By: Dylan Hebert (History ’17)
One of the great Russian poets of the twentieth century, Yevgeny Yevtushenko died in Tulsa, Oklahoma on April 1st of this year at the age of eighty-three. A descendent of the deported leaders of a peasant rebellion, Yevtushenko was born in a small town stationed along the Trans-Siberian railway in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. In a town called Zima, or in English, “winter,” the climate of Zima is harsh even by Siberian standards, with temperatures ranging from -55 degrees in the winter to +100 degrees in the summer. In 1937 at the age of five, Yevtushenko’s family experienced great turmoil with the official declaration of both his grandfather’s as enemies of the people and their subsequent arrest in Stalin’s purges.
Beginning to write poetry by the age of ten, he soon moved to Moscow after the end of World War II, where, enrolling in the Gorky Institute of Literature and joining a Union of Soviet writers, his poetry began to receive recognition. A talented athlete, Yevtushenko was selected to join a professional soccer team by the age of sixteen. However, driven by his success as a poet, he turned the offer down so that he could focus on writing instead. Refusing to follow the Communist Party’s officially sanctioned style of poetry, he was eventually expelled from the institute for individualism.
With the initiation of De-Stalinization in 1956, the Soviet Union became more tolerant of criticism, as long as it did not cross an often ambiguous line. While Yevtushenko did not write exclusively about political issues, taking advantage of these new developments in the Soviet Union, he continued to critique the Soviet Union from time to time in his poetry. Careful never to cross the line into outright dissidence, he was never seriously punished for his criticisms.
In 1961, five years into De-Stalinization, Yevtushenko wrote one of his most famous poems. Titled Babi Yar, the poem was named after the site of one of the most terrible massacres of the Holocaust. Soviet officials had refused to recognize Babi Yar as a Holocaust site. Far from an isolated example of anti-Semitism, the Soviet Union often kept silent about the Holocaust or dismissed the Holocaust’s impact on its Jewish citizens, instead of treating it as a tragedy that affected all of the Soviet Union’s citizens more or less equally. These deliberate attempts to downplay the impact of the Holocaust on Jews were part of a wider phenomenon of anti-Semitism that had characterized Russian and then Soviet society for centuries. As a result, Yevtushenko did not simply criticize the government’s failure to recognize Babi Yar, but anti-Semitism in general within the Soviet Union. Despite the government’s editing of the poem before its publication, it caused a great stir in Russia. He was not allowed to recite the poem in Ukraine until the nineteen eighties, more than twenty years later.
Throughout the remainder of the Soviet Union’s existence, Yevtushenko continued to protest anti-Semitism and other injustices in the Soviet Union. He was one of several famous figures, including Anna Akhmatova, and Jean-Paul Sartre to protest the trial of the Soviet poet, Joseph Brodsky, who had been accused of being a “social parasite” and “anti-Soviet.” Furthermore, he penned a letter in protest of the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Even so, Yevtushenko, never crossing the line into dissidence, he remained in good standing with the Kremlin, having his poems published in Soviet newspapers. He spent much of his time traveling the world, and claimed to be a friend of Fidel Castro, Salvador Allende, and even Robert Kennedy. Although he was critical of the Soviet Union, he like many Russians, was sad to see its final demise in 1991. The decade that followed the end of the Soviet Union was marked by disorganization and sacrifice as Russia struggled to pick itself back up. In his poem, “Good Bye, our Red Flag,” he touched the hearts of many Russians, writing,
I didn’t take the czars’ Winter Palace.
I didn’t storm Hitler’s Reichstag.
I am not what you call a “Commie.”
But I caress the Red Flag
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko spent much of his time in the United States, working as a professor at New York University and the University of Tulsa. Though he liked both New York and Tulsa, Yevtushenko was particularly fond of Tulsa, a place where he believed people were “closer to Mother Nature” and “more sensitive.” While Yevtushenko spent much of his time traveling between Russia and the United States it was in an American hospital in his beloved Tulsa, where Yevtushenko, surrounded by his family, died on April 1st of this year.