(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“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.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Elliott, Philip. “Poet Yevtushenko Takes on Russian Establishment.” Evansville Courier and Press, February 12, 2006, p. D1.

Hammond, Margo. “The Dangerous Poet of Love.” St. Petersburg Times, March 12, 2006, p. 7.

Kinzer, Stephe. “A Russian Poet Steeped in America.” The New York Times, December 11, 2002, p. E1.

Penhollow, Steve. “Noted Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko Bucked Russian Leadership—and Won.” Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, March 2, 2002, p. 10W.

Radin, Charles A. “Passion, Daring Stir Russian Poet.” Boston Globe, November 24, 2000, p. A1.