Solemnly, the small group of Russians advanced toward the memorial. They were tourists, businessmen, some older women, some young soldiers with their girlfriends, two young mothers with toddlers. A few of the visitors laid flowers on a bronze plaque at their feet and then drifted away, some with faces softened by tears.
It was a familiar scene in the Soviet Union - a visit to a war memorial. Thousand have been erected since the end of World War II, and reverence for the sacrifices and feats of arms is officially encouraged.
But the people visiting this particular site in Kiev one recent day were carrying their flowers to a new memorial that has a long and bitter past. It is the monument at Babi Yar, where more than 100.000 people - at least half of them believed to have Jews - were murdered by the Nazis and Ukrainian nationalists during the German occupation of Kiev from 1941 to 1943.
"Babi Yar" translates as "old woman's ravine." It was an abrupt, ugly fold in the earth on the outskirts of Kiev, near the cemetery for the city's Jews. It became a mass grave and then a secret, hidden from the national conscience for many years afterward.
The executions began at Babi Yar on Sept. 29, 1941. Jews were driven by truncheon-wielding troops and guard dogs to the edge of the brush-filled 20-foot-deep ravine, then machine-gunned to fall into the ravine. Bulldozers ground layers of fresh dirt over the masses of bodies.
Some who survived and escaped later said the earth moved and moaned for days after the first wave of executions.
The slaughter continued for months, enveloping Russian soldiers and sailors captured by the Germans. Communists Party members and their families. Ukrainian partisans who had harassed the Germans, gypsies caught in the conflict and even a local soccer team that had defeated the German garrison team.
But in the postwar years, while massive monuments were raised elsewhere to the sacrifices and heroics of the great Russians and Byelorussians, Baby Yar went unnoticed. Jewish groups inside the Soviet Union sought a monument, out their efforts were nullified by anti-Semitic purges triggered by Stalin the last years before his death in 1956 party congress. Jews and others pressed anew for a memorial. But Ukrainian officialdom was moving to eliminate any trace of Babi Yar.
During the 1960s. the ravine was dammed and filled with water pumped from quarries nearby, but the dam collapsed during a flood in 1961 that drowned an unknown number of Kiev's people. The ravine was finally filled with earth and graded and apartments were built at one end, on the site of the camp where prisoners were kept prior to their execution. A new television transmitting tower was built on the site of the old Jewish cemetery. The ravine, considered by the state of Israel to be one of the sites of its people's martydom, had been virtually as a physical location.
Then in 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote:
"No monument stands over Babi Yar.
"A drop as sheer as a crude gravestone.
"I am afraid."
It was the beginning of a powerful poem that resurrected the secret of Babi Yar. The poem caused a sensation. It was interpreted as a cry against anti-Semitism in Russia and denounced by Soviet authorities who emphasized that thousands of non-Jews died at the site as well.
But the poem reveted Soviet audiences and brought international acclaim to Yevtushenko. Eventually, a memorial came to Babi Yar.
A long designers' competition was completed in the early 1970s. and work on the memorial began. The site was excavated down to about 18 feet below ground level in an irregular shape that suggests the original lines of the ravine. Narrow paths were cut along the verge, leading through groves of poplar, birch, lime and chestnut trees and past carefully tended beds of salvia and roses.
A ramp-like massive pedestal of rough concrete extends about a hundred feet into the ravine and is topped by a huge bronze sculpture 50 feet high. Twelve figures are twined together in a motif of despair - they seem to be falling into the pit.
The figures include a young boy, an adolescent girl, a sailor and old couple and at the top of the tableau, a mother bent over her infant child in a final desperate gesture of protection.
The sculpted figures all have Slavonic features, however, and there is no hint to be seen of the slaughter of the Jews.
"We must remember that there were tens of thousands of people who died here, and only about 30,000 were Jews," said a local party official. Ukrainians suffered hardships as well, he said. The party officials estimate was inexplicably lower than other Soviet estimates of Jewish deaths made up to now.
In years past, other Western correspondents have reported that local guides and officials discouraged visits to Babi Yar, calling it too far away or inconvenient. But one recent day I accomplished the visit without any opposition. An Intourist guide accepted the request with equanimity. Private cars, taxis and maroon Intourist buses glided into the narrow parking area near the ravine in a modest but steady stream.
The people who came to visit were not markedly different from the everyday figures frozen in horror on the sculpture itself.