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Is Ukraine’s New Holocaust Memorial Also an Instrument of Kremlin Propaganda?

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On a breezy afternoon last spring, the Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman took me on a tour of a public park near the center of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, along with a team of aides, architects, historians and artists. They had spent several years building a complex of memorials on the grounds, honoring the victims of a massacre that took place there during World War II. But the project had become so controversial in Ukraine, especially in the context of the country’s ongoing war with Russia, that the entourage had brought a team of bodyguards, who surrounded Fridman in a loose formation, tensing every time a stranger came too close.

Fridman was used to this. For nearly a quarter-century, he has survived at the top of Moscow’s billionaire class despite the regular purges and shake-ups that have sent several of his peers to prison or exile. His fortune comes from two of the most cutthroat sectors of the Russian economy: oil and banking. But in person, Fridman does not come off as a typical robber baron. At 57, he has a boyish smile and stooped shoulders that make him seem shy, as though instinctively shrinking from attention. He says he prefers to avoid the meetings that Russian President Vladimir Putin convenes with the oligarchs every few months. “I always feel awkward” at such conclaves, Fridman told me. “I never know what to do with myself.”

In the park, he seemed at ease among the couples with strollers and the teenagers riding skateboards. He led our tour to a path that ran along the edge of a steep slope, overlooking a stand of leafless birches. “Here it is,” Fridman said. “This is where they would shoot them and throw them down.”

In September 1941, soon after the Germans occupied Kyiv, tens of thousands of the city’s Jews were rounded up, forced to strip naked and ordered to stand near the edge of this ravine, known as Babyn Yar. Over the following two days, machine-gunners shot more than 33,000 Jewish men, women and children at Babyn Yar. The Nazis continued to use the site for mass murder throughout their occupation. Many Roma people and other ethnic minorities were killed there, as were prisoners of war and patients at a nearby psychiatric hospital. Amid their retreat from Ukraine in 1943, the Nazis rushed to exhume the mass graves at Babyn Yar and burn the bodies in an attempt to hide evidence of the atrocities.

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Several monuments have been built over the years to commemorate these events. But Fridman’s project is far grander. Comprising art installations, a museum, and an archive and research center, the memorial complex spans around 370 acres. The project has already produced numerous memorials, including an ornate synagogue in the shape of a book, a “mirror field” of reflective columns riddled with bullet holes, and an elaborate “sound sculpture” that murmurs the names of the dead in a perpetual loop. The sensory barrage has led some critics to call the project a “Holocaust Disneyland.” When finished, its total cost is expected to reach $100 million, making it the world’s most ambitious effort to memorialize the Holocaust in at least a generation.

Fridman prays at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Babyn Yar synagogue on April 8
Fridman prays at a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Babyn Yar synagogue on April 8Brendan Hoffman

Though its sponsors include several oligarchs, from both Russia and Ukraine, Fridman is by far the wealthiest and most powerful among them. He has become the project’s reluctant figurehead, as well as the focus of attacks from its critics—an unlikely alliance of U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian spies and members of Kyiv’s Jewish community. Some of them claim that the memorial is not about honoring the memory of the victims, but rather manipulating it, by subtly shifting blame for the massacre onto Ukrainians.

Fridman’s ties to the Kremlin are the foundation of these worries. The week before our tour of the memorial grounds in the spring, Putin had sent thousands of troops to menace Ukraine at the border. It was one of the worst escalations of the conflict in years. But the war extends beyond the eastern borderlands where more than 14,000 people have died in the fighting. Russia has also attacked on other fronts, using targeted assassinations, espionage, cyber-attacks against the power grid, efforts to starve the Ukrainian economy and disinformation campaigns designed to sow division. Critics of the Babyn Yar project have cast it as part of this “hybrid war” against Ukraine, a Trojan horse in the form of a Holocaust memorial.

Some officials at the U.S. State Department have opposed the project from behind the scenes. At a meeting early last year, George Kent, the career diplomat who oversaw U.S. policy toward Ukraine at the time, asked the project’s managers whether they took orders from the Kremlin. He also urged them to avoid what he called the weaponization of history, according to two people who attended. The project’s creative director, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, tried to convince Kent and his colleagues that the memorial is not a Russian influence operation. “But they weren’t having it,” he says. “They had made up their minds.” (The State Department declined to comment on the meeting. A spokesperson told TIME the U.S. “supports the establishment of a world-class memorial at Babyn Yar that accurately and fully reflects the site’s history.”)

Among the many challenges Russia has thrown at the U.S. in recent years—whether by hacking elections or bombing U.S. allies in the Middle East—few have been as messy as the one posed by the oligarchs. The U.S. tends to treat them as instruments of the Kremlin, and many have faced sanctions over Russian meddling in U.S. elections and other “malign activities.” But in comparison with soldiers or spies, their actions are far harder to link back to Putin. They are private citizens, often with multiple passports and homes in London and New York. Their money supports charities, businesses and jobs in the West. Fridman has so far avoided sanctions. But the U.S. still seeks to undercut his influence, even when it comes to a Holocaust memorial.

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The resulting standoff has raised hard questions about the reach of Russian influence campaigns and the lengths to which the U.S. and its allies should go in countering them. If a Russian billionaire buys a sports team in the West, should its matches be viewed as episodes of information warfare? Where should the West draw the line between good-faith investment and malign influence? In the absence of a clear line of command between the Kremlin and the oligarchs, the boundary is often blurred, and never more so than in the case of Fridman’s plans for Babyn Yar.

As a child growing up in a Jewish family in western Ukraine, Fridman learned about Babyn Yar from his grandmother, whose native village was decimated in the German blitzkrieg of 1941. “Nothing was left,” he told me. “Not even the graves.” For years after the war, the subject of the Holocaust was taboo in the Soviet Union, absent from official histories. Among Fridman’s generation, many people learned about the massacre only through a poem that appeared in 1961 in a state-controlled literary journal. Its first lines read:

At Babyn Yar there are no memorials

Just a steep drop, rough as a tombstone

The journal’s editor was fired for publishing the poem, which caused such a scandal that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev personally denounced it. The author, Evgeny Yevtushenko, wrote it after visiting Babyn Yar and finding that Soviet authorities had turned the site into a landfill. “They were unloading stinking garbage on the tens of thousands of people who were killed,” the poet told the BBC. The Soviets finally agreed to build a memorial at the site in the early 1970s. In line with the state’s semiofficial policy of anti-Semitism, the inscription on that monument made no mention of the Jews who had died there.

Fridman recalls his family discussing these events at their kitchen table. They reserved particular scorn, he told me, for the Ukrainian militias and other locals who helped the Nazis persecute the Jews. When we first spoke last spring, he brought up an old photograph that still colors his understanding of the tragedy. Taken in the city of Lviv, where he grew up, it shows a group of Jewish women early in the Nazi occupation. “They are fully naked,” Fridman remembered, “being forced to clean the streets. And there are people standing around, shoving them, laughing.” He took a deep breath and measured his words. “These were not Germans,” he told me. “These were local people, my countrymen, people who might have lived in my neighborhood.”

In the absence of honest histories of the war, many Soviet Jews pieced together their awareness of the Holocaust from such scraps and artifacts—whispers in the kitchen, an old photo glimpsed in a book. The young Fridman was no exception. To this day, he believes the family lore that his great-grandparents may have been killed not by the Nazis but by their Ukrainian collaborators. “Nobody knows how they died,” he acknowledges. But his suspicion lingers, faint yet inescapable in his vision for the monument he wants to build.

To his opponents, Fridman’s views are a sign of the project’s bias. So is his status as a Kremlin ally, especially when it comes to Ukraine’s ongoing reckoning with its history. Thirty years since gaining independence from Moscow, the nation is still struggling to write its past, to agree on a canon of symbols and heroes and decide which pages in its history are shameful and which are worthy of pride. World War II looms large in this project, and Fridman does not hide his desire to shape the way Ukrainians teach it to their children. “This is our moral duty to our relatives, to the Jewish community,” he says. “That is the central goal.”

Fridman understands why his role has been controversial, and he admits that the Kremlin wields enormous power over billionaires within the system Putin built. One of the most revealing accounts of this system came from Fridman’s friend and business partner Petr Aven, who discussed with U.S. investigators in 2018 what it means to be rich and politically connected in Russia. In his testimony to the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, Aven said he meets with Putin every few months and receives “implicit directives” that he works hard to carry out.

When I asked Fridman about this practice, he described a subtler arrangement, one closer to a dance of courtiers around the czar than to soldiers saluting a general. Still, he confirmed the essence of what Aven described. Putin does summon the oligarchs to regular meetings, where he tends to drop hints that should never be taken lightly. It would be an “oversimplification,” Fridman says, to think of Russian billionaires as lackeys of the Kremlin. Their priority is making money. But they are careful to stay in line with the Kremlin’s interests as they pursue their own. “We study Putin closely,” Fridman told me. “For our business, this is a question of survival.”

Josef Zissels, a critic of the Babyn Yar memorial project, photographed in Brooklyn on Sept. 22
Josef Zissels, a critic of the Babyn Yar memorial project, photographed in Brooklyn on Sept. 22Sasha Maslov for TIME

Since plans for the Babyn Yar memorial were first made public in 2016, its most influential critic has been Josef Zissels, a lifelong dissident who heads a Jewish community group in Kyiv. Now in his 70s, Zissels is frequently in touch with U.S. diplomats there, and his views on the project have helped shape the U.S. position. I first met him on a warm afternoon in New York this fall, when he came to speak at a conference on Ukraine’s modern history. The event fell on the morning after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. Zissels had observed the holiday’s ritual fast from his seat in economy class. “It wasn’t so bad,” he told me. “I’ve done worse fasting during my hunger strikes in prison.”

As a young man in the 1970s and ’80s, Zissels was twice sentenced to prison for opposing the Soviet regime. He now serves as vice president of the Ukrainian chapter of the World Jewish Congress, a powerful advocacy group. In an awkward twist for Zissels, the group’s longtime president, Ronald Lauder, a Republican stalwart and former U.S. ambassador to Austria, sits on the board of the Babyn Yar memorial project alongside Fridman. Among the other board members are Joe Lieberman, the former U.S. Senator and the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate, and Joschka Fischer, a former German Foreign Minister. “They must think it’s prestigious,” Zissels remarked when I asked him how the memorial had assembled such an illustrious board. “They don’t understand that it’s part of a hybrid war.” As for the motivations of its sponsors, he swatted away the notion that Fridman has some personal connection to Babyn Yar. “I don’t believe in the sentimentality of people with $20 billion.” (Fridman’s current fortune, according to Forbes, is $16 billion.)

Part of what makes the project suspicious to Zissels is its timing. In the fall of 2015, when the first discussions around the memorial took place, the deadliest fighting in eastern Ukraine had settled into a stalemate as Russia shifted to subtler means of attack. The cyber-assault against Ukraine’s power grid took place that December. “If this wasn’t part of his strategy,” Zissels says of the Babyn Yar memorial, “you think Putin would allow the oligarchs to invest $100 million on enemy territory?”

The real aim of the project, Zissels says, is to weaken Ukraine—in the eyes of both its own citizens and its Western allies. “Putin wants the world to see Ukraine as a pariah, as a nation undeserving of statehood, a country of nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis,” he says. The Russian President has pushed that narrative for years, once describing Ukraine as a country convulsed by a “frenzy of neo-Nazism.” Such insults cut deep in a region whose politics is still shaped by the legacy of World War II, and have become a staple of Russian propaganda against Ukraine.

The memorial project thus looks to Zissels like an extension of Putin’s rhetoric. Some of its accounts of the massacre have played up the involvement of two Ukrainian militia units, Zissels says, even though their role is still a matter of dispute among historians. As the project continues to produce books, films and research papers on the tragedy, Zissels fears it will shape the public understanding of these events for generations. “Mark my words,” Zissels says. “Their plan is to show that Ukrainians were the ones who killed the Jews.”

Most historians say that is part of the real story. Some Ukrainian militants did collaborate with the Nazis. At the outset of the war, a lot of them were grateful to the Germans for evicting- their Soviet oppressors. Most grew disillusioned with the Nazi regime and turned against it. By the end of the war, many Ukrainian nationalists wound up in Nazi concentration camps. Still, according to the most authoritative histories of the war in Ukraine, militias like the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists did take part in pogroms against the Jews, and some of their commanders served under the Nazis.

As we finished the tour at Babyn Yar, Fridman stopped to explain how the locals had, in his view, neglected or mistreated the site of the massacre. A private shooting range stood at the edge of the park, and the sound of gunfire carried to the part of the ravine where victims had been forced to undress. Near the subway station, a sign identified a small house as a “volunteer center” for honoring the memory of these victims, but most of the house was being used as a shawarma grill. “We’ve found skulls here, human skulls on the ground,” Fridman told me, looking down as though he half-expected to find more human remains under his feet.

The memorial project, he says, will not downplay the acts of collaborationism in Ukraine, nor will it ignore the many Ukrainians who risked their lives to save Jews. “We want to show all historical facts,” he says. “If that helps Ukrainian society look the truth in the eyes, to accept that truth, to process it and draw conclusions from it, and to move forward as a society based on that understanding, then I would be very glad that we helped.”

In the spring and summer of 2019, when the first elements of the memorial project at Babyn Yar had already been installed, Ukraine held a pair of elections to choose a new President and parliament. The hardline nationalist parties, which see themselves as political descendants of the insurgents who sided with Nazis, were routed, failing to win a single seat in parliament. For the first time in its history, Ukraine elected a Jewish President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who lost many relatives during the Holocaust.

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Early in his tenure, Zelensky faced pressure to block the memorial at Babyn Yar. His own intelligence chief warned the government in a letter last year that the project is part of a Russian plot to “discredit Ukraine on the international stage,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by TIME. But the President still decided to support it. “My position is simple,” Zelensky told me. “Anyone who lays a stone in honor of the victims, they will have my blessing.”

For the President’s advisers, the project also presented a chance at diplomacy. They wanted world leaders to gather in Kyiv for the 80th anniversary of the massacre at Babyn Yar. Starting last spring, they sent invitations to U.S. and European leaders, including President Joe Biden, asking them to attend the commemoration ceremony in Kyiv. “This is very important to us,” Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told me.

After Biden took a pass, the Ukrainians held out hope for Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has placed the memory of the Holocaust at the center of his public image. In his first speech after Biden nominated him to lead the State Department, Blinken told the story of his late stepfather, who survived Auschwitz. During another speech in April, marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, he recalled how in the minutes before they died, Jews had scrawled two words on the walls of the Nazi gas chambers: Never forget.

But as the day of remembrance at Babyn Yar approached, the controversy surrounding the memorial only intensified. Mirroring the efforts of the U.S. government, Zelensky’s national security council began imposing sanctions against oligarchs, seizing their assets and shutting their TV channels. The State Department has applauded those sanctions. Among the targets was one of Fridman’s partners on the Babyn Yar memorial. But even amid the government’s stated campaign of “de-oligarchization,” Zelensky has stood behind the memorial project.

During a trip to the U.S. in early September, he praised the project for telling the story of Babyn Yar “for modern generations.” But he also seemed concerned about the ways that history could haunt Ukrainians. “The people of Ukraine cannot have the germs of anti-Semitism and Nazism at the genetic level,” he said at the Holocaust Museum in Washington on Sept. 1. “It cannot be in the heart or in the soul of the Ukrainian people, who survived Babyn Yar on their land.”

Zelensky’s remarks, delivered the same day as his first meeting with President Biden at the White House, looked ahead to the ceremony he will lead at Babyn Yar on Oct. 6. The Presidents of Israel and Germany have confirmed they will attend. As for senior officials from Washington, Fridman and the other organizers are not expecting any. —With reporting by Leslie Dickstein/New York and Nik Popli/Washington

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