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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 

“With many hundreds of credits I’m beyond what I hoped to do as an independent writer. The only thing I’ve ever taught is swimming, I’ve never studied writing, and I didn’t even major in English. I’ve never had a pedestrian job since college, and never published anything I’m not proud of.” —D. E. Steward