Death of a poet

Yevtushenko’s great heart was nationalistic in the best sense of the term, but supremely humanistic in his courageous defense of the Jewish people.

April 5, 2017 22:01
3 minute read.
Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko visits the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Je

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko visits the Hall of Names at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem November 15, 2007. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The Russia of Vladimir Putin is constantly in the news with regard to Syria’s ongoing self-destruction, but another Russia, whose most famous poet was both a hero to his own people as well as to the Jewish people, was brought to mind with the death last week of Yevgeny Yevtushenko at age 84.

It is resonant that his death occurs so close to Passover, the Festival of Freedom, whose Seders during the campaign to free Soviet Jewry often included readings from his most famous poem, “Babi Yar.” Yevtushenko’s protest against the Soviet regime’s policy of Holocaust denial helped to galvanize protest and eventually lead to their liberation.

Not many poets can fill a stadium for a reading. His survival spanning several regimes was remarkable; in 1961 alone, when he was just 29, he gave 250 readings. In a country that loves poetry, he was his generation’s Bob Dylan.

Yevtushenko’s great heart was nationalistic in the best sense of the term, but supremely humanistic in his courageous defense of the Jewish people. In terms of nationalism, he spoke for ordinary Russians when he wrote his answer to the question, “Do the Russians Want a War?”

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

Yevtushenko’s poems of protest captured a generation’s hope for reform. At a time when writers were sometimes exiled or sent to labor camps, he received state awards for publishing his works and rare permission to travel abroad.

His appearances made him an international literary superstar – featured on the cover of Time in 1962; he used his fame to fight Soviet antisemitism. “The poem [Babi Yar] was a criticism of antisemitism worldwide, including Soviet antisemitism, and was against all kinds of racism,” Yevtushenko told the BBC in 2011.

The New York Times described the evolution of his social conscience: His animus was “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 KGB chief, Yuri V. Andropov, on behalf of another Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.”

Yevtushenko attacked Soviet antisemitism in 1961 with a directness that stunned Russia and became the most acclaimed statement against antisemitism the world had known. He wrote it the day he first visited the ravine where the Nazis slaughtered 34,000 Jews on September 29-30, 1941 – and which the Soviets refused to acknowledge.

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.

The poem referred to czarist oppression as well:

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!”

Despite its worldwide acclaim, Yevtushenko was not allowed to give a public reading of the poem in Ukraine until the 1980s. He left a sad elegy for Russian history:

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.

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