Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko (born 1933), the most popular of contemporary Soviet poets, was the leading literary spokesman for the generation of Russians who grew to maturity after Stalin's death in 1953.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born on July 18, 1933, in Zima, Siberia, into a peasant family of mixed Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar stock. His father, a geologist, and his mother, a geologist and singer, were divorced in the early 1940s, and Yevgeny spent his early childhood in Moscow with his mother and sister, Yelena.
During World War II Yevtushenko was evacuated to Zima, returning to Moscow in 1944. Expelled from school on a false charge, he ran away to Kazakhstan; he joined his father on geological expeditions there and to the Altai, later returning to Moscow. As a youth, Yevtushenko was an athlete; his favorite sports were cycling, table tennis, and soccer.
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. The following year he married Bella Akhmadulina, a poet (they were later divorced). 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, relates 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 an unconformist attitude and conveyed a strong feeling of human sympathy.
Longbow and Lyre (1959) contained poems about Georgia and translations from the Georgian language. Poems of Several Years (1959), a retrospective anthology, contained most of Yevtushenko's best shorter poems. The Apple (1960) marked a distinct falling-off in his work, but his next book, A Sweep of an Arm (1962), contained some of his most powerful poems.
Beginning in 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, as Marc Slonim (1964) wrote, by "this tall, handsome, outgoing Siberian, an athletic, devil-may-care fellow, who personified youth and poetry."
Bratsk Station (1965) is a collection of poems that presents a panoramic view of Russian history and celebrates the creative efforts of the Soviet builders of communism. A 5,000-line, 35-poem cycle, it commemorates the construction of a vast hydroelectric power complex in Siberia; the poet contrasts it as a symbol of faith and human progress to an Egyptian pyramid. The work was not entirely successful, and Slonim argued that Yevtushenko "simply does not have enough breadth and power to make large compositions poetically convincing—despite the sonority, catching rhythm and verbal dynamism of numerous separate passages. It could be argued that, in general, he shows more talent for lyrical stanzas than for narrative poetry or vociferous political verse."
Perhaps Yevtushenko's most famous poem is "Babiy Yar," written in 1961 and later revised. 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 Babiy Yar massacres were Jews. The poem strongly indicts continuing anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, concluding with the lines: "No Jewish blood runs among my blood,/ but I am as bitterly and hardly hated/ by every anti-Semite/as if I were a Jew. By this/ I am a Russian." The poem was rapturously received by a Russian public, and was even defended by Nikita Khrushchev, who allowed it to be published in the leading newspaper, Pravda.
But Khrushchev was not so liberal in 1962, when Yevtushenko dared to publish an uncensored and unscrutinized autobiography in the West. A Precocious Autobiography first serialized in Stern included a frank discussion on the tragic flaws in Soviet society, laid the blame for many of them at the late Joseph Stalin's door, and announced the author's intention of trying 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.
Khrushchev himself was under the gun, and in fact, 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 surfaced again in connection with the trial of Yuli Daniel and Andrei 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.
Interviewed in 1987 by Time magazine, he 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, the Soviet Union's democratic leader of the 1980s, Yevtushenko looked back on the Daniel/Sinyavsky trial and remarked: "Glasnost is us. We fought for it for many years past."
In 1991, a collection of his work called Fatal Half Measures, was published by Random House. Centered around the themes of glasnost and perestroika, the book contained excerpts from several earlier works, all supporting Yevtushenko's strong political convictions. His concerns about the rising racism and increasing desperation of Russian society came strongly to the fore, as they have 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 a 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 had also been trying his wings 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. Dealing with the attempted coup that took place in Russia in 1991, the book detailed the fortunes of several actual people (Yeltsin, Gorbachev) as well as fictional ones, designed to show a panorama of Russian society.
Yevtushenko also ventured into photography, with Divided Twins: Siberia and Alaska and Invisible Threads . Even films offered him a world of novelty worthy of exploration. In 1995 a movie he co-directed, called I Am Cuba, found an audience, though judgmental, generally labelling it, 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 had always regarded the possibility of improvement as a zestful challenge.
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 work. 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).
Fatal Half Measures, Random House, 1991.
Atlantic Monthly, October, 1995.
New York Times, November 12, 1995; February 7 1996.
The Nation, March 20, 1995.
Time, February 9, 1987. □