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Prominent Russians: Evgeny Yevtushenko

Born July 18, 1933

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Evgeny Yevtushenko is a Russian "super poet," worshiped by millions. Fans have packed soccer stadiums to hear him recite his ringing, defiant verses, and the West he has lionized him for his talent and extravagant charm.

Yevtushenko's stature was so inviolable it daunted even the KGB, which skittered between intimidation and clumsy attempts to flatter and co-opt him.

Yevtushenko was one of his generation's most soaring voices. As a young man, he had the courage to denounce anti-Semitism in the famous poem "Babi Yar" and the Soviet system in "The Heirs of Stalin"; he craftily defied the regime when so many of his peers meekly played along. His more recent works such as "Don't Die Before You're Dead" do not have the reach or power of his earlier works, but he still has much to say.

"Why is it that in folk songs of all nations and all ages people express the desire to become birds? Because birds know no borders. People are mortally envious of animals for their freedom, and probably that is why we try to deprive them of it by forcing borders on them - be they the barriers of a zoo, the bars of a circus cage, or the transparent but still prison-like walls of an aquarium. People insult their one God-given planet with impassable fences (described by Robert Frost with such bitter irony), with barbed wire, with iron or newspaper curtains. The division, the separation of the Earth's surface, turns into mutual verbal and physical cannibalism. Our lack of knowledge of each other is like that of a blind sculptor, dangerous in his aggressive naiveté, who creates figures of so-called enemies." - Divided Twins (1988)

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Throughout the Khrushchev and the Brezhnev periods Yevtushenko traveled widely abroad, giving readings as a symbol of the new freedom in the Soviet Union. The 6-foot-3-inch Siberian poet received a great deal of attention, especially in the United States.

Evgeny Yevtushenko was born in Zima in Irkutsk, Siberia, a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia. His parents were both geologists and mother was also a singer. In they early 1940s his parents divorced and in 1944 Evgeny moved to Moscow with his mother and sister, Elena. In 1948 he was expelled from school on false charges and in 1950 he accompanied his father on geological expeditions to Kazakhstan and to Altai.
Yevtushenko published his first poem in 1949 in a Soviet sports magazine and thereafter became a regular contributor to Komsomolskaya Pravda, Literaturnaya Gazeta, Novy Mir, and other important Soviet publications. As a result of the success of his first book of poetry, “The Prospectors of the Future” (1952), he joined the Soviet Writers' Union and began studying at the Gorky Literary Institute, which he left after several years without graduating.

After Stalin's death in 1953, Yevtushenko abandoned his pro-Stalinist themes and began writing love poetry.

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“Third Snow” (1955), his second book of poems, was heavily attacked by official critics, and he became famous. Other volumes of verse were published in 1956 and 1957. "Zima Junction," his finest poem, describes a visit to his hometown in 1953 and reflects the confusion and search for values of a young man in post-Stalinist Russia. The rebellious attitudes characteristic of the poems of these years provoked attacks by the more orthodox Soviet writers and critics, but Yevtushenko's fame continued to grow. His themes, both personal and social, were marked by a nonconformist attitude and conveyed a strong feeling of human sympathy.

From 1961 Yevtushenko traveled extensively outside the Soviet Union. He made trips to Bulgaria, France, Ghana, Cuba, the United States and Great Britain. Everywhere he was received as an unofficial representative of post-Stalinist Russia. Reading his poems before large audiences, he received widespread adulation. Westerners were entranced, by "this tall, handsome, outgoing Siberian, an athletic, devil-may-care fellow, who personified youth and poetry," as Marc Slonim wrote in 1964.

He gained international fame with “Babi Yar,” in which he denounced the Nazis and at the same time clumsily criticized his own country for forgetting the message of “The International.”

“Babi Yar” is one of a number of literary treatments on the massacre of Jews in occupied Kiev on 29 September 1941. Composer Dmitry Shostakovich set the words to music as part of his “Thirteenth Symphony.” The poem was written in 1961 but was not officially printed in Russia until 1984, although it was frequently recited both in Russia and abroad.

It memorializes some 96,000 Jews massacred by the Nazis in a ravine near Kiev during World War II. Until the publication of this poem, the Soviet government had not acknowledged that most of the victims of the Babi Yar massacres were Jews. The poem strongly indicts anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, concluding with the lines: 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 anti-Semites have proclaimed themselves/ the Union of the Soviet People." "There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine, / but, hated with a passion that’s corrosive/ Am I by Anti-Semites like a Jew/ And that is why I call myself a Russian!

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The poem was rapturously received by the Russian public, and was even defended by Nikita Khrushchev, who allowed it to be published in the leading newspaper, Pravda.

Yevtushenko was allowed to travel widely in the West until 1963. He then published “A Precocious Autobiography” in English, and his privileges and favors were withdrawn, but restored two years later. In 1968 he denounced the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the poem “Russian Tanks in Prague.”

“A Precocious Autobiography,” first serialized in Stern magazine, included a frank discussion on the tragic flaws in Soviet society, laid the blame for many of them on the late Joseph Stalin and announced the author's intention to work for social improvement. The result was immediate. Yevtushenko was publicly denounced by Khrushchev for cheap sensationalism, and vilified for his sentiments and even for his literary technique. The author's note in the English edition of the novel includes a compliment he received from John Steinbeck after his "A Precocious Autobiography" was published in 1963: "You know, perhaps in some future encyclopedia they will write about you as a prose writer who began as a celebrated poet." A more fainthearted writer would have persuaded a friend to write the introduction.

Khrushchev was ousted in October 1964 and replaced by the unyielding, intensely conservative Leonid Brezhnev. Like other literary figures, Yevtushenko began to chafe under the scrupulously observed new restrictions, and was allowed neither to travel nor to give his usual poetry readings.

He lived in relative obscurity until 1966, when his name resurfaced in connection with the trial of Yuly Daniel and Andrey Sinyavsky, two writers who had been caught after smuggling supposedly anti-Soviet books to the West for clandestine publication under pen names. Along with several other writers, Yevtushenko protested the trial and was almost stopped from traveling to America that same year. Permitted to go only because his passport had already been issued, he later claimed to have been told by Senator Robert Kennedy that America's Central Intelligence Agency had been the agency responsible for getting the writers into trouble. Supposedly, they had contacted their Russian counterparts and told them about Sinyavsky and Daniel and their ploy for publication, in order to deflect attention away from criticism against the Vietnam War.

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Yevtushenko remained politically outspoken and in 1974 supported Solzhenitsyn when the Nobel Prize winner was arrested and exiled. Yevtushenko sent an immediate telegram of protest to Brezhnev, in which he said that while he disagreed with Solzhenitsyn on many points, the author's explosive study, “Gulag Archipelago” contained "terrible documented pages about the bloody crimes of the Stalinist past." In the West Yevtushenko was often criticized for being too soft, but KGB records have shown that he worked behind the scenes in support of Solzhenitsyn. He wrote to KGB chief Yury Andropov, the future General Secretary of the Communist Party: "There is only one way out of this situation, but nobody will dare choose it: recognize Solzhenitsyn, restore his membership in the Writers' Union, and afterward, just declare suddenly that ‘Cancer Ward’ is to be published." Later he also suggested that Boris Pasternak's Nobel Prize for Literature, which the author rejected under pressure from the Soviet government, should be posthumously restored. "He earned it with his entire life and work," Yevtushenko wrote in an article.

Yevtushenko’s own speeches were constantly censored in magazines. In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev had just risen to power, Literaturnaya Gazeta, published by the Soviet Writers' Union, left out several major sections of Yevtushenko's remarks about Stalin's purges, the evils of collectivization and the privileges of the elite. Yevtushenko himself declined to criticize the editing.

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Interviewed in 1987 by Time magazine, Yevtushenko commented on why he felt it imperative to support these writers despite the danger to his own reputation. Using the expression glasnost, the Russian word for "openness," that will forever be associated with Mikhail Gorbachev, Yevtushenko looked back on the Daniel/Sinyavsky trial and remarked: "Glasnost is us. We fought for it for many years."

In 1991 a collection of his works entitled “Fatal Half Measures” was published by Random House.

Centered on the themes of glasnost and perestroika, the book contained excerpts from several earlier works, all supporting Yevtushenko's strong political convictions. His concerns about rising racism and the increasing desperation of Russian society came strongly to the fore, as they had done in many other works. In the essay "A Nation Begins with Women," Yevtushenko entreated that Russian women at last be treated with long-overdue respect, paid salaries on par with those earned by men doing the same jobs and offered opportunities to hold positions of authority in an economy long monopolized by men. Perhaps his most telling comment is the one concluding this piece: "Can a nation be respected if it does not respect its women?"

Yevtushenko also tried his hand in new fields. His first novel, “Wild Berries,” was published in 1984 to a lukewarm reception, and after several others, “Don't Die Before You're Dead” (1995) received favorable attention from most major reviewers. It is nominally about the redemption of those Russians who shook off their fear and passivity and flocked to the barricades to defend democracy against Communist hard-liners. But at its core the novel represents Yevtushenko's stubborn struggle to keep his career alive in a society that wanted to bury him quietly in the past.

In 1989 Yevtushenko became a member of the Congress of People's Deputies and the following year he was appointed Vice President of Russian PEN. In 1987 he became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Yevtushenko also ventured into photography with “Divided Twins: Siberia and Alaska” and “Invisible Threads.” Films also offered him a world of novelty worthy of exploration. In 1995 a movie he co-directed, entitled “I Am Cuba,” found an audience, albeit a judgmental one, that labeled the work, in the words of The Nation "a film that has still not found its historical moment." This was certainly no deterrent to the vigorous Yevtushenko, who always regarded the possibility of improvement as a zestful challenge.

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By 1996 he was back in New York, teaching Russian poetry and literature at Queens College. He chose to live among his students in Queens, rather than in Manhattan with the majority of his more prosperous colleagues because he enjoyed the wide ethnic mix that Queens had always offered.

All of Yevtushenko's major works are available in English translation, in several versions of varying quality. “Bratsk Station and Other New Poems,” translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin, is a brilliant translation of Yevtushenko's major works. Another good source on Yevtushenko is his “A Precocious Autobiography,” translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew (1963). For critical commentary, see Marc Slonim's, “Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems” (1964) and Olga Carlisle's, “Poets on Street Corners: Portraits of Fifteen Russian Poets” (1969).

Yevtushenko has been married four times: in 1954 he married Bella Akhmadulina, who published her first collection of poems in 1962. After their divorce he married Galina Semenova. Yevtushenko's third wife was Jan Butler (married in 1978), and his fourth Maria Novika (married in 1986).


By Evgeny Yevtushenko

Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96

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.
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
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 anti-Semites 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.
-"They come!"
-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"
-"They break the door!"
-"No, river ice is breaking..."
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment.
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
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of anti-Semites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by anti-Semites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva, RT

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