Since his reputation in global literary circles was established in the 1960’s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has attempted to explain his country not only to others but to himself as well, hoping to uncover what lies at the heart of the place Winston Churchill termed “a mystery inside an enigma.” With cool precision and a passionate heart, he examines his Siberian childhood at remote Zima Junction, his adolescent visions, his maturity as a well-known, world-traveling poet, and his later years as a combination legislator-versifier.
The poet’s Spartan childhood on the tundra is a wonderfully evoked distillation of sadness caused by Stalinist cruelties visited upon Zima and exuberant youthful joys and fantasies. Through dry-humored and sometimes caustic turns of phrase, he captures how it felt and feels to be Yevtushenko, Soviet national, a man caught up in his huge nation’s beauty, cruelty, menace, and promise—its great promise contrasting with a present degradation of spirit. It is Yevtushenko’s genius to be able to make poetic sense of his infinitely complex homeland, acting as its spiritual interpreter to the nations.
So too, in his view, it is the poet’s role to speak for humanity as a whole: He brings the essentially voiceless a voice; his poetry speaks of their discontents and dreams. Moreover, he sees himself as fortunate, a man to whom God inexplicably has given the chance to champion the mute and downtrodden, for he has lived longer than many of the Soviet Union’s great writers and has seen far more of the world than any of them.
Certainly, it was his great poem “Babii Yar,” composed in 1961, that spoke for the greatest number of voiceless people—the silenced victims of Nazi terror lying in mass graves at Babii Yar in the Ukraine. Amid unmarked graves of thousands of slaughtered Jews, Yevtushenko finds the opportunity to speak not only of man’s mad cruelty but also of the love that tied together the victims. Then, too, the poem, like so many purporting to be about other places and other times, is really an indictment of Stalinist horrors, as many astute Soviet readers would have readily perceived. With its heady, spellbinding reflections on a terrible place, “Babii Yar” enhanced Yevtushenko’s international reputation: No finer lines about twentieth century mass murder had ever been written.
His themes are many—some having to do with the Soviet scene and others with his personal life and place in the world. The chief theme of those dealing with the Soviet Union is that of a sensitive man struggling with the deadening weight of bureaucracy and the systematic destruction of his individual liberty. He shows, however, that some way—whether by pride, stealth, wit, or luck—he will sustain his inner self, nurture his individuality despite the effort of the totalitarian state to crush them.
In his most confessional poems, Yevtushenko marvels at the fabulous differences among people he encounters on the street and wishes to know them in order to discover how they survive their oppressive world. He admires those who appear alive to their world and loathes those who have become gray functionaries (university professors, government officials, and rich, presumptuous foreigners who treat the poet as a kind of pet). He worries not only about Soviet absolutism but also about the Western cult of the celebrity that might transform him from artist to cultural icon. While he dearly desires to be freed from the tyranny of fame, the sole escape route is immersion in his art. Yet total immersion is impossible, and he must venture forth in the world in order to find his connection with the world and the artistic visions that connection supplies.
Another theme of Yevtushenko’s is that, despite horrors wrought by evil forces at work in the world, life adds up to something—it has inherent meaning. Insights come to him in small ways as well as large: through the peace brought him by the sight of snow sifting through the Moscow night, the pungent smell of raspberries in summer, a new flower glimpsed on a fig tree, a half-blade of grass taken from a field. Many small things remind him of the larger mystery surrounding all humans and of the seeming joy and peace found there. The Russian earth has great power: It endures winter hardships and pushes forth grass and flowers when the sun returns in spring. Winter snows bite into his soul, and they bring to mind the soul of his homeland and the people who have formed him. Yet the city also contains numerous sights—everyday vistas—that focus his mind elsewhere and speak to him of the unity of mankind. Moscow streets, with their long lines of people waiting to buy goods, their strolling lovers, and their introspective workers are delightful, despite their grayness. Like the hardy flowers of the rural Soviet Union, the young people of Moscow manage somehow to delight in life, their joy an emblem of the joy at the heart of all things.
Yevtushenko also addresses his country’s future, which he believes could be far different from its present if only Russians would shake off their spiritual torpor. Much of his poetry speaks either directly or...
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