Yevgeny Yevtushenko Essay - Yevtushenko, Yevgeny

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny

Introduction

Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1933-

(Full name Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko. Also transliterated as Evgenii Alexkasandrovich Evtushenko, Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, or Evgeny Evtushenko) Russian poet, novelist, essayist, dramatist, screenwriter, actor, and editor.

A remarkably prolific and charismatic writer, Yevtushenko has enjoyed a remarkable degree of artistic and personal freedom throughout his career. Foremost among the first post-Stalin generation of Russian poets, Yevtushenko has attracted a large audience and acquired an international reputation with dramatic readings of his poetry. His poetry articulates both civic and personal themes in a politically-charged style reminiscent of the poetic forms and passionate language of an earlier period in Soviet history. With the advent of glasnost in the late 1980s, Yevtushenko became a leading activist in the struggle to reform Soviet society. As a briefly elected member of the Soviet Congress, Yevtushenko is credited with originating the governmental policy of perestroika and continues to speak out against political abuses of power in Russia. Although critical and popular reception of Yevtushenko's work has mostly hinged on the Soviet political climate, critics have generally praised the multicultural quality of his writings and regard Yevtushenko as Russia's premier but unofficial cultural emissary to the world.

Biographical Information

Yevtushenko is a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians who were exiled to Siberia. He was born in Stanzia Zima, a small town on the Trans-Siberian railway featured in his first important narrative poem, Stantsiya Zima (1956; Winter Station). As a teenager, Yevtushenko joined his father on geological expeditions in Kazakhstan and later studied world literature at the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, where he published his first book of poems, Razvedchiki gryaduschego (1952). As subsequent volumes appeared throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Yevtushenko emerged as the voice of Soviet youth and as a leading proponent of the Cold War “thaw” in diplomatic and cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the United States. In 1960 Soviet authorities permitted Yevtushenko to read his poems in Russia, the United States, and Europe. The result initiated a modest cultural exchange between East and West, making Yevtushenko an international celebrity. Soon afterward, he published and recited some of his best-known political poetry, including “Babi Yar” and “The Heirs of Stalin” (1962), which generated controversy and publicity in Russia and abroad. Yevtushenko independently published A Precocious Autobiography in English in 1963. After the publication of A Precocious Autobiography, Soviet officials revoked his privileges. But following the publication of Bratskaya GES (1965; New Works: The Bratsk Station)—considered by many critics to be his finest poetic work—Soviet officials relented.

During the 1970s, when cultural stagnation and political repression prevailed under Leonid Brezhnev, Yevtushenko began to experiment with literary forms other than poetry, including films and audio recordings. His first novel, Yagodnyye mesta (1981; Wild Berries), was a finalist for the Ritz Paris Hemingway Prize, and another novel, Ne umira prezhde smerti (1993; Don't Die before You're Dead), hit the Russian bestseller list in 1995. Meanwhile, Yevtushenko continued to write poetry, including Invisible Threads (1982) and Almost at the End (1987). In 1989, Yevtushenko was elected to the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies, where he led the democratic reform movement and bolstered its momentum by issuing both The Collected Poems, 1952-1990, and Fatal Half Measures in 1991. During the failed coup attempt in 1991, Yevtushenko remained to defend the Parliament building as tanks circled. During the ordeal, Yevtushenko composed a poem that he later read to Western television journalists. In 1996, Yevtushenko joined the faculty at Queens College.

Major Works

As represented in The Collected Poems, Yevtushenko's poetry comprises a wide range of forms and themes that reflect his changing literary style and illumine the strong bond between political and poetic expression in Russian culture. Generally personal or declamatory in tone, Yevtushenko's poems blend political and social concerns of contemporary Soviet society with issues of personal morality. His poems also contrast Western values against the legacy of Stalin's regime, while still showing a deep loyalty to Russia. Yevtushenko's first critical success, Winter Station, for instance, lyrically describes the poet's return to his birthplace as he struggles with personal doubts regarding Stalin's social programs. “The Heirs of Stalin,” published at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, unsparingly attacks the former Russian ruler and his followers, warning against a resurgence of Stalinism. “Babi Yar,” a poem lamenting the Nazi slaughter of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews in a ravine near Kiev during World War II, implies that the Soviet regime and Russian people generally sanction anti-Semitic sentiment. Yevtushenko's most ambitious cycle of poems, Bratskaya GES, draws parallels between modern Russian experiences and historical antecedents. The poems contrast the symbol of a Siberian power plant bringing light to Russia with the symbol of Siberia as a prison throughout Russian history. The title poem compares Russian workers responsible for building the power plant with slaves who built Egyptian pyramids. As the Soviet regime increased restrictions on artistic expression, Yevtushenko's poems began to exhibit a more somber tone to conform to official styles and themes. Although Stolen Apples (1971) addresses themes such as love, travel, and history, The Face behind the Face (1979) asserts the social relevance of poets and poetry in the Soviet Union. Another work of this period includes Pod kozhey Statui Svobody (1972; Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty), a series of dramatic sketches set in the United States that denounce American violence but extol the idealism of its youth. Among his later poetry collections, Invisible Threads (1982) focuses on the need for international unity and is alternately optimistic and pessimistic—a theme common to most of Yevtushenko's work. Almost at the End (1987) gathers poetry and prose written in the Gorbachev era and examines differences between the East and West, along with effects of restricted personal freedom and censorship. Notable in this work is “Fuku,” a long poem that deconstructs various Western historical figures. Yevtushenko's contribution to literature also includes the novel Wild Berries, which ostensibly celebrates Russian philosophy and existence but resembles an American-style thriller with action, sex, and exotic locales. Yevtushenko's Don't Die before You're Dead is a fast-paced, quasi-fictional account of the 1991 coup attempt and its psychological consequences for ordinary citizens. Fatal Half Measures is a collection of Yevtushenko's speeches and essays on themes advocating glasnost and Soviet democratic reform.

Critical Reception

Critics offer disparate views on the credibility and stature of Yevtushenko. Most Western intellectuals and many Russian scholars extol him as the greatest writer of his generation, the voice of Soviet life. They acknowledge that his speaking tours have won him converts among audiences impressed with his dramatic readings and charismatic personality. Tina Tupikina Glaessner (1967) refers to him as “one of the greatest poets of the modern age.” She states that “Bratsk Station” offers the greatest insight into Soviet life of any other work in modern Russian literature. Two decades later, in his 1988 article, Michael Pursglove echoes her sentiments referring to Stantisiya Zima as “one of the landmarks of Soviet literature.” Other scholars have noted Yevtushenko's unusual and arresting rhyme structure, strong word choice, and vivid characterizations of Soviet life, particularly in Siberia. However, other scholars, notably Russian critics, have not been as kind to Yevtushenko. Patricia Pollock Brodsky (1992) takes issue with the interpretation that Yevtushenko has been persecuted by the Russian government. And most scathing, Tomas Venclova asserts, in his 1991 essay, that few in the Russian literary community “consider his work worthy of serious study.”

Principal Works

Razvedchiki gryaduschego 1952

Tretii sneg: Kniga liriki 1955

Shosse entusiastov 1956

Stantsiya Zima [Winter Station]1956; originally published in the journal Oktiabr

Obeschanie 1957

Luk i lira: Stikhi o Gruzii 1959

Babi Yar 1960 originally published in the journal Literaturnaya gazeta

Yabloko 1960

Nezhnost: Novyii Stikhi 1962

Posie Stalina 1962

Selected Poems 1962

Vzmakh ruki 1962

Zamlung 1962

Selected Poetry 1963

The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1953-1965 1964

Bratskaya GES [New Works: The Bratsk Station and Bratsk Station and Other New Poems] 1965

The City of Yes and the City of No and Other Poems 1966

Flowers and Bullets & Freedom to Kill 1970

Stolen Apples 1971

Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool 1979

The Face behind the Face 1979

A Dove in Santiago: A Novella in Verse 1982

Invisible Threads 1982

Almost at the End (prose and poetry) 1987

Early Poems 1989

The Collected Poems, 1952–1990 1991

Net let 1993

Pre-Morning: A New Book of Poetry in English and Russian 1995

The Best of the Best: A New Book of Poetry in English and Russian 1999

I Am Cuba [with Enrique Pineda Barnet] (screenplay) 1963

A Precocious Autobiography (autobiography) 1963

Pod kozhey Statui Svobody [Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty] (verse drama) 1972

Yagodnyye mesta [Wild Berries] (novel) 1981

Ardabiola (novella) 1984

Wild Berries (1985)

Divided Twins: Alaska and Siberia (essays) 1988

Fatal Half Measures: The Culture of Democracy in the Soviet Union (essays, speeches, lectures) 1991

Ne umira prezhde smerti: Russka, skzka [Don't Die before You're Dead] (novel) 1993

Criticism

George Reavey (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Reavey, George. “Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Man and Poet.” In The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1953 to 1965, translated by George Reavey, pp. vii-xxxvii. New York: October House, 1965.

[In the following essay, Reavey places Yevtushenko in the context of Russian literature and chronicles his work through the mid-1960s.]

1. RUSSIA AND THE SPECTRE OF THE POET

There is something about the poet and his poetic utterance that has a terrifying effect on some Russians, and especially on the Authorities, be they Tsarist or Soviet. It is as though poetry were an irrational force which must be bridled and subjugated and even destroyed. If the...

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Rosh Ireland (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Ireland, Rosh. Introduction to Bratsk Station and Other New Poems, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, pp. ix-xxii. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Ireland surveys Yevtushenko's career and works.]

Lord, let me be a poet,
Let me not deceive people.

Y. Yevtushenko

The last decade has seen in the Soviet Union a striking revival of poetry. Interest in the great poets of this century has quickened. Accomplished living poets, under constraint in Stalin's time, have once again found access to the reading public. A number of young poets have come forward to write poetry of a recognizably new kind, to create a vast...

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Tina Tupikina Glaessner and Geoffrey Dutton (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Glaessner, Tina Tupikina, and Geoffrey Dutton. “Translators' Note on ‘Bratsk Station’.” In Bratsk Station and Other Poems, pp. xxiii-xxv. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967.

[In the following excerpt, Glaessner and Dutton extol the importance of Yevtushenko as a poet and remark on the problems encountered translating his poetry into English.]

To understand this poem of Yevtushenko's, it is essential to realize that the word “Bratsk,” the name of the gigantic complex of inland sea and hydroelectric station and factories in Siberia, two thirds of the way from Moscow to Vladivostok, also refers to “brotherhood” in Russian, through the adjective...

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Yevgeni Sidorov (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Sidorov, Yevgeni. “Yevgeni Yevtushenko's Solo: On His 50th Birthday.” Soviet Literature 7, no. 424 (1983): 130-37.

[In the following essay, Sidorov considers the characteristics of Yevtushenko's poetry, praising him for his contributions to Russian literature.]

Yevgeni Yevtushenko was born in Siberia at Zima Junction near Irkutsk. The poet's father was a geologist and wrote verse all his life. I knew him and heard him recite his poems. They had something to them, no doubt about that, a kind of romanticism à la Siberian Kipling. It was the father who taught the son to love poetry.

Before the war Yevgeni lived for a while with his mother in...

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Pavel Ulyashov (review date 1986)

SOURCE: Ulyashov, Pavel. “Queuing for Hope (About Yevgeni Yevtushenko's Poem ‘Fukú!’).”Soviet Literature 9, no. 462 (1986): 139-42.

[In the following review, Ulyashov extols the universal theme and important message of the poem “Fukú!”]

Yevgeni Yevtushenko's poetry has long been part of the Soviet reader's consciousness: we use his more aphoristic lines as headings for articles, quote his verse in speeches from public rostra, and use some of his catch-phrases in our arguments and conversations (“Civic-mindedness is a rare talent”, “In Russia a poet is more than just a poet”). All this testifies at once to Yevtushenko's immense reputation and to...

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Michael Pursglove (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Pursglove, Michael. “Yevtushenko's Stantsiya Zima: A Reassessment.” New Zealand Slavonic Journal, 2 (1988): 113-27.

[In the following essay, Pursglove provides a close textual analysis of Stantsiya Zima, which he classifies as a landmark in Soviet Literature.]

Nineteen eighty-six saw the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of one of the landmarks of Soviet literature, Yevgeny Yevtushenko's Stantsiya Zima. At the time of its appearance in the journal Oktyabr' in October 1956, its twenty-three-year-old author was virtually unknown. This heavily autobiographical poema catapulted him to fame. Its narrator was seen as the...

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Carol Rumens (review date 1991)

SOURCE: Rumens, Carol. “Half Free.” New Statesman & Society 4, no. 142 (15 March 1991): 37.

[In the following review, Rumens characterizes Yevtushenko's poetry as high energy.]

“Who the hell is this damned Y Y?,” asks Yevtushenko in the forward to Stolen Apples (1973), ironically parrotting his various critics: “An unofficial diplomat performing secret missions for the Kremlin? … A Soviet Beatle? … An export item, perhaps, like vodka or black caviar? … When is Yevtushenko sincere? When he is writing about Vietnam or Babii Yar?”

Perhaps he has had to be many different people. Yet the Collected Poems, for all its...

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Tomas Venclova (review date 1991)

SOURCE: Venclova, Tomas. “Making It.” New Republic 204, no. 18 (6 May 1991): 33-37.

[In the following review, Venclova dismisses Yevtushenko as a Russian writer of merit, refuting Western interpretations of his poetry and politics.]

An interesting article by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, part essay, part memoir, recently appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta in Moscow, in which the poet dwells at length on his skirmishes with Soviet reactionaries. The title of the article is “Fencing with a Pile of Dung,” which is meant to be a bold metaphor. Among other tales, Yevtushenko tells the story of his visit to the pre-perestroika Kremlin, where he was to be honored with the...

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Patricia Pollock Brodsky (review date 1992)

SOURCE: Brodsky, Patricia Pollock. Review of The Collected Poems 1952-1990, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. World Literature Today 66, no. 1 (winter 1992): 156-57.

[In the following review, Brodsky praises Yevtushenko's accessibility and the power of visual details in his poetry.]

The new Collected Poems 1952-1990 reflects YevgenyYevtushenko's poetic career in microcosm: vast and uneven, sometimes irritating, often appealing, and ever astonishing in its variety. The title is somewhat misleading, since the volume offers only a selection from Yevtushenko's extensive oeuvre, and in addition, several long poems are represented in excerpts only. Yevtushenko's...

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