Yevgeny Yevtushenko, an internationally acclaimed poet whose defiant verse inspired a generation of young Soviets in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War, died on Saturday in the US where he had been teaching for many years. He was 83.
As a tall, athletic young Siberian with a spirit both hauntingly poetic and fiercely political that he established his name in 20th-century literature. He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots.
Some critics had doubts about his sincerity as a foe of tyranny. Some called him a sellout. A few enemies even suggested that he was merely posing as a protester to serve the security police or the Communist authorities. The exiled Russian Jewish poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Yevtushenko, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”
Antisemitism lingered in the Kremlin after Stalin’s death and the official Soviet line refused to acknowledge the murders of Jews in the Second World War as specifically Jewish victims, with the Soviet Union thwarting efforts to raise a monument at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev in Ukraine, where thousands of Jews were machine-gunned and buried in a mass grave in 1941 by the invading Germans.
Yevtushenko tackled the issue in 1961 in blunt verse that stunned many Russians and earned him acclaim around the world. The poem “Babi Yar,” composed after a haunting visit to the ravine, included these lines:
There are no monuments over Babi Yar.
But the sheer cliff is like a rough tombstone.
It horrifies me.
Today, I am as old
As the Jewish people.
It seems to me now,
That I, too, am a Jew.
And, alluding to the pogroms faced by Jews in Russia, Yevtushenko wrote:
It seems to me,
I am a boy in Byelostok.
Blood is flowing,
Spreading across the floors.
The leaders of the tavern mob are raging
And they stink of vodka and onions.
Kicked aside by a boot, I lie helpless.
In vain I plead with the brutes
As voices roar:
“Kill the Jews! Save Russia!”
In a country ruled by Marxist myth, ostensibly free of bigotry, “Babi Yar” touched nerves in the leadership, and it was amended to meet official objections. Even so, it moved audiences. Whenever Yevtushenko recited the poem at public rallies, it was met with stunned silence and then thunderous ovations. He wrote once that he had received 20,000 letters hailing “Babi Yar.” Dmitri Shostakovich composed his Thirteenth Symphony on lines from that and other Yevtushenko poems.
But Yevtushenko was not allowed to give a public reading of the poem in Ukraine until the 1980s.Monday, April 03, 2017