#2 - JRL 7257
July 20, 2003
A Soviet star poet turns 70, his legacy still unresolved
Perhaps, to get along, he went along too readily.
By Carlin Romano
Inquirer Book Critic
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Yevgeny Yevtushenko, once the best-known Soviet poet and writer in the world, turned 70 on Friday.
The celebratory bells won't exactly be ringing around Russia and the West. Although Yevtushenko continues to give foreign and domestic readings in his distinctive declamatory style, and to exercise a certain presence in contemporary Russian literary life, his reputation remains compromised by a single fact.
He also traveled abroad, quite comfortably and widely, when Nikita S. Khrushchev and Leonid I. Brezhnev ran things. In those days, the only way most Soviet poets could see the West was to defect or be expelled.
The most prominent lyric poet of the post-Stalinist generation in the U.S.S.R., Yevtushenko is conventionally seen as having tipped his hat to officially approved poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and communism in his early work before moving on toward liberalism in such early books as The Third Snow (1955).
An imposing 6-foot-3 native of Irkutsk in Siberia, to which his Ukrainian ancestors had been exiled three generations back, he drew attention with the narrative poem "Zima Junction" (1956) about his hometown. But he won real fame with "Babi Yar" (1961) - unpublished in the Soviet Union till 1984, but widely distributed - a poem that attacked anti-Semitism and the notorious Nazi massacre of Jews near Kiev.
Yet Yevtushenko, like his compatriot and friend, the composer Dmitri Shostakovich - and unlike such heroic figures as writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn - sought both to rebel against post-Stalinist communism and to accommodate it.
Although he fought for artistic freedom, he behaved well enough to enjoy that once-rare freedom of a Soviet artist to travel internationally (he's now been to more than 90 countries), fill stadiums at home, and win the cover of Time magazine in 1962.
The only leash came from 1963 to 1965, when the Kremlin grounded him for inapt comments in his autobiography, published only abroad. By 1972, with his popular play Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty, and 1982, with his best-selling first novel, Wild Berries, he was still an official success.
Since that time, his checkered career reads like a Chinese menu, Russian style: Column A and Column B.
On the one hand, he has maintained a reasonably high public profile, and every indication since perestroika is that his heart was on the side of the angels in the bad old days.
He supported Solzhenitsyn in 1974 after the Nobel Prize-winner's exile, and recently released archival material suggests that Yevtushenko was more active than previously believed, writing letters to officials to seek softer treatment of Solzhenitsyn. He criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ascension, he helped publish, in the journal Ogonek, poets who had been silenced under Stalin. He raised environmental issues and lobbied for a monument to prisoners of the KGB across from its Moscow headquarters.
In 1991, he joined others in resisting the attempted coup against Gorbachev, later publishing a roman a clef novel about it, Don't Die Before You're Dead (1993). He has opposed the war in Chechnya.
On the other hand, dissident colleagues who faced a far rougher life under the Soviets - notably Joseph Brodsky, the late Nobel-Prize-winning poet whose work is considered far superior to Yevtushenko's by both the Western and Russian literary elite - distanced themselves from the privileged, rock-starlike bard.
In 1987, with perestroika already underway and Brodsky - a former Soviet prisoner expelled by the U.S.S.R. in 1972 - safely in America, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' extension of an honorary membership to Yevtushenko led Brodsky to resign his own membership.
"I cannot in good conscience," the onetime Leningrad street fighter wrote to the academy, "sustain membership in an organization which has thus so compromised its integrity." Brodsky's verdict on Yevtushenko was severe: "He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved."
Even under Gorbachev, Yevtushenko tended to criticize, but not too much. In 1985, when Literaturnaya Gazeta, an official publication of the Soviet Writers' Union, censored his submitted criticisms of Stalin's murders and the high living of the Soviet nomenklatura (or official class), Yevtushenko simply accepted it.
In his poem "Zima Junction," Yevtushenko imagined the town talking to him:
Love people And discriminate among them Remember/ I've got my eye on you.
As the onetime symbol of thawed Soviet poetry enters his post-biblical allotment of years, Russians continue to keep their eye on him, still trying to make up their minds.