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On Putin and Babyn Yar

An exclusive Tablet interview with Ilya Khrzhanovsky

Vladislav Davidzon
February 02, 2023
Kate Green/Getty Images
Like millions of others with mixed Ukrainian and Russian family backgrounds, Ilya Khrzhanovsky has been forced to take sidesKate Green/Getty Images
Kate Green/Getty Images
Like millions of others with mixed Ukrainian and Russian family backgrounds, Ilya Khrzhanovsky has been forced to take sidesKate Green/Getty Images

The appointment of the controversial Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky as art director of the Babyn Yar Memorial Foundation in Kyiv set off an international uproar. Since then, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has taken memories of World War II and its atrocities from museums and history books and plastered them across the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Recently, I met with Khrzhanovsky on the veranda of a seaside hotel in Tel Aviv, a city to which many members of the Russian intelligentsia have fled in the wake of Putin’s blitzkrieg and his bizzare accompanying propaganda campaign against a peaceful neighboring nation.

Khrzhanovsky is a flamboyant personality who arrived at the project of remembering the dead of Babyn Yar with tremendous ambitions, his previous project having been DAU, a gargantuan real-life recreation of the life of the Soviet physicist Lev Landau and of the world that he lived in, which was filmed on location in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv by a cast of thousands. A massive premiere for the project was held in 2019 in Paris.

In an alternative timeline, Khrzhanovsky would likely have spent his tenure as art director building controversial and often interesting structures in the Babyn Yar memorial complex. Now, of course, the future looks different to him, as it does to everyone whose life has been touched by Putin’s war. Like millions of others with mixed Ukrainian and Russian family backgrounds, including myself, the director has been forced to take sides, and to define himself against an identity that he once claimed as his own.

Khrzhanovsky’s choices at Babyn Yar have aroused a litany of contradictory and polarizing public and critical responses, to which I find it easy to relate. Much like his own family, my paternal family were Ukrainian Jews who were evacuated, from Vinnytsia and Chernowitz to Uzbekistan ahead of the Nazis. My family stayed in Uzbekistan to become part of the nomenklatura administrative class, while his moved to Moscow to become part of the highest levels of the Soviet and later Russian cultural elite. His father is a famous Soviet animator. The last time we had spoken was in January of 2022, when I had made some rather grim predictions about Putin’s impending invasion, all of which came true a month later.

Our meeting in Tel Aviv took place on the last day of 2022, shortly after Moscow Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt had publicly called on Russian Jews to flee Russia, as he had done after refusing to offer public support for the war. Khrzhanovsky showed up to our meeting wearing his habitual Moscow art world uniform of a black suit with a black scarf. I informed him that he looked like a Hasid. He replied that in a certain sense he is a Hasid. He ordered a Coca-Cola and I a glass of white wine, and we begin discussing our citizenship and passport situations—which is sadly what Russian Jews do now when they meet each other in Tel Aviv, Berlin, London, New York, and Paris.

Vladislav Davidzon: Let us begin with the obvious question. With the war continuing to rage, what is going to happen with the Babyn Yar Memorial Project?

Ilya Khrzhanovsky: The project was actually only just getting started. We had planned to build the biggest Holocaust memorial complex in all of Europe. We should not compare the project, however with Auschwitz or any other memorial that is located in the places where those terrible events took place—that is, where there is still some material evidence of what transpired. Auschwitz was immediately preserved after the war—mothballed and frozen in time—in such a way that future generations could remember what took place. There are no traces left anywhere in Babyn Yar to remind us of what happened there.

We had planned for Babyn Yar to be a place where both Jews and non-Jews would come to contemplate the past, a place to which people would fly from all over the world specifically to have a chance to think about the example of the tragedy that happened there. To think about the history of the Holocaust and the place of Jews in Ukraine. To think about Jews generally. To think about themselves. About life and death. About the transience of life and the choices that we all have to make.

What will happen next is obviously completely unclear …

… as unclear as it is significant.

Babyn Yar will remain exactly the same in terms of the significance that it holds for the entire Jewish world. That is, all those objects and structures that had been built during my two-year-long tenure as director—the “pop-up Synagogue” in the form of a book, the field of mirrors, the crystal Wailing Wall made by Marina Abramovic—all of those structures remain and continue to work. People continue to visit the memorial.

Many of the objects we created had been criticized for being too abstract by specialists in the field of Holocaust memory. Yet the outbreak of the war has provided many of them with a completely different meaning. So now, the memorial is as much about the tragedy that is taking place right now as it is about the tragedy that took place in 1941. Because it is broadly about the inherent tragedy of the extermination of living beings in general. That which had been important primarily to the Jewish community has now become important for the wider Ukrainian community as well. Which I think is good and correct.

As of this moment, there are no memorials to the current war yet in existence. It is a process that will require a tremendous amount of rethinking. And Babyn Yar itself will require a great deal of rethinking after all that has happened.

Can the project move forward in the context of an ongoing war? Is that possible?

Well, it is not moving forward now in the sense of developing any new artistic ideas or concepts. I do remain the artistic director.

Will you be resigning from your post? Are you going anywhere?

No. I am not going anywhere at the moment. But I will admit that I have practically nothing to do at the moment.

Now, the Babyn Yar Foundation remains engaged in several small projects. One of these is the effort to continue to archive historical documents—everything we have that is related to the Holocaust throughout the country. And this is very important work, even as the country is at war, which makes the work very difficult and sometimes even impossible.

Anna Furman, our deputy general director, is currently leading a project called “Martyrology.” It is a martyrology of all the civilian victims who have been killed in Ukraine. There are photographs, letters and videos that are being showcased. This is not merely a first name and family name being written down somewhere, it is much more like a virtual cemetery. By the way—the design work for the project received a Red Dot Award, which as you know is the highest award in the field of design. That is an example of an important project that has nothing to do with Jewish life specifically but with the work of memory in general.

Since our organization, the Babyn Yar Memorial Foundation, is the largest specialist in the field of memory in Ukraine, we considered it necessary for us to continue to do what we have always done with the past, but to do it now with the present. You know that the whole world now knows about the bombing of Babyn Yar [during the second week of the war].

It seems to me that in the first days of the war that attack meant something very important symbolically. It does not really anymore. It is clear that the Russian Federation is now a fascist, Nazi-like country, so to speak. It is arguably even more terrible than Hitler’s Germany, because it relies on a far longer historical tradition to do what it is doing. That is, it relies on a 100-year-long experience of Soviet terror, which destroyed everything around it as well as everything inside of the country.

We had a short pause during Gorbachev’s perestroika and the Yeltsin years—there was this pause of 20 years and then once again everything turns to hell.

The world has never seen anything like this before. Why is that? Have we not seen worse or more destructive wars? Sure, we have. But never before has it been possible for one lone individual to threaten the destruction of the entire world. This is the first time in human history that this has happened. Therefore we have to understand this as a manifestation of pure evil. Perhaps even the ultimate evil. And the fact is that one of the first bombs during the war fell on the territory of Babyn Yar. The fact that a family with children was burned alive …

What can be done to salvage the project? What is to be done if, let’s say, the Ukrainians win the war in three months? Or six? If next week Putin has a heart attack?

The project requires a huge rethinking. In one sense, the whole country has turned into Babyn Yar. Or is being turned into it.

If at the beginning of the war the Jewish community actively avoided comparing what is happening now in Ukraine to the Holocaust (which is correct, the comparison is inexact), it is now obvious that what is happening in Ukraine is pure genocide. An absolute genocide of a specific nation and its peaceful population. Which makes it very similar to the tragedy of the Holocaust.

The fact is that the genocide of the Ukrainian people and the tragedy of the Holocaust are woven into the history of Ukraine. Because what is happening now is the result of a 100-year history, at least, of Ukrainian relations with Russia. And the Holocaust is tightly woven into that story. Which of course requires a rethinking by Ukrainian society of the composition of the supervisory board of directors of the Babyn Yar Foundation. It has clearly undergone terrible changes as international sanctions have been imposed on two of the sponsors of the project. Those sponsors have left, and new ones will have to be appointed.

I must engage in international relations for the project, to continue to keep those world-class cultural figures who were ready to participate in the project involved. But it will be Ukrainian society that will decide what to do with the history and with this project. And if Ukrainian society decides that it still needs me, I will be happy to continue to participate. For now, my task is simply to preserve what we had been doing before the war.

Two of the four original primary founders of the project, the Ukrainian Jewish oligarchs German Khan and Mikhail Fridman, are currently under international sanctions. Fridman is now under arrest in the U.K. under suspicion of money laundering, while Khan has fled to Russia. A third founder of the project, Pavel Fuks, is now considered persona non grata in Ukraine because of certain things that he did, or allegedly did, in Kharkiv at the start of the war.

Let us talk about the technical matters, then. Are you still being paid by the project? Do you continue to take a salary? Do you still talk to Mr. Khan and Mr. Fridman?

I have not received a salary since the start of the war. I voluntarily gave it up as soon as the war started.

I am still sometimes in touch with Mr. Fridman, for whom I have much respect, and I am very sorry that he is in the situation he is in now. I know how hard he worked on the Babyn Yar project and how important the project and his Jewish identity are for him, and I evaluate him based on that attitude. But what has happened, happened.

Neither Mr. Fridman nor Mr. Khan currently has anything to do with management or any other decisions that are made in the Babyn Yar Foundation, and naturally, they are no longer financing the project. Which is not to say that project is no longer active, Mr. Ronald Lauder has recently become a major donor, for which we are very grateful.

But one must also understand that the Babyn Yar project is more than just the people who funded it or had worked on it at one time. We are building a big thing, our action plan spans centuries …

Yes, when we met for a drink at the Cannes Film Festival in the summer of 2021 you informed me that you were in fact building a blueprint for the pyramid for the first 50 years. This would only be the beginning …

Actually, at Cannes I told you that we were making a working plan for the first 100 years.

My apologies. It was indeed the first 100 years.

It was important to me to outline how it should function for those first 100 years. One needs to make a plan and get it moving somehow. Of course, we did not assume in our worst nightmares that there would be a war, but we assumed that the world would change, in ways both concrete and abstract. With a plan of that sort, the project is of necessity bigger than any individual participant. It will have new sponsors and new artists long after my own work is done.

That said, I am certain that Babyn Yar is among the most important projects of my artistic life, and I will always be ready to contribute, whether that’s in my current capacity as artistic director or something else. I believe it is similarly significant for Mr. Fridman and Mr. Khan because they are personally connected to this tragedy through their family histories.

Both men are Ukrainian-born Jews. Mr. Khan I think had 11 or 17 close relatives shot by the Nazis in Babyn Yar. Yet it seems that the arguments of their Ukrainian critics have turned out to be correct. The fact that they still had assets in Russia made them exposed to Putinism. They were also a liability to themselves because they still had relationships in Russia that had to do with their money. Is all of that not true?

I don’t know the specific details of their activities in Russia, except for what everyone knows. They have huge businesses in Russia, but we must not forget that they have huge businesses in Ukraine as well. And in other countries, too. They made their fortunes in Russia, they moved from Russia to the wider world and the world economy.

I don’t know the details of their economic and political lives, but I do know that they treated and continue to treat Ukraine with great respect, and both men are experiencing these events as a personal tragedy. Fridman condemned the war initially, and while of course it’s always possible to say that he should have taken a stronger stance, I don’t think that’s any of my business. I think they both could have been bolder in their condemnations, but it is their life, their choice. And we all have to live with our own choices in the end. We do what we can. That said, I will always be grateful for what they did for the Babyn Yar Foundation.

It’s like our Russian citizenships, which we were discussing earlier. In the first days of the war, my first instinct was to immediately renounce my Russian citizenship. But then I realized such a decision must be approached with caution. Despite the fact you and I have other citizenships, and have not lived there for many years, forfeiting a passport does not sever our connection to the “great Russian culture,” as they used to say. This culture is part of us, and we are responsible for this, no matter what citizenship we have.

For the record, I burned my Russian passport at the start of the war in front of the Russian Embassy in Paris, and I thought you got rid of your Russian passport, too.

What is the future of relations between Ukrainian and Russian Jewry? Will it be war, or will it be Babyn Yar?

When we talk about the Jews now, I think, first of all, that the civic position is important—that is, how are Jews positioned within the broader body politic. As you know Rabbi Pinkhas Goldschmidt, the former chief rabbi of Moscow, has issued a statement calling on Jews to leave Russia if they can, saying that the level of antisemitism in Russia is growing. By contrast, it’s obvious that in Ukraine, the Jewish community is civically Ukrainian. I myself have felt like a political Ukrainian, and like a Ukrainian Jew, for a long time, and this feeling has only grown stronger since the war. I understand that I am culturally connected to Russia, but I am also connected to Ukraine, because my mother was born in Ukraine, in Vinnytsia. Thank God, a few days before the Germans entered Vinnytsia, my grandfather sent the family to Tashkent on the last train.

My family was also evacuated, part of them likewise from Vinnytsia. I ended up in America, you ended up in Israel and later London. We are both part of the broader, cosmopolitan, Jewish Russophone diaspora. But it seems to me that there is going to be a wider break between Ukrainian Jews and Russian Jews. Because Ukrainian Jews are going to become more Ukrainian, if only because of the war, and Russian Jews …

I think the only chance for them is to be more Jewish than Russian. You know how many people have now left Russia and gone to Israel, it’s an enormous amount. You know how many Jewish people from very different areas keep moving to Israel. But I repeat, a person, even more so a Jewish person of Russian origin, cannot but be on the side of the Ukrainian people, who are being subjected to genocide. I think, in a sense, Ukrainians are now all Jews, in that they are experiencing the tragedy of the genocide of their people.

In the first days of the war, I spoke to Dozhd [an independent, Russian-language TV channel], calling on Russian people to take to the streets to protest in any way possible. The next day, Dozhd was shut down. But things were getting bad even before that, it started a few months before the war, when “Memorial,” a [Russian] NGO that spoke out about memory, was closed.

There is a terrible perversion of memory that is taking place in Russia, and any civilized person connected with Russia has a responsibility to fight against it.

There is a terrible perversion of memory that is taking place in Russia, and any civilized person connected with Russia has a responsibility to fight against it. It doesn’t matter what kind of passport you keep in your pocket. My father, a famous animation director, was one of the first to sign letters and speak out against the war. And now my parents, who are 82 and 83 years old, live in Israel, and they understand that they will never return to Russia. In my own case, I left the country many, many years ago, but if before I would visit, now I cannot imagine ever going back again.

I am so glad to hear that your father signed all those letters, because I love The Glass Harmonica. It is one of cartoons I grew up with, and I’m glad I can still watch it with a clear conscience.

Let’s talk a little bit more about the technical issues related to the memorial. What do you think about President Zelensky? He supported you and supported the project all the way, right?

Zelensky and especially the head of his administration, Andrii Yermak, have indeed been very supportive from the start. As a Jew, but above all, as the president of the country, Zelensky understands that Jewish history is also Ukrainian history, and vice versa. And now we see how many people of all ethnicities are fighting for Ukraine. They may have Russian, Jewish, or Tatar ancestry, but they are first and foremost Ukrainians.

Zelensky is known now, deservedly, as a larger-than-life figure, a great hero. But in the conversations I’ve had with him personally, I was struck by what a decent guy he is. The cynicism one is so accustomed to in politicians is totally absent in him—he has a big heart.

At a recent meeting of the board, Zelensky and Yermak reiterated their support for the project. One might ask, in these tragic times, what does the memory of Babyn Yar have to do with anything? But they understand that it is part of Ukrainian history, and, most importantly, that Ukrainian history is not going anywhere. And our focus is not exclusively on the past. Since the beginning of the war, we’ve been doing everything we can to aid Ukraine against Russian fascism. For example, we’ve been working with Patrick Dubois, an experienced researcher and author of The Holocaust by Bullets, to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

How do you feel now about Russian culture?

Well, I was born within the paradigm of Russian culture, but also in the paradigm of world culture. I understand all the reactions of Ukrainians now to Russian culture and to the dominance of Russian monuments and street names and everything else. They have a point. Although, of course, the idea of closing Bulgakov’s museum is, to put it mildly, strange for me. But this is not my business, it’s the business of the Ukrainians and they have the right to do as they see fit. At the same time, we understand that Schiller, Goethe, and Thomas Mann are not responsible for Nazi Germany. The same is true of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.

I am also a Jew. We are a people historically accustomed to movement. Jews are part of the world culture, and they also absorb the culture of the countries they live in. Politically, I feel absolutely Ukrainian. My Jewishness is not for me, in the cultural sense, something that dictates my artistic expressions. But genetically, cultural codes are naturally all mixed up in me.

Modern artists are responsible, if not for Putin’s actions, then for the choices they make now.

Say the Ukrainians win the war and then say to you, “Thank you for your service, Ilya, but you are a Russian citizen and we want a Ukrainian citizen as a director of this project now.” What would you say to that?

I would understand. It is for the Ukrainians to decide whether or not someone is involved with the project. But that decision will surely be based on their personality and political position, rather than on their passport or nationality. The issue is, what sort of person are you? What is your position? What talents and skills do you have? The Ukrainian government will decide, but I am sure it will be based on criteria other than citizenship.

I still think that this project is an international one, and I also believe that Ukraine is becoming a more and more international country. There will be an influx of foreign artists, businessmen, and cultural figures who can come and help Ukrainians build their country in the way they decide. I didn’t come to Ukraine as a Russian citizen. I came to Kyiv as an Israeli citizen, and I applied for a work permit as an Israeli citizen.

Your Ukrainian residence permit is not on your Russian passport but on your Israeli passport? And you want to be identified now not as a Russian but as an Israeli?

Yes. I am a Russian-born, Israeli-German, British-Ukrainian artist, you know? I had an Israeli passport before the war and I left Russia way before the war. I probably should remind you that my first film, Four, was the first movie to be banned in Russia after the USSR collapsed!

That’s awesome.

It’s true. And then half a year later they formally gave permission to screen, but the film was only shown in a few cinemas, never on TV. And Dau was banned, it was never shown in Russia at all. I sued the Ministry of Culture from abroad over all this, which was of course useless.

It has been several years since the DAU project and all the attendant controversies. How do you look back at the way that Ukrainian society reacted to your participation in DAU and what that could mean for Babyn Yar two years on?

I believe that Ukrainian society was being manipulated at that time by a number of Ukrainian oligarchs and some people I will not name. A campaign was orchestrated across certain TV channels, in certain print outlets, to shape perceptions of the project. In particular, a criminal case alleging the torture of children was brought against me in connection with the film Degeneration. That film was a Milgram experiment-esque parable that examined the mechanisms through which Nazism comes to power and the ways in which it manifests in every person who supports it.

That’s to say I have reason to believe that some Ukrainian figures did not want me to helm the Babyn Yar project, not because they objected to my Russian origins, but because of their personal interests. Many people for whom I have great respect opposed my vision for the project without even seeing it. But time will tell.

It seems to me that the importance of DAU has grown tremendously. Right now, I am actually working on another original film within the DAU project, which is not yet released. We’re designing the set now.

Dau actually exists? Landau actually exists as a film?

It’s not Landau, it’s Dau. It is inspired by the story of Lev Landau, but it is not a precise biopic. We aim to finish production in late 2023 or early 2024. But as a project, DAU is even more important now because it tells us how totalitarian machines are born and how they change people. It depicts the consciousness and the Soviet and Russian trauma that led the world to the nightmare in which we are now living. 

How modern people adapt and how they instantly become part of a totalitarian machine that destroys all life—this is what DAU is about.

[The director tells a story about meeting a famous American counterpart in a bar in Tel Aviv the night before the war started.]

A messaging campaign was sorely needed. Zelensky recorded his famous appeal to Russian soldiers that same night. My wife suggested that one more appeal be recorded, based on Chaplin’s monologue from the film The Great Dictator. The president’s office liked the idea and we put a draft together, but the war started that same morning. As you remember, in The Great Dictator the hero is a Jew, and Zelensky is also a Jew. That the Jews are now fighting the monster of our historical moment, that puffy Botox-faced criminal Putin, is something we should all be proud of. By the way, Yermak is also a Jew.

As is the Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. It is amazing, this war of Jews against Russian Nazis—I wrote about it as early as March. Sadly for the sake of history, and art, the Jewish Ukrainian Volodymyr never got to deliver the Charlie Chaplin monologue.

No, because it was just too late. On Feb. 24 we all found ourselves living in a completely different world.

In the Soviet Union they used to say, “No one is forgotten and nothing is forgotten.” That’s never been more true. Technologically, the world is now such that none of those who committed crimes will escape responsibility. None of those who supported the war or supported this regime will escape responsibility. We are working on Babyn Yar using modern technologies, together with Maxim Rokhmaniyko, head of the Center for Spatial Technologies, who now works with Edem Vaisman from Forensic Architecture, he moved to Germany, he is a wonderful Ukrainian. All the war criminals in Russia and all those who support the regime will be named.

I think so too. We all have to do our small part. Glory to Ukraine!

Glory to the heroes.

Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Ukrainian American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.