“Babii Yar” is Yevtushenko’s best-known poem. The poem is about a ravine in the Ukraine where thousands of Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis, yet there is no monument to honor the dead. It is a poem with a thesis, the thesis being that anti-Semitism still exists in the Soviet Union as it has for centuries. What intensifies this accusation is the professed internationalism of the Soviets that was supposed to eliminate all injustices, including racial persecution. “Babii Yar” is also one of the most political of Yevtushenko’s poems and one of the most enduring, requiring and receiving no retraction.
In a series of metaphors, the poet establishes his references. After stating in the first line that there is no monument at Babii Yar, the poet immediately identifies with Jewish people, going back to ancient Egypt and to the agony of crucifixion on the cross, subtly reminding the reader of the common origin of Christ and the Jews. He refers to Alfred Dreyfus, a celebrated victim of persecution in France; to a boy in the Byelorussian town of Belostok as an illustration of pogroms; and finally to Anne Frank, the ultimate symbol of the suffering of the young and innocent as a result of racial injustice. When he returns to the victims of Babii Yar, Yevtushenko declares his solidarity with them exactly because he is a Russian, who as he says, are “international to the core.” His final statement is that of a defiance and lack of fear that he will be hated by anti-Semites.
“Babii Yar” is more than a political statement. It is an outcry against all the injustices of the world and a warning that it may not be limited to the Soviet Union, thus lending the poem a universal appeal. The skillful use of metaphors and symbols adds to the overall beauty of the poem, making it one of the most eloquent combinations of message and poetic execution.