Babi Yar in Manhattan | The Nation


Babi Yar in Manhattan

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Tatyana Samoilova is running up the staircase, wrapped in smoke from the fire following a German bombing, jumping over the pulsating hoses. A fireman with a blackened face, looking like a coal miner, tries to stop her, but she slips from his hands and pushes open the door of the apartment, where she had left her parents...

About the Author

Yevgeny Yevtushenko
The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is, perhaps, the best known and most widely published poet in the world.

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A statesman and a poet pay tribute to a historian of Russia.

The floor has vanished. After the threshold, an abyss--only a half-burned lampshade is swaying, and from the ticking ancient wall clock, a small mechanical bird is sounding a farewell "cuckoo." Only a week before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, my young students in Oklahoma, at the University of Tulsa, were watching this bombing of Russia on the screen as I showed them the famous 1957 Russian film The Cranes Are Flying. (This film symbolized "the thaw" in Russia and won many international prizes.) The students were watching, holding their breath, some of them with tears in their eyes.

I was shocked when one girl wrote in her paper that she was glad my course helped her discover so much kindness in the Russian people "despite the fact that Russia during WWII fought together with the Germans against America." To be honest, I was no less bitterly surprised in my homeland when some Russian teenagers answered in a questionnaire that they didn't know who Yuri Gagarin was. Sometimes in teaching cinema and poetry, it seems that I also teach history.

I was glad that The Cranes Are Flying, together with the beloved Italian film The Bicycle Thief, was so highly appreciated by my American students. But one wrote that it was very bad, even for a completely desperate unemployed man, to steal a bicycle in the presence of his little son. "Why didn't the father of the boy, instead of stealing, buy a new bicycle?" the student asked. How happy they are, I thought. They have always been able to buy new bicycles, and they have never seen a war on their land, only in the cinema.

But now war has come to their land. Empires with borders on the map are less dangerous than ones without geographical and moral borders. A new Air Empire of global terrorism unexpectedly turned the sharp noses of American planes against American skyscrapers. The scriptwriters and producers of this war created it in full Hollywood style, like a grandiose world show with visual and sound effects, and they didn't need to direct tens of thousands of involuntary "extras" to show horror in their eyes. But these scriptwriters miscalculated something. They didn't understand that non-ketchup blood in their real-life thriller could not make enthusiastic fans, except among the brainwashed. This tragedy in the United States happened, to the month, on the sixtieth anniversary of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar--the ravine near the city of Kiev where they killed tens of thousands of Jews, together with some Russians and Ukrainians. (It is also the fortieth anniversary of my poem "Babi Yar" and nearly that of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, based on my poetry.) But even in my worst nightmare, I did not imagine a new Babi Yar in the heart of Manhattan. Today, Russia is crying together with America--I haven't seen anything like it since President John Kennedy was killed. I hope that these common tears can wash away everything that still divides us.

Planes stuffed with innocent victims, including children, ripped through more than skyscrapers. They ripped through the greatest books: the Bible, the Koran, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, Whitman. Many of the world's museums, dedicated to World War II, warn us of the potential catastrophe of culture by exhibiting books pierced by bullets. But where could we show skyscrapers pierced by planes? These planes were exploded inside us, and their fragments forever will wander under our skin. For a very long time, in our dreams we will see people jumping from inflamed floors to the asphalt. One of them, falling down, with his own body killed a would-be savior. For a very long time in our delirium, we will listen for signals of cellular phones under the ruins, even after all the debris has been trucked away. Something inside us has become ruined forever.

Thank God if it is only the ruins of our superiority over others. Thank God if it is only the ruins of our self-confidence, our boasting, our criminal carelessness. But God save us if it is to be the ruins of our kindness, on which we'll dance savagely with an evil vindictiveness that is always blind and always punishes those who are not really guilty.

To defend civilization we can act only in a civilized way. Otherwise we will look like those morally uncivilized, cruelly unreasonable fellow earthlings, transformed into aliens by fanaticism and desperation, who instead of sharing the grief of so many American mothers, triumphantly showed, with their fingers, before the TV cameras, the letter "V." Poor creatures, they don't understand that the cursed sunny morning of that Black Tuesday was also the darkest day for themselves.

The slogan "Terror Against Terror" is dangerous, because our wish to catch criminals as soon as possible, to point our finger at the first suspect, could lead to unforgivable mistakes. Using more and more terror as our only response, we'll have less and less pity, compassion and kindness inside us. I am not talking about pity toward the terrorists--they don't deserve it. It would be stupid to consider the walls of our houses hospitably inviting cheeks out of a mistaken Christian impulse--"If they strike one wall,turn to them the other." But, it will be terrible if instead of burning down terror we burn down our souls with our white-hot hatred, and become indistinguishable from those we fight against.

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