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From Babi Yar to Bucha Jonathan Littell on ‘An Inconvenient Place,’ his new book reckoning with Nazi and Russian atrocities in Ukraine

Source: Meduza

In February 2022, French-American writer Jonathan Littell, who won France’s most prestigious literary award in 2006 for a novel narrated by a former SS officer, finished the manuscript of another book about Nazi crimes: a work of literary nonfiction about the 1941 Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine. Two days later, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and less than two months after that, another place in the Kyiv region became synonymous with an invading power’s atrocities against civilians: Bucha. Littell soon returned to his manuscript to update it for a world in which war crimes are not just a horrific chapter in Ukraine’s history but part of its daily reality. The result, titled An Inconvenient Place, was published in French in late 2023 and features photographs by Antoine d’Agata. Now, Meduza has published the book’s first-ever Russian-language translation. To mark its release, journalist Dmitry Kartsev spoke to Littell about the difficulty of drawing parallels between wars, the bureaucratic nature of authoritarian regimes, and reckoning with the complexities of Ukrainian history. You can purchase the Russian-language edition of An Inconvenient Place here.

Jonathan Littell
Francesca Mantovani / Gallimard

Jonathan Littell’s An Inconvenient Place began as a project about the “invisibility” of the Babi Yar massacre site, where Nazi forces executed more than 33,000 Jews in a Kyiv ravine over a period of two days in 1941. 

“This was 2021; there was still no full-scale invasion, so we were just going to do a small project about the physical [place] where the Babi Yar massacre occurred, where, as I explain in the book, there are no visible traces,” he tells Meduza. “The ravine’s been filled, a neighborhood’s been built on top of it, there’s a park, there are a lot of monuments, [but there are no remnants of the massacre itself].”

As he studied how the murders at Babi Yar have been memorialized over time, Littell says, he “got a stronger and stronger sense of how uncomfortable this place has always been since the massacre.” As part of his research for the book, the writer spent many days walking around the area. “It’s weird and creepy,” he recounts:

The list [of monuments commemorating the victims] in my book is two pages long — that’s how many monuments there are. […] The metro is dug into the ground. The foundations of the buildings are dug into the ground. Construction sites regularly turn up pieces of bones. So it’s a creepy and haunted place, but everybody pretends that it isn’t — that it’s a normal place. And on the surface, it looks very pretty.

When the full-scale war started and news began to surface about Russian atrocities against Ukrainian civilians, the idea of a book about the historical memory of Babi Yar took on a new meaning. “We had to reconfigure the whole project,” Littell recalls. “We started working on the massacre specifically in Bucha, which had left very little trace, although there were clearly more traces than in Babi Yar. [But] they cleaned [it] up very fast.”

In Bucha, like in Babi Yar, Littell was struck by the contrast between the normality of the setting itself and the horror of what had happened there. “People went [to Bucha] for quality of life, fresh air, walks in the forest, swimming in the lake, time with their children. And it ended up as a massacre zone, with bodies strewn all over the streets and people going out to walk their dogs or shop and getting shot for absolutely no reason.”

The area where Russian soldiers tortured and killed five volunteers distributing humanitarian aid. Children’s summer camp, Vokzalna Street, Bucha, May 2022.
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos

Understanding the invasions on their own terms

For the co-author of a book about both the Babi Yar massacre and the Bucha massacre, Jonathan Littell is firmly reluctant to draw parallels between Nazi and Russian atrocities.

“The formation of extermination groups, the setting together of groups specifically dedicated to choose large categories of people and kill them in a systematic way, has not been a feature of this Russian offensive,” he tells Meduza. “This Russian offensive began with lists of individuals to kill; not entire categories of people, but specific individuals.”

As Russia’s full scale invasion has continued, Littell notes, the massacres carried out against Ukrainian civilians have resulted from a variety of factors, from anti-partisan warfare and “sloppy discipline” in the Russian army to “mid-level commanders wanting to impose terror” when they’ve had personnel shortages.

Littell contrasts this approach with that of the Nazis’ mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, which were infamous for their methodical approach to mass murder. “Einsatzgruppen killings [did] not have an intelligence function; they just determined categories of people that were considered threats as a category” and tried to exterminate them, he notes. “So quite different from the way the Russians are proceeding. I’m not saying the Russians are better; it’s just different.”

The Crystal Wall of Crying, an interactive installation at the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos
Bucha morgue, May 2022
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos

Part of the difference, he adds, is the way the Russian army’s brutality in Ukraine is built into the Russian military’s system of discipline and incentives. On the one hand, the tacit permission to rape, steal, and murder without facing significant reprimand is “part of the package deal of fighting these horrible wars” for Russian soldiers, Littell says. On the other hand, he says, Russian soldiers are exposed to gratuitous violence from the very start of their military careers due to the structure of the army itself: without junior sub-officers tasked with maintaining discipline, like sergeants in the U.S. or France, Russia relies on a system of brutal, hierarchical hazing to keep soldiers in line, with older men abusing younger ones.

“Everyday officers beat men hard, beat them with guns, throw them in jail; men are mutilated [and] occasionally killed,” he says. “If you have that kind of violence inside your army, of course, you can’t not have it vis-à-vis your enemy.”

Littell is also skeptical of attempts to draw parallels between the Nazi regime’s tendency to employ highly educated people to run highly bureaucratized systems and Russia’s increasing reliance on technocrats, whether that’s Russian Central Bank Head Elvira Nabiullina, who’s often credited with keeping Russia’s economy afloat over the last two years, or newly-appointed Defense Minister Andrey Belousov, whom Putin hopes will be able to streamline Russia’s military spending.

“Of course there are people like that, just like there are in China, [as well as] in America and in any country. [It was] the same when America was fighting World War II: it also had incredibly talented, highly-educated people running its war economy,” he tells Meduza.

He continues: “[Nabiullina and Belousov] don’t have to think about these problematic things. The same way [Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production] Albert Speer never had to think about the extermination of the Jews: it wasn’t his problem.”

House No. 144 on Bucha’s Yablonska Street. The bodies of several men who were executed by Russian soldiers were found near this building, which Russian forces used as a base and field hospital. May 2022.
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos
Morgue No. 1, Kyiv, June 2021.
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos

‘A permanent threat for Europe’

Littell has been a staunch proponent of the West being less cautious in its support for Ukraine’s defense effort.

“I recently signed an appeal in France […] arguing that NATO could provide air defense for Ukraine from [ou of the Ukrainian border,” he tells Meduza. Under the proposed plan, planes from NATO countries would patrol the skies over Ukraine’s neighbors like Poland and Romania and shoot down Russian missiles that enter Ukraine, all without physically crossing the border into Ukrainian airspace.

“I think this is an excellent solution,” Littell says. “I think NATO definitely needs to take a more aggressive stance in protecting its ally, because certainly what we’ve seen up to now is that Russian aggressivity is not going away.”

Because Vladimir Putin has restructured Russia’s economy and political systems for the purposes of the war, Littell argues, the Russian president can no longer afford for the war to end. This means that Russia will be a “permanent threat for Europe for the years to come,” he predicts.

Russian atrocities in Bohdanivka

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bohdanivka

Russian atrocities in Bohdanivka

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bohdanivka

Hand in hand with this contention is the idea that the war will eventually lead to the end of Putin and his system, a belief that Littell endorsed in an interview two years ago and says that he still holds today.

“The question is, when will this come?” he says. “This war will end the Putin system one way or another, because Putin cannot win it. What he can do is prolong it and prolong it and prolong it, possibly even until he dies of natural causes, which could take a long time.”

Putin’s nuclear bluff

Littell is not convinced that a stronger Western response to Russia’s invasion would increase the risk of nuclear war, as U.S. and European policymakers fear. He calls the contention that Putin would use a nuclear bomb a “complete error in analysis,” arguing that Putin’s past behavior in the face of legitimate threats on Russian territory indicates that Russia’s nuclear doctrine is more about “scaring Europe” than about real plans for nuclear strikes.

“When Prigozhin marched on Moscow with 5,000 guys, Putin ran and disappeared. He didn’t start using nukes against Prigozhin. He panicked and hid, and he let other people find a solution to the problem,” Littell says. He continues:

He has the mentality of a small guy in a schoolyard with bigger bullies, in which the only way the small guy can survive is by punching the bully first, in the balls, to make sure the bully goes down. This is his mentality. [...] The West is much more powerful, but this little bully is able to terrify them because he’s nastier.

Even if Putin did reach the point of ordering a nuclear strike, Littell is skeptical that the people tasked with carrying out this order would go through with it. “Are all these other people going to be willing to go, okay, we’re just all going to commit suicide for this?” he says. “I don’t know, because all this is completely hypothetical. But I certainly don’t think Putin is going to take that risk, because he’s a very careful, very scared man.”

A pipe diverting a stream from Babi Yar. Kyiv, September 2021.
Antoine d'Agata / Magnum Photos

Sensitive issues

Littell rejects the notion that he should shy away from the thorny complexities of Ukraine’s history just because they’ve been exploited by Russia’s pro-war messaging. Instead, he tells Meduza, he simply strove to be “as objective as possible” in the book.

“As soon as you talk about Ukrainian radical nationalism, their collaboration with Nazi Germany, [and] the crimes that they committed, you are immediately entering a field that has been infected by Russian propaganda [that portrays] all Ukrainians as Nazis,” he tells Meduza. “This is what Russia has been doing not only for the last two years but since 2014.”

He contrasts Ukraine’s historical relationship to Nazi Germany with that of his adopted country, France:

For me to say that Ukraine is Nazi because of [Stepan] Bandera, [Roman] Shukhevych, [and the like] is the same thing as to say that France is Nazi because of [French Nazi-allied wartime leaders Philippe] Petain and [Pierre] Laval. This was 80 years ago. On top of that, as I say, there is a huge difference between France and Ukraine in this matter, because in France, they were the highest authorities of the state: the president, the prime minister, the minister of the interior, the French police. These were the representatives of the state of France who collaborated in their official positions and put the entire mechanism of the state of France at the service of the Nazi invaders to, among many other things, arrest and deport Jews.

On the other hand, Littell says, the Bandera-led Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was an “independent terrorist group that represented absolutely nobody except themselves” and that reached no more than 200,000 members at its height. “[These were 200,000] stupid idiots led by a handful of fanatics, as opposed to the five million Ukrainian men who fought and died in the Soviet army,” he says.

At the same time, Littell argues, it’s important for Ukrainian society to reckon with the history of nationalist groups like the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). Part of the reason this discussion hasn’t been conducted properly in the last decade, he says, is Russia’s ongoing invasion. “It’s made it very, very difficult for the Ukrainians to finally have this conversation about their own past, which they need to do someday,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s a small phenomenon; it’s only part of the history, and it has to be put in the context of all the rest of the history.”

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Interview by Dmitry Kartsev. Summary by Sam Breazeale.

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