Home > 2017 > Tribute to Yevgeny Yeutushenko

Mainstream, VOL LV No 20 New Delhi May 6, 2017

Tribute to Yevgeny Yeutushenko

Monday 8 May 2017

Yevgeny Yeutushenko, 84, was one of the most famous names among the generation of Soviet Russian poets who came to the fore in the early sixties. He was born Yevgeny Alexandrovich Gangnus (he later took his mother’s last name, Yevtushenko) in the Irkutsk region of Siberia in a small town called Zima on July 18, 1933 to a peasant family of noble descent. Both of Yevtushenko’s grandfathers were arrested during Stalin’s purges as "enemies of the people" in 1937. 

Yevtushenko’s father, Alexandr Rudolfovich Gangnus, was a geologist, as was his mother, Zinaida Ermolaevna Yevtushenko, who later became a singer. After the Second World War, Yevtushenko moved to Moscow and from 1951 to 1954 studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, from which he dropped out. In 1952 he joined the Union of Soviet Writers after publication of his first collection of poetry. In 1955 Yevtushenko wrote a poem about the Soviet borders being an obstacle in his life. His first important publication was the 1956 poem Stantsiya Zima ("Zima Station"). In 1957, he was expelled from the Literary Institute for "individualism". He was banned from travelling, but gained wide popularity with the Soviet public. His early work also drew praise from Boris Pasternak, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost. 

Yevtushenko was one of the authors politically active during the Khrushchev Thaw. Khrushchev declared a cultural "Thaw" that allowed some freedom of expression. In 1961 he wrote what would become perhaps his most famous poem, Babii Yar, in which he denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in September 1941, as well as the anti-Semitism still widespread in the Soviet Union. The usual Soviet policy in relation to the Holocaust in Russia was to describe it as general atrocities against Soviet citizens, and to avoid mentioning that it was a genocide of the Jews. However, Yevtushenko’s work Babii Yar "spoke not only of the Nazi atrocities, but the Soviet government’s own persecution of Jewish people". The poem was published in a major newspaper, Literaturnaya Gazeta, achieved widespread circulation in numerous copies, and later was set to music, together with four other Yevtushenko poems, by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled Babii Yar. Incidentally, in 1963 Yevtusenko was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poem Babii Yar. 

Some argue that before the appearance of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, and the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko, through his poetry, was the first voice to speak out against Stalinism (although Boris Pasternak is often considered "to have helped give birth to the dissident movement with the publication of his Doctor Zhivago"). It was also added: "Sovietologist Stephen Cohen of Princeton University contends that Yevtushenko was among those Soviets who didn’t become dissidents but in their own way tried to improve conditions and prepare the way for reform, [saying that] ’They exhibited a kind of civic courage that many Americans didn’t recognise.‘“ In 1989 Yevtushenko was elected as a representative for Kharkov in the Soviet Parliament (Congress of People’s Deputies) where he was a member of a pro-democratic group supporting Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1991 during the hardline coup that sought to oust Gorbachev and reverse perestroika he supported Boris Yeltsin as the latter defended the Russian Federation’s Parliament. However, when Yeltsin sent tanks into Chechnya, he reportedly “denounced his old ally and refused to accept an award from him”.

Yevtushenko died peacefully of heart failure on the morning of April 1, 2017, at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the US. He leaves behind his wife, Maria Novikova, and five sons. Following his death, Yevtushenko was described by his friend and translator Robin Milner-Gulland as "an absolute natural talent at performance" on the BBC’s Last Word programme. Milner-Gulland also wrote in an obituary in The Guardian that "there was a brief stage when the development of Russian literature seemed almost synonymous with his name", and that amidst his characteristics of "sharpness, sentiment, populism, self-confidence and sheer enjoyment of the sound of language", he was "above all a generous spirit". Raymond H. Anderson stated in The New York Times that his "defiant" poetry "inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War".

He visited several countries, including France and India, in the 1960s. He enthralled the audience in New Delhi with the recitation of his poetry.

An interview with him was published in 1993 in the popular Russian weekly. Argumenty i Fakty (Arguments and Facts). Interestingly, the poet was interviewed in New York by a correspondent of Radio Liberty.

Yevtushenko on the Poetry and Prose of Life

Recently an event occurred in New York which attracted the attention of all cultured Americans. The New York Philharmonic Orchestra played the Thirteenth Symphony of Shostakovich. Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who attended, read his poem Babii Yar and some other verses, including some in English. Below is an interview with the poet and also an English translation of his poem.

Question: You have come to New York from Oklahoma, where you live at present. What are you doing there? There are rumours that you have brought a ranch house in Oklahoma?

Answer: Well, I can answer only in Mark Twain’s words: “The rumours about my death are somewhat exaggerated.”

Q: Are things so bad with you?

A: On the contrary, I am trying to become the owner of a dacha in Peredelkino (a writer’s colony near Moscow), 75 per cent of which I have built with my own money. I am not succeeding in this. I am ot going to buy any house in Oklahoma, nor am I planning to live in America. I have only been invited to teach Russian poetry in this country. And a large anthology compiled by me is being published here in English. This will consist of 1000 pages of Russian poetry of the twentieth century. There will be 250 poets under a single cover. I must say with regret that I have not so far been able to find a publisher for this anthology in Russian—either in my own country or abroad.

Q: Yevgeny Alexandrovich, do you like the present—in Russia?

A: I think no normal person can like it. You know, I belong to the category of people who fought to free our country from the dictatorship of one party, from the monopoly of the state. We fought to free ourselves from censorship. I think that we have been able to win very great victories. And we defended these victories in August 1991.

But something then happened to our intelligentsia, myself included. As we didn’t know, so to speak, what freedom is about in general, we idealised this freedom. For example, it then seemed to us that freedom of expression is the key to prosperity . But then it turned out that this was not quite so, because we can’t eat freedom of speech, we can’t clothe ourselves in it, nor can freedom of expression heat our homes in our cold winter. Besides, while idealising freedom, we thought that freedom has only a beautiful face.

Q: It was naive to expect.

A: Well, so we turned out to be naive.... But I still think that what was done (I have in view the destruction of the one-party system and the end of censorship as a state institution) was all quite correct. And it was good that this happened. But then, we haven’t yet learnt how to use this freedom.

Q: What was the main weakness of the generation of the sixties, both in and beyond politics?

A: We just had a great many natural political illusions. For example, Andrei Voznesensky wrote verses which the censor did not allow to be published for a long time: “I don’t know what to do with his, but I request you, Comrade Central Committee, please remove Lenin from our coins and bank notes; his value is high.” Today some people accuse Voznesensky of careeristic stunts, so to say. But at that time he thought just as many others did.

Q: Yevgeny Alexandrovich, and are there verses which you have written, which you now regret?

A: Of course, a large number. I have published about 120,000 lines of poetry. But you mustn’t think that these poems were insincere. On the contrary, all this output was perfectly sincere. Of these 120,000 lines I wouldn’t today print—well, about 70,000.

Q: Well, even such arithmetic goes in your favour because you retain 50,000 lines all the same.

A: According to all the surveys that have been conducted in Russia, I am (excuse me for the term) the most saleable poet. Every man on the street knows my name, and knows, perhaps, some line or the other from a song or a poem of mine. My books are now nowhere to be had—they have all been sold out. But in spite of his, four of my books, compiled by myself, have been returned by different publishers. They explained this saying: “Paper is very expensive these days, prices are hitting the sky. So excuse us, Yevgeny Alexandrovich.”

But this is what happened to me. I can manage to have other sources of earning. I can travel to America to speak, to lecture. But what are those poets to do who are not known at all? What are the young prose writers to do? They find themselves in an extremely difficult position.

Russia always differed from the West; nowhere except in Russia do you find professional poets. I had once written the lines: “Russia without Russian poetry would be like a vast Luxembourg.”

Q: Valentin Rasputin says: “Well, if we live like they do in Western Europe, where will our spirituality be?” As if one can wish to live like in Western Europe, and one can do so.... For this colossal, impossible work has to be done—to become a Luxembourg.

A: Now you have me pinned down on my back! You know, recently I visited the station called Zima in my country. A militiaman, whom I know since my childhood, came to us. He is, in fact, a chauffeur, who once worked at my uncle’s. And when he was taking me to my uncle’s grave, he began to boast. (Well, we Siberians love boasting, but this is not the worst human failing.) He flung into the cabin several transparent bags with packets of money, so that I could see them. He has started an enterprise in a dashingly novel way; they make stained wood, basically larch wood. And he sells this stained wood in partnership with a German. He is a professional chauffeur—he loves cars. He has bought himself three cars—all of them new. And so he tells me: “Yevgeny Alexandrovich, I want to support local art here. Won’t you advise me...?”

You understand, it is much better in the province than in Moscow, much better. It seems to be that people there are more active, they are somehow more enterprising, more resourceful. They no longer depend on the centre. And this is fine. And I therefore think that our country can grow into the future in the manner of little islands, different provinces, regions, and then they will join together. But some of them will push forward, into the future, and then pull others after themselves, to follow their example. This is how the transformation of our country will take place. And this will happen. It shall!

(Translated by Ravi M. Bakaya from Argumenty iFakty, No. 6, February 1993)

[Mainstream, July 10, 1993]

o o o

Babii Yar

Babii Yar is a ravine near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Many thousands of Jews were massacred here by the Nazis during the Second. World War. This English translation was published in the December 1961 issue of ISCUS, the quarterly journal then published by the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society in Bombay and edited by the late Dr A.V. Baliga, President of the Society. The translation is by the late Archie Johnstone, a British journalist and writer who lived in Moscow. Born in 1933, Yevtushenko was then perhaps the most talked about and controversial of the younger generation of Soviet poets. —Editor

No sculptured headstones stand on Babii Yar—

the rough-hewn cleft is monolith enough—

and here, alive amid the countless dead,

I feel that I have lived not years but ages,

the ages of the ancient Jewish race.

Today I am a Jew, and here I walk

in Egypt’s bondage, dragging leaden feet;

and here I, Dreyfus, face again my foes.

the howling mob that also is my judge.

My lot is to be hounded, spat upon,

reviled by silk- and satin-clad viragos

who jab their dainty sunshades in my face.

...I am a little boy in Belastok;

pogromists, breathing hate and vodka, storm

into our home; the floorboards soak up blood;

I plead that they should spare my mother’s life;

a heavy boot kicks me aside. They chant:

“Beat up the Yids and keep our Russia safe.”

Our Russia?...Oh, my Russian countrymen,

your love sweeps over frontiers, over creeds,

but often those whose hands were red with blood

invoked the sacred name of our dear land

and called themselves the Russian people’s League

...And, standing here, I know myself to be

Anne Frank, as tender as a bud in spring,

and as defenceless. Love has come to me

a love that needs no poet’s shining words,

for shining eyes say all that need be said.

Hon little does life hold for us, my love—

How little and how much! We may not see

from here the blue of sky, the green of leaf,

but in this darkened room our lips may meet...

They’re coming?—No, the footsteps that you hear

are but the blessed steps of coming spring.

Knocks at the door?—Be not afriad, my love:

the river breaks its bonds; our winter ends.

The grasses whisper over Babii Yar,

each tree a solemn judge; a deathly silence

clamours in my ears. I bare my head;

it seems my hair is slowly turning grey and I am
but an endless, soundles moan

Mourning the nameless dead of Babii Yar.

Greybeards, husbands, wives and slaughtered babes

each one of them am I; and while I live

my blood, my flesh, my bones will not forget.

When earth’s last anti-Semite is interred

the Inernational will thunder here.

Although I have no Jewish blood in me,

well may they hate me as they hate a Jew

for I have hated them through all my life—

And thus a true son of Russia I am.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62