Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet who the New York Times said had “the charisma of an actor and the instincts of a politician” was born on July 18, 1933 in a small frigid town in Siberia called Zima, literally “winter” in Russian.
Yevtushenko published his first book of poems at the age of 19 and first tasted literary fame in his 20s with poems attacking the legacy of Joseph Stalin and his years of brutality and oppression.
Through his poetry Yetushenko became the voice of disaffected Soviet youth during the Cold War.
The decade of the early 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s became known in the Soviet Union as the years of the “Khrushchev thaw,” where censorship, although still harsh, was relaxed and more freedom of expression was condoned, if not promoted.
Yevtushenko’s two most famous and influential poems, Babi Yar and The Heirs of Stalin,were both published in 1961.
Babi Yar commemorates the massacre of thousands of Jews from Kiev, Ukraine by Soviet troops during the Second World War, an act of historic anti-Semitism that the government still refused to fully acknowledge two decades later.
The poem begins:
“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.
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!’”
The Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his “Thirteenth Symphony” to accompany dramatic readings of Babi Yar and other poems by Yevtushenko.
The Heirs of Stalin is a warning to the Soviet government and the Soviet people not to backslide into Stalinism.
It includes the lines:
From the mausoleum.
But how do we remove Stalin
From Stalin’s heirs?
Yevtushenko’s critics complained that by staying on mostly good terms with the authorities he was playing it too safe and not being harsh enough in his attacks. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said that Yevtushenko “throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”
Still, said his supporters, Yevtushenko continued to be able to criticise the Soviet regime while others, like Brodsky, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were silenced.
He was allowed to travel widely, not just in the Soviet Union but in the West as well. His poetry readings in front of massive audiences, often in football stadiums, took on the air of rock concerts as Yevtushenko declaimed and gesticulated theatrically.
As Yevtushenko aged into the post-Soviet era, his poetry remained highly acclaimed but he himself became a slightly passé figure for a new generation of activists.
After growing up in frozen Siberia he spent the last decade of his life in the Oklahoma desert, teaching Russian literature at the University of Tulsa.
Yevtushenko died there in 2017 at the age of 83.