Bykivnia is a small hamlet in a wooded area a few miles northeast of Kyiv. The NKVD, from 1936 to 1941 used the area to bury its victims; it is estimated that some 225 000 victims were buried there. Most of those buried there were victims of the Great Terror that swept the USSR from 1936 to 1938.

The Great Terror was the most extreme chapter in the cycle of repressions that characterized the history of Soviet rule in Ukraine. Seeking to eliminate all real and perceived opposition to his rule, Stalin and NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov oversaw a purge of society that for its intensity has few, if any, parallels in human history. Countless numbers of Soviet citizens were swept up in operations all over the USSR and sent to labor camps, or shot. Most of the victims were never tried, and the families of those who were shot were told that their loved ones had been sentenced to camps “without the right to correspond.”  Bykivnia is but one of thousands of mass graves that dot the map of Ukraine.

In September 1941, after the German army drove the Soviets from Kyiv, citizens of Kyiv came to Bykivnia and unearthed the thousands of corpses buried there; the Germans ordered that photographs be taken to illustrate the brutality of Soviet rule. The revelations of the crimes committed under Soviet rule led many Ukrainians to side with the Germans against the Soviets, until the German regime proved itself as brutal as the Soviet.

In 1944, after the reoccupation of Kyiv by the Red Army, a Soviet war-crimes commission concluded that the German regime was responsible for the killings at Bykivnia; Darnytsia, a concentration camp where more than 60 000 Soviet POWs were executed by the Germans was located only three miles away. This cover-up was part of the attempt of the Soviet authorities to hide their crimes from the world; many other Soviet atrocities were blamed on the Germans.