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Yevtushenko, poet of the post-Stalin thaw, turns 70
July 17, 2003

If poetry keeps you young, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko believes, the poet of the post-Stalin thaw still has many years of active life ahead of him.

Yevtushenko, who turns 70 on Friday, declaims poetry at the drop of a hat. Bright-eyed, floral-shirted, stabbing the air, he runs through half a dozen short poems, triggering a round of applause from reporters accustomed to more prosaic forms of speech.

The author of "Babi Yar", the angry denunciation of a wartime Nazi atrocity that had harsh words too for Soviet anti-semitism, is clearly not about to lay down his pen.

The poem, along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" published the same year (1961), alerted Western audiences to a new tone in Soviet literature that heralded the stirrings of the dissident movement.

With his boyish good looks and an international audience, Yevtushenko achieved the kind of notoriety associated with rock stars but was in fact only one of a group of post-Stalin poets known as the "60s generation" which included Andrei Vosnesensky and Bella Akhmadulina, who became his first wife.

The days when poetry readings were sell-out events have long gone, but Yevtushenko continues to hold well-attended public readings of his work.

He acknowledges the tag of "angry young man" that was applied to him by analogy with the movement of committed young writers that began in the West in the mid-1950s, but stresses that anger, "though a very important and powerful feeling," was the motive force for only a small fraction of his work.

He still finds plenty to get worked up about, though: "it would take me a long time to tell you everything that makes me angry," he said.

Top of his list is the war in Chechnya, "which I want to be finished as soon as possible."

The Kremlin's decision to invade Chechnya in 1994 was "a huge mistake," Yevtushenko said. "I was among the first to oppose it, and refused to accept an award from (then president) Boris Yeltsin because of it."

In such cases, the appropriate feeling is "not just anger but pain, and shame."

Also high on his list of betes noires are politicians and parties "who claim a monopoly on patriotism against people who happen to think differently from them" and "people who take refuge in following leaders and are incapable of thinking for themselves."

In a career that has taken in acting and photography Yevtushenko has clearly cultivated a wide range of interests, and asked about things that pleased rather than angered him, his first choice alighted on the French novelist of Russian extraction, Romain Gary.

"I can't understand why he isn't translated into Russian," he said. "Maybe it's because he was never a Communist nor an anti-Communist. Like me, in fact."

In politics, Yevtushenko believed it was important "never to take sides. The main thing in any conflict is to find a third way."

Reflecting on his trade, one which, he said, "keeps you young," he spoke

highly of the generation of "capable young poets" that has emerged since the collapse of Communism but saved his highest praise for Nobel prize-winner Joseph Brodsky, "the last great, original poet to emerge from the Soviet era."

Yevtushenko's critical voice faded in the 1970s when, apart from defending the beleaguered Solzhenitsyn, he took pains not to stray too far from the official line, and like most Soviet-era writers he has fallen out of fashion in a world of market forces.

He said he intended to mark his birthday with a public reading "and singing" of some of his poems.

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