Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.
In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:
Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!” I shall never find rest. As long as there are Stalin’s heirs on earth, it will always seem to me, that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum. [Translated by Katherine von Imhof]
Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.
In the middle of a novel published in the Soviet Union in 1981, two young people are exchanging opinions about Russian poetry. After several names have come up, one asks the other, “And how about Yevtushenko?”, to which he gets the reply: “That’s another stage that’s already past.” An unremarkable exchange, of course, save that the novel (Wild Berries) was by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.
It indicates several things about Yevtushenko, who has died aged 84: his unquenchable self-regard, his ability to laugh at himself, his appreciation of the vagaries of fame. It also reminds us that there was a brief stage when the development of Russian literature seemed almost synonymous with his name.
Notoriety of a political sort first came Yevtushenko’s way in 1956, with the publication of his narrative poem Zima Junction, which encountered heavy criticism. The poem had no anti-Soviet message, but touched on tender spots, such as confusion over the direction of the country after Stalin, that Soviet writers had mostly avoided. It provoked outrage in sections of the Soviet press.
A Promised Land in the U.S.S.R. Masha Gessen’s book about a failed Soviet experiment asks searching questions about Jewish identity.
[From the New Republic]
The twentieth century did not bring an end to Jewish wandering. I’m a case in point: All four of my grandparents, originally from Poland, survived the Holocaust and made their way to Israel. There my parents were born. But the socialist ethos of Israel in its early years did not sit well with my paternal grandfather, and he did not feel safe there. He had seen the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the gas chambers of Majdanek. And having sent two of his sons to the Israeli army, he was not eager to send another two. His attachment to a Jewish state was strong, but his survival instinct was stronger. My grandfather continued to wander, looking for the safest place for his family to remain Jewish, moving to Los Angeles well into the middle of his life, where he started a factory in East L.A., and where I was born.
I think it can be safely said that for the majority of Russians, over the greater part of recorded history, to have been born in that country has not been to draw one of the winning tickets in the lottery of life. A true history of its people need be no more than the howls of despair of millions of voices, punctuated by moments of incredible tenderness, courage and grim humour.
Which is more or less the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich’s technique: her books are collections of hundreds of interviews with people who have been rolled over by the various incarnations of the Russian state. In Chernobyl Prayer each interview is usually a few pages long, and reads as a monologue – which is how they are described in the contents pages. “Monologue on how easy it is to return to dust”; “Monologue on how some completely unknown thing can worm its way into you”, and so on.
The scale of the devastation and its insidious nature are perhaps beyond the power of the individual mind to imagine, which is one good reason why the polyphonic form Alexievich has made her own (and for which she won the Nobel prize for literature last year) is so appropriate. Only the voice of the witness can do the events justice, and, in Chernobyl Prayer, after some useful facts about the explosion and its aftermath (“travelling through the villages, one is struck by the overspill of the cemeteries”), we launch into the testimony of the widow of one of the firefighters called in to deal with the explosion. The description of his death from radiation poisoning – two weeks of increasing agony – was so harrowing that I wondered if I would be able to proceed. What kept me going was the strength of her love for her husband, and the child she was carrying; the baby seemed to absorb the radiation meant for her as it was born dead.