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||Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) - name also spelled Jevgeni Jevtusenko; Evgenii Evtushenko|
Internationally one the best-known poets of the post-Stalin period, who became with such work as The Third Snow (1955) a spokesman for the young generation. Throughout the Khrushchev and the Brezhnev periods Yevtushenko travelled widely abroad, giving readings as a symbol of a new freedom in the Soviet Union. Especially in the United States the 6-foot-3-inch Siberian poet received a great deal of attention. Yevtushenko's early poems show the influence of Mayakovsky. In spite of his outspokenness and conflicts with the authorities, he was also loyal to communism.
"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 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 (which Robert Frost described with such a bitter irony) - with barbed wire, with iron or newspaper curtain. 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." (from Divided Twins, 1988)
Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born in Zima in Irkutsk, a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia. His maternat grandfather was a Red Army general. In 1944 he moved with his mother, Zinaida Ermolaevna Evtushenko to Moscow. Yevtushenko's first collection of poems, Razvedchiki Griadushchego (1952, Prospectors of the Future), earned him a place at the prestigious Gorky Institute of Literature, but he was soon expelled for insubordination. Yevtushenko's father, Aleksandr Rudolfovich Gangnus, was a geologist of Latvian descent. Yevtushenko accompanied him on expeditions to Kazakhstan in 1948 and to Altai in 1950.
Zima Junction, Yevtushenko's first important narrative poem, came out in 1956, but 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
"Internationale". "But those with unclean hands / have often made a
jingle of your purest name. / I know the goodness of my land. / How
vile these anti-Semites – without a qualm / they pompously called
themselves / the Union of the Russian People."
Babi Yar is one of a number of literary treatments of a massacre of Jews in occupied Kiev on 29 September 1941. Composer Dimitri Shostakovich set the words to music as the first part of his Thirteenth Symphony; four other poems by Yevtushenko completed the text for the five movements of the work. Despite advisement of Premier Khrushchev, the Soviet Presidium and a number of artists and writers to call off the premiére, the symphony was performed on December 18, 1962.Shostakovich's symphony was banned until Yevtushenko made alterations in his verse that not only Jews were slaughtered in Kiev. The poem was not officially printed in Russia until 1984, although it was frequently recited in both Russia and abroad. Vladimir Firsov, an anti-experimentalis poet, argued that Yevtushenko sympathized more with Jewish than Slavic victims. In 1963 Communist Party secretary Nikita Khrushchev forced to add lines about the Slavic victims.
When the famous eighty-eight-year-old American poet Robert Frost visited the Soviet Union in 1962, he met Yevtushenko in Moscow. They went to the Café Aelita, where they drank Georgian wine and recited poetry. Later Frost said, "he was a lively, youngish man, and I got quite an impression of him, quite bohemian, and quite stirred up to heroic feelings about Cuba, and all that, for some more revolution." The Heirs of Stalin (1961) was a slap in the face of the cultural elite but it published presumably with Party approval in Pravda, contained the warning that Stalin did not die. "And I appeal / to our government with a plea: / to double, / and treble, the guard at this slab, / so that Stalin will not rise again, / and with Stalin-the past." In a interview Yevtushenko confessed that he broke down in tears upon learning of the dictator's death in 1953.
Yevtushenko dealt with burning topics of the day with a strong rhetorical note; its has been said that most of Yevtushenko's political poems are bad verse in a good cause. He demanded greater artistic freedom, and his attacks on Stalinism and bureaucracy in the late 1950s and 60s made him a leader of Soviet youth. As a correspondent for Pravda, Yevtushenko visited Cuba, where befriended Fidel Castro, and wrote with Enrique Piñeda Barnett the screenplay for Mikhail Kalatozov's episodic film Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba), released two years after the missile crisis in 1964. This propagandistic work fell soon into obscurity, but decades later in was and hailed as a masterpiece especially due to Sergei Urusevsky's innovative camerawork. Yevtushenko's Cuban friends included the dissident poet Heberto Padilla (1932-2000), whose work he made known in the Soviet Union. He adviced Padilla to keep a low profile.
In December 1962 Nikita Khrushchev arranged an informal discussion
with Soviet intelligentsia, in which Yevtushenko defended the right of
artist and writers to decide on their own what art was. To
Khrushchev's remark, "If person is born ugly, only the grave will
correct him," he replied: "Nikita Sergeevich, we live in a time
when mistakes are corrected not by graves, but by live, honest, and
truthful Bolshevik words."
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. At the time of the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Yevtushenko was on vacation in the Crimea with Vasily Aksyonov; Aksyonov drowed his rage in alcohol, Yevtushenko send a cable to Leonid Brezhnev in protest: "I DON'T KNOW HOW TOO SLEEP. I DON'T KNOW HOW TO CONTINUE LIVING," he complained. Yevtushenko also denounced the invasion in the poem 'Russian Tanks in Prague.' However, this was not known in England, where his former friend Kingley Amis joined a campaing against Yevtushenko, after he was nominated for the poetry chair at Oxford. Yevtushenko did not get the post.
In 1972 Yevtushenko gained a huge success with his play Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty, which was produced in Moscow. Since the 1970s was been active in many fields of culture: writing novels, acting, film directing, and photography. He directed the film Kindergarten and acted in it, and in 1990 he directed the film Stalin's Funeral. Moreover, he remained politically outspoken, and 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 contained "terrible documented pages about the bloody crimes of the Stalinist past."
In the West Yevtushenko was often criticized for being too soft, but the KGB records have shown him to have been working behind the scenes in support of Solzhenitsyn. He wrote to KGB chief Yuri 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 had rejected under pressure of the Soviet Government, should be posthumously restored. "He earned it with his entire life and work," Yevtushenko wrote in an article. His own speeches were constantly censored in magazines.
In 1985, when Mikhail S. 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.
Yevtushenko's first novel Wild Berries (1981), was rejected by critics but it became a huge success. The story, which fused the past and the future, history and fantasy, dealt with, among other things, the Stalinist collectivization of agriculture and the elimination of the kulaks, land-owning peasants. As a result, the author was advised to stick to poetry. In 1989 Yevtushenko became a member of the Congress of People's Deputies and next year he was appointed vice president of Russian PEN.
When Yevtushenko was appointed in 1987 honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Russian-born poet Joseph Brodsky resigned in protest - he considered his colleague a party yes man. Brodsky bitterly stated: "He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved." Yevtushenko's readers, however, have defended the poet faithfully, stating that "you can't blame him that he survived." In 1993 Yevtushenko received a medal as 'Defender of Free Russia,' which was given to those who took part in resisting the hard-line Communist coup in August 1991.
After the accession of Gorbachev to power, Yevtushenko introduced to Soviet readers many poets repressed by Stalin in the journal Ogonek. He aroused public awareness of the pollution of Lake Baikal, and when communism collapsed, he supported the plan to erect a monument to the victims of Stalinist repression opposite Lubianka, headquarters of the KGB. In Don't Die Before You're Dead (1995) Yevtushenko gave his satirical account of the August 1991 coup, which eventually lifted Boris Yeltsin to power. In one scene the slain Grand Duchess Olga whispers her last poems into Yeltsin's ear.
Yevtushenko was married four times: in 1954 he married Bella Akhmadulina, who published her first collection of lyrics in 1962. After divorce he married Galina Semyonovna Sokol. Yevtushenko's third wife was the British translator Jan Butler; they married in 1978. Butler worked as a translator in Moscow for thirteen years. In 1986 Yevtushenko marrried Maria Novika. Since 1994, Yevtushenko was a professor at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where taught poetry and film. His criticism of President Vladimir Putin was considered mild compared to the dramatic impact he made with his attacks on the legacy of Stalinist cultural policy. Yevtushenko died on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the age of 84. He has suffered from cancer.
For further reading: Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems by M. Slonim (1967); 'Introduction' by Robin Milner Gulland, in Selected Poems, translated by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi (1962/2008); 'The Politics of Poetry: The Sad Case of Yevgeny Yevtushenko' by Robert Conquest, in New York Times Magazine (30 September, 1973); Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin by Deming Brown (1978); Evgenii Evtushenko by E. Sidorov (1987); Soviet Literature in the 1980s by N.N. Shneidman (1989); Refernce Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998); Strict Wildness: Discoveries in Poetry and History by Peter Viereck (2008)