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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1307

“Babii Yar” is a poem in free verse consisting of ninety-two lines. The title, roughly translated as “Women’s Cliff,” refers to a ravine near Kiev where thousands of Jews were massacred during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in the Soviet Union. The name of the place in itself has...

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“Babii Yar” is a poem in free verse consisting of ninety-two lines. The title, roughly translated as “Women’s Cliff,” refers to a ravine near Kiev where thousands of Jews were massacred during the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in the Soviet Union. The name of the place in itself has no symbolic connotation in the poem, even though Babii Yar (also known as Babi Yar, Baby Yar, or Babiy Yar) has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the Nazi crimes perpetrated against the Jews. The Holocaust is not the main focus of the poem. The very first line, “No monument stands over Babii Yar,” reveals Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s main concern. The original crime was bad enough, he seems to say, but it has been compounded by a lack of visible recognition and respect for its victims.

The poet immediately identifies with the Jewish people. He goes back to ancient Egypt and the agony of crucifixion, then leaps across the centuries to Alfred Dreyfus, who was the subject of a celebrated case of prejudice and persecution in nineteenth century France. The poet then turns to a boy in Byelostok, a town in Byelorussia (now Belarus) near the Polish border that had a large Jewish population that has been decimated—first in the pogroms in czarist Russia, then during the Holocaust. Finally, the poet identifies with the feelings of fear and the needs for love and kindness expressed by the young Holocaust victim Anne Frank in her Het Achterhuis (1947; The Diary of a Young Girl, 1952).

In the final verses, the poet identifies with the victims buried in Babii Yar; this is his most powerful declaration of solidarity. As the trees stand as judges and “all things scream silently,” he sees himself transformed into one massive, soundless scream, thus becoming the voice of each old man, each child who was murdered and buried there. He vows never to forget the tragic fate of these innocent victims, which brings him to his last point. He believes that there is no monument at Babii Yar because of the forgetfulness of the non-Jewish survivors and, more ominously, because of the anti-Semitism that existed before the advent of the Nazis and remains latent in the Russian people. This is illustrated by the shout of the pogrom bullies: “Beat the Yids, Save Russia!” By invoking the name of the “Internationale,” the battle cry of the Russian revolution, the poet declares that he will fight against the anti-Semites until the last of them is defeated. He is not concerned that the anti-Semites hate him as a Jew even though there is no Jewish blood in his veins. On the contrary, it is because of their hatred that he sees himself as a true Russian, since the Russians are “international to the core.”

“Babii Yar” is a simple, unambiguous, declarative poem, told in the first person and replete with straightforward rhetorical statements such as “O my Russian people!” “I am behind bars,” “I am afraid,” “I know the goodness of my land,” “And I love.” Such direct, terse statements fit a particular style of verse making that was popularized in Russia by Vladimir Mayakovsky and in the United States by William Carlos Williams. Such verses often consist of only one or two words lined in a cascading fashion. They are used primarily for emphasis, but they also add a dramatic flair, which Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a gifted actor and skillful reader of poetry, inherited from Mayakovsky, who was also a powerful declamator.

The main device Yevtushenko uses in this poem is metaphor. In a series of identification metaphors already mentioned, he not only drives his points home but also makes his references in an interesting way. When he says that he is an old Jew plodding through ancient Egypt, he immediately establishes a link between a history-laden people and himself as a present-day observer of history. When he sees himself crucified, he subtly reminds the reader or listener of the common origin of Christ and the Jewish people. A very brief mention of Alfred Dreyfus (only six words) is sufficient to evoke the terrible injustice done to him and all Jews. The metaphor of a young boy in Byelostok being kicked while lying in the blood that is spilling over the floors brings into stark relief the bestial cruelty of crimes among whose victims are the innocent young.

The poet reserves the most powerful metaphor for Anne Frank, to whom he devotes one-fourth of the poem. During his “conversations” with her, Anne’s innocence and tenderness evoke the noblest feelings in him. Even the love he professes for her is ethereal, just as she is “transparent as a branch in April.” By emphasizing the innocence of a young girl on a threshold of life, the poet underscores the depth of the injustice perpetrated against her and all young people like her. The images employed here tend to highlight the interplay of innocence and injustice. In addition to the visual image of a branch in April, the poet uses auditory images such as the steps of the police Anne hears and the smashing down of the door; to soothe Anne’s fears, he tells her they are the booming sounds of spring and the ice breaking, respectively. The love that his encounter with her brings forth is unreal, desperate, and painfully tender, used to raise hope in a hopeless situation and to confirm the existence of humaneness in an inhumane world. Yevtushenko is at his best in creating metaphors and images that flesh out and animate his references.

It is clear that “Babii Yar” is a poem with a thesis. The thesis is that anti-Semitism exists in the Soviet Union, the official disclaimers notwithstanding. Yevtushenko protests against it by using perhaps the most suitable symbol—Babii Yar. The fact that the atrocities were committed by the hated enemy, the Nazis, amplifies the unforgivability of anti-Semitic attitudes, let alone actions. The fact that this anti-Semitism is camouflaged makes the original crime even more heinous.

Throughout his career, Yevtushenko has been known as a fiery dissident. He has used many of his poems to express his dissatisfaction with, and disapproval of, things that have happened in his country (next to “Babii Yar,” “The Heirs of Stalin” is perhaps the best example). His protests have met with varying degrees of success, and his animosity toward the system has had its ebb and flow, but he has never been reluctant to speak his mind. In “Babii Yar,” as a member of a post-Holocaust generation of Soviet citizens, Yevtushenko makes a strong statement on behalf of his peers.

“Babii Yar” is, however, more than a political statement about a problem in the Soviet Union. It is a declaration of solidarity with the oppressed, no matter who they may be, no matter where and when the oppression may be practiced. This solidarity with all humankind gives the poem a universal appeal, raising it above local politics and ideology. That is why the poet identifies with ancient figures as well as modern ones such as Dreyfus, Anne Frank, and the boy from Byelostok. It is evident, therefore, that Yevtushenko is warning not only the Soviet authorities and his compatriots but also the entire world against the pernicious effects of anti-Semitism and, in fact, of all injustice. While it is true that he has written other poems to this end, “Babii Yar” can be considered Yevtushenko’s main protest against injustice, and a plea for a better world.

The ultimate merits of this poem lie in its aesthetics, however, and in the poet’s ability to dress his basically nonliterary aim in a formidable artistic garb that transcends all mundane concerns. The best proof of the effect of the poem is its use by Dmitri Shostakovich in the opening movement of his Thirteenth Symphony.

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