Anatoly Kuznetsov is the author of Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. His memoir is a masterpiece of Ukrainian literature and a testament to the 30,000 Jews massacred at Babyn Yar (the Ukrainian spelling), Kyiv in September 1941. Today it would probably be called “autofiction”, a form of writing where autobiography borrows from the techniques of narrative fiction. However, for Kuznetsov, it is only the form which is novelistic, nothing in the book is fictionalised.
“I am writing it as though I were giving evidence under oath in the very highest court and I am ready to answer for every single word. This book records only the truth – AS IT REALLY HAPPENED.”
The book records the events following the German invasion of Ukraine in 1941 up until Soviet forces recaptured Kyiv at the end of 1943. But it also discusses the Soviet rewriting of history after the end of World War II and the terrible disaster in 1961 that followed the literal burying of the site of the atrocity in sludge and mud.
We only have the full text of this remarkable book because Kuznetsov defected to the UK in 1969 after finally losing faith in the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year. He smuggled the manuscript out in films hidden in his clothing and this was later translated by the Daily Telegraph journalist David Floyd, who had helped him defect.
Kuznetsov is buried in Highgate Cemetery, two plots up from actor Sir Ralph Richardson and just across from artist Patrick Caulfield and deserves to be just as celebrated. And yet, the grave is unmarked. Pilgrims to the monument to Karl Marx walk past this anonymous plot every day without realising that they are passing the last resting place of one of the most eloquent witnesses to the horrific human cost of totalitarian ideology.
There is now a crowdfunder to raise a headstone for Anatoly Kuznetsov, which has already received wide support.
Luke Harding, the Guardian foreign correspondent and author of several books on Russia recently described Kuznetsov’s book as “a brilliant documentary novel”… “a vivid, terrible and authentic account”.
Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel is presently only available in English in an old American edition from 1970, but it is surely only a matter of time before an enterprising publisher does this great book justice.
There is a fascinating piece in the Index on Censorship archive on Kuznetsov from 1981, two years after the writer died in London. The article, written by film critic Jeanne Vronskaya, discusses two films that were adapted from Kuznetsov short stories in the 1960s: We Two Men and Dawn Meeting. Each, in very different ways, was destroyed by the Soviet censor.
The first was a slice of 1960s neo-realism about a drunken driver who reassesses his life after an encounter with an orphan. The film showed gritty scenes of rural life and included real country people as extras. The film initially avoided the attention of the authorities and was due to be celebrated at a gala event during the 1963 Moscow film festival. But on the day of the screening the film was pulled.
Kuznetsov characterised the attitude of the Communist Party to the film in his interview for Index: “How can we represent the USSR with a picture that shows women dressed in terrible headscarves, snotty-nosed children, rough roads, privately owned geese, illegal private work, and without so much as a mention of the leading role of the Party?”
The film was shelved and a more suitable example of Soviet film making shown in its place. (By way of a sidenote, Fellini’s 8 1/2 won the gold medal at the festival, although the great Italian director’s masterpiece was never distributed in the Soviet Union).
The second attempt at adapting a Kuznetsov story was even more of a fiasco. Dawn Meeting was the story of a milkmaid struggling to survive in the collective farm era. When the censor saw the film, cuts were demanded to make the film more upbeat and patriotic. When Kuznetsov saw the final result he was horrified: “I sat there watching a film that was completely strange to me: about the raising of the standard of living in a progressive, prosperous collective farm, first class houses, excellent clothes, collective farm songs from Moscow Radio’s record library, fields heavy with wheat, and happily smiling collective farmers all over the place.” In a final twist, Dawn Meeting was on billboards all over Moscow when Kuznetsov left for the UK in 1969.
If these short stories are half as good as Kuznetsov’s masterpiece, Babi Yar, then they also deserve a wider readership. But it is his memoir that will act as his testament.
“I wonder if we will ever understand that the most precious thing in this world is a man’s life and his freedom? Or is there still more barbarism ahead?” Kuznetsov wrote those words in 1969. He did not need to answer his own question.