DON’T DIE BEFORE YOU’RE DEAD is primarily concerned with the events of August 19 through 21, 1991, when an attempted overthrow of the Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev contributed to the later dissolution of the Soviet Union. The characters in the novel include both fictional persons and real ones, including the author himself.
Chief among the fictional characters are Palchikov, a politician who has been divorced by his wife but later regains her love. At the opening of the novel, he is living with a pet hedgehog, with whom he is also reunited at the closing of the novel. Also significant are two lovers. Prokhor Zalyzin, known as Lyza, is a famous former hockey star. His lover, known as “Boat”, because she will “always be the boat waiting for him,” used to be an accomplished rock climber. At the time of the novel’s action, they are both in their sixties.
The general tone of this novel is one of tragedy. Known as a Soviet dissident since the 1960’s, Yevtushenko still loves Russia and fears for its future. Gorbachev is depicted as a man who tried to reform the Soviet Union and failed; Yeltsin as one unwittingly thrown into the middle of history, unsure of how to proceed. The novel ends with a poem, “Goodbye Our Red Flag,” lamenting the fall of Communism and expressing hope that the new Russian state will not make the same mistakes as its predecessor.