Plans for immersive $100-million Holocaust memorial in Ukraine ignite backlash

Controversy in Kyiv

Plans for immersive $100-million Holocaust memorial in Ukraine ignite backlash

A rendering of a portion of the planned memorial at Babyn Yar. (Courtesy Baby Yar Holocaust Memorial Center)

Northwest of the center of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and largest city, an unassuming and densely wooded ravine holds a horrific past. Babyn Yar, as it is known, is the site of successive atrocities committed by the Nazi regime when Ukraine still formed part of the Soviet Union, including one of the largest massacres in Holocaust history. By the end of World War II, German soldiers and their collaborators had murdered a total of 100,000 Jewish civilians, as well as Roma, communists, prisoners of war, hospital patients with disabilities, and Ukrainian nationalists in Babyn Yar.

Now, nearly 80 years after the first major massacre in the ravine, administrators of the site have released plans for an expansive, $100-million complex consisting of several houses of worship, a memorial, and two museums, the largest such project to occupy the space since the Holocaust. The controversial Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky has been appointed as the artistic director for the undertaking. Other contributors include the renowned Serbian performance artist Marina Abromavić and architect Maks Rokhmaniyko.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center will usher in a substantial spatial transformation of the site, which has functioned largely as a leisure space since its partial conversion into a city park after World War II. As part of a broad effort to suppress collective memory of the Jewish genocide and diminish disparities between the victims of Nazi Germany’s catastrophic reign of terror, Soviet authorities filled in parts of the ravine and allowed for a variety of land uses in its vicinity. 

A satellite image of the Babyn Yar ravine (center) as it relates to its urban context in Kyiv. (Google Maps)

Some small-scale memorials dedicated to those who perished in Babyn Yar, including a children’s memorial and an oversized menora, dot the site, but one could easily visit the park without gaining any awareness of its dark history. As Khrzhanovsky told the Times of Israel, “If you visit Babyn Yar today, you will see families relaxing and playing as if it were a regular park.”

While Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, have praised the new project for refashioning Babyn Yar as “a place of peace, reflection, and tranquility,” the proposal put forth by Khrzhanovsky and other organizers last month has raised serious concerns about the nature of the memorial. 

Intending to create a distinct visitor experience unlike any other existing Holocaust memorial or museum in the world, Khrzhanovsky designed an immersive walk-through experience that demands the participation of the viewer. Upon entering the memorial center, guests would be asked to fill out a highly invasive questionnaire, take a psychological test, and hand over social media information for computers to mine. 

Based on the data gathered, psychometric algorithms would assign visitors to certain “roles,” which they would be expected to embody as they proceed through the space. Detailed in a presentation posted online, the potential roles include everything from massacre victims to Nazi executioners. Once assigned, visitors would experience the exhibition spaces in a manner tailored to their particular role—a feature aided by the use of virtual reality goggles.

As reported in the New York Times, Khrzhanovsky argues that his peculiar approach demonstrates that “any person can be in any position, and it is based on decisions you make. It is about personal responsibility, but also fate.”

Map of the proposed Holocaust memorial at Babyn Yar spanning 15 distinct zones
Initial maps of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center show how organizers intend to treat the entire site as a museum. (Courtesy Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center)

For many, though, the director went several steps too far. Historians, curators, artists, and officials have lambasted the proposal as insensitive and lacking in restraint. Dieter Bogner, a curator on the project who has resigned in protest, compared the new center to a “Holocaust Disney” that “brutally stirs emotions” rather than encourage self-reflection. For many like Bogner, the plan renders one of the most horrific human tragedies of the twentieth century a jarring, yet trivial and carnivalesque experience.

Since the unveiling of the proposal in January, several participants in the project have stepped down from their posts, citing their own objections to the director’s ideas. Among them is Karel Berkhoff, the project’s chief historian. Over 80 Ukrainian critics, artists, and academics also signed an open letter demanding Khrzhanovsky’s expulsion from the project.

Criticism of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center development plans are particularly sharp in the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, an international rout that has since chilled relations between the two neighbors. Beyond Khrzhanovsky’s obvious Russian identity, the project has several Russian oligarchs listed as major donors, raising concerns that its direction is being unduly influenced by powerful figures outside Ukraine.

rendering of a holocaust memorial with concrete synagogue and menorah
A rendering of the synagogue planned for the Babyn Yar site. (Courtesy Manuel Herz Architekten)

For Khrzhanovsky himself, the memorial is just one of several outlandish projects to garner significant international backlash. In a 15-year film installation known as DAU, the director reconstructed a Soviet town and scientific institute in Ukraine, hiring non-professional actors to reenact Soviet life for three years on end. Accusations of sexual misconduct on set, as well as the involvement of orphans with disabilities, prompted Ukrainian authorities to open a criminal investigation into the project.

Despite his highly unconventional approach to filmmaking, Khrzhanovsky has received numerous accolades for DAU-related projects, including the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019. The application of his immersive methods to the particularly sensitive task of commemorating the Holocaust and the Babyn Yar massacre, though, seems to have earned him fewer fans.

Full architectural plans for the museum building at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center have yet to be released, but the memorial’s website indicates that “Environmentally friendly materials will be used in the construction; our basic principle is to take a sensitive approach to the natural and urban environment.” Organizers are aiming for a completion date between 2025 and 2026, but hope to open part of the exhibition gallery and the on-site synagogue by September of this year, exactly 80 years after Nazis attempted to annihilate the Jews of Kyiv. As of this writing, organizers have not announced any significant changes to the plans as put forth by Khrzhanovsky.