Babi Yar

Babi Yar was formerly a ravine on the northern outskirts of Kyiv in the Ukraine. Between 1941 and 1943 the Germans executed over 70,000 people. Most were Jews from Kyiv. The photo, said to have been taken by a German soldier days after the great massacre in 1941, probably shows Soviet prisoners of war levelling the sand covering the bodies near the site where 34,000 Jews had just been executed. (Yad Vashem)

In 1962, a visit by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev marked the beginning of a powerful musical response. Babi Yar, the site of a mass execution of over 70,000 Jews by Nazi troops in 1941, lacked a proper memorial. Yevtushenko returned to his hotel room and immediately penned a poem in remembrance, the first line of which:

"There are no monuments over Babi Yar, the steep precipice, like a rough-hewn tomb"

reflected his "refusal to accept the injustice of history, the absence of a monument to so many innocent people slaughtered", a poem that challenged the erasure of the victims' memory.

The poem found its way to Dmitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer known for his politically charged works. Recognising the poem's significance, Shostakovich set it as the first movement of a five-movement symphony. Each movement would use a different Yevtushenko poem, exploring different themes within Soviet history and society.


While only the first movement, titled 'Babi Yar', explicitly addresses the Holocaust, the entire symphony explores themes of oppression, defiance and the enduring strength of the human spirit. The work was censored because of its sensitive subject matter, reflecting the tense political climate of the time. However, the Symphony was premiered on 18 December 1962 to a receptive audience.

Although lacking an official title, the work became known as the "Babi Yar" Symphony, a testament to the lasting impact of both Yevtushenko's poem and Shostakovich's musical response. It serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of remembering historical atrocities, ensuring that the stories of the victims are preserved and their sacrifices recognised.

The photograph was taken on December 22, 1962 at Yevtushenko’s evening in the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Four days earlier, the premiere of Shostakovich's 13th symphony based on Yevtushenko's poems took place.