Anatoli Kuznetsov was in his early teens when he lived through the events he recounts in his autobiographical novel, Babi Yar A Document in the Form of a Novel.

Kuznetsov lived through horrific circumstances. Repeatedly he almost died from starvation, barely sustaining himself eating rotten potatoes dug with his bare hands out of the frozen ground. He lived constantly under the threat of death. He was chased, beaten, and shot at by police and soldiers. The city in which he lived was bombed from the air and blasted by both invading troops and retreating soldiers on the ground. He was frequently sick, suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis.

The Ukraine in the 1940’s was a vicious place to try to survive.

The conditions of his life as Kuznetsov describes them offered no comfort and little hope. He was surrounded by people who, equally as desperate as he, fought against him for their own survival.

Trying to survive in such an environment, it is not surprising that young Anatoli came to the conclusion that there was probably no such thing as the “God” upon whom his grandmother relied before she died.

He recounts his crisis of faith saying,

I came to the conclusion that there probably wasn’t a God after all. And, if He did exist, why did He torment people in this way, treating them so cruelly and being so heartless towards old women and little children who had only just arrived in this world? It was a fine form of amusement the Almighty devised for Himself. If I should ever come across Him I would not think of praying to Him but I’d want to punch Him in the face for what He had done on earth. I couldn’t respect such a God. He simply didn’t exist.

It was people who made it that way. (pp.271,272)

Of course it is a primitive and childish vision of God that Kuznetsov rejected. But, as a child, what other concept of God could he have had? The religion he saw around him was riddled with suspicion and judgment. The God he had been taught to believe in as a child was capricious and judgmental. In the circumstances under which he was forced to exist, who could possibly blame a thoughtful, sensitive boy for rejecting the entire idea of God, or at best viewing this God as an inhumane monster deserving of punishment rather than trust?

There can be many good reasons for giving up on God. The world can be a desperate dark and despairing place. There is so much violence, inhumanity, suffering, and injustice. Everywhere we look we can find evidence to support the conviction that love and beauty have been utterly destroyed.

Those of us who continue in our determination that there remains a deeper reality than the horror of so much of existence, must never belittle those who have come to a different conclusion.

Young Anatoli Kuznetsov was not a bad child, certainly no worse than any other fourteen year old boy forced to fight every day for his survival. He grew up into a productive, creative adult. How can I or anyone sit in judgment upon him because his deepest life experience brought him to the conclusion that the heart of existence is a dark empty threatening abyss?

When you have lived with the daily horror of the extraordinary inhumanity of Nazi occupied Ukraine, followed upon “liberation” by the horrors of Salinist Russia, how much beauty and goodness would it take to correct the imbalance of terror you have experienced?

The terrors recounted in Kuznetsov’s book stand as a stark challenge to those of us who protest we believe in the power of love and the goodness of life to demonstrate the victory of these values in every way we can. The only corrective for Kuznetsov’s crisis of faith we can ever hope to offer is a life lived with deep compassion, love, and kindness.

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