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Babi Yar in Manhattan | The Nation

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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.

Today, terrorists invented a way to transform passenger planes into giant gas bombs. What if tomorrow, terrorists are equipped with atomic mini-bombs, or chemical or biological weapons, and other countries become the next targets? World evil has quick legs, but the legs of goodness are tired. New kamikazes--for whom will be reserved, their criminal teachers promise, the best virgins in the other world--will be ready, even tomorrow, thinking that they are messengers of the highest justice, to rip through the Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin, the Sistine Chapel, the Cathedral of Cologne, Big Ben. Aggressive fundamentalism begins with the explosion of the main foundations of humanity.

I grew up during Stalin's terror against our own people. Marxist fundamentalism justified that terror. But if Marx could have seen the nightmare of our concentration camps--the gulag archipelago--he would himself have become an anti-Marxist. Nazi fundamentalism shaped the idea of the gulag into the gas chambers of the Holocaust. Marxist fundamentalism used the explosion of churches, afterward transformed into potato stores or horse stables,to explode the Christian morality and spiritual testament of Dostoyevsky: that no ideals are worth one tear of an innocent, tortured child. (Despite their confrontation, Marxist fundamentalism was very close to Western right-wing fundamentalism in shamelessly cynical politics.) Marxist fundamentalism, crushing with tanks the spring of Prague, switched the idealist Dubcek for the opportunist Husak, and Western right-wing fundamentalism switched liberal-socialist Allende for dictator Pinochet, by the common principle "Yes, he is a bastard, but he is our bastard." Maoist fundamentalism tried to cross out all Western culture, trapping the best translators of literature in foreign languages into so-called camps of improvement. The Russian Orthodox Church's fundamentalism, a hundred years ago, cursed Leo Tolstoy with anathema, and until recent days our humanist patriarch hadn't found time to cancel it. The official Soviet fundamentalist writers expelled Pasternak from the Writers' Union, in what became his civic death. Iranian fundamentalism simply condemned Salman Rushdie to death with no need of adjectives. Fundamentalism is the transformation of earthlings into aliens.

If we want to finish terrorism, we must not become terrorists to all others who are simply different. We must not stoop down to the level of complete suspicion of other political views and religious beliefs. Tough policy toward terrorism must not become a police conglomerate of the richest countries against the Third or Fourth World of pariahs. As long as there is hunger and poverty on our planet, there will also be desperation and terrorism. If you hide a bomb in a pocket with many holes, there are many chances that it will slip out.

Are the professional politicians of the world ready to solve such problems? Don't some of them waste too much time on election rallies? Don't they, too quickly after being elected, immediately begin to prepare for the next election or for a comfortable retirement? Don't they pay too much attention to their own security at the expense of the security of those who elected them?

A 23-year-old student of mine in Tulsa, Christopher Fitzwater, wrote: "Our 'cold wars' turn into wars against people instead of an ideology. People are basically all the same: our similarities far outweigh our differences. It takes politics, money and other intangible things to tear us apart. It is a pity that they do it so well." And another student, 24-year-old Ahmad Al-Kaabi, from United Arab Emirates, counsels that when it comes to aggression, we learn from nature: "In a world where humans stupidly fight to kill millions, cranes fly together in harmony and look for better choices."

We can be sure of the future if it belongs to such young people. Unfortunately, in too many countries, the young and talented squeamishly avoid politics, thinking it an unwashable, dirty kitchen, and they dive into business, into technology, into university teaching, sarcastically criticizing their governments. But politics, like all the rest of nature, won't tolerate a vacuum. As a result, those with negative energy and skill in its use are able to jump into politics and rule those more intelligent and honest than they. Now is a prime time to change this greasy deck of political cards. We need a wide movement of young, unstained people into politics, otherwise we will never untie or cut the Gordian knot of so many problems, one of which is the problem of mutual creation of aliens from each other. Israelis make aliens from Palestinians; Palestinians, from Israelis. Serbs from Albanians; Albanians from Serbs. Basques from Spaniards; Spaniards from Basques. Irishmen from Irishmen, simply because some are Protestants and others are Catholics. And we Russians, having made so many aliens from other Russians, killed them in the past and continue to kill them now.

Imagine two young Russian soldiers from the same village, bunked together fearfully in a cold tent somewhere in the mountains of Chechnya. (Chechens, to these Russian soldiers, have been made aliens.) One of the soldiers leaves the tent, not going far--just to the first little bush. The second soldier wakes up, looks for his friend and, finding him gone, crawls outside. He stands in horror, seeing near his boots the bloody head of his childhood friend, cut off by a Chechen dagger. This soldier is not a coward, and he has a machine gun in his hand. What is he going to do? He runs to find the killers, outraged by madness after his loss. Then he shoots at two uncertain figures that suddenly sway before him, speaking Chechen in the milky fog. Immediately he is seized by a Russian patrol, for he has blindly killed two peaceful peasants. But how do you understand who is peaceful and who is not in such fog...?

Only twenty-five miles from the city of Grozny, which is full of debris after ground battles and bombings, is the Cossack village of Starogladovskay, where there stands only one undestroyed monument to a Russian--to Leo Tolstoy, who was here in the military service many years ago. The museum of the great writer is guarded by a Chechen family, who have only one old hunter's rifle to do their job. Can you imagine that nobody has touched, even with a finger, this village or this museum? "War couldn't be there, where Tolstoy is," says the head of the family. Probably more than anything else, mankind needs now a people with such compassion and dignity, who could paralyze with their words the mutual hatred, like the words of Tolstoy.

Over our wounded mother Earth are flying not only terrorist planes. Cranes still fly, too...

Translated by the author with Marcia Farrell and Irene and Frank Letcher.

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