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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1708 words.)

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