Four years ago today, I posted reflections on Anatoli Kuznetsov’s extraordinary novel, Babi Yar A Document in the Form of a Novel.

At that time there were a number of other reflections I had on Kuznetsov’s book. Here are some further thoughts I wrote four years ago:


In a chilling scene in his novel, Babi Yar A Document in the Form of a Novel, Anatoli Kuznetsov’s hero sits in the market on a cold windy day, trying to earn a tiny bit of money polishing shoppers’ shoes.

There have been no customers all day. With the incessant barrage of war sounding in the background, he sits cold and alone and gives in to despair.

Then I looked around me in surprise, and it seemed as though the curtains, dusty and grey, had fallen away from my view of the world, never to be replaced. I realized that my grandfather, that great admirer of the Germans, was a fool. That there is in this world neither brains, nor goodness, nor good sense, but only brute force. Bloodshed. Starvation. Death. That I was alive and sitting there with my brushes beneath the stall, but no one knew why. That there was not the slightest hope, not even a glimmer of hope, of justice being done. It would never happen. No one would ever do it. The world was just one big Babi Yar. And there two great forces had come up against each other and were striking against each other like hammer and anvil, and the wretched people were in between, with no way out; each individual wanted only to live and not to be maltreated, to have something to eat, and yet they howled and screamed and in their fear they were grabbing at each other’s throats, while I, a little blob of watery jelly, was sitting in the midst of this dark world. Why? What for? Who had done it all? There was nothing, after all, to hope for! Winter. Night. (p.204)

For those of us who live in the relative comfort and privilege of the modern western world, such hopeless despair may seem a distant and self-indulgent view of life.

But the realities of human history cannot be denied. Kuznetsov lived through circumstances that could easily break the spirit of the strongest individual. He received no comfort during the years he struggled to survive through the war. Perhaps his memory is exaggerated, but there seem to have been almost no points of light in his life. Day after day life ground on. His only steady companions were the endless fight for food and the incessant struggle for survival against almost insurmountable odds.

It is tempting to look back at the horrors of history and wonder how human beings could ever allow such horrific circumstances to exist. How is it possible that people can treat one another with such desperate inhumanity?

But, we in the twenty-first century are in no position to sit in judgment on the past. We developed wealthy nations have done little to alleviate the sufferings that are on our doorstep.

There are places in the world today, many places, where life is not much different for many people than it was for young Anatoli Kuznetzov. Countries still struggle for survival under terrible injustice and brutality. Every day in the world 25,000 people die of starvation, or stavation related causes. In Somalia today millions of people are at risk of dying from malnutrition. Violence rages throughout North Africa. 80% of the world’s population lives on less than $10.00 a day. About 29,000 children around the world under the age of five – 21 each minute – die every day, mainly from preventable causes.

Our world is a broken place. It is difficult to see the fulfillment of the prophet’s vision in Revelation.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:2)

Useless thrashing guilt helps no one. But, a sober evaluation of the extraordinary privilege and comfort most of us enjoy in the west, is a salutary reminder that might serve to motivate us to do what we can where we are able to help alleviate some of the desperate suffering that continues to plague the human community. We need to allow the pain of the world to wake us up to the reality of the world in which we live.

In a movie theatre the other night, before the film began, I overheard a conversation about government deficits. The man in the conversation said, “If I were trying to cut the deficit, the first thing I would do is cut politicians’ salaries and pensions, then foregin aid to countries that don’t do something to show their appreciation.”

The world community cries out for the healing power of compassion. A little boy sitting in the town square hoping to make pennies shining shoes is a sign intended to break open our hearts to gratitude and generosity. As we respond from a place of compassion the healing leaves of the tree of life will begin to sprout.