Yevgeny Yevtushenko, No ‘Dissident,’ Often Spoke for Russia’s Oppressed

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Soviet poet whose powerful voice transcended borders in the 1960s, died last week in Oklahoma.


MOSCOW—In my childhood memories, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko stands on stage at a microphone: a tall, taut, broad-shouldered man with an impressive stare in a hip jacket and a colorful tie.

He recites his lyrics, stroking the air with one long-fingered hand, as if accompanying himself with music, while his voice goes from whisper to thunder, from tenderness to bitter anger: “No, I can’t stay forever / I have a hope / That if Russia dies never / Then I will never die!”

On Friday, Yevtushenko’s heart stopped in Oklahoma, where the poet was giving lectures at the University of Tulsa.

For many decades, Yevtushenko was as huge for Russian poetry lovers as Bob Dylan was and is for Americans. All his life Yevtushenko stayed sharp, keeping his finger on Russia’s pulse. He was like a giant loudspeaker sending messages across Soviet borders on behalf of his country, without sarcasm or cynicism, even when his country’s leaders made it impossible to love the state, when they beat down his own love for Russia by banning the best avant-garde art, destroying lives, repressing dissidents, deploying armies to foreign states.

He gave answers to key questions, like the one in his well-known poem: “Do the Russians Want the War?” His answer, reflecting the truth spoken by his Russia, full of ordinary people, will stay eternal:

Sure, we know how to fight a war,But we don’t want to see once moreThe soldiers falling all around,Their countryside a battleground.Ask those who give the soldiers lifeGo ask my mother, ask my wife,Then you will have to ask no more,Say—Do the Russians want a war?

The leaders spoke in their country’s name and Yevtushenko, a cult poet who published his lyrics for 68 years, also spoke on behalf of his nation.

He had a unique role: He managed to stay in the Soviet Union, travel to see Fidel Castro in Cuba or to the United States to have a drink with his friend Robert Kennedy at the senator’s birthday party, toasting his future presidency in 1968. Yevtushenko’s lines about Kennedy’s assassination later that year were published in both the Soviet newspaper Pravda and The New York Times.

He was a real poet. He knew how to stir spirits and shake up minds. Unlike any of the Soviet dissident authors, he had a chance to recite his best lyrics for the biggest audiences, including in the 6,000-seat State Kremlin Palace.

To my parents, from the generation of the ’60s, it seemed that Yevtushenko, a politicized poet whose lyrics often came out in Soviet newspapers, was in league with the Politburo. And it is true he was never a dissident—many of the Kremlin’s doors were open for Yevtushenko for decades.

But Yevtushenko, both of whose grandfathers were condemned as “enemies of people” and sent to the Gulag in 1937 during Joseph Stalin’s purges, made his opinion about political repressions clear to millions of his Soviet, post-Soviet, and international fans.

From “The Heirs of Stalin” (translated by Herbert Marshall):

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And I turn to our Governmentwith a request:to double,treblethe guards over that gravestone slab,So that Stalin should not riseand with Stalin—the past.

This Yevtushenko message addressed to the Kremlin will stay eternal, too.

In 1961 Yevtushenko published one of his most famous poems, “Babi Yar,” after a witness told him about the Nazi massacre of more than 50,000 Jews killed in Kiev over two days. An Israeli parliamentary committee nominated Yevtushenko for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2008, and many lines of that poem still resonate:

And I myself,am like an endless soundless cry,over these thousands and thousands of buried ones.Each oneof these murdered old menam I.

Iam each of their murderedsons.

Later Dmitri Shostakovich included excerpts of Yevtushenko’s poem in his dramatic “Symphony No.13,” which covered many aspects of life in the Soviet Union.

A popular modern poet, Dmitry Bykov, recently spoke about Yevtushenko on radio Echo of Moscow: “See, when Yevtushenko is angry, when he hates, he is stronger, than when he loves.”

Bykov quoted a line by Yevtushenko: “‘How shameful it is to go to movies alone’—these are golden words,” Bykov said.

Yevtushenko in his turn described Bykov as his “heir in poetry;” but admitted their big generational difference: “Dima was hardly one year old, when Soviet tanks entered Prague, smashing the last hopes for ‘socialism with a human face,’” Yevtushenko said about Bykov.

Then he continued with bitterness: “To some young people our Soviet illusions seem nothing but adaptability. It is not easy for them to understand that many of us were suffering a personal tragedy,” Yevtushenko said, describing the tension between idealism and reality in the poet’s life in the Soviet Union. “These days young people defend themselves from illusions with sarcasm, as if with a shield.”

For many Russians, old and young, literature is bigger than any religion. Yevtushenko and three other famous poets, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina, and Robert Rozhdestvensky, turned poetry into a cult, brought it to stadiums, recited their lyric for thousands of spectators.

Once, during one such poetic concert, Yevtushenko’s fans carried him around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, as if an Olympic champion of poetry.

“We are few, we may be just four, but still we are the majority,” Voznesensky wrote about their popular movement—the four poets could say whatever they wanted from their stages and no censor could stop them.

That “majority” became useful during the years of reforms. On Sunday, the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, paid tribute to the “unforgettable role” Yevtushenko played during the Perestroika years. “He and his friends sincerely and passionately supported Perestroika, the country’s turn to democracy,” Gorbachev said.

When I was a schoolgirl, my father, a poet, writer, and filmmaker, would sing a song for me with Yevtushenko’s lyrics, as we were walking home from school.

I still remember every word: “Here is what is happening to me: my old friend doesn’t come to visit, and in idle vanity come various folk, not those who should.”

Only many years later I realized why Yevtushenko felt so sad about his complicated relationships with women, friends, love and hate.

The deepest wound Yevtushenko lived with for decades was his feud with the great Russian poet Josef Brodsky.

In 1965 Yevtushenko, using his connections, helped to free Brodsky from the 18-month-long exile in Arkhangelsk region, where Brodsky, a dissident poet was serving a term for “parasitism.” The two poets became friends soon after Brodsky returned to Moscow.

Yevtushenko invited Brodsky and the now celebrated authors Vasily Aksenov and Yevgeny Rein to one of Moscow’s elite Georgian restaurants, Aragvy.

Once again, Yevtushenko’s reputation allowed him to bring dissident authors right to the tables, where the Kremlin’s nomenclature enjoyed their feasts. According to Solomon Volkov, who had interviewed both Brodsky and Yevtushenko, the two did not part for two weeks after that day.

But their friendship died after the Soviet KGB broke into Brodsky’s apartment in June 1972, put him on a plane, and sent him to Vienna.

In one of his interviews with Volkov, Brodsky said that Yevtushenko was “a referent” in Moscow’s decision making about his denunciation. That is, someone who incriminated him.

For Yevtushenko that was the most painful claim. “The man, who I had managed to free from the exile with the help of my friends from the Italian communist party was blaming me for being a KGB consultant on his case,” Yevtushenko recalled bitterly in one of the interviews. The wound did not heal even after Yevtushenko attended Brodsky’s funeral in January 1996.

During the last 15 years of his life Yevtushenko divided his time between teaching literature in the United States and reciting his poetry around concert halls and theaters all around Russia. “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.”

Last time I saw Yevtushenko was on the stage of the Taganka Theater in Moscow in 2014, in the midst of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Sitting on a chair in his white shirt and a flashy tie, Yevtushenko waved his long arms like big wings and spoke about Andrei Sakharov, a Nobel Prize winner, “an icebreaker” shattering the old Soviet regime.

To Yevtushenko, Sakharov was “a patriot, who taught us many things, soft but unbending.”

Yevtushenko explained to the audience how important Sakharov’s reforms and programs were for Russia and its neighbors. In multiple interviews the poet called for Russia not to fall into anti-Ukrainian hysterics. As somebody who had traveled around 96 countries, he often repeated that “humanity is divided not with borders but with morals.”

In his prayer-lyrics, “The poet in Russia—more than the poet,” he asked Russian classical poets Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Nekrasov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Alexander Bloc for help. The prayer’s lines addressed to Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, stayed in my memory:

Give me, Pasternak, the blending of days,bushes confusion,aromas and shadows fusionwith the torture of the age,so that garden-murmured wordsblossomed to maturity,so that your bright candle burnsevermore within me… .

Yevtushenko asked his family and friends to bury him in Peredelkino village outside of Moscow, a home for several generations of Russian writers and poets. The poet wanted his grave to be next the grave of his favorite author, Boris Pasternak.