Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1933–
Russian poet, novelist, essayist, dramatist, screenwriter, autobiographer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Yevtushenko's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 13, 26, and 51.
A remarkably prolific and charismatic writer, Yevtushenko has enjoyed an unprecedented degree of artistic and personal freedom throughout his career as the former Soviet Union's most famous and best-publicized contemporary poet. 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 own 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. Dozens of Yevtushenko's poems also have been made into popular Russian songs. Yevtushenko's writing inspired Soviet classical composer Dmitri Shostakovich to base his Symphony No. 13 on "Babi Yar," (1960) one cf Yevtushenko's best-known poems. Despite strict Soviet artistic standards imposed from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, Yevtushenko has maintained his personal convictions and artistic integrity. 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.
Yevtushenko is a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians who were exiled to Siberia. He was born in 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.
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.
Despite implicit criticism of contemporary Soviet society and his tendency to occasionally test the literary standards of socialist realism, Yevtushenko has drawn enthusiastic response from young muscovites, as well as official approval from the Soviet regime. Later critics have speculated about Yevtushenko's literary merits since he generally has conformed to Soviet censors in his writing. Maura Reynolds attributes Yevtushenko's fluctuating reputation "as much to politics as poetry," noting that his knack "for ducking and riding political waves … has earned him both praise and derision, at different times, from many of the same people." Many commentators believe Yevtushenko has stood behind his early reputation for outspokenness, and that since the mid-1960s he has taken fewer risks, both politically and artistically. Skeptical about his exuberant personality abroad and suspicious about his intentions at home, some critics have found his poetry crude and artificial. However, Yevtushenko's writings have retained a broad, popular audience. Most critics have recognized Yevtushenko's efforts to relate the diverse cultures of a modernized, multinational Soviet Union with the literary cultures of the contemporary West. Other critics point to the vitality and authenticity of Yevtushenko's personal poems as evidence of his literary significance. Patricia Pollock Brodsky calls Yevtushenko an "engaged and engaging poet, one of the important, questioning voices of our age."
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