D. E. Steward

Merely three stops out Kiev’s Green Line Metro

To Dorohozhycli

And Babi Yar

The wooded ravine sinister and extremely unsettling

Deep, steep-sided, it drains off a mild ridge in new-growth Ukrainian hardwoods

The German killers would have called it die Schlucht

“No monument stands over Babi Yar,” Yevtushenko

Now a single menorah-topped masonry remembrance on the ridge

Vandalized with crowbar and sledgehammer on a summer night in 2006

Partly restored now

A few pebbles on its stepped plinth

Urge to kick at the sandstone ground to find something, shell casing, knuckle bone

Hard, dry soil, difficult to unearth even a stone or pebble for the monument’s scanty cairn

The thump of Wehrmacht Karabiner 98k rounds impacting bodies

The extended rattle of Waffen-SS’s Schmeisser machine pistols

Those thirty-four thousand Kiev cosmopolitans killed here through two consecutive days driven and pushed into the ravine

Marched out in their suits, elegant shoes and hats, their urban miens, starched shirts, glasses, smudged makeup, desperate pleas

Murdered en masse by small arms fire

Common soldiers stood there at the edge of the ravine and killed for two days

And route-marched back to their casern to sit on their bunks cleaning their rifles for more

Of course they were ordered, and their orderers were ordered

Some feel that German chain of command and doctrine of discipline explains it all

Others presume that the evil of the ethical collapse will never be understood

Many don’t care at all now

And remarkable numbers of people have never heard of Babi Yar

However it happened, awareness of the tangibles, the lay of the land, the reality of such sites is an increment of moving us away from more

On a weekday August afternoon, one other visitor, a German with a Ukrainian guide, both earnest men in their forties

In another generation maybe no one but historians will come

No glory for anyone here, it is not Antietam or Verdun

Sixty-six years on squint to feel the sound of the rifles and machine pistols

Wehrmacht hobnails grinding the sandstone track up to the ravine

The orders screamed

Ugly, ugly German imperatives

Martinet language that it so easily is

The clink of sling swivels as weapons were brought from shoulder arms to the ready

Prodding the shuffling doomed with the Karabiner’s muzzles, nudging with the barrels, butting with the stocks

George Steiner wondered in Language and Silence how the basic substantive Ofen could ever be used again in the context of Backofen or any other harmlessness

Babi Yar

Now trees and summer leaves and brush and duff on the sides of the yar, the ravine

“I fly Lufthansa, how nice the stewardess is, all of them are so civilized that it would be tactless to remember who they were.” Milosz in 1995

Back down through the park to the Dorohozhycli Metro and a bochka

A yellow steel-tank kvas cart

Slavic libatory cleansing from the vicious German pall

Plastic cup after cup

Gulp it down

There is sun and there are shadows

There are sharp rents in reality here

Close by a small and convoluted cast-bronze monument to the children killed at Babi Yar

Remove trash from its plinth

Stare out across the park toward the sandstone hill and ravine a kilometer away

Feel tired to be so deep within this Milosz-witnessed world

Would rather be off in Wyoming, or on Kauai looking west, than here at Babi Yar pondering last century’s mass immolations

But then on the metro back to the center the topical adventure of riding through the huge foreign city kicks in with the sway and rhythm

Now the city of Yushchenko of the pox and westernizing ambitions vs. sashaying blonde-plaited Tymoshenko in perpetual white

Orange Kiev

Ukrainian Kyiv

Orthodox Kiev

The Slavic faces and Ukrainian women

Who look as if they go out each day dressed as though that was the day they would meet their future

All bare summer legs, loose hair, interesting faces

Mirada fuerte

Metro gawk

iPod cell phone strap-hanging swinging sizzle

Out in the sun in the center, walk the squares to a rooftop terrace with golden domes to the north, St. Michael’s, to the south, the Lavra

Pious Kiev of both the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kyiv Patriarchate

The great river-stretched city’s clarity

Under the high-wonder Dnieper skies

The Pontic Steppe in all directions

What was eight hundred miles of grass from the foothills of the Carpathians to the Volga

Summer golden, almost oceanic wonder

Already felt on the lifting travel rush of the Lufthansa flight, Frankfurt to Kiev

Out over Oberfranken, Bohemia, and off over southern Poland, Katowice, Krakow, skirting the Carpathians themselves

On south of the Pripet Marshes to the Dnieper

The run off of the marshes across Belarus from northeast of Smolensk and Safonovo

Konstantin Siminov’s refrain in Day and Nights (1944), “Alyusha, do you remember the roads of the Smolensk region?”

A Russian river, then Belarus, then the Ukraine’s chain of river-scheme hydroelectric reservoirs


Twenty-two hundred kilometers on out to the Black Sea

Only the Volga and the Danube here are longer

Draining this grand Slavic platform before the Asian steppes

East off from the Carpathians, off from Europe, that western cape jutting into the Atlantic from Asia

Long horizontal Ukraine, from Lviv east nearly to the Don

Huge, ancient Kiev, almost six million

On its river hills

Overlooking the Dnieper’s East Bank plain stretching as though to Volgograd

Eastern European rivers often welcome the eastern steppe, east banks flat and open to the plain, west banks with escarpment hills facilitating defense

As with the steep hills on which the Lavra lies

A thousand years old, seventy acres of ancient monastic stone, yellow and white stuccoed walls, marvelous carpentry, burial caves, mummified monks, gilded domes

The great Dnieper splotched with cloud-shadow sailing bolls of cumulus is almost a thousand feet below the Lavra’s gates

Broad Soviet-era esplanades, sweeping stairways and terraces above the river toward the National Museum of History of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945 Years nearby

The trash of total war with dioramas depicting the full gray-green-black camouflage-net red flag bunkered horror of it all

Battle maps, the documentation, photographs

Displayed materiel

Heavy-tired blast-deflector rifled barrels caisson-heavy ammo-belt hung steel and rubber and splintered wood chaos

No faces, no humanity at all, no corporality except in the photographs

The millions who were there

Empty uniforms, boots and personal effects, long lists and rosters in German and Cyrillic typed by clerks on old field-desk manual machines under leaking sandbags packed within the bunker’s logs and beams above

“Alyusha, do you remember the roads of the Smolensk region?”

Twenty-seven million Russians died in those early 1940s years

And finally the Germans went home

Stay in Kiev’s Podil just off Postova Square at the bottom of the funicular to St. Michael’s

On the first morning early, the Blue Line Metro from Postova in Podil to the upriver Heroyiv Dnipra end-station

Heroyiv Dnipra, a wide, sunken bowl inside the traffic ring, a large rynok (bizarre) radiating out underground from the center

An early-morning crowd pushing into and around a cell-phone kiosk

The refreshing intensity of summer Europeans purposefully out and about

And a decade ago these people were Soviets still in that mute societal isolation of skeptical enthusiasm normal for them then

Now they’re normal members of the unregulated, unconstrained, frightening universal consumer world calculating time-money-greed-possibility factors in their private lives

Young women sashaying in toward the metro end-station as though on fashion runways

The book market by metro stop Petrivka, three stops downriver from Heroyiv Dnipra, three stops before Postova

Heroyiv Dnipra Str. 20, The International Medical Rehabilitation Center for the Victims of Wars and Totalitarian Regimes (MRC) (04209 Kiev)

A hundred kilometers from Heroyiv Dnipra to Chernobyl, Chornobyl in Ukrainian

Nearer to ninth century Chernihiv, one of the three great cities of eleventh century Rus along with Kiev and Novgorod, than to fifth or sixth century Kiev

In Slavic Europe history piles up in century-long increments enforcing continuity

Almost in the manner of the dinners every night while in Kiev in river-fronted Podil

Tenth century Vikings swaggered around Podil on their way down river to the sea and Constantinople

No doubt gawking at the leggy Ukrainian women

Coming and going

Hip and flounce

In ways the centuries here are all the same

In 1240, the Mongols destroyed Kiev that then, at over a hundred thousand, may well have been the largest city in the world

“French novels in yellow covers were read on the Danube and the Vistula on the Dnieper and the Volga. McCormick harvesters were working in the fields of the Ukraine.” Milosz in Le Belle Époque

St. Sophia

St. Michael’s dogged faithful, many more young than old

The Byzantine

Historic, riverine, Orthodox, splendid, westernizing Kiev

And all the while, century after century, magnificent Ukrainian women

Off on a smooth, broad-gauge night train to Lviv

Its horn in the fresh August night with the eighteenth-century clarity of a cornetto