The documentary novel Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoli Kuznetsov tells the harrowing story of the German occupation of Ukraine, including the massacre of thousands of people in the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev.

The book was originally published in 1966 in the Soviet monthly literary magazine “Yunost” with several sections of the text removed by Soviet censors.

In 1969 Kuznetsov defected from the USSR and was able to smuggle out the unedited manuscript on 35-mm photographic film wrapped around his body. The book was published in the West in 1970 with the censored parts restored in heavy type and newly added material in brackets.

The book is written mostly from the eyewitness perspective of the author as a twelve to fourteen year old boy living through the horrific circumstances of his country during the war. It is supplemented with stories he recorded as an adult from other survivors.

Kuznetzov’s book is a chilling account of the brutality of human beings. But it also bears testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit.

Reading Babi Yar, it is fascinating to pay attention to the sections of the book that were removed by the censor in 1966.

At one point near the middle of the book, the narrator lies on hid back on the ground outside looking up at the tree-tops swaying in the wind. He thinks of all the horrors he has witnessed. Then he says,

yet close at hand the fir trees were swaying gently in the breeze as they had done a million years ago, and the earth, vast and blessed, was spread out beneath the sky, neither Aryan, nor Jewish, nor gypsy, but just the earth intended for the benefit of people.

I do not know if this is the kind of thought a thirteen year old boy is likely to have in the midst of the greatest suffering imaginable. But, it is fascinating that the next two paragraphs were removed by the censor. In the uncensored version Kuznetsov goes on to say,

That was it – for PEOPLE. My God, either there aren’t people in the world any more, or else there aresome somewhere but I don’t know about them…. How many thousands of years has the human race been living on the earth, and people still don’t know how to share things out.

If only there was something worthwhile sharing. But in fact one beggar would hang out his old socks to dry and another beggar would come along and murder him for the sake of those socks. Can it really be true that the only thing people have learnt to do to perfection in the whole of their history is to murder each other?(p. 187)

What could have made these two paragraphs so dangerous that in 1966, a government official in one of the mightiest nations on earth felt they were so threatening that they must be withheld from public view?

Throughout his book Kuznetsov portrays masses of human beings who, being treated as brutes by their oppressors, have descended into a condition in which they behave as animals desperate to fight for their own survival.

The intuition Kuznetsov has placed in the fourteen year old brain of his protagonist is that the human community has become desperately dehumanized. And when human beings cease treating one another with the dignity and value that rightfully extend to all parts of creation, we will always perpetrate horrors against one another.

For all of its pain and tragedy, Babi Yar A Document in the Form of a Novelis a plea for human beings to live with honour and respect for all of life and towards all people.

The beauty of this call is that we do not have to await the extreme conditions described in this book, to begin. It is possible in the every day events of our lives to view the people we come across as real people with needs and concerns as deep and worthy of attention as our own. Whatever our circumstances, we can always choose to see other people as human beings and treat them with respect. In this way, we will help avoid the circumstances that led to the tragedy of Babi Yar.