November 2007

Chris Ross


A Man of the '60s: Yevgeny Yevtushenko Parachutes into the 21st Century and Finds the Landing Rocky

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was playing cards with his wife and mother when the phone rang. The year was 1961 and Yevtushenko had just published the controversial poem “Babi Yar,” which recounted the massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population, a topic conspicuously unacknowledged by Soviet officials. Believing Yevtushenko’s life to be in danger, members of the University of Moscow basketball team appointed themselves his personal bodyguards and slept on his stairs at night.

The poet’s wife returned from answering the phone, annoyed. Someone had just called introducing himself as the famous Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Then the phone ran again. Yevtushenko answered and a man with a soft voice introduced himself as Shostakovich and addressed the poet by his familiar patronymic. “Yevgeny Alexander," said Shostakovich, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I know you must be very busy. I love your poem ‘Babi Yar,’ very much. I was wondering if you would permit me to compose some music inspired by the poem.” Nearly speechless, the young Yevtushenko replied that he would be honored. “Good,” said Shostakovich. “The piece is already written.” It was the legendary Symphony 13, and the poem catapulted Yevtushenko into worldwide literary celebrity. After touring throughout Russia and the United States, Yevtushenko was featured on the cover of Time in 1962 as the face of Soviet Russia's newfound freedom of expression.

But today, Yevtushenko seems to regard the maturing of his legacy with a wary eye. Since the 1980s, critics have raised serious doubts about Yevtushenko’s dissident reputation. When he was elected as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow poet Joseph Brodsky resigned in protest, calling Yevtushenko a party yes-man and insisting, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Others have unfavorably compared his poetry, declamatory and at times childishly earnest, to the formal innovations of his contemporaries. But at 74, Yevtushenko has not abandoned his sincerity, nor does he appear prepared to check out quite yet. The title of his forthcoming collection of memoirs, Schestu Decatnik (Sixties Parachute Man) is a neologism likening Yevtushenko’s confrontation with the present to that of a Green Beret soldier parachuting into enemy territory -- the surreal landscape of the 21st century.

During Yevtushenko’s week-long visit to the University of Chicago in March, this tension was palpable. History’s 20/20 hindsight has not been altogether kind to the poet. The University’s native Russians murmured their dissent. Who still cares about Yevtushenko? some asked. “For Russians today, he’s not taken very seriously,” a Slavic graduate student told me. “From his generation, there were authors of a much higher caliber.” On the faces of most American college students, the mention of his name registered only blank looks.

Standing 6’3 tall and retaining the striking good looks of his film star days into his septuagenarian years, Yevtushenko still cuts an impressive figure, offset slightly by his outlandish fashion: on the morning of our interview he wore purple corduroy trousers, an orange dress shirt with a white collar, and a floral-print blazer. We spoke in an empty bar on the University of Chicago campus, as heavy rain rattled the windows. He speaks English with a thick Siberian accent, which during his readings alternately rose to a steely roar or dropped to a hushed whisper.

I discovered that Yevtushenko’s stories are long, often spicy, and invariably tied up with the big names and dates of his age. He has developed an old-timer’s knack for the endless anecdote of bygone years. But once, for Yevtushenko and his peers, history was a nightmare from which they dearly wished to escape. History meant the Purges of the ‘30s, averted eyes and moral compromise, elder relatives so thoroughly programmed they couldn’t see the forest for the trees, scratching, “Long live Stalin!” on the walls of their jail cells. Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons pitted an aging aristocratic class against their nihilistic spawn; Yevtushenko’s cohorts now revived the generational conflict, casting themselves as a new order of unruly children. They resisted the rule of parents whom they considered disgraced by lives led in all too quiet desperation. They cried for youth, honesty, an unwritten future. Thus, Yevtushenko’s discomfort in the present may stem from the fact that he, the most brightly burning of sons, now finds himself a father, forgotten by the young, his face creased from worry about how he will be judged by that ultimate arbiter -- history.

I. “So youth asked if childhood would help,
 and childhood smiled and promised it would.”

Yevtushenko’s self-professed double nature -- half peasant, half intellectual -- is a matter of his origins. He was born in 1933, deep in the Siberian hinterlands, in a railroad town on the Trans-Siberian Express, Zima “Winter” Junction. His father was a lover of literature who recited to him from memory the works of Lermontov, Pushkin, Pasternak, and Kipling. But during Yevtushenko’s childhood, his parents divorced and his father moved to Kazakhstan to conduct geological expeditions. Yevtushenko and his mother moved to Moscow. An uncommitted student, Yevtushenko, “liked to escape to my other school -- the noisy school of the big city smelling of snow, cigarettes, gasoline, and hot cabbage pies sold by red-cheeked women standing in the frost.”

So began a series of educations, none of which took place in a classroom, but rather every place a boy might wish to learn. He enrolled in the Moscow school of hard knocks, had street fistfights with a brass-knuckled bully, learned to drink and smoke. He ran away to join his father in the unforgiving Siberian taiga, where the arctic cold fell as low as -65F. The harsh conditions revealed each man’s fiber, and Yevtushenko discovered two fundamental camps of men: those who lived for hope, and those who, broken by circumstance, became bitter villains.

On Yevtushenko’s return to Moscow, his poetic education began. With the money he had earned from work in the taiga, he bought a typewriter and convinced his mother that school was not for him. She threw up her hands. He submitted poems to newspapers, and eventually one was published in Soviet Sport.

As he began to publish more frequently, sometimes every week, Yevtushenko understood the reason for his mother’s forbearance about poets. One day, the editor called him into the office to tell him that a few lines had been added to his poem. When Yevtushenko asked why, the editor pointed out that his poems had so far lacked a single reference to Stalin.

Since the 19th century, literature in Russia had been considered a volatile and dangerous force. With the traditional means of expression in the stranglehold of autocracy, literature assumed the responsibility for civic dissent and moral outrage. Poetry especially could be shared unpublished or be committed to memory, traceless. The wielders of this power were rarely favored by the nation’s rulers. Pushkin and Lermontov were exiled and later killed in duels. Blok’s death remains unexplained, Yesenin hung himself, Mayakovsky shot himself… and so on. When Osip Mandelstam’s wife complained of his persecution, the poet replied, “Why do you complain? Poetry is respected only in this country -- people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” In 1938, Mandelstam disappeared in transit to a labor camp.

This practice rose to a high pitch again under Stalin. The true measure of a poet was less his wordplay than his moral mettle. As Yevtushenko opened his eyes to the injustices surrounding him, he was suddenly ignited by this poetic legacy. Yet he was also well aware -- some say too aware -- of the dangers of his profession.

II. “And I reflected on the true and the false
 and the passage of the true into the false”

Krushchev had unwittingly unleashed the forces that gave birth to Yevtushenko’s generation with his infamous 1956 “secret speech.” He excoriated Stalin and blamed the bloodthirsty dictator's “cult of personality” for the Soviet Union's failures in the Second World War. It was a bold move; after three years of jockeying for power following Stalin’s death, Krushchev had opened the dictator’s legacy to criticism and began to blacklist his political enemies as hard-line Stalinists.

The speech sent shockwaves through the nation -- Krushchev did not know how deep those ripples would go. The tricky maneuver of his speech had been to attack Stalin the man but leave the Soviet political and cultural system, over which he now presided, intact. But people were beginning to cross the line. “We were scared. We were really scared. We were afraid the thaw might unleash a flood, which we wouldn’t be able to control and which could drown us,” said Krushchev.

Yevtushenko dove into the water in 1961 with the publication of “Babi Yar.” “And I myself/ am one massive, soundless scream/ above the thousand thousand buried here,” he wrote. His friends warned that the poem’s indictment of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union would be too controversial. Following Yevtushenko’s first public reading of the poem, an unbearable silence filled the room. His hands trembling, he was afraid to look up from his sheet of paper. Moments later, the crowd exploded in approval. The applause spread from Moscow to Paris, then to Berlin, to New York City and Latin America, where he shook hands with Fidel Castro. In the U.S., he had become a poet of the highest demand, and an inadvertent ambassador of Krushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign.

But Yevtushenko began to hear voices. Sometimes they screamed, sometimes they whispered, poison and honey. The voices often intermingled and rose to such a din he could not tell them apart. He heard the voices of the cheering crowds, shrill calls for blood in editorials written by venomous critics, admonishments and warnings of Moscow intellectuals, who either stood behind him or shouted impatiently from beyond the horizon, telling him to catch up. But the most equivocal voice of all was Nikita Krushchev’s; friend or foe, the poet couldn’t tell. So Yevtushenko listened closely.

The two most eminently known Soviet men began a strange dance. Caught between insatiable, warring camps, it was this dancing that earned them both ambiguous legacies. Krushchev tried to sate both the new “fathers” and “sons” of the generational battle, reining back the progressives while holding the conservatives at bay. Yevtushenko seemed a maverick on the run, publishing his A Precious Autobiography in Paris, uncensored and unauthorized. But, recalled to Moscow and barred from travel for two years, he was suddenly a cowed servant of the state.

“I have committed an irreparable mistake,” said Yevtushenko in one recantation. “I feel heavy guilt on my shoulders… It is a lesion to me for my whole life. I want to assure the writers’ collective that I fully understand and realize my error and will try to correct it by all my future work.” The German press speculated that Yevtushenko was not so much a fiery young dissident as Soviet diplomat without a portfolio. The Moscow intellectuals could barely forgive him his cowardice. The topic was an unpopular one during our conversation. Yevtushenko has merely insisted that he had, “absolutely no privileges. I am a self-made man."

By courting both enemies and allies, Yevtushenko simultaneously earned the ire and admiration of each. Perhaps the officials hesitated to hit too hard the man who had become such a public symbol of their progress. But by comparison to his compatriots, Yevtushenko never hit too hard himself -- he raged against Stalin, but never took arms against Mother Russia. Thus he failed to acquire the bruises which marked hardier dissidents.Alexander Solzhenitsyn was forbidden to publish anything further after the publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1958, but was forced to denounce it. Charged with “parasitism” by the Soviet authorities, Joseph Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labor in 1964 and exiled after 1972. The “sons” were a reckless bunch -- they demanded broken arms and bloody knees from their cultural warriors. Thus, Yevtushenko’s 21st century skeptics find the poet, alive and well today, wearing too few scars.

 III. “I envy
 the way he fights
 I myself was never so guileless and bold.”

These days, Yevtushenko splits his time between Russia and the U.S., where he has served as a Chubb Fellow at Yale University, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and a professor at the University of Tulsa, where he currently teaches. His recent visit to the University of Chicago began as crowd gathered in the Max Palevsky Theater where the film Soy Cuba was being screened. The film, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov with a screenplay by Yevtushenko and Enrique Pineda Barnett, was famously declared a, “Bolshevik hallucination,” by critic J. Holberman.

Although Yevtushenko was scheduled to offer comments after the film, he suddenly asked to speak for a few minutes beforehand, then proceeded to talk for almost an hour on his travels in Latin America. Towards the end, members of the audience began to covertly finish crossword puzzles and send text messages.

Yevtushenko described how, upon his visit to Latin America as a correspondent for Pravda in 1962, he met two beautiful American girls, one of whom had a political button pinned above her breasts. Noticing the audience titter nervously at his mention of women's breasts, Yevtushenko said, “I am sorry, I am a man of the sixties,” and then to the further astonishment of his audience, railed against overblown sexual harassment suits and exaggerated political correctness in the U.S. “Sometimes I feel as though I am in Brezhnev's Russia here,” he said. The man of the sixties paused and peered accusingly over the top of his glasses at the audience.

Yevtushenko wears his nostalgia proudly on his sleeve. “I was in love with America in the '60s,” Yevtushenko told me. “It’s what made me a poet in Russia. It was inspiring me to be a poet of the world. I began to write poetry against the resurrection of Stalinism. America inspirited me, gave me power. I saw giant demonstration, anti-war demonstrations in the first row, MLK embracing Dr. Spock, Arthur Miller, Joan Baez. When I still hear her sing, I have tears in my eyes. We must not forget our great traditions. This is the great tradition of America. There is no inspiration in your politics today.”

Indeed, the film Soy Cuba is a paean to the energy and political conviction of the ‘60s. Charged with spitting, revolutionary rage, the film bequeaths scenes of mass protest and police violence, of exotic tourist pits where American capitalists prey on desperate women, of a farmer who, rather than allow his beloved sugarcane fields to be bought out, burns the lot and is swallowed by the flames. Rejected by the Soviet and Cuban authorities at its release in 1964 for its experimentalism, the film fell into obscurity until 1995. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese then brought the film to an appreciative American audience. Yevtushenko's collaboration on the film may come to be known as one of his greatest artistic contributions.

After the epic-length film, Yevtushenko opened the floor to questions. The audience was now dwindling, hugging the wall and slipping out. A single person asked a question. In the middle of the poet’s 15-minute answer, the program director cut Yevtushenko short and thanked the audience for coming. Another film was about to start. In a flurry of coats and hats, Yevtushenko disappeared.

The crowd that gathered for the film doubled the next day when Yevtushenko, known for his extraordinary performances, was to do a poetry reading. As it turned out, I had a role to play in the poet’s show. Earlier in the week, as I stood to shake Yevtushenko’s hand following our interview, he gripped my shoulder and sat me back down with a grave look. “I desperately need something from you,” he said. I nodded solemnly, hoping to convey the wherewithal to deliver whatever would be demanded of me: a cup of coffee, samizdat dispersal, boldfaced rebellion...

“Do you know the Beatles?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.
“And the song, 'The Yellow Submarine'?”

“I do.”

“I need the chorus from the song -- just the chorus. Put it on a CD for me, I plan to play it during my performance.” When I handed Yevtushenko the CD a day later, he shook my hand, smiling warmly but with a hint of sadness. “It is so rare these days,” he said, “for people to do what they say they will do.”

Prefacing his performance with the French proverb that translations are like women, “beautiful and unfaithful or faithful and ugly,” Yevtushenko read in Russian while student assistant onstage spoke in English. He read new poems and old poems, leapt, yelped, laughed, and intoned throughout the performance -- during a love poem, Yevtushenko grabbed the microphone stand and swung close to the young female reader, crooning like a bandstand heartthrob.

The second-to-last poem he read was a tribute to Paul McCartney, interspersed with the chorus from “Yellow Submarine” which Yevtushenko signaled with a wide slice of his arm, egging on the audience to sing along. The last poem he read was “Babi Yar.” He began to read it alone, but then unexpectedly motioned for the student readers to stand up and join him. At the poem's end, Yevtushenko threw his arms around his young assistants and grinned widely, breathless, as the audience stood, whistled, and applauded. Despite his age and his withering reputation, Yevtushenko could still work a crowd. The parachute man had once again landed on a very accommodating stage.

Following the poetry reading, wine and cheese were served at small reception. The room buzzed with conversation. Yevtushenko sat in a deep armchair. He looked paler now; during the performance, his cheeks had burned red and his eyes fiery, but now he received a line of visitors with nods, quick smiles and glances towards the exit. Eventually, the poet stood and began to put on his coat. His personal assistant, appointed by the University, held the last fans at bay. Watching Yevtushenko slowly lumber out of the room, his assistant bit her thumbnail. “He’s a little tired,” she said. “He’s had a long day.”