Kyiv is no stranger to war, cruelty, and misery. The latest Russian invasion is but one more example of how the city’s location and resources have placed it center stage in a European tug of war over who will control, govern, and determine the future of the Ukrainian people.
After the fall of the Czarist Russian empire in 1917, there was a brief struggle between nationalist elements and Bolshevik sympathizers – the Bolsheviks won, and the People’s Republic of Ukraine came into being. Initially, the Soviets encouraged self-determination, Ukraine language, and customs – this came to an end under Stalin in the 1930s, when “Russification” took over. When Germany attacked the Soviets in 1941, Kyiv was in the middle.
Two battles were fought, in 1941 and 1943 for control of the city. In each case, the Soviet army and local Ukraine guard were pitted against the German Nazi army – first as defenders, in 1941, and then as attackers in 1943. Ukraine was under the control of the Soviet Union prior to 1941.
The 1941 battle of Kyiv involved over 500,000 German troops and over 600,000 Russian and Ukrainian troops. The 1st and 2nd Panzer Armies encircled the city – initially, they were repulsed, but with waning supplies and no way out, morale fell within the Soviet Army. Stalin forbade retreat or surrender until it was too late, and barely 15,000 Soviet troops survived – the rest were killed or captured. By 19 September, Kyiv had fallen, but the encirclement battle continued. After 10 days of heavy fighting, the last remnants of troops east of Kyiv surrendered on 26 September.
Only three days after taking the city, Nazi troops ordered all Jews to report to a ravine south of the city, bringing their papers and all of their valuables. Refusal meant death. Without knowing why the city’s 100,000 Jews complied – it was only as they drew near the ravine that they began to understand, hearing screams, shots, pleas for mercy, which were ignored by laughing SS.
They were ordered to strip, lay their valuables down, and stand next to one of three large pits. Within seconds the Germans shot them, leaving the bodies to pile up.
Over 30,000 Jews were executed in Kyiv in this fashion. There were a few survivors, though the SS circulated to shoot any that were just wounded. One young woman was shot in the leg, covered by other bodies, and lay still until after dark, when she made her escape. Another, Dina, was married to a Russian, had left her children in safekeeping – fortunate since even babies were thrown into the pit, some used for target practice, others to be buried alive. She jumped before the shot into the pit, and landed unharmed. She played dead as bodies piled on top of her, and kept her airway and eyes clear as the dirt to bury her landed. After dark, she crept out, but when she stood, a shot rang out – she’d been seen! She dropped quickly back to the pile of bodies – the shot had missed in the dark. After a time, she judged it safe, and again stood. Dina Mironovna Vasserman managed to escape, and survived the war. There were only 28 known survivors of the Babi Yar massacre, where 33,771 were murdered. SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln admitted responsibility after the war, and was hanged. Dina’s testimony at the war crimes trial helped to convict him. Another commander involved committed suicide in prison in Stuttgart. Recently, new information pointed to two members of the Einsatzgruppe who were present at Babi Yar, and still alive, but it was insufficient to prove that they participated in the murders.
This memorial was hit by Russian missiles within the past few days.
In the second battle for Kyiv, Nikolai Vatutin attacked the city on November 3, 1943, with an effective force of over 700,000. The Germans holding the city were the 4th Panzer brigade. The Soviets started with a massive artillery bombardment.
The Nazis retreated, and the Soviets took the city on November 6. There were German counterattacks and massive tank battles. The weather got involved causing the armor to bog down and get stuck.
With attacks and counter-attacks, by early December the Soviets had won, at a cost of over 28,000 soldiers killed, another 89,000 wounded.
The modern nation of Ukraine came into being in 1991. On January 21, 1990, over 300,000 Ukrainians organized a human chain, linking arms for Ukrainian independence between Kyiv and Lviv, 330 miles. Ukraine officially declared independence on August 24, 1991.