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Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Poet Who Stirred a Generation of Soviets, Dies at 83

By April 3, 2018No Comments

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Yevgeny Yevtushenko, an internationally acclaimed poet with the charisma of an actor and the instincts of a politician whose defiant verse inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War, died on Saturday in Tulsa, Okla., where he had been teaching for many years. He was 83.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by a close friend, Mikhail Morgulis, with the TASS news agency. It said he had been admitted late Friday in “serious condition,” but the cause of death was not specified. His wife, Maria Novikova, and their two sons, Dmitry and Yevgeny, were reportedly with him when he died.

Mr. Yevtushenko’s poems of protest, often declaimed with sweeping gestures to thousands of excited admirers in public squares, sports stadiums and lecture halls, captured the tangled emotions of Russia’s young — hope, fear, anger and euphoric anticipation — as the country struggled to free itself from repression during the tense, confused years after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1961 alone Mr. Yevtushenko gave 250 poetry readings.

He became, as one writer described him, “a graying lion of Russian letters” in his later years, teaching and lecturing at American universities, including the University of Tulsa, and basking in the admiration of succeeding generations before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But it was 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 and timid bureaucrats. Among the others were Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina, Mr. Yevtushenko’s first wife.

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

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 poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Mr. Yevtushenko, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”

Mr. Yevtushenko’s defenders bristled at such attacks, pointing out how much he did to oppose the Stalin legacy, his animus fueled by the knowledge that both of his grandfathers had perished in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. He was expelled from his university in 1956 for joining the defense of a banned novel, Vladimir Dudintsev’s “Not by Bread Alone.” He refused to join in the official campaign against Boris Pasternak, the author of “Doctor Zhivago” and the recipient of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Yevtushenko denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; interceded with the K.G.B. chief, Yuri V. Andropov, on behalf of another Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

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Mr. Yevtushenko wrote thousands of poems, including some shallow ones that he dashed off, he admitted, just to mark an occasion. Some critics questioned the literary quality of his work. Some writers resented his flamboyance, sartorial and otherwise, and his success. But his foes as well as his friends agreed that a select few of his poems have entered the annals of Russian literature as masterpieces of insight and conscience.

Written and read to crowds at critical moments, Yevtushenko poems like “Stalin’s Heirs” caught the spirit of a nation at a crossroads. In Russia, writers could be more influential at times than politicians. But they could also be severely rebuffed if they offended, as Pasternak did with his novel “Doctor Zhivago,” and as Solzhenitsyn did with “The Gulag Archipelago” and other works.

Combating Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism lingered in the Kremlin after Stalin’s death. In one instance, nervous officials thwarted efforts to raise a monument at Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, Ukraine, where thousands of Jews were machine-gunned and buried in a mass grave in 1941 by the invading Germans.

The reason the Kremlin said it resisted a memorial was that the Germans had shot other people there, too, not only Jews. Mr. 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.

Alluding to the pogroms that erupted at intervals over the centuries, Mr. Yevtushenko went on:

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 Mr. 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 Mr. Yevtushenko was not allowed to give a public reading of the poem in Ukraine until the 1980s.

“Stalin’s Heirs,” published in 1962, also stirred Russians, appearing at a time when they feared that Stalinist-style repression might return to the country. It was published only after Nikita S. Khrushchev, the semi-liberal party leader who was then involved in a power struggle with conservatives, intervened as he pushed his cultural “thaw.” Stalin had been condemned anew the year before as having been a mad tyrant. The poem appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, and caused a sensation.

“Stalin’s Heirs” opens with a description of Stalin’s body being borne in his coffin out of the Red Square mausoleum to a grave near the Kremlin wall.

Sullenly clenching
His embalmed fists,
He peered through a crack,
Just pretending to be dead.
He wanted to remember all those
Who carried him out.

Mr. Yevtushenko went on:

I turn to our government with a plea:
To double,
And triple the guard at the grave site
So Stalin does not rise again,
And with Stalin, the past.

And later, the main point of the poem:

We removed
From the mausoleum.
But how do we remove Stalin
From Stalin’s heirs?

By the time democratic changes brought down Soviet Communist rule early in the 1990s, Mr. Yevtushenko had risen in the reform system to become a member of Parliament and secretary of the official Union of Soviet Writers. Along the way he received high honors, was published in the best periodicals and was sent abroad as an envoy of good will. He also endured abuse, jealousy, frustration and censorship. He once joked that Moscow censors were his best readers, the most expert at catching his meanings and nuances.

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Evolution of an Artist

Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gangnus was born on July 18, 1933, in Zima Junction, a remote lumber station on the trans-Siberian Railway in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, near Lake Baikal. His father, Aleksandr Rudolfovich Gangnus, was a geologist, as was his mother, Zinaida Ermolaevna Evtushenko, who became a singer. His parents divorced, and the boy took his mother’s surname. Yevgeny spent his early childhood with his mother in Moscow. When German troops approached the city in late 1941, the family was evacuated to Zima and stayed there until 1944.

Yevgeny’s father would sometimes take the boy on geology expeditions to wild regions of Kazakhstan and the Altai Mountains and, along the way, recite poetry to him. Yevgeny learned to love nature and literature.

He was also drawn to sports. At 16 he was selected to join a professional soccer team. But sudden literary success compelled him to abandon that ambition. Soon his poems began appearing in newspapers, popular magazines and literary monthlies. The authorities praised his early poems, which he later called “hack work,” and he was admitted to the elite Gorky Literary Institute and to the Soviet Writers’ Union.

But after Stalin’s death — Mr. Yevtushenko was almost crushed to death in a funeral stampede in Moscow — his work began to run counter to Soviet Realism, the officially sanctioned artistic style; it reflected instead new thinking about individual responsibility and the state.

Themes of state repression and fear had recurred in his poetry over the years, but he also began introducing personal matters into it, as he did in his long poem “Zima Junction,” about a return to his hometown in 1953. Published in 1956, it was followed by more volumes of poetry that refused to conform to the approved modes of expression. After he praised “Not by Bread Alone,” Dudintsev’s caustic 1956 novel about Soviet life, Mr. Yevtushenko was expelled from the Literary Institute.

But as the 1950s grew to a close, he had published seven volumes of poetry and was allowed to read his work abroad. In the next few years he became familiar to literary circles in Eastern and Western Europe, the United States, Cuba, East Africa and Australia. Indeed, a virtual cult began to develop around him after Time magazine put his portrait, as an “angry young man,” on its cover in April 1962 and printed a laudatory article about him as a leading spirit in a changing, liberalizing Russia.

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For his part, Mr. Yevtushenko stressed that American writers had been important in his literary development.

Later that year, he exchanged words with Khrushchev at a Moscow exhibit of contemporary art. Khrushchev, who had simple tastes and was facing serious political challenges, flew into a rage against abstractionism and made threats of coercion. A neo-Stalinist crackdown on modern art, literature and music was felt soon after the confrontation.

Mr. Yevtushenko kept a loyal following, writing about nearly everything of importance at home and abroad. He paid tribute to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after they were assassinated. He honored Allison Krause, one of the students shot to death at Kent State University during a Vietnam War protest. He chided John Steinbeck for not protesting the war in Vietnam. In the poem “Russian Tanks in Prague,” he criticized the Soviet-bloc invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. (It was circulated only hand to hand, going unpublished until 1990.)

In the mid-1980s, Mr. Yevtushenko championed the glasnost campaign of “openness” waged by the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In a speech to the Writers’ Union, Mr. Yevtushenko assailed privilege, censorship and the distortion of history. He was a member of the first freely elected Supreme Soviet, the country’s standing Parliament.

He went on to publicly defy the hard-line conservative plotters of an attempt to seize power in 1991. The coup attempt, which temporarily deposed Mr. Gorbachev, sent a shock wave across Russia and around the world. Mr. Yevtushenko was later given a medal as a “Defender of Free Russia.” The upheaval became the backdrop for “Don’t Die Before You’re Dead,” one of two novels he wrote.

Pain and Joy

Mr. Yevtushenko did not write only about political and social issues. He composed verses on love, nature, art, travel and the various pains and joys of life. In 1956, for example, while married to Bella Akhmadulina, he wrote “My Beloved Will Come”:

My beloved will come
And wrap me in her arms.
She will notice the changes
And understand my fears.
Through the black downpour, from night’s gloom,
Forgetting in haste to shut the taxi door,
She will run up the decrepit stairway
Flushed with joy and longing.
She will enter soaking wet
Without knocking.
She will take my head in her hands,
And her blue fur coat will slip
Happily from the chair onto the floor.

Mr. Yevtushenko had four marriages. He married Galina Semenova after he and Ms. Akhmadulina divorced. (Ms. Akhmadulina died in 2010.) His third wife, Jan Butler, was an English translator of his poetry. His widow, Ms. Novikova, whom he married in 1986, has taught Russian at a preparatory school near the University of Tulsa. Besides Alexander and Dmitry, he had three other sons, Yevgeny, Pyotr and Anton. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Yevtushenko kept homes in Russia and in the United States and, besides the University of Tulsa, taught at the the City University of New York and New York University (where one student remembered him dressed in silver suits “stalking back and forth across the front of the lecture hall” as he read his poems in “booming Russian”). He traveled widely, reading his poetry, lecturing, teaching and giving speeches to overflow crowds at universities.

Through it all, Mr. Yevtushenko regarded himself as a patriot. In “Don’t Die Before You’re Dead,” he summed up his ambivalent feelings of triumph, nostalgia and remorse as a survivor of the defunct Soviet system. In a poem on the final page, “Goodbye, Our Red Flag,” he wrote:

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
and cry.

Poetry made him famous, but Mr. Yevtushenko preferred in his later years to describe himself as a “poet, writer and filmmaker.” Besides the two novels, he published dozens of volumes of poetry, which have been translated into dozens of languages. He acted or appeared as himself in several films, directed two others, wrote essays and compiled three volumes of his photographs.

He preferred Oklahoma to New York. “In some provincial cities you can find the real soul of a country,” he told The New York Times in 2003. “I like the craziness of New York, but New York is really not America. It’s all humanity in one drop. Tulsa is very American.” He called Tulsa “the bellybutton of world culture.”

There he enjoyed watching younger generations coming into their own. “Someone is near,” he said to one class in dramatic tones. “I feel it. Someone always has to be the leader of a generation. Someone has to be born. Why not one of you?”

He had shown the same fervor a decade earlier, in July 1993, when the Concert Hall of the Rossiya Hotel in Moscow was the setting for a celebration of his 60th birthday and, by extension, a testimonial to the defiant poets and writers of the 1960s who had broken through the iron grip of Stalinism.

“Today you, one of the initiators of the Sixties movement, turn 60,” President Boris N. Yeltsin wrote in a congratulatory letter to Mr. Yevtushenko. “Your innate, multifaceted talent arose brightly in the now-distant years of the ‘thaw.’ The civic consciousness of young poets then played a huge role in the spiritual liberation and awakening of the people of Russia.”

A gray-haired woman agreed, telling a reporter: “He was a symbol for us then. Later he was attacked for not being exiled or sent to the camps, for making a career of protest. But not many of us had the courage to stand up to the regime, and he did. You can’t blame him that he survived.”

Mr. Yevtushenko, still the crowd-pleaser in a brown silk suit, closed the evening by reading a poem called “Sixties Generation”:

“We were a fad for some, some we offended with our fame. But we set you free, you envious insulters. Let them hiss, that we are without talent, Sold out and hypocrites, It makes no difference. We are legendary, Spat upon, but immortal!”

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