city the lease on two plots of land with a total area of 7 hectares (2 and 5 hectares). He did not know what to do with it. He collected money (including from Ihor Kolomoysky), but did not build anything. Then he decided to make a profit again and sold this fund and the lease to the Russian project, through Pavel Fuks, for $2.7 million. That was two or three years ago.

According to the Russian project, there should be a museum there?

Yes, the previous team even organized a competition, which was won by an Austrian project. When Khrzhanovsky arrived, this project was rejected.

The second plot is not intended for construction, it is a recreational area. And the two hectares theoretically suitable for construction are located partly on the territory of the Jewish cemetery and partly on that of the Orthodox cemetery. Last fall they opened a facility, “The Mirror Field”, on the site of the Jewish cemetery, and this spring a synagogue, as I mentioned earlier, on the site of the Orthodox cemetery.

I was shocked by this installation. On the mirrored floor, columns pierced with 100,000 bullets to symbolize the number of people exterminated at Babi Yar. And to fire these hundred thousand bullets, they invited Ukrainian soldiers. This is still a provocation: it is as if Ukrainian soldiers were shooting again at 100,000 victims of the Nazis.

« The Mirror Field », Babi Yar // Facebook page of the project.

I don’t even want to discuss it. The initiators of the Russian project have no concept, they build on the cemeteries, the Jewish and Orthodox, spitting on the laws of Ukraine. They violate the law on cemeteries and on the preservation of cultural heritage, they violate the building regulations and international treaties of Ukraine. They behave like invaders in our country, totally ignoring the protests of the civil society, as Putin does in his own country.

This is the difference. The Ukrainian project has three basic elements. It is a memorial park of 70 hectares on which nothing will be built. It will simply be developed to incorporate some 40 monuments that already exist at Babi Yar, to make it a place of remembrance where one can come to mourn, pray, meditate, and remember one’s loved ones. Not far from Babi Yar, the Ukrainian project foresees two sites: the Babi Yar Memorial Museum and the Ukrainian Holocaust Museum. This, in short, is the Ukrainian concept. And no construction on the sites of murders and cemeteries, it is strictly forbidden.

I repeat, the Ukrainian project is based on the Ukrainian culture of memory, which is not yet fully formed, because western Ukrainians have one memory, eastern Ukrainians have another one, those in the center a third one, those in the south a fourth one, but a national consensus is gradually developing. Since 1991, when Ukraine became independent, the policy of national memory is gradually taking shape.

In any case, we should not build on Ukrainian soil objects inspired by the Russian imperial culture and its policy of memory. Ukrainians themselves must build a culture of memory that is part of their identity as a nation.

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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