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April 15, 2017

On Yevtushenko


April 15, 2017

When Yevgeny Yevtushenko was buried this month – on April 11 – at a cemetery in Peredelkino, Moscow, his grave was not far from Boris Pasternak’s. Peredelkino is a Soviet-era writers’ community that boasts some of the greatest names of the Russian literary history in the 20th century. Many of them drew admiration from literary circles across the world, including those who were bitter critics of the Soviet system. 

Though Yevtushenko was not a Nobel laureate – as Pasternak was – his writings were no less impressive in terms of their imagery and social relevance. If Pasternak’s greatest novel was Dr Zhivago, Yevtushenko’s most prominent piece of writing was his 1961 poem, Babi Yar, which lambasted the Soviet distortions of history. When Pasternak was challenging the Soviet narrative of the October Revolution and its aftermath, Yevtushenko was questioning the nearly unquestionable Soviet account of the Second World War.

Babi Yar was the place in Ukraine where one of the most horrendous mass executions took place during the war. The Germans were the perpetrators of this heinous crime that filled a ravine near Kiev in 1941 with around 35,000 Jews, rounded up and killed within a couple of days. The Nazis were aided by Ukrainian collaborators and police regiments days after the German army captured Kiev, following the invasion of the Soviet Union. After the war, the Soviet authorities downplayed the Jewish massacre and never allowed a memorial to be erected in honour of the Jewish victims who had fallen victim to the heinous attack.

Yevtushenko had to his credit the dubious distinction of renewing interest in this massacre by writing his great poem in 1961 on the massacre’s 20th anniversary. The poem was first circulated from hand to hand and was then allowed to be printed in the official literary magazine Literaturnaya Gazeta. The poem’s intensity is greatly reduced in translations. But if you are able to read it in original Russian, you can’t help but let your tears roll down. It delineates the Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazism and reveals a hidden anti-Semitism within the Soviet state that refused to acknowledge it as a tragedy perpetrated against the Jews.

The Soviet Union of the 1960s presented an interesting outlook in the sense that a new generation of outspoken writers and poets was emerging on the scene. They were emboldened by a relatively relaxed atmosphere provided by Khrushchev and his policy of de-Stalinization. Though the Thaw – as it was dubbed in the late 1950s – proved to be short, it offered a new-found zeal to the Soviet writers who were craving for a more liberal space. De-Stalinization was to last for hardly a decade – from the late 1950s to the late 1960s – and the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia put paid to all such efforts for another 20 years. When composer Dmitri Shostakovich put the poem to music in his Thirteenth Symphony, it was soon banned.

Yevtushenko was one of that rare breed of Soviet writers who had the courage to criticise the Soviet military interventions in Eastern Europe. He became a darling of the West but was too big to be persecuted at home – even when he exposed some of the political lies that were choking his own nation. In this way, he emerged as a role model for other budding writers. Some of them went a bit too far and invited the ire of the Soviet State. His message was clear: speak your mind in a way that even a totalitarian state can’t crush you. For his detractors, such as Joseph Brodsky, Yevtushenko didn’t go far enough and was only following the line sanctioned by the Soviet state.

Following the Prague Spring of 1968, the Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union once again came under strict communist rule that continued throughout the 1970s. But surprisingly, Yevtushenko was allowed to travel and recite his poetry, even in the US. Probably the Soviet authorities wanted a bold face to show that it was not all suppression under socialism, and some freethinking poetry was allowed to be written and recited.

In addition to Babi Yar, Yevtushenko’s other masterpiece was The Heirs of Stalin. The poem pressed the Soviet government to make sure that Stalin didn’t rise again – and with him the past remained buried. Yevtushenko’s primary audience was the Soviet youth that made him a celebrity. Like most writers and poets, he did like publicity. He was blamed for his apparent ability to get along with officialdom. But there was no concrete evidence of his collaboration with the party bosses.

He always advocated greater artistic freedom and spoke for literature based on aesthetic rather than political standards – though his own diction, at times, verges on being revolutionary on the pattern of Mayakovski and Yesenin. To a great extent, he was responsible for reviving love and personal lyrics in Russian poetry which had been discouraged under Stalin.

He tried his hand at novel writing and published his first novel in Russian in 1982 which was translated in English as Wild Berries. He also acted in a couple of films, but his main vocation remained poetry for which he will be best remembered.


The writer is a freelance contributor. 

Email: [email protected]


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