Although not the most original poet of the post-Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has shown himself to be one of the most significant. This is essentially because he has been able to put his finger on the pulse of the times. He became the spokesperson for a new generation, not only in his native land but also all over the world. Unflinchingly honest and sincere, he has spoken with clarity and courage on issues that threaten freedom. He is best known for his poems of protest such as “Babii Yar” and “Stalin’s Heirs.” In the tradition of Russian poetry, Yevtushensko sees himself invested with a mission and a message, and he proclaims it fearlessly. He directs his criticism not only against the cult of personality, anti-Semitism, and oppression in his own land, but also against the same abuses in other countries, especially in the United States. Images of Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert Kennedy, and Allison Krause of Kent State University appeared in his work in the 1970’s; the perils of television and advertising, war in Northern Ireland, and the threat of nuclear weapons in poems of the late 1970’s. “Freedom to Kill,” “Flowers and Bullets,” and “Safari in Ulster,” among others, explore these themes.
Yevtushenko knows how to combine the social with the personal and how to move effortlessly from one to the other. His poetry is extremely autobiographical, and one can read his life by exploring his verse. He tells whimsically of his Siberian childhood in Zima Junction, in the poem by the same name; of his youth in Moscow; of his travels and disappointment in love; and of his family and children. He reflects on the idealism of youth and the fears of impending old age. He is especially sensitive to childhood and can frequently combine his own experiences, a universal theme of childhood, and social observation. A typical poem is “Weddings,” which recounts his folk dancing at ill-fated wartime weddings in Siberia.
A child of the North, Yevtushenko speaks best of nature when evoking the taiga, the lakes, and the rivers of Siberia; or the smell of fresh berries or the blue glow of fresh snow in “Zima Junction,” “Monologue of the Fox,” and “The Hut.” He is close to the sea and often associates it with love (“The Sea”), with women (“Glasha, Bride of the Sea”), and with contemporary problems, as in “Kachka” (“Pitching and Rolling”). Nature, however, is not the most common source of images for this contemporary poet, who prefers the city with its neon lights, the sound of jazz, and the smell of smog. He is especially fond of New York and records his impressions in many poems such as “New York Elegy,” “Smog,” and Pod kozhey statuey sbobody.
People, more than nature, dominate Yevtushenko’s poetry. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski, Anton Chekhov, and Maxim Gorky, the lowly and the downtrodden occupy an important place. Socialist Realism places an emphasis on the “people.” Yevtushenko adopts this attitude, but he goes even further, showing genuine sympathy for the worker and the peasant, especially evident in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems, in which he also speaks of the unmarried mother (“Nushka”). While extolling the humble and the poor, he manifests hatred for the cruel overseer, the bully, or the compromiser. Such characters appear in “Babii Yar,” “Zima Junction,” and “Song of the Overseers” and in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. He detests hypocrisy and slavery in any form and denounces it loudly in the Soviet Union, the United States, South Africa, and anywhere else in the world.
Women occupy an important place in Yevtushenko’s verse. In keeping with his sympathy for the peasant and workers, he dedicates many poems to the hardworking Russian woman, as in “The Hut.” Old women in particular are among his favorites, such as the one who brings the red flowers of the taiga to the workers of Bratsk Station. The young innocent girl in love, such as “Masha”; the mothers who work for their young children and are never appreciated; the dancer; the singer: All these are living people who impart to Yevtushenko’s works a strong dramatic quality.
The narrative, along with the lyric, is an important feature of Yevtushenko’s poetry. He prefers the epic style, and “Zima Junction,” Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems, and Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool illustrate this tendency, although he often falls short of his goals. All his verse is dynamic rather than static. Many of his shorter works have a balladlike quality; among these are “Glasha, Bride of the Sea,” “Rhythms of Rome,” and “Nushka” in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. Dialogue occurs frequently and enhances the dramatic effect of his verse. Pod kozhey statuey sbobody, partially prose and partially verse, was staged in Moscow as a play in 1972; it satirized Russia as well as the United States.
Yevtushenko claims as his masters Hemingway (to whom he had dedicated one of his finest poems, “Encounter”), Esenin, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak, whom he knew personally and who offered friendly criticism of his early verse. The influence of Esenin and Mayakovsky is not always evident in his style, although at first glance he seems to be an avid disciple of Mayakovsky. Yevtushenko uses the “step lines” of Mayakovsky, but the verbal brilliance, bold speech, and innovation of the older poet are rarely evident. Yevtushenko employs a colloquial style, with many words borrowed from foreign languages. His poetry is filled with vivid twentieth century speech, with frequent sound effects, internal rhymes, and wordplay not always evident in English translations. He uses a wide variety of rhymes and rhythms, as well as free verse. His earlier poems tend to be freer than the poems of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, which make use of regular meters and indulge in much less verbal experimentation. At all times he seems to write with ease and facility, although his poems frequently give the impression of too great haste. He is a prolific, spontaneous poet who writes without looking back and sometimes produces profound and startling insights.
Yevtushenko is a poet who wishes to be accessible to as many people as possible. He refuses poetic isolation and an elitist concept of art. In fact, he has chosen photography as a medium because its meaning is immediately obvious and it does not become obscure in translation. Above all, he is an apostle of human brotherhood. He believes in kindness and mutual understanding. Invisible Threads captures this theme dramatically. He is satirical, disarmingly frank, yet idealistic and trusting. Images of Christ, the sea, African jungles, and neon lights all serve to highlight his essential optimism and hope for the future.
Yevtushenko’s poetry falls into distinct periods. The first, from 1952 to 1960, contains poems of youthful enthusiasm and is extremely autobiographical, as in “Zima Junction,” “The Visit,” and “Weddings.” Memories of war and the child’s inability to grasp its impact appear in “Weddings,” “Party Card,” and “A Companion.” Since Yevtushenko had not begun his travels at this time, his inspiration was limited to Russia, centering especially on Moscow, Siberia, and Georgia. Although Yevtushenko was born long after the Revolution and did not know it at first hand, he manifests amazing conviction and enthusiasm for its ideals. “Lies” and “Knights” are among the many typical examples. Lyricism, love, and, above all, human sympathy characterize this early period.
Perhaps the best and most important poem of this period is “Zima Junction,” first published in the journal Oktyabr in 1956. It refers to a visit to his native village in 1953, after the death of Stalin, the Doctors’ Plot, and the deposition of Lavrenti Beria. Relatives and friends in far-off Siberia are anxious to learn all the news at first hand from this Moscow visitor, who, they expect, has all the information and has known Stalin personally. He accepts their naïveté with humor and respect for their simple lives, while at the same time noticing how both he and they have changed, and how they too have anxieties beneath the apparent simplicity of their ways.
The return to Zima Junction is the occasion for a retrospective glance at his own past and the past of his ancestors, as he recalls his great-grandfather’s trip to Siberia from his peasant village in the Ukraine, and his grandfather’s revolutionary idealism. Yevtushenko returns to the place where he was born not only for the past but also for the future, to seek “strength and courage.” He realizes that he, like the people of the village, has changed, and that it is difficult to decide wisely on a course of action. He personifies Zima Junction, which speaks to him through the forest and the wheat, in some of his best nature images. The section “Berry-Picking” has frequently been reprinted separately.
Throughout the poem, local color abounds, and Yevtushenko’s narrative quality emerges through images of such people as the barefoot berry picker, the garrulous fisherman, and the disappointed wife in the hayloft who complains of her ungrateful and inattentive husband. Yevtushenko’s family such as Uncle Volodya and Uncle Andrei, simple laborers, contrast with Pankratov, “the ponderous didactic president.” The wheat and the village speak to young Zhenya, who is on the uncertain threshold of manhood, urging him to explore the world over and to love people.
Although the poem consists of many isolated incidents, they are obviously linked by the village and its message of courage and hope. The style is simple and colloquial, interspersed with local Siberian and Ukrainian expressions. The dialogue is suited to the speaker, and the nature imagery is among Yevtushenko’s best. Belief in revolutionary ideals is evident, and party ideology, although present, is sincere and unaffected. Yevtushenko began to acquire fame after publishing this poem, where the personal note becomes universal.
Yevheny’s second distinct period—the poems of the 1970’s—shows a broader scope and is mainly influenced by travel. Yevtushenko writes especially of the United States, Latin America, Cuba, Alaska, Hawaii, and Rome. He speaks out more freely against hypocrisy and loss of freedom, and he addresses social and political abuses, of which “Babii Yar” is the most significant example. At the same time, he professes strong patriotism, as evidenced in the lengthy Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. The North, especially Siberia, is an inspiration for his work, especially Kachka. The personal and autobiographical theme returns in poems about love and loss of love. A more serious note is expressed in images of guilt, suffering, and repentance. Poems such as “Twist on Nails” and “Torments of Conscience” (published in English in Stolen Apples) express these themes through religious and dramatic imagery, of which one of the most striking examples is that of the pierced hands of the crucified Christ. These are poems of maturity and of considerable depth and sensitivity in both the personal and the social order.
“Babii Yar” was first published in the Literaturnaya gazeta in 1961. It is a poetic meditation on the tragic fate of the Jews in...
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