Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born in Zima, Irkutsk, on 18th July, 1933. He was the descendant of a family exiled to Siberia. Influenced by the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin, he began writing poetry and achieved fame with his long narrative poem, Stantsiya Zima (1956). His poem, Baby Yar (1961) dealt with the Nazi massacre of 34,000 Ukrainian Jews. Some critics saw this poem as an attack on Soviet anti-Semitism.
In 1962 the official party newspaper published his poem Heirs of Stalin. The poem describes the burial of Stalin but at the end suggests that the problems are not yet over: "Grimly clenching his embalmed fists, just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside. He was scheming. Had merely dozed off. And I, appealing to our government, petition them to double, and treble, the sentries guarding the slab, and stop Stalin from ever rising again."
Books by Yevtushenko include Precocious Autobiography (1963), Bratsk Station (1966), Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty (1972) and Wild Berries (1984).
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.
In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:
Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!”
I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin's heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
[Translated by Katherine von Imhof]
Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.
In secondary school and during his student years, Yevtushenko struggled and had various problems, but he quickly emerged as a talented poet. His first attempts at writing poetry were published in the journal Sovetsky Sport (Soviet Sport), when he was 17 years old, and his first volume of poetry, The Prospects of the Future, came out in 1952.
The poem “Babi Yar,” written in 1961 in honor of the Jewish victims of mass murder by the Nazi occupiers in a ravine outside Kiev in the fall of 1941, brought him true international fame. In the poem, translated into 72 languages, Yevtushenko writes:
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
let it thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage,
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
[Translated by George Reavey]
“Babi Yar” is justly Yevtushenko’s best known poem. It is deeply moving and had an enormous impact when it was first published in the Soviet journal Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961.
In the Soviet Union, both under Stalin and his successors, state anti-Semitism flourished behind the scenes and—under this malevolent official influence—found expression in everyday life. Even though Red Army correspondents such as Vasily Grossman had been among the first to write and report on the Holocaust, the horrors were subsequently covered up by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which denied that genocide had been committed against the Jewish people, instead arguing that only “Soviet citizens” were murdered.
Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who incorporated the poem into his Symphony No. 13 (1962), reportedly told a friend: “I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’ the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.”
In the early 1960s, the great enthusiasm of Soviet young people for poetry generated the phenomenon of readings in large venues. The most legendary poetry evenings were the ones held at Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum, which attracted thousands of admirers. Apart from Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the three best-known young poets—Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina (who later became Yevtushenko’s first wife)—also read their verses there.
The readings at the Polytechnic Museum became part of the fiction film I am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiev, 1965), widely recognized as one of the symbols of the “thaw” period and the attempts of the best layers of the Soviet intelligentsia of the time to make a connection between the epoch of the 1917 revolution and the contemporary period.
The young poets often emulated the leading figures of the 1920s, such as Sergei Yesenin and especially Vladimir Mayakovsky. The influence of the latter was particularly felt in the works of Rozhdestvensky and Yevtushenko himself.
The principal peculiarity of Yevtushenko’s poetic style was the combination of a deep lyricism and self-examination—often bordering on self-infatuation and egocentrism—with a civic or social pathos and an urge to comment on the most topical questions of political life.
Yevtushenko elaborated his view on poetry, according to which the self-expression of the individual cannot limit itself to the “ivory tower” of “pure art,” and according to which it [individual self-expression] is inseparable from the striving to have a certain social position, in his poem “The Bratsk Hydroelectric Station” (1965). This poem was conceived as a hymn to the success of building Soviet society, which surpassed anything hitherto known in human history.
The poet in Russia is more than a poet.
Only those in whom the proud spirit of citizenship roams,
Who find no comfort or peace,
Are fated to be born as poets in Russia.
At the same time, the main unresolved question that determined Yevtushenko’s fate as a poet, as it did that of the entire Soviet “‘60s generation,” lay in the incapacity to truly break with the Stalinist bureaucracy and find a direct path to the genuine history and spiritual pathos of the 1917 October Revolution.
This incapacity, in the final analysis, was an objective socio-cultural problem, not a failing of the individual artists. Stalinism had murdered off the finest elements in the working class and the intelligentsia, anyone perceived to represent a threat to the bureaucracy. As a result of the physical and intellectual devastation, the Soviet population was largely blocked from contact with genuine Marxism, including of course a left-wing critique of the counter-revolutionary regime itself.
The artists undoubtedly felt a sincere hatred and revulsion for Stalin, but the terrible practices and legacy of Soviet Stalinism could not be reduced to the personal foibles and malice of an individual, but rather were rooted in the nationalistic, reactionary theory of “socialism in a single country,” which represented the opposite of the international and revolutionary perspectives of October.
The 1960s generation certainly went through a romantic infatuation with the revolution and the Civil War. This resulted, inter alia, in the lines written in 1957 by Bulat Okudzhava, the son of the Georgian Old Bolshevik, Shalva Okudzhava, accused of “Trotskyism” and shot by Stalin during the Great Terror in the late 1930s:
No matter what new battle shakes the globe,
I will nevertheless fall in that single Civil War,
And commissars in dusty headgear will bow in silence over me.
To resurrect the genuine spirit of the first years of Soviet power, however, and to lay a bridge between the two epochs, separated by the gulf of a horrible tragedy, the political genocide of several generations of the Bolshevik party and the entire culture of Russian socialism, it would have been necessary to turn seriously to the heritage of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. This political heritage embodied the best traditions of October and represented the socialist alternative to Soviet Stalinism. But the conditions for the artists making such a turn were very unfavorable.
Making this conscious connection to the history of the Left Opposition, the continuator of Bolshevism, was also necessary for a new—and genuine—“discovery” of Lenin, whom the official Soviet “Marxism-Leninism” had turned into an embalmed mummy, a dead statue with the face of a “state person.”
Without confronting this primary and most critical problem, the generation of Soviet intellectuals of the 1960s was condemned to degeneration and moral degradation, as well as to an increasing creative impotence.
Ambivalence, growing hypocrisy and cynicism found their reflection in Yevtushenko’s work and personal eccentricities.
In the mid-1960s he condemned the witch-hunt in the USSR of poet Joseph Brodsky and writer Yuli Daniel, and wrote about the merciless suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring by the Brezhnev leadership in the words: “Tanks are moving on Prague, Tanks are moving on the truth.” He also wrote a series of poems about the Vietnam War. However, in the 1970s Yevtushenko turned more and more into a stereotyped figure of a “representative of Soviet culture” abroad.
The celebrity poet visited over a hundred countries, meeting not only Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, but also such repugnant representatives of world imperialism as Richard Nixon.
The necessity to regularly “speak out” on topical political questions in the general spirit of the interests of the Kremlin leadership too often gave birth to hurriedly cobbled together, often botched verses. The journalist and writer Denis Dragunskii remarks: “Yevtushenko is flashy, colorful, and sometimes tasteless. Just like his clothes—these overtly colorful jackets, rings, shirts of crazy styles.”
Discussing Yevtushenko’s ability to establish relations with the powers that be and “advance himself,” Dragunskii cites a story of one journalist from the newspaper Komsomolskaya pravda [ Komsomol Truth —organ of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], who observed Yevtushenko in the mid-1970s “twice during one day. In the morning, the poet came into the ‘Komsomolka’ [which was in these years one of the anchors of “free thought” within the framework granted by the authorities] and was dressed very fashionably, striking and foreign. And at three in the afternoon he met Yevtushenko in the Central Committee of the Komsomol and hardly recognized him—he was dressed in a modest, Soviet suit, tie. He apparently had gone home only to change this clothes.”
The process of degeneration of the Soviet intelligentsia was not completed in an instant, but stretched out over a lengthy period of time, at least two decades or more, proceeding quite steadily in the years of the so called “stagnation” (under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors). Nevertheless, having received a significant impetus from the “thaw,” Soviet culture continued to yield significant fruits for some time. The flourishing of cinema, for instance, continued from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.
But the continued rule of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy, which could only have been ended in a progressive fashion by a political revolution of the working class, doomed the Soviet Union.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) policies brought to light the hidden, long-term process of decay and the real danger of capitalist restoration, while leading layers of the Soviet intelligentsia “suddenly” discovered that, in the name of the democratic “values” of bourgeois society, they were prepared to curse the revolution, socialism and their own recent past.
The acknowledged leaders of the “Soviet ‘60s” in the various spheres of science and culture became the primary intellectual prop for the restoration of capitalism which the Stalinist bureaucracy conducted at the turn of the 1980s and 90s and which destroyed the Soviet Union.
Proceeding ever further along the path of renunciationism and anti-Communism, a significant section of this layer, including the above-mentioned Bulat Okudzhava, supported the authoritarian Boris Yeltsin regime and enthusiastically approved his shelling of parliament by tanks in October 1993. Some few years later, in full accordance with the positions of the most influential group of recently emerged “oligarchs,” they supported Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.
Yevtushenko tried to find a new footing in the post-Soviet period, but without much success. His moderate criticisms of Yeltsin’s Russia allowed him to maintain or develop a certain popularity, but all this resembled, more than anything else, a life after death.
In 1991, he moved with his family to the United States, after receiving a position at the University of Tulsa. From this point on, he returned to Russia mostly for short visits he held readings from time to time, gave interviews and worked on editing a five-volume anthology of Russian poetry covering “ten centuries in the history of the country.”
In 2014 Yevtushenko disgracefully supported the pro-Western coup in Kiev, which was carried out by far-right and fascist forces. A few days before the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, he wrote the poem “State, Be a Human Being!,” in which he declared “With me on the Maidan are the warm ghosts of Pushkin and Briullov [Karl Briullov, the Russian painter who donated the proceeds of the sale of one of his paintings to buy the freedom of Ukrainian writer-artist Taras Shevchenko from virtual slavery].”
This final transformation of Yevtushenko from a “fellow-traveler” and “friend” of the Soviet bureaucracy into a loyal supporter of imperialism guaranteed him the sympathies of the pro-Western liberal opposition, which “rehabilitated” him as fully as they could.
The poet and writer Dmitry Bykov speaks today of the “drama and triumph of Yevtushenko,” asserting he was “a man, endowed with super-human abilities.” At the same time, the decades-long “conflict” between Joseph Brodsky and Yevtushenko has finally come to an end. Brodsky, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, at the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika, had already, by the end of the 1960s, politically turned far to the right, to extreme anti-Communism. His personal animosity toward the officially recognized Soviet writers and poets found its most specific expression in his hostile attitude toward Yevtushenko. His animosity, it is said, went so far that Brodsky declared: “If Yevtushenko is against the kolkhozes [Soviet collective farms], then I am for them.”
When looked at today, this feud looks like a trivial episode, even though one that bears some significance if only from the standpoint of literary history.
It would be a gross oversimplification and a genuine error to regard the fate of the generation of the Soviet ‘60s as nothing more than one colossal defeat in the moral and creative sense. These figures left us quite a lot that is vivid and fresh and which will continue to live in the memory of future generations.
In the present day, the American ruling elite is conducting a ferocious anti-Russian campaign, trying to incite open hatred of the Russians as a people in order to justify their plans for global domination. Under such conditions one is pleased and moved to remember one of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s best poems written in 1961. In one of the most difficult periods of the Cold War, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote, recalling the lessons of the Second World War:
Say, do the Russians want a war?—
Go ask our land, then ask once more
That silence lingering in the air
Above the birch and poplar there. …
Sure, we know how to fight a war,
But we don't want to see once more
The soldiers falling all around,
Their countryside a battleground.
Ask those who give the soldiers life
Go ask my mother, ask my wife,
Then you will have to ask no more,
Say—Do the Russians want a war?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (Profile)
If Yevgeny Yevtushenko did not exist, another author might have invented him as the central character in one of those sweeping epics that Russian writers adore. The problem would be that, as a work of fiction, Yevtushenko's real life strains credulity. A literary superstar in Russia since his teens, he attracts stadium crowds of up to 30,000 for his poetry readings. He moonlights as an actor, director, screenwriter and political activist. And his passion for life includes filling significant parts of it in the company of women and good wine. Appropriately for someone whose achievements seem larger than life, he is, at six feet, three inches, larger than most people around him, dresses in an eclectic, electric manner that would do the lead singer of a rock band proud, and, with his famous piercing blue eyes undimmed at age 61, has just as much stage presence. As befits someone who has spent close to half a century being acclaimed, Yevtushenko has an ego in keeping with his achievements. "I am the spiritual grandchild of Pushkin," he says, cheerfully likening himself to the man generally regarded as Russia's greatest writer.
Sometimes, although not always, the quality of Yevtushenko's writing approaches the level of such a claim. As a poet, his work has ranged from the sublime, such as his 1961 epic Babi Yar - dealing with Russian and German anti-Semitism during the war - to the incomprehensible, including much of the work he did in the 1970s. Yevtushenko himself once cheerfully declared that his poetry is 70-per-cent "garbage" and 30-per-cent "OK." His new book, Don't Die Before You're Dead (Key Porter, 398 pages, $28.95), marks a turn to prose. It also lives up to another of Yevtushenko's assertions - that he reflects Russia's troubled soul. "People may like this book, or they may not," he said in the course of a recent two-hour interview in Toronto. "Either way, they should accept that it represents Russia the way it is."
On one level, its title reflects Yevtushenko's concern that Russians, inured to a life of constant fear and deprivation during the worst years of the old Soviet Union, often die a spiritual death before their physical one. It is also the advice that "Boat," the book's most vivid character, gives to her sometime lover, a former soccer star named Prokhor (Lyza) Zalyzin. Sprawling, bombastic, occasionally overwrought, and filled with black humor, Don't Die Before You're Dead sweeps through daily life in the former Soviet Union from the Second World War until the early 1990s. In the process, Yevtushenko evokes a dizzying and often brilliant panoply of emotions and characters. All are instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the alternately challenging and deadening qualities of everyday existence in Russia.
The central event of the book is the brief real-life coup of August, 1991, by a group of hardline Communists disenchanted with the reform policies of then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Their object was to restore the Soviet Union to its former status as a world power: in fact, more than anyone else, they hastened its dissolution.
But Yevtushenko spends little time investigating the event's historical importance. Rather, it serves as a backdrop and catalyst for the manner in which ordinary people confront an extraordinary event. The record is mixed: those who joined current Russian President Boris Yeltsin in resisting the putsch ranged from Yevtushenko himself and other favored figures in the old Soviet regime to smugglers, black market operators and those motivated by little more than a keen eye for the main chance. At the time of the coup, Yevtushenko writes, the country was, in the balance, "divided into three countries. One was frightened and wanted to return to yesterday. The second did not yet know what tomorrow would be like, but did not want to return to yesterday. The third was waiting."
Much of the public discussion of the book so far has centred on Yevtushenko's portraits of such figures as Gorbachev, former Soviet Foreign Affairs Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and President Boris Yeltsin. They are written in a breezy manner that combines some psycho-babble, such as speculation on the forces that affected Gorbachev early in life, with an easy mix of anecdote and insight that reflects the intimate access Yevtushenko had to top levels of the Soviet leadership. Yevtushenko remains, overall, a fan of all three men, despite the fact that he declined a medal from Yeltsin last year as a protest against Russian army behavior in Chechnya. "Yeltsin," he says, "is a good axe, but we need a jewel, not an axe, now." Yevtushenko also confesses regret over the breakup of the Soviet Union, "not for what it was, but for the brotherhood of different groups that it could have been."
Yevtushenko's closeness with former Soviet leaders also serves as a reminder of the suspicions that some Russians still harbor towards him. That resentment is based on the fact that he lived a privileged life in the former regime even while presenting himself as one of its most ardent internal critics. Of that, Yevtushenko says wearily, "people should look at my record. They cannot say I only pretended to criticize when the record shows so clearly that I spoke against bad policies very publicly many times."
The real charm of Don't Die Before You're Dead, and Yevtushenko's strength as a writer, lies in the skill with which he reflects the contradictory elements that vie for control of the Russian soul. The book's most enduring and endearing figures are both fictional: the middle-aged, disillusioned and alcoholic Zalyzin, and Boat, an earthy and physically imposing woman whose determination and strength of character only emphasize Zalyzin's weaknesses, and the paradox of her devotion to him. Her nickname derives from her promise to be "the boat that is always waiting for you." Still, their relationship is ultimately doomed: in less skilful hands than Yevtushenko's, their story would be soppy. But the author knows his characters too well to allow that, and their relationship is all the more compelling for the fact that he emphasizes their flaws. Yevtushenko, who has been married for nine years to his fourth wife, Masha, a physician (they have two children), says that Zalyzin "is really me." And Boat "is a woman who loved me madly, and who I did not have the good sense to love back until it was too late."
Other fictional characters include Stepan Palchikov, a Moscow police officer who joins the side of the coup resisters. He is a classic figure in detective fiction: the weary cop who buries himself in his job to hide from a disintegrating marriage. Yevtushenko himself also appears, in first person, recalling his role in the events. Few other authors would have the cheek to include themselves not once, but in two different characters, in the same book.
With his fondness for epic tragedy and layered prose, and his eagerness to mine the depths of the Russian soul, Yevtushenko is an obvious heir to a literary tradition of mega-page gloom and doom that extends back to such figures as Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. But Yevtushenko is a highly contradictory man. Despite the despair that suffuses some of his writing, he maintains a huge appetite for life. His angry impatience with the swift passing of time is coupled with concern over how much is left him. "I hate death as a monster which swallows us," he says. "I pray and pray every day that I will get at least 25 more years of life. With that, I could direct 10 more films, write five more novels."
He now spends half of each year teaching Russian studies at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, describing himself as "the ultimate citizen of the world." Considering that he speaks fluent English, French and Spanish as well as Russian, and that his work has been translated into more than 70 different languages, that may be true. And he delights in recounting the fact that American author John Steinbeck, shortly before his death, predicted to Yevtushenko, then known only as a poet, that he would one day become known as "a great writer of prose." "You see?" says Yevtushenko, after a great swallow from a glass of Burgundy wine, "I must have more time, to fulfil my destiny, and Steinbeck's prediction." He says that his sequel to this book, which he has already started writing, will be called Don't Die After You're Dead. And Yevtushenko hopes to take that advice personally.
Memories Of Yevgeny Yevtushenko
The first person to have ever stood in front of a blackboard with chalk in hand to teach me in Russian will be buried today in a cemetery southwest of Moscow. He will be memorialized next to the graves of his peers, great figures of Russian literature such as Pasternak and Korney Chukovsky, surrounded by the resounding echoes of beauty and pain that float around historic Peredelkino.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko was 83 years old.
The last time that we really spoke he commented on a term paper I had written I ignored the red ink and the grade, I wanted to know what he thought. His response: “You said what you wanted to say, what you meant to say.” Now I shall try again.
We met by accident, in the small print of a course description in the 2002 fall bulletin for courses at Queens College, the City University of New York. I was two months short of my 19th birthday and had no idea that he was teaching there. I was just browsing the courses in the European Languages department.
A bell certainly went off in my head. I had been shown his Babi Yar by my parents when I was younger, was told stories of what he had “done for us,” for the Soviet Jews. Other than that, I had not read much of his work and to this day I fall very far short of having read all of it. I will say it now as it bears repeating: for me that was never the point and it is not the point now criticism has its place and significance, but by definition it is outside looking in. I had the rare opportunity to step inside and have a look around.
The first impressions were based in sound. That dynamic voice both in Russian and English (and an occasional hilariously inflected Spanish) which equally percussed the consonants, shaped sonorant vowels. Then that prosody, with the rises and falls which enticed the hairs on the back of your neck to do the same, it came and went, an instrument played with restraint and abandon. It didn’t matter if he was telling jokes or horror stories, reading poetry or reminiscing, in a small classroom, in an office, a hallway, on the street or in my car. The effect was always there. Yevtushenko and his voice were full of life, an anxious yearning to live.
Memory comes into focus with color and emotion, the creased pale face against the ornate ironed drapery of suits and jackets and ties and scarves and hats. It comes in leitmotifs, objects, snapshots: the tangible regret and weathered understanding of his marriage to the poetess Bella Akhmadulina, the nostalgia for mistakes. Those glasses coming on and off for emphasis. The veins and tendons of the face and neck strained to the limits as he recited “Dwarf Birches.”
I distinctly recall Yevtushenko exuding an exciting boredom, the exhaustion of speaking to people who remember you as a young man, of speaking about the past being more important than the present. It often seemed that we were as entertaining to him as he was to us. One time when we were driving through Queens he remarked in passing that he was “tired of these babushkas and could we please just go see a movie.” Yevtushenko not only loved to laugh, at people, with people, and, at himself. He would make fun of our grammar and certain semantic choices in Russian particularly when they implied some sort of tawdry double entendre (my friend remembers accidentally saying that she and I had “had” the same English teacher at different times, an ensuing belly laugh and as she tried to correct herself and use a figurative phrase and he told her that he “preferred her version”). He so easily transitioned from the comical into the serious and then right back, so readily switched roles from orator to interlocutor.
The human drive to acquire knowledge and then the strong desire to pass it on is unmistakable. Real teaching requires watching the student, trying to empathize with them closely and actively waiting to see if they understand, maybe even whether they might help you understand better the very thing that you are trying to convey. In the process of teaching and relating to people who had no expectations, Yevtushenko was both disarming and disarmed. Watching him onstage, I viscerally felt a missing element, the sound and the fury, they were still there, but part of the person itself was gone.
An episode: We were in traffic in my 1992 Honda Civic heading back from an art gallery in Jersey City (finding that gallery was a fantastic ordeal, there was no GPS, a vague address, and at one point Yevtushenko rolled down the windows, waved at a group of young Hispanic men standing on the sidewalk and shouted “señor!! donde esta el museo Ruso?”) and there in bumper to bumper monotony Yevtushenko responded in less than four sentences to much of the canon that has been written about him during his life and now shortly after.
Unprompted and pensive, he would tell us that he grew up surrounded by people more talented than he was, by better writers, he went past admitting this, and he stressed it. He also said that he got lucky. He spoke of the envy that resulted, envy that persisted, that would persist. We did not ask but he proceeded to speak of Joseph Brodsky, he said it was a misunderstanding. I never pressed further, it wasn’t the point, not my job, not my place, and I didn’t really care.
The Yevtushenko I knew carried pain and knowledge underneath the plumage, he was not self-obsessed, just obsessed in general with everything he saw. He made you look, and when it wasn’t on a stage and in front of an audience and it wasn’t his job to be looked at, that is when your eyes and his would be pointed in the same direction.
I don’t have a single autograph, no one in those classes, neither my friends nor the older members of the community who just showed up, ever asked for one. It had never occurred to us to bring the man a book of his own poems and ask him to sign it, the mark that was made had been made implicitly. It was and remains self-evident.
A few words about Babyn Yar.. The accusations of the poem have been amended and a monument now stands over it. We mourned the dead again, 75 years later, this past Yom Kippur. No, Yevtushenko was not the first to write about the ravine, not the second, not the third…. I personally spent two and a half years tracking, researching, and translating a poem (which was published in this journal) that was written in 1943 by the great Ukrainian poet Mykola Bazhan after he stood in those ashes.
No, Yevtushenko was not the most original nor the main authority on Babyn Yar, nor was he the only one to echo that pain: but he was the loudest. And he made sure that he was heard, maybe that was one of his greatest gifts: getting under your skin, for better or for worse. In 1961 maybe that is all that mattered. I believe it matters still.
In 2003 my teacher told me that my writing conveyed intent, that I had written what I had meant to write. Now I mean to pay my respects, and to say goodbye.
Lev Fridman is a writer who lives in New York City. He previously wrote for The Odessa Review about the work of the seminal Ukrainian poet Mykola Bazhan.
The Saturday poem: There are no boring people in this world
There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct – you simply can’t compare it.
If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity –
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.
Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment –
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.
When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow …
All gone, all gone – there’s just no way to stop it.
There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something – something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish –
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.
Russian Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko dies: “Today, I am as old. As the entire Jewish People itself”
The power of his words changed history.
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Russian Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has died at age 84. He was resident at the University of Tulsa, and died in a hospital in Oklahoma City.
I think it’s hard for Americans to understand the celebrated role that poets occupy in Russian history, including the dissident movement that began to develop in the 1950s and 1960s. I experienced some of that when studying Russian language and literature in the 1970s and early 1980s, and studying in Moscow in 1980.
The vast sweep of Yevtushenko life work was somewhat overwhelmed by the power and stature of Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem about the Nazi massacre of over 33,000 Jews in just two days on September 29-30, 1941, at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev in the Ukraine.
I provided extensive background and material about the Babi Yar massacre in my May 7, 2016, post, Israeli flag burned at Babi Yar on Holocaust Remembrance Day:
The two-day September bloodletting did not end the killing at Babi Yar. Over 100,000 would be murdered there, including non-Jews. In all 3,000,000 Ukrainians, almost a third of them Jews, would be executed by the Nazis in Ukraine.
As the Nazis withdrew from Ukraine, they ordered captured Soviet soldiers to exhume and burn the bodies in an attempt to cover up the crime.
[This photo was taken from a the body of a dead Germany officer killed in Russia, showing a German firing squad shooting Soviet civilians in the back as they sit beside their own mass grave in Babi Yar][Image via The Atlantic]
A monument later was built, remembering the site as a general memorial to Soviet dead.
I visited the Babi Yar memorial in January 1979. The monument was typical Soviet style. I took this photo (a better close up not taken by me is here).
[Babi Yar Memorial 1979, photo by William Jacobson]
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish People[*] itself….
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here….
The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) based in part on Yevtushenko’s poem:
Acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose work focused on war atrocities and denounced anti-Semitism and tyrannical dictators, has died. He was 84.
Ginny Hensley, a spokeswoman for Hillcrest Medical Center in the eastern Oklahoma city of Tulsa, confirmed Yevtushenko’s death. Roger Blais, the provost at the University of Tulsa, where Yevtushenko was a longtime faculty member, said he was told Yevtushenko died Saturday morning….
Yevtushenko gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Josef Stalin. He gained international acclaim as a young revolutionary with “Babi Yar,” the unflinching 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union.
At the height of his fame, Yevtushenko read his works in packed soccer stadiums and arenas, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991 that came to listen during a failed coup attempt in Russia. He also attracted large audiences on tours of the West.
With his tall, rangy body, chiseled visage and declaratory style, he was a compelling presence on stages when reading his works.
“He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” said former University of Tulsa President Robert Donaldson, who specialized in Soviet policy during his academic years at Harvard.
Until “Babi Yar” was published, the history of the massacre was shrouded in the fog of the Cold War.
“I don’t call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” Yevtushenko, who had been splitting his time between Oklahoma and Moscow, said during a 2007 interview with The Associated Press at his home in Tulsa….
Years after he moved to Oklahoma, Yevtushenko’s death inspired tributes from his homeland.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on the Russian social media site Vkontakte: “He knew how to find the key to the souls of people, to find surprisingly accurate words that were in harmony with many.”
A spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said the poet’s legacy would remain “part of Russian culture.”
Natalia Solzhenitsyna, widow of the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said on Russian state television that Yevtushenko “lived by his own formula.”
“A poet in Russia is more than a poet,” she said. “And he really was more than a poet — he was a citizen with a pronounced civic position.”
[* The translation I previously have used uses the term “race” but I think the better translation for the Russian word “Narodu” (народу) is “People” and that is the English term Yevtushenko uses when he reads the poem in English]
The sad case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko
As the gloom of terrorized conformism settles on the Soviet intellectual world with only a few moral jabs by Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, fighting a desperate Thermopylae, it may be suitable to recall the more typical and less edifying career of one who was till very recently still regarded by many in the West as a sign of more promising things.
Not very long ago Yevgeny Yevtushenko stood forward as the Galahad of liberalism in the struggle against the cold‐blooded traditionalists of the Soviet Communist party apparatus. Vast audiences of the enthusiastic young flocked to his readings, applauded him wildly, called for poems such as “Babi Yar”* which seemed to embody the hope of a new and freer Russia. In the West too, and especially in America, he was massively welcomed in the same spirit.
What has been said about Yevtushenko in Russia in the past couple of months indicates the truly extraordinary change in his reputation that has taken place since those days. The party's organ, Pravda, reviewing his latest collection, welcomes Yevtushenko's “fervent civic‐mindedness” —a phrase that in Pravda's usage indicates, of course, complete loyalty to the apparat. At the same time, the novelist Vladimir Maksimov, whose current persecution is a major literary confrontation in Russia at the moment and an international cause cdlebre, wrote to the Soviet Union of Writers (just before his dismissal from that body) mentioning Yevtushenko in the most natural way as one of a batch of third‐rate intriguers: “The Union of Writers, and its Moscow branch in particular, is gradually becoming the domain of petty political marauders, of literary hucksters, of all sorts of Mednikovs, Pilyars and Yevtushenkos….”
Maksimov's cold dismissal follows a recent bitter attack on Yevtushenko, circulated in manuscript, by two old friends and colleagues, the liberal writers Vasily Aksyonov and Grigory Pozhenyan. The immediate issue was an unpleasant article his on their book “Gene Green Untouchable,”t which (they point out) went far beyond legitimate criticism, and to which their attempts to reply print are rejected by the party hacks now in con
*Babi Yar is the name of a ravine where in September, 1941, Nazi troops shot tens of thousands of Jews from nearby Kiev. Yevtushenko's poem denounced the atrocity and attacked Soviet antiSemitism. It was criticized by Soviet officials, who insisted that the massacre was not specifically anti‐Semitic, since the victims included Ukrainians and others.
. Green Untouchable,” published last winter, is a 700‐page spoof of the James Bond spy novels. It appeared under the pen name Givady Gorporzhaks, a composite of the names of three authors, Aksyonov, Pozhenyan and Ovidi Gorchakov. The book did not receive much notice in the Soviet anion until it was attacked by Yevtushenko, who argued that the attempt at parody failed because the authors became too fascinated with the characters they had sought to deride. trol of the journals. They charge him with using his official position as a secretary of the Union of Writers to “settle personal scores,” accuse him of “hypocritical demagogy” and add that “you bragged that you had provided security for yourself” by dissociation from authors less well regarded by the authorities—in fact, of selling out, and of betraying his colleagues.
There have been other signs of the disintegration of a career that once showed so much promise, and this seems an appropriate time to consider the whole Yevtushenko phenomenon a curious amalgam of politics, publicity and poetry, with some psychological trace elements thrown in for good measure.
But let us first insist that Yevtushenko is, or anyhow was, a genuine poet, even if not one of the first rank. His poetry has lately been unnecessarily denigrated. Partly this is the natural result of his recent massive output of hack propaganda verses of a lowish order. But even when he was in his prime, there was a tendency in many circles to underrate his verse for purely esthetic reasons. Yevtushenko is, or was, an admirer of Kipling, who is notably popular in Russia. His earlier poetry was remarkable for its vigor, directness and rhythmic momentum. These are qualities little appreciated among the traditionalist avantgarde. But his earlier verse was by no means as simple‐minded as admirers of extreme subtlety might imply, and its positive virtues were not to be sneered at. The clear “public” tone made an admirable rallying point for the optimistic Soviet young of the late nineteen‐fifties. It is true, though, that when the political situation changed, this tone became a liability. The “public” poet has few defenses against overwhelming political pressure unless (like the “public” prose‐writer Solzhenitsyn) he can rely on profound moral reserves.
It was the Khrushchev epoch that saw his rise. At that time, it appeared that Khrushchev himself and his then dominant faction in the leadership were truly determined to destroy the Stalinist tradition. In this they were supported by all that was best in Russia, and in particular by the young writers. After various false starts, this Khrushchevian “liberalism” came to its climax around the middle of 1962. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” was published, on Khrushchev's orders, and many lesser works of truth and promise were appearing.
Khrushchev does, indeed, seem to have wished to make important improvements and destroy the worst features of the Stalinist tradition. In partitular, he worked to bring out the truth about the worst period of Soviet history under the old dictator. He saw, at least, that regime founded on palpable lies could hardly hope for much support from men of intelligence. And he was prepared to interpret Communist esthetic principles in a less narrow way than his predecessors (or his successors). What he was not prepared to do was to permit any discussion of basic principles.
He was, to some degree, caught in contradiction. And the “liberals” who supported him were not necessarily either clear or united in their aims. Some saw the attack on Stalinism as the first phase of a far broader “liberalization” by which full intellectual and civic liberty would eventually be restored to Russia. Others, while basically sharing his view that the, final power over thought and literature must remain with the Central Committee, still hoped for at least those liberties, however narrow by Western standards, that had prevailed in Russia in the nineteen‐twenties. Within a year, the whole thing had aborted. The writers who had briefly flourished went two different ways: Solzhenitsyn and his like into silenced opposition Yevtushenko and his like, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes in the hope of still influencing matters a little, into well‐rewarded collaboration.
Yevtushenko could be considered a liberal—in the sense of those who are wholly committed to the one‐party system and to the Marxist‐Leninist ideology, but who wish it to relax its repressive measures to some extent. They are not, that is, against the suppression of “anti‐Soviet” thought and literature they merely wish the limits to be defined less narrowly and the necessary repressions to be carried out less brutally. They are like those “liberal landlords” who, Tolstoy wrote, would do anything for the peasant except get off his back.
Between the time when Yevtushenko first became known, around 1955, and what is re garded in Soviet intellectual circles as his rather sudden political and moral collapse in the mid‐sixties, his record is generally admirable. In 1956, he was expelled from the Komsomol for a poem that could hardly be thought politically heterodox in any sense. Still, while celebrating the idealism of an 18‐year‐old Komsomol girl, it expresses a certain worry about the fate of her ideals:
I am troubled as to what will befall
Tormenting you with anxiety, As you reach for the heights. I have come to believe in many things
Just to make you believe in them too.
But the Komsomol, at this time, appeared to be a minor reactionary bastion, and the wave of the future seemed to lie with the independent young.
A number of Yevtushenko's poems were more roughly criticized in 1957 when the first wave of the thaw was receding. His long “Zima Station,” describing life in his Siberian home town, was attacked in Komsomolskaya Pravda (the youth daily) for making the area appear much as it had been in Czarist times. Another high‐spirited poem about the writer listening to an old prospector telling fantastic lies about his adventures was censured in the same issue: The commentator, speaking as an old Bolshevik and the father of five sons and two daughters, explained that such poems were “needed by no one.”
A poem starting, “The frontiers oppress me,” went on to say how he felt it “awkward” not to have been in London, New York and Paris, and ended: “I want an art/—As varied as myself.” It came under attack in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the Writer's Union weekly, which commented, “It would not be so bad if Yevtushenko wanted only to wander through London and Paris. The trouble is that he resents living inside Soviet frontiers.” As to variety in art, the commentator pointed out that this exists only because one “arouses high ideals” and the other “low instincts.” But the reaction was only temporary,
The poet at home and successive waves of Khrushchevian thaw gave every cause for optimism—and even for the idea that the decisive elements of political leadership themselves favored the freer atmosphere.
It was during this period that Yevtushenko came to identify himself with a definite trend within the Khrushchevian wing of Communism, maintaining a position that might be described as the most liberal compatible with “working from inside.” His poem “The Heirs of Stalin” illustrates this point. It was, on its face, strictly within the ariti‐Stalinist decisions of the 22d Party Congress of 1961, which was binding upon the whole party. But it nevertheless contained lines to be interpreted only as powerful attacks on Frol Kozlov and the more reactionary Politburo faction he led. Yevtushenko recited it freely for some time before it could actually be printed, but in the end it came out in Pravda itself. This was clearly approved by Khrushohev personally. In his developing attack on his rivals, he was naturally delighted to see it pointed out that some of the party Stalinists were “secretly thinking their discharge is temporary,” while others, still in high places, “from rostrums, even heap abuse on Stalin but, at night, hanker after the good old days” and even that Stalinists “seem stricken with heart attacks these days”—a reference to Kozlov's various coronaries. This poem, ist, was yet totally within the orthodox Khrushchevian position.
Up till the last quarter of 1963, this sort of liberalization seemed to have set in as a permanent thing, with the young poets among its most active leaders. Their influence was steadily widening. Yevtushenko himself was wildly cheered by mass audiences in the 10,000 range. His poems were printed in editions of 100,000. But at this point, the traditionalist apparatchilts were able to complain that things were getting out of hand, and Khrushchev himself came to agree with them. On Dec. 1, 1962, he paid his famous visit to the Manezh Gallery and launched a violent attack on nonrepresentational art as “anti‐Soviet,” immoral and, in general, the work of pederasts. This was, in effect, a demonstration of how illusory were the hopes of the young writers that they could accommodate themselves and their ideas to even the “liberalizing” faction of the regime.
Yevtushenko, however, continued his efforts. On. Dec. 17, 1962, some 400 creative artists in all fields were summoned to the Kremlin to meet Khrushehev and other party leaders. In the literary world, it had become (the ideological secretary Leonid Ilyichev complained) “inconvenient and unfashionable to defend correct party positions.” This was now to be reversed. Yevtushenko warmly defended the abstract sculptor Ernst Neizvestny against the charges made against him. When Khrushchev retorted, “Only the grave corrects a hunchback,” Yevtushenko replied, “I hope we have outlived the time when the grave is used as a means of correction.” He then went on to recite the last lines of “Babi Yar”:
Let the International ring out
on earth is buried There is no Jewish blood
But I am hated by every anti‐Semite as a Jew, And for this reason
I am a true Russian. Khrushchev said flatly, “Comrade Yevtushenko, that poem has no place here.” There followed the celebrated exchange in which Yevtushenko thanked Khrushchev for his work against Stalinism but said that one problem still remained, that of anti‐Semitism. Khrushchev replied with a violent outburst to the effect that no such problem existed in Russia.
It will be noted that even on this theme, Yevtushenko was still not saying anything that, on the face of it, departed from party orthodoxy Khrushchev had already attacked Stalin for his persecution of various small nationalities, like the Chechen. And there is nothing in official ideology which in any sense exempts the Jews from decent and equal treatment. AntiSemitism is simply a traditional prejudice in the postStalin apparat, with no more sanction than that of habit. “Babi Yar” was eventually printed in the U.S.S.R. in a version inoffensive to the ruling group. Yevtushenko still recites the original when he is abroad, but not when he is at home.
There was now something of a lull in the attack on the liberals. Yevtushenko continued his brave stand. Early in the following year, he published (in the French left ‐ wing Lɾxpress) his “A Precocious Autobiography” with attacks on the dogmatists, including their anti‐Semitism, and containing the remark, “In Russia all tyrants believe poets to be their worst enemies.” In Paris he recited his “The Dead Hand,” which has never been published In Russia and which contains such lines as: “Someone still glares in the Stalin manner.”
On March 4, 1963, he was abruptly summoned home and was among those who had once again to face Khrushchev and Ilyichev. The attack this time was total and thoroughly coordinated. The liberal writers were severely chastised. Most of them remained silent—or rejected the charges, especially the 51‐year‐old Viktor Nekrasov.
Yevtushenko was among the few who, after a brief defense, gave in. He said he had committed “an irreparable mistake” and would try to correct his errors in future. Komsomolskaya Pravda acquitted him of “evil intent” but said he must give up his “political infantilism.” This estimate that, though liable to aberrations, he was yet likely to be useful to the dictatorship was to prove a sensible one.
The period that immediately followed was, indeed, milder one for the writers. In poems unpublished in Russia but appearing abroad, such as “Letter to Yesenin,” and in others such as “The Long Suffering of Russia,” published there only in a censored version, Yevtushenko was again able to put forth a “liberal” view, in a more restrained and careful fashion. For Khrushchev had turned on his more Stalinist colleagues, evidently feeling that too severe a crackdown would seriously undermine his own position. The remainder of the Khrushchev period and the first year or so of his successors’ was, by Soviet standards, a fairly tolerable period.
All the same, it would be hard to overestimate the shock given to the whole creative community by the campaign of the winter of 1962‐63. The hope that things were going to go on improving more or less automatically was brought up so sharply that the mood of the writers changed from one of airy optimism to one of the utmost fear and apprehension. It certainly marks a turning point in Yevtushenko's evolution.
W, E so far have recounted only the favorable elements in Yevtushenko's pre ‐ 1963 career. But it should be said that the darker side, which was later to dominate, was already much in evidence. First, while abroad, even at this early stage, he slandered Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak's companion and heir who, after Pasternak's death in 1960, was arrested and sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment on a faked charge of illegal dealing in foreign currency. She was alleged to have handled some of Pasternak's royalties from the West. His Western Communist publishers instantly made it clear that the whole thing was a frame‐up.
When in England and elsewhere in the West, Yevtushenko was asked whether he could do anything about her. He simply answered that he had nothing to do with currency offenders. Worse than this, when in Australia, he privately put about among Western writers there scandalous sexual gossip about Mrs. Ivinskaya.
The significance of this is that, while abroad at any rate, Yevtushenko was already servilely toeing the Kimshchevian party line, even in its worst characteristics. For it was, of course, Khrushchev who (as Edward Crankshaw put it) hounded Pasternak into his grave and then revenged himself on his helpless relict. Moreover, Yevtushenko did not merely repeat the party's story. He went far beyond the call of even this unpleasant duty. No other Soviet writer abroad behaved in this fashion. (Few, even in Russia, associated themselves with the charges — notably the admittedly hard‐line Alexei Surkov, though he at least confined himself to the “currency” matters.) Yevtushenko was also to remark that “Doctor Zhivago” was “not worth publishing” in Russia.
It was at this period, too, that he (if one looks at it charitably) sought to cover his pressure for liberalization at home by the most intransigent adherence to Communist foreign policy in the poems he wrote on world affairs. It would be tedious to quote his hack verses about the vile imperialists. He went even so far as to refer to Finnish Social Democratic demonstrators against a Soviet‐sponsored peace jamboree as “gum‐chewing Fascists.”
Thus, there was (from what we would regard as a “liberal” viewpoint) some black as well as white in the earlier, better phase of Yevtushenko's career. After his 1963 surrender, and particularly since Khrushchev's fall, we find a gloomier picture.
In 1965 came his “The Bratsk Hydroelectric Station.” This is a poem not without merit, particularly in his descriptions of his own Siberia. But politically it is a good deal more significant. For it presents what might be called the liberal‐apparatchik view of Stalinism. Like many other projects, the station was largely erected by the labor of starving prisoners. Yevtushenko does not ignore this. But if he does not glorify the Stalin slave‐labor system, he prettifies it. The prisoners, admittedly innocent victims, are shown as in no way abandoning their loyalty to the regime. A constant refrain is: “We are not slaves!” This notion—that, in spite of everything, everyone had a long‐term trust and knew that the party was really right—can be compared with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” But then, Solzhenitsyn was actually in the camps himself and was concerned to say what they were truly like.
Andrei Sinyavsky in a much‐circulated article made this point at some length. When Sinyaysky himself, with Yuli Daniel, was brought to trial in February, 1966, Yevtushenko was among the few well‐known writers not to sign the moderately phrased “Letter of the 63” protesting the action. Even the veteran waverer Ilya Ehrenburg found it possible to sign.
Yevtushenko was now deeply involved in what may be thought of as a Faustian situation. But it may also be true that his bargain with the ideological devil was not merely a cynical one. With all his compromises, and worse, he still apparently hoped that in the long run things would improve.
It seems clear, that after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he did indeed send his much queried telegram of protest to the Soviet leadership. It is true that thereafter prudence prevailed and he refused to confirm that he had done so or make any further trouble after the first anguish had passed. But at least, in the heat of the moment, the signs that he did favor Socialism with a human face was something that an age of prudence could never retract.
Meanwhile, another poet, Yuri Galanskov, was dying in labor camp. He had been consigned there for “anti‐Soviet propaganda” in 1968 at the celebrated Ginzburg ‐ Galanskov trial, the conduct of Which outraged the norms of even Soviet law. It was denounced by Bertrand Russell and other Western writers, and by the Communist parties of Western Europe. Yevtushenko was not one of the many Soviet writers who also signed letters of protest at the time, though he is reported to be one of those who said they would have to resign from the Writers’ Union if all such signatories were expelled from it. Galanskov was ill With a stomach complaint, and his physical condition soon deteriorated owing to the failure, outraging both law and humanity, to make the necessary medical and dietary arrangements. His relatives approached Yev“tushenko in the hope that he might use his influence to help the prisoner. It is their belief that he did not do so, at any rate with any vigor, since at the time he was concerned with preparing a trip
For in the past decade his most notable activity has certainly been in his visits to foreign countries, which have taken him all over the world —even to Spain and Portugal. On these jaunts, he has continued to denigrate (and worse) real liberals in the U.S.S.R. In addition to his public statements about Sinyaysky and Daniel, he made, less publicly, much nastier remarks about them. On his various tours abroad, in 1966 and in 1968, he frequently attacked them—for example, in Dakar, New York and Mexico City. On one trip to the United States he was asked by students what he thought of their imprisonment. In accordance with the line he had evidently chosen (and elsewhere repeated), he said he felt they had been guilty but had been punished too harshly. But then he asked the audience, “How would you react if one of your writers published a book in Europe under an assumed name?” When they laughed, he was baffled. It seems, in fact, that his understanding of the West is very superficial. In Mexico, in March, he first nothing of the GinzburgGalanskov trial (though his own first wife had been censured for protesting), and later denounced the defendants as traitors and black marketeers. Representatives of all the progressive and revolutionary organizations in the University of Mexico denounced him publicly.
At the same time, these trips are of benefit to himself and to the Soviet regime only if he maintains a certain air of liberalism. The Ideological Department of the Central Committee (where he has friends) has operated recently with reasonable sophistication and clearly understands the point. While his major public statements are violent attacks on Western actions and policies, he permits himself to say, and is permitted to say, things implying certain imperfections in the Soviet Union. Though, as we shall see, not very telling ones.
I HAVEonly once met Yevtushenko. That was at the launching of Apollo 16 in April of last year. As a genuine rocket buff, a member of the British Interplanetary Society for nearly 30 years, I was delighted to be able to get a press card and a splendid view of that remarkable spectacle. Afterward, I went along to what I understood to be one of the press conferences on the launching. I did not at first identify the vaguely familiar figure. I had not known he was there, and if I had, it wouldn't have occurred to me that his comments would have been particularly instructive to the press corps. However, he was soon on the platform, wearing his Paris‐painter‐of‐the‐nineties cap stuck at a becoming angle, inviting questions. I stayed for the first, which was a general one. Yevtushenko, whose interest in rocket launchings, as opposed to press conferences, had not been great enough to get him to any Soviet launching, spoke largely to the theme of his, as he put it, “bosom friend” Yuri Gagarin. He claimed that Gagarin, and American spacemen too, had told him of their feelings as they looked down on the earth, so single and so small, from out there in space, thinking how sad it was that it should be divided by frontiers that people could not easily cross. Though I was sick shortly afterward, this may have been due to a surfeit of hamburgers. I suppose that anyone finding himself in such a position, particularly if he regards himself as the spokesman of his Government, must produce this sort of benign‐sounding platitude. But all the same, one could not but reflect that there is nothing on the American side to prevent an American poet, or any other citizen, from going anywhere he wishes, including Russia, or from watching a Soviet rocket launch that the West would equally welcome the free movement of Soviet citizens across their frontiers into their own countries. What prevents this, in each direction, is the action of the Soviet Government alone. The fact that Yevtushenko was allowed to visit Cape Kennedy, while the vast majority of Soviet citizens are not, is one of those exceptions that prove the rule through and through. He had earned what is not a right but a privilege, and he was hard at work continuing to earn it. When one adds that Yevtushenko is one of a very few Soviet private citizens with a passport of his own, and not merely the single‐trip affair issued on departure and withdrawn on return, the point is illuminated with spe‐
American readers will not need a full review of the scenes at his more recent visits to the United States. Even on his famous 1972 trip, while he was able to give readings in company with prominent American poets like Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz and James Dickey, numbers of his fellow readers (including Eugene McCarthy) are reported to have been disgusted by the crude and false propaganda tone of the verse he produced on these occasions: Yevtushenko later accused McCarthy of hypocrisy and wishing to please both left‐ and right‐wingers. He did not get an overwhelmingly favorable press even on the left when he was jostled from a platform by a couple of Ukrainian students. (He told the press that the incident did not frighten him, since he had spent his childhood under Fascist bombing—a fact not confirmed by his own autobiography.) When one woman, an American journalist, asked him why he was allowed to travel and other Russian writers weren't, he was shaken enough to refer to her as a “hyena” — a Stalinist term of abuse not much employed since the time it used to be applied to T. S. Eliot. ceived a certain amount of adulation, including an honorary degree from the New School for Social Research. While in America, too, the bombing by Jewish extremists of Sol Hurok's office in New York roused him to a poem in which he compared it with Nazi genocide though the bombing was agreed to be deplorable, the comparison was seen to be far from exact. But more interesting still, the poem was telephoned home from New York and printed at once in Izvestia. In it, a handful of terrorists was held up as a major American phenomenon. For once, the Soviet press (which rarely reports Yevtushenko's foreign tours) rubbed the story in with such comments as one reprinted from the American Communist Daily World, which linked the bombing with “Zionist forces which are attempting in conjunction with the C.I.A. to depict the Soviet people as monsters against whom war is not only necessary, but urgently necessary.”
Even his harangues about Vietnam, where he had spent a few days en route from Moscow, did not strike an acceptable note, even among opponents of the war. Apart from embellishing them with a singularly improbable tale about having seen the body of a North Vietnamese youth clutching a copy of Ernest Hemingway's “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (or, on another occasion, “The Old Man and The Sea”), he seems to have given the impression of overestimating the power of demagogy. William Jay Smith recalled that another Soviet poet had told him in Moscow: “It is all too easy to write about killings in another country.” Yevtushenko has replied to this sort of criticism in the introduction to the American edition of his “Stolen Apples”: “Somehow they find it morally questionable to speak of the corruption of the Western world when in the Soviet Union the price of cognac is rising, the meat supply uncertain, and the shops, in general, unjust.” These are not, in fact, the main objections generally felt in the United States to Soviet internal conditions.
If, as he has frequently done, Yevtushenko wishes to refer to Kent State, for example, it is commonly felt that he might balance it with such acts as the rather largerscale shooting down of Soviet crowds in recent years in such incidents as those at Dnepropetrovsk (1972), Chimkent (1967) and the like —where the dead are believed to have run into the hundreds, and where rioters were later executed.
One of his most recent poems is on “The Victory in Vietnam,” published appropriately in Pravda. It celebrates:
…. a world of friends, In the West as in the East with victory, Picasso, with victory, Jane Fonda, with victory, my Petka, with victory, Doctor
Rotten luck on Doctor Spock, but, even including him, the circle of friends seems rather a limited one. Friendship between East and West under the aegis of the organ of the Central Committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, might just possibly have ranged a bit wider in these days of détente.
Yevtushenko's current poems on public themes are in any case fairly poor, even in that notoriously povertystricken genre. In translation, they retain almost no flavor except that of political harangue. Perhaps large audiences can more easily digest this simple stuff, while retaining the illusion that they are involved in something cultural. The whole question of the presumed “mass audience for poetry” arises here. One can only say that similar audiences would probably reject an evening of simple patriotic American songs. And that a number of poets concerned rather with poetry regard the whole thing as suspect: Allen Tate's remark, after dismissing Yevtushenko as “a ham actor, not a poet,” was that “this kind of circus is a demeaning and vulgarizing of poetry. It will just lead people astray who think it is the real thing.”
Yevtushenko's reputation, nevertheless, represents quite extraordinary contradiction. In spite of those voices of sanity, he has or appears to have, a wide popularity in the United States, in particular among those who still think of him as in some sense a liberal, a Uaring opponent of establishmentarianism, and all that. At the same time, in the U.S.S.R., he is now regarded as little less than a pariah in the intellectual circles opposed to the regimentation of life and literature.
This paradox has a simple explanation: ignorance. Ignorance, that Is, on the part of the American audience. Naturally, ignorance of this type, maintained in the face of a vast amount of relevant information, is not an organic blindness, but a compulsive one, of the type associated with certain psychological states. Albert Camus once remarked of pro‐Soviet Frenchmen that it was not so much that they really liked the Russians as that they “heartily detested part of the French.” Though the phenomenon is now rarer in Western Europe, it seems clear that in the United States there are still people who have only to know that a man or a regime is opposed to their own country, or to a selection of its policies. This instantly establishes his credentials. This sort of global double standard — exactly what Solzhenitsyn complained of in his Nobel speech — is probably the most dangerous, one might almost say the most criminally negligent, element world
There are, indeed, other factors in Yevtushenko's American reefame. Though at 40 getting a bit raddled, he still has boyish blond good looks. He has a performing style suited to large pop audiences. And he has a reputation, based on his genuine efforts in the early sixties, as one who did seek improvements in the internal conditions of his own country. He also has a publisher willing to invest very large sums on promotion and publicity.
More generally, he appeals to people who cannot quite swallow unvarnished Soviet orthodoxy. Above all, his reputation in America was founded on “Sabi Yar” and his stand against anti‐Semitism. In fact (as we have noted) Yevtushenko yielded to pressure on this poem, eliminated two lines and added two others to include Russian and Ukrainian victims of the massacre—that is, to play down the theme of anti‐Semitism. The new text appears in the score of Shostakovich's 13th Symphony. In the West, he recites the original, evidently with official permission. In the U.S.S.R., it does not exist in print. But even here, he now takes the line (e.g., in an interview in Playboy, December, 1972) that what antiSemitism there is in Russia survives among uneducated people, while “official” antiSemitism
All the same, the case of Yevtushenko is not to be seen in black and white, as a sim ple moral melodrama. He is not just the shining liberal knight who sold out and became a mere cynical agent of the oppressor.
His original liberalism was of a limited nature, and it was not he, but his Western fans, who made higher claims. And several other arguments can legitimately be advanced in his favor. Some of his intellectual opponents have at least partly been motivated by the usual jealousies of the literary world. He has, on occasion (if very rarely lately), shown that he personally would much prefer a less oppressive style of rule, particularly in the literary fields. He can urge that his collaboration gives him at least some slight opportunity to inject milder advice into the ears of the ideological apparatchihs. And, as is often pointed out, his ostentatious support of the Soviet political line when he is abroad may be the price he has to pay for the opportunity to influence the apparat when back in the
B UT even if one recognizes that the role of the man of good will seeking to influence a despotic regime from within is a difficult one and, generally speaking, involves an element of moral compromise, we still can make some judgments as to how such a role should be played. And a most striking comparison can be made between Yevtushenko and the late Alexander Tvardovsky. Tvardovsky was a genuine believer in “liberalization” from within the system. He was an old party member and even, in the sixties, a candidate member of the party's Central Committee. Yet his attachment to the party in no way affected an unprejudiced concern with Russian literature, however nonpartisan, and a devotion to truth. He disagreed with the total liberals, but on no occasion did he harm them or slander them. He supported Pasternak, and after him Solzhenitsyn. And during his long tenure on Novy Mir, he secured for that magazine the maximum conceivable coverage of literature under the system, without ever feeling it necessary to stoop to betrayals. When he was removed in 1969, it was quite openly done to destroy the liberal tinge he was still, in the most adverse circumstances,
By this standard, the ob jections to Yevtushenko are powerful. Especially of late, there is very little sign of this good influence. In fact, his most recent interventions have been to the detriment of the liberal writers. His advocacy of the Soviet political line in the West has been extravagant beyond the call of duty—unless, indeed, it be urged that he is consciously trying to bring it into disrepute by such tactics. And, above all, his active denigration of, and passive failure to do anything to help, the real victims of literary oppression, goes farther than could’ be justified on any grounds of the sort put forward.
The shifts he has been reduced to, the compromises he has (unnecessarily, by Tvardovsky's standards) accepted, seem to have eaten into his personality. It might in charity be said that he has suffered a disintegration that is almost tragic, and is no longer entirely responsible for his actions —or, at any rate, not always. Still, if we are to seek objects of pity, Yuri Galanskov and his companions probably deserve it more. They certainly deserve more respect.
It is not really for those of us who do not have to face such conditions to judge the conduct of a Soviet writer. Nevertheless, the almost unanimous and very harsh judgment passed on Yevtushenko by his colleagues cannot be expressed by them, and this can only be done for them by the public judgment of the West. Moreover, our interests and our feelings are legitimately engaged, even apart from the overriding unity of Weltliteratur. For Yevtushenko, comes to our countries, looses off political verses attacking their external and internal policies, represents himself misleadingly as representative of Soviet literature and (worst of all) slanders his colleagues who are already in difficulties.
The most recent batch of Yevtushenko verses, “From a Lyric Notebook,” contains a poem, “When a Man is 40,” which describes his feelings on reaching what, for a professional “young” poet, must be a definite climacteric. It contains the lines: “Up till then, life is a party: /The hangover comes when you're 40.”
It is, indeed, at that level, far removed from the seriousness of a Solzhenitsyn or Tvardovsky, that Yevtushenko's once quite promising career offers itself for judgment.
“You Shoot at Yourself, America”—Newly Digitized: Yevtushenko’s Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill
Discover the newly digitized volume Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill first published by City Lights in 1970. This is the latest installment in our ongoing digital project, Chapbooks of the Mimeo Revolution, showcasing a series of rare chapbooks published by independent presses from the 1960s to the early 1980s.
The Statue of Liberty’s color
Grows ever more deathly pale
As, loving freedom with bullets
And taking liberty with bullets,
You shoot at yourself, America.
—from “Freedom to Kill” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Published in 1970 by City Lights, Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill features two poems by acclaimed Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. They bear witness to domestic tensions within America during the Vietnam War, including the violent repression of the civil rights movement and antiwar protests. The chapbook exemplifies the aim of City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti to bring international voices, such as Yevtushenko, to American audiences. It is also a document that highlights the complexities of the relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Read more about Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill and flip through the chapbook yourself in our online digital collection.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko - History
Babi Yar, a poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, tells the story of the Nazi invasion into a small part of Russia, in which, throughout the duration of World War II, over one-hundred thousand Jews, Gypsies and Russian POW's were brutally murdered. However, what is unique about this particular perspective is that the narrator is not a Jew, but a mere observer who is aghast at the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. It is through allusions, as well as other literary devices, that Yevtushenko elucidates caustically the absurdities of the hatred that caused the Holocaust, in addition to the narrator's identification with the Jews and their history of oppression.
Perhaps, the most effective literary device used in "Babi Yar" is the allusion. The first clear allusion seen in the poem is the oneconcerning Egypt(line 6). This reference harks back to the Jews' enslavement in Egypt before they become a nation. In line 7, the narrator makes reference to how so many Jews perished on the cross. The reason for these initial allusions in the first section is clear. Yevtushenko is establishing the history of the Jewish people, being one of oppression, prejudice, and innocent victims. The next illusion in the poem is a reference to the Dreyfus Affair, a more modern display of irrational and avid anti-Semitism. It is in the Dreyfus affair that an innocent man is accused of espionage and is sent to jail for more than ten years, notwithstanding an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to his innocence, simply because he is a Jew.
Yevtushenko uses these allusions to lead up to his referral to a boy in Bielostok who is murdered by the Russian common-folk. Clearly, The narrator is teaching a lesson with a dual message. Firstly, he is informing the reader of the horrors that took place in Russia during the Holocaust. Perhaps even more of a travesty, however, is the fact that humankind has not learned from the past in light of the fact that this "episode" is merely one link in a long chain of terrors.
Yevtushenko goes on to allude to Anne Frank, a young Jewish teenager who left behind a diary of her thoughts and dreams,and how the Nazis strip her of any potential future she has when she is murdered in the death camps. Clearly, the allusion creates images in the mind of the reader that mere descriptions via the use of words could not.
Another effective literary device used in the poem is the first person narrative in which the narrator identifies with those victimswhich he describes. This is seen in the case where the narrator says "I am Dreyfus", or "Anne Frank, I am she." The narrator does not claim to understand what the feelings and thoughts of these people are, but rather, he is acknowledging the fact that they are feeling, "detested and denounced" and that unlike the rest of the world who turned its head, or the Russians who actually abetted such heinous crimes, this gentile narrator can not empathize, but does sympathize with his Jewish "brethren."
Another extremely powerful device used by Yevtushenko is the detail of description and imagery used to describe events and feelings that are in both those whom he identifies with, as well as himself. "I bear the red mark of nails"(line 8) seems to includemuch of the suffering that the Jews have to endure. The statement is almost one of a reverse crucifixion in which the Jews are crucified and now have to suffer with false accusations, blood libels, and Pogroms for the duration of time. The poet describes very clearly the contempt most people have for the Jewish people and how many of these people aided in the barbarity . In line 13, for example, the poet speaks of "shrieking ladies in fine ruffled gowns" who "brandish their umbrellas in my face." In addition, Yevtushenko also depicts explicitly how the "tavern masters celebrate" at the sight of "(a Jewish boy's)blood spurt and spread over the floor."
The contrast of age in "Babi Yar" is also quite effective. In the last three sections, the reader finds out that the narrator isremembering the past, mourning those who have perished. This gives the reader the perspective of one who speaks of the tragedy as though he is removed from it, as well as the view of one who is part of that history of horror in which all must remember, memorialize, learn from, and never forget.
Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Ben Okopnik
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
1 - Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by anti- Semitism.
2 - Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko—His Poetry Engaged and Enraged Readers at Home and Abroad
Editor's Note: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, internationally acclaimed Russian poet, novelist, essayist, playwright and film director died on April 1, 2017. He was 83. In honor of his tremendous work and legacy, we are sharing an interview he did with Katrina vanden Huevel for our magazine in 1987.
Born in Siberia in 1933, Zhenya, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko is familiarly called, spent his childhood shuttling between Moscow and his Siberian birthplace of Zima Junction. At the age of fifteen, he joined his father, a geologist, in the southern republic of Kazakhstan, where he worked as a digger with a geological expedition. Yevtushenko returned to Moscow in the early 1950s and studied literature at the prestigious Gorky Institute. His poetry soon began to be published in the official journals and newspapers. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the years of Nikita Khrushchev's "thaw," Yevtushenko, along with such other young poets as Andrei Vosnesensky, articulated the discontents and aspirations of the first post-Stalin generation. In a country where popular poets sometimes achieve the celebrity of American rock stars and where culture is often an intense form of political expression, Yevtushenko's verse was read by millions of people, and his poetry readings electrified audiences across the broad expanse of the Soviet Union.
Yevtushenko developed an international reputation as a daring anti-establishment figure—a rebellious young man who assaulted Soviet dogma and conformity, who debated the merits of abstract art with Khrushchev, and who fervently protested, in poems such as "The Heirs of Stalin" and "Babi Yar," the legacy of Stalinism and official anti-Semitism. Even during the relatively liberal Khrushchev years, Yevtushenko was frequently and savagely criticized in the Soviet press for his outspoken views. In 1964, Khrushchev was ousted and Leonid Brezhnev's conservative reign soon led to cultural stagnation and political repression. Yevtushenko adapted to the more conservative times, and his poems became more conformist in content and style. Yet he remained faithful in important ways to his own personal convictions. In 1968, for example, he sent a letter to the government protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in 1974 he sent a telegram to Brezhnev expressing concern for the safety of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just been arrested. Yevtushenko's position in Soviet culture and politics—that of rebel and envoy—has engaged and enraged readers and critics at home and abroad.
He is defensive about suggestions that he has adapted to whatever political climate prevails in Moscow, and that he has vacillated between defiance and conformity. Yevtushenko insists that he has never abandoned his unpublicized efforts in behalf of victimized Soviet writers and dissidents. Whatever the full story, thirty years after he first burst onto the scene Yevtushenko is again a leading activist in the conflict-filled effort to reform and liberalize the Soviet system. Over the last two years, in speeches, articles, and poems, he has campaigned for glasnost, for openness, in Soviet cultural and political life. Americans will soon be able to sample Yevtushenko's most recent poems for themselves.
In April, Almost at the End, a collection of his poems written during the Gorbachev period, including his controversial work 'Fuku," will be published by Henry Holt and Company. Meanwhile, Yevtushenko has launched a new career as a filmmaker. His movie Kindergarten was shown in the United States last spring, and he is working on a new film about the Three Musketeers.
This interview took place in two parts and in two cities. Yevtushenko and I talked in March 1986 in New York City, and we continued the conversation at his home outside Moscow last December. He spoke in English during both interviews. Yevtushenko is fifty-three. His blond, tousled hair is thinner, his face more lined, and his frame lankier. But his blue-gray eyes and unflagging enthusiasm still recall the brash young poet of the 1960s.
Q: How is Mikhail Gorbachev changing Soviet society?
YEVTUSHENKO: He has changed the air over the soil. When I say "air," I mean first of all a fresh wind which penetrates or tries to penetrate to all levels of our society. And by soil, I mean objective reality. I mean the economic situation. I mean the psychology of a people. The main change is a change of atmosphere. It's been seventy years since the Soviet Revolution, and seventy years from one point of view is a long time. But if you will remember how long the history of humanity is, it's a very short time. Our society is still very young, and I hope we are now entering the beginning of our maturity. One of the signs of the maturity of a person or the maturity of a society is being tolerant of difference. We were many times not tolerant, and I hope what's now happening, with the release of Sakharov and some other people, is a symbol of the maturity of a society that could permit human tolerance. And so we have big hopes now. We are living in a very promising time. I don't want to be a false prophet and idealize the future. But I have been working for this future, and I am working for this future, with my speeches, with my poetry.
Q: Could you give an example of how the society is becoming more tolerant?
YEVTUSHENKO: For the first time in many years, we have incredible openness in our press—sometimes dealing with very painful questions, openly criticizing very high-ranking officials, including ministers, members of the government. For the first time, we are publishing in many of our newspapers editorials that are signed by people. This is wonderful, because it means people are taking on personal responsibility, showing personal points of view. There is a struggle against facelessness that's what the main fight is now. It's very visible in the arts. There are more possibilities for talented, gifted people and happily fewer possibilities for mediocre ones, for one-sided minds, one-dimensional people, the knights of inertia.
Q : But won't these knights of inertia fight back?
YEVTUSHENKO : There are always comrades—the "but-whatifs"—who try to halt change. They do exist. And they always will. They barricade from their wooden minds any show of progress. I am absolutely sure they will not give up very quickly because they know what they will lose—their privileges. They will fight for them. But at the same time, they're a minority. A majority wants openness. In many countries, many kinds of systems, you could find a mortal struggle between mediocre people and talented people. Mediocre people have comfortable, soft armchairs under their asses. In my opinion, they have no ideologies. Their main ideology is their armchairology. We have a Russian proverb that says, "Under the lying rock water can't flow." What we're trying to do is to move these rock-minded people, stone-minded people, and make our society more flexible, more vital and ready for innovations, for reforms. Times are changing. The old guard is getting very old. And they were educated in another time.
Q: What makes the new generation of leadership so different from the old?
YEVTUSHENKO: Now in the Soviet Union, the people who are taking charge in all fields—including newspapers, factories, and regional party committees—are people who are not guilty of Stalin's crimes. They don't have spots of blood on their conscience. They don't feel guilty, and they are not guilty. That's why they don't have an inferiority complex. That's a very important nuance. My hope is that they know what needs to be changed now. They are former engineers, they are former agriculturalists. They know industry and agriculture very well, and they know the daily needs of people much better. In Stalin's time, Party professionals were ordered to lead heavy industry, or to be responsible for vegetables, for agriculture, or roadways, or metro, or something. These people had no professional knowledge of such things. It was very destructive.
Q: To what extent is Gorbachev in the tradition of Nikita Khrushchev?
YEVTUSHENKO: Khrushchev was a child of a certain epoch, of Stalin's era. He did wonderful things—he opened the borders of our country to foreigners, and he organized the first youth festival in 1956. He was a man who destroyed, as much as he could, the Iron Curtain, and he released so many people from our concentration camps. I think this man will go down in history in a positive way. But at the same time he belonged to Stalin's day. He was one of his Party leaders. Our new generation of leaders, they are not involved in such tragic mistakes, or even crimes. About Khrushchev someone said many years ago, "He wanted to cross the abyss in two jumps." I think it's a very exact impression because he was a Stalinist, and at the same time an anti-Stalinist. He was a rebel against those epochs he was slightly a rebel against himself. So this was a man full of contradictions, but he made one heroic step which I think not only Russia but all humanity will never forget—when he made his speech at the Twentieth Party Congress, and he organized a commission which released so many innocent people.
Q: In how many jumps does Gorbachev want to cross the abyss?
YEVTUSHENKO: First of all, I think he is not trying to jump he is trying to make a bridge.
Q: Some commentators in America, including Alexander Haig, have said that Gorbachev is a neo-Stalinist.
YEVTUSHENKO: That's absolutely shit. Absolutely shit. If he were neo-Stalinist, he could never support the sharpest anti-Stalinist creations, like some of the poems now being published.
Q: So you think he's part of the new anti-Stalinist movement?
YEVTUSHENKO: I'm not telling you that he's specially anti-Stalinist.
Q: Wait a minute. You said you are an anti-Stalinist.
YEVTUSHENKO: I am.
Q: Do you think Gorbachev is an anti-Stalinist?
YEVTUSHENKO: It's difficult to give such a kind of definition for one politician.
Q: Is it too early to say?
YEVTUSHENKO: No, no, no. I'm not saying that. I think this is a man of anti-bureaucratization.
Q: Why do you think people like Haig are misreading Gorbachev?
YEVTUSHENKO: The so-called hard-liners are making their own business when they are trying not to notice these changes. Because otherwise their image of the Red Bear with long teeth wanting to cut the throat of innocent and peaceful Americans will collapse. Your hard-liners explain their position by saying there are hard-liners in the Soviet Union. And our hard-liners are trying to close our openness, our democratization, because they are waving this image of American hard-liners. So they both need each other. But even for them, for your hard-liners, because they are also human beings, it is a very dangerous game that they're playing they are practically sawing off the branch on which they are sitting. Because of these hard-line games, even their lives are at stake, as well as the lives of the whole world. Some of them, your right-wing people, by their characters, if they could live inside the Soviet Union, they would behave like the old guard of Stalin, like dogmatic Communists. And some American bureaucrats and right-wing journalists who take very anti-Soviet positions, I could imagine them living in the Soviet Union. They could make anti-American propaganda in the Soviet Union with no problem. They could say the same words. They're just the same people, but in reverse. If you are a conformist in the United States, it means you are more or less a hawk. It's a very comfortable position, you know, but the hawk is everywhere a hawk. A hawk couldn't be a nightingale in another country. He will still be a hawk. Unfortunately, there is an international nation of conformists. They just live in different countries. But happily, there is also an international nation of good people. They will always understand each other. But a third kind of people are in between them. There is a fence between them, a fence made of mugs. We're divided by this fence made of mugs, faces.
Your hard-liners explain their position by saying there are hard-liners in the Soviet Union. And our hard-liners are trying to close our openness, our democratization, because they are waving this image of American hard-liners. So they both need each other.
Q: Americans view the Soviet Union partially through Hollywood. During your tour of America last year, you did something most Americans haven't done: You saw Rocky and Rambo on the same day.
YEVTUSHENKO: Yes, and the year before I saw Red Dawn and other great stuff. That was when I invented a word, "warnography." I don't think Mr. Sylvester Stallone himself is anti-Russian, or that he would like to eat live Russian children, or anything like that. For him, the Russians are like extraterrestrials, but frightening extraterrestrials. And probably when he made this film for commercial reasons, he forgot something very important: that the future of all humanity, including Mr. Sylvester Stallone's future, depends on Russian-American relations. There isn't one movie in the United States where you can find even one good Russian who is not defecting from the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, these films remind me of how Japanese people were shown during the war. We Russians are not—happily not—at war with America, but it's a frightening sign when even before a potential war, the American cinema is already portraying all Russian people as if they were enemies. Such films create mistrust, mistrust creates missiles, and missiles create the danger of war, which will abolish everyone, including Mr. Stallone and all those teenagers who are applauding these films.
Q: How would you compare American cinema to Soviet cinema?
YEVTUSHENKO: Our new films are more rebellious than yours. They are sharper, not as conformist as American cinema. I'm not speaking about independent American cinema that's different. But your mainstream commercial cinema is more conformist, even more Stalinist, than in Russia at this moment. There is some primitivization of Americans in Russian cinema, but in our films about international problems, we never show Americans like wild beasts, like animals. We never create, in our cinema, an image of an enemy country or an enemy people, like your Rocky IV or Rambo. The creation of the image of the enemy is self-destructive. It's always connected with a kind of self-megalomania, self-exaggeration, gigantomania. And the mother of gigantomania is always an inferiority complex.
Q: Why has this image of the enemy been created?
YEVTUSHENKO: Any kind of society, any state, needs an enemy. It's terrible. It was George Orwell's point, if you remember. We waste too much time in mutual accusations. I don't want to argue with President Reagan, but he has argued many times with our government. For instance, he once said Russia is a focus of world evil. I don't blame him for saying this. I'm just trying to analyze it. First of all, I think he wrote this expression in a rush, because if he had thought more carefully about this phrase, he would have realized that it is an anti-Christian definition. I'll explain why. All Christianity is based on Dostoevsky's formula, "Everybody is guilty in everything." You must first find the focus of evil inside yourself. And afterwards, you can accuse others, but only by accusing yourself first. And I don't like it when some dogmatic people in our country try to show America as the whole center of world evil. I will never say that America is the focus of evil. There are so many beautiful people whom I know. When I wrote my famous poem, "Between the City of Yes and the City of No," I didn't mean that the City of No was American society or Russian society. I think we have some streets of No in America and some streets of No in the Soviet Union. The focus of world evil could never be concentrated only in one country. So the focus of world evil is inside all of us, that's human psychology. And we must be very careful in our expressions, because we have now a war of words. But such wars, unfortunately, can very easily be transformed into missiles and other terrible, terrible stuff.
Q: What role did you and your fellow artists play in bringing about the changes that are under way in the Soviet Union?
YEVTUSHENKO: Who are these people who lead our country? They are people who were listeners of our poetry readings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That's true. That's reality. Some people absorbed my message that bureaucracy is stifling them. We created a new generation with our poetry. We created people who now are recreating our country. For instance, there is a new openness in the Soviet Union. This is an echo of our poetry.
Q: Are you saying that writers and poets prepared the way for Gorbachev?
YEVTUSHENKO: Of course. Absolutely. I'm sure. They absorbed our spirits. They were students—some of them were students squeezing without tickets on the balcony of our poetry readings. I think my generation of poets did a lot of things to break the Iron Curtain. We wounded our hands breaking this Iron Curtain with our naked hands. We didn't work in gloves. Sometimes there were victories, sometimes there were defeats. Some retreats were preparatory, and sometimes we sat under the ground after a hail of insults. But our literature, our art, didn't come as a gift from the so-called upstairs. We worked for it. We didn't get this as a gift. We forged this gift for ourselves and for future generations. Of course, we didn't think that we would produce new kinds of people. But it's happened. We've produced a new kind of person, a new-minded person. Poetry plays a great role in the Soviet Union, and so I am very happy that we worked for it not in vain.
My generation of poets did a lot of things to break the Iron Curtain. We wounded our hands breaking this Iron Curtain with our naked hands. We didn't work in gloves.
Q: You mean you think that the poetry of your generation is the political soul of the new leadership?
YEVTUSHENKO: I hope so. If I say this, it sounds immodest, but I hope so. I'm almost sure.
Q: What are some of the areas where you would like to see the policy of openness extended?
YEVTUSHENKO: We now have what I think is an open discussion about our current problems. But in my opinion, we don't have enough openness when we speak about our past. Without having more open conversations about the problems of our past, we can't decide the problems of our present. There are some people who don't want to have open conversations about the tragedies of our past. So there are two points of view. There are people who don't want open speech, openness in our textbooks, or anything like that. Their point is, "Okay, that's our past. We don't want to repeat it. But why must they put salt on the open wounds? We just rehabilitated the wound so it could heal." That's their point of view. My personal point of view, which is shared by the majority of our writers, is that to put sugar on the open wounds is even more dangerous. Ever since ancient times, professional seamen have cured their wounds with salty water. It was the only way for them. Salt, honest salt, could be more helpful than dishonest sugar. That's why I wrote a poem like "Fuku." In "Fuku" there are very important lines: "Someone who forgets yesterday's victims will be a victim tomorrow." That's probably my point of view on all of history, not only on Russian history. My hope is that now is a time for summing up in Russia. Summing up all of the positive and negative lessons of our experience in the first years of socialism. To be fearless builders of the future is only possible if we are fearless social archaeologists of our past. Yes, we must not only put salt on open wounds, we must dig into them as deep as possible, because there is still some infection which doesn't give us the possibility to be absolutely healthy. Great literature is always a great warning. If we see some danger, we must prophylactically write about it. Even if it's very painful. This literature must be like acupuncture. We mustn't be afraid to put needles into the most painful points of the conscience. It's painful, it's unpleasant, but you might be saved. That's why I don't like so-called pleasant art.
Q: What about the artists who have left the Soviet Union? Are you angry at them for not staying and fighting to change your country?
YEVTUSHENKO: I don't think I have any kind of moral right to be their judge. I understand only one thing: that it is a tragedy for a writer to be abroad, out of his own range. I couldn't imagine myself in exile. It would be the worst punishment to spend the rest of my life abroad.
Q: We get our image of the Soviet Union largely from people who have left. What about what those people say?
YEVTUSHENKO: You can't generalize about all émigrés they're all very different. For instance, Joseph Brodsky I think is a good poet, the best Russian poet who lives abroad. And I helped him, and he knows it, when he was in exile. I wrote a letter defending him. Then he came to the United States and began to say—not in the newspapers, but he began to say in so-called private circles—that I was one of the people who was guilty. He later asked for my forgiveness. You know, America, like Russia, is a big village. I asked him why he said such things. He told me, "I'm sorry, Yevgeny, when you are an émigré, sometimes you artificially force yourself to find someone to blame." That was a sincere answer.
Q: But don't you get angry?
YEVTUSHENKO: I get angry because these people are full of ignorance and hatred. Such people are part of the focus of evil. They are morally not ready for mutual understanding. They don't want mutual understanding. But their ignorance is dangerous for themselves. Because if they don't want mutual understanding between such two great peoples, they are working for their own death, with all their screams, their cries, and always their declarations.
Q: What about Alexander Solzhenitsyn? You defended him in the Soviet Union.
YEVTUSHENKO: Look, Solzhenitsyn, in my opinion, wrote some good books, some very good books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, "An Incident at Krechetovka Station," his short stories, and there are some very beautiful pages in Cancer Ward. But in Cancer Ward, there are some very primitive pages, too. Because when a writer hates something too much, he ceases being a great writer, because hatred is a kind of blindness. A writer must have open eyes to see life. I defended him many times, many times, until the last moment when he was arrested before he was sent abroad. He is a gifted writer, a very strong character as a man, and he wrote some books condemning the tragedy of the Stalin past, and I am very grateful to him. But in fighting against fanaticism, unfortunately, he became a fanatic. He put himself into a cage of his own design, a procrustean bed of his own schemes.
When a writer hates something too much, he ceases being a great writer, because hatred is a kind of blindness. A writer must have open eyes to see life.
Q: You mentioned Brodsky's remark about you being one of the guilty. Your critics ask why the Soviet state, which will not tolerate others, tolerates you.
YEVTUSHENKO: Some of the American press accuse some Russian writers of being conformist, not rebellious enough, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I am a victim of this accusation, because I am not in prison, I am not in a mental hospital, nothing like that. Such a writer's life is sometimes interpreted in your country as a kind of dishonesty. But I am a poetician, not a politician. As a poet, I don't like any kind of borders, prisons, any kind of police, army, missiles, anything which is connected with repression. I don't like it. And I never glorified it. And I did everything that was possible. I am not God. Nobody is God—not even God himself. I am doing everything to make life in my own country much better, freer in many ways. And I try, and I tried, and I will try, to help many people. I wrote a poem against anti-Semitism. I wrote a poem against Stalin and his era. I wrote many poems against bureaucracy. You have a fighter, the toreador. You have the police and the public, those so-called observers. I've seen the public get unhappy when the toreador professionally and skillfully sneaks away from the tow's horns. Unfortunately, inside many audiences is hidden the thirst to see real human blood. In the arena, I've seen some wonderful toreadors accused of being cowards. And they were not cowards. They didn't want to be killed by the bull. But there are some people who just observe your fight from a distance, and they are unhappy with it. They would like to idolize you. But if you fall down, with some horns on your head, it's only human nature. As Pushkin said once, "Only dead people can laugh."
I am a poetician, not a politician. As a poet, I don't like any kind of borders, prisons, any kind of police, army, missiles, anything which is connected with repression. I don't like it.
Q: Why have you devoted so much of your writing to opposing the bureaucracy?
YEVTUSHENKO: Because bureaucracy is based on indifference, and indifference is a kind of aggression. Indifference is a kind of war against your own people and against other people. One bureaucrat, for instance, who sits in his office and has the Picasso drawing with the dove of peace on the wall, he may be a pacifist, but at the same time he is in a permanent war with his people. He is an aggressor because he is indifferent. But in my opinion, to accuse bureaucracy alone is too easy. To accuse governments is too easy a way out. I think all governments are far from perfection. But the rest of humanity is far from perfection, too. I disagree with the expression that every people has the government it deserves. No people deserve their government. In a way it's true. But when we accuse bureaucrats, sometimes we absolve ourselves. Sometimes we are responsible for the bureaucracy, the bureaucrats.
Q: You are called the rebel poet. Where did the first anger, the first urgency come from?
YEVTUSHENKO: I am a child of the barracks. I am a child of the flea markets. I am a child of Siberian platforms. I am a child of the crowd. I am a child of lines, endless lines, for bread. And they helped me, these poor suffering people on lines, who can't write. They helped me. What I write is a way of paying them back. And I feel a responsibility to them. Once I described myself in one of my poems as a writer for those who don't write. In my opinion, everyone can write a book. That's why I felt ashamed when I was at Babi Yar, standing and staring at mountains of rubbish over these nameless graves where many dead bodies were thrown like wood into this valley. Nobody had written about these graves. I'm not a mystical man, but I remember that moment. It seemed to me that I heard through the mountains of rubbish secret whispers of those who died, those murdered people who were asking me to write about what had happened. I felt them accusing me for having forgotten them. Do you understand? That made me ashamed. And my shame helped me to write "Babi Yar." I am absolutely convinced that all poets, all real poets, are rebels. They could have been rebels in different ways. Let me make myself clear. You must not demand that all poets write political poetry, political declarations. You must not demand that. But it's my character. A human being can be a rebel only if he is concerned about others more than about himself. When I use this word "rebel," I don't use it only in a political sense. Because as I said in one of my early poems, "Conversations with an American Writer," unfortunately in all centuries simple honesty looks like courage. Rebels are not only very famous people who make public statements. If someone doesn't give to others the possibility of engaging him in their hypocrisy, he is a rebel. Not famous, but a rebel. There are so many unknown rebels in the world, just simple, honest people. Any kind of honesty is rebellion.
Q: Do you sometimes feel you're not courageous enough?
YEVTUSHENKO: Sometimes. I hope I am honest, but I don't think I am a courageous man. That is different. There is a special power when you can openly recognize your own weaknesses. That's why shame is the real and main engine of humanity. I feel shame for many things. First of all, I think shame must begin in yourself. No one has the right to accuse an epoch, a century, a period in history, if he has no courage to accuse himself. I accuse myself of being criminally lazy. I haven't written many books, and they're probably dead in me now. Because I am too thirsty for life. I want to be everything, everybody, in every place, at the same time. I don't like people who are not thirsty for life. When they aren't curious, and lose their childish curiosity, and kill the child inside of them, they can't write poems. So I accuse myself of not concentrating enough. Not being courageous enough. I can't accuse myself of betraying anyone— not in friendship, not in love, not in personal relationships.
Q: Do you fear, as you grow old, that you will lose the rebel inside of you?
YEVTUSHENKO: There is a beautiful South American expression: "Where are the former incendiaries now? The incendiaries of all the revolutionary fires. Where are they? They are working as firemen. They are all of them in the firemen's service now." It's very easy to be progressive and rebellious when you're young, when you have no responsibility for others and you're responsible only for yourself. It's very easy. But if you are married, you have a first child, and then, as in so many former rebels' lives, the diapers of the child are like the white flag of capitulation. I once wrote, when I was forty, a very sad poem about getting older. A friend of mine, a poet, reproached me. Don't take growing old too seriously, he said. There are just two dates in everyone's life: the date of birth and the date of death. And he said, you know, Don Quixote was old, but he wasn't old. And he said, don't lose the Don Quixote inside yourself, and you will always be young. It was good advice. Pasternak, when he was sixty-six years old, wrote beautiful, youthful poetry. And his writing was a great example for us. It's not really a matter of age.
Q: What is your impression of young people in the Soviet Union?
YEVTUSHENKO: They're very different. When you ask me about them, I try to generalize. I see so many different faces, it's very difficult to generalize. But I think they are more informed about what is happening in the world. Most of them study foreign languages, unlike our generation. But now they get so specialized they have the same danger in Russia that you have in America. To be a really great specialist, you must read so much technical literature. And we have one danger with this younger generation that they will be locked in the knowledge of their specialization. Sometimes some of them don't know our own history, which is very dangerous. Dangerous.
Q: In one of your poems, you ask a sixteen-year-old, "How many people did Stalin kill?" And somebody says twenty or twenty-five, and then the highest estimate that you got was what?
YEVTUSHENKO: Two thousand. They have a lack of knowledge about history. As I said in my Writers Congress speech of December 1985, we must rewrite our books about history, because if you don't know your own history, you can repeat mistakes. But generally I like our young people. They want what most Americans, all human beings, want. They would like to have a good job, a comfortable life, a good family, to have children, and not to be frightened by the threat of nuclear war.
Q: How hopeful are you that Soviet-American relations will improve?
YEVTUSHENKO: Mr. Reagan has never been to Russia. I'm absolutely sure if, for instance, Mr. Reagan could sit down on the shores of Lake Baikal near a hunter's fire and drink vodka and speak with our fishermen, with workers, with others, he would be a different man, as would many other Americans. And many Russians would be different if they would come to America and sit near a hunter's fire in the Rocky Mountains and speak with Americans. I'm absolutely sure that would change their minds. Both systems have some good features, some bad features. Probably if you find common mutual understanding, both societies, both structures could absorb the best features of each and we'll get an absolutely new structure in the future. But nobody knows. I don't know. I just want to be in my own place.