Introduction

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Yevtushenko, Yevgeni 1933–

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Yevtushenko is a Russian poet known throughout the world for his superb dramatic readings of his own work. Although frequently critical of contemporary Soviet society, he remains essentially a regime poet. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3.)

J. M. Cohen

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[Yevgeny Yevtushenko]writes about metaphysical overtones. The leading theme of his … sequence 'The Bratsk Station' is a dialogue between an Egyptian pyramid and this electrogenerating station in the Siberian tundra. The work Bratsk has a double meaning: it stands both for brotherhood and for the place. Yevtushenko's sequence hymns the Russian achievement and prophesies a spiritual future of vaster achievement, but not of faith; though his ideas are strictly Communist, his expression is individual…. This book contains Yevtushenko's best poetry till now: an individual restatement of a commonplace passionately accepted by his audience. It can and should be read in the West with suspension of disbelief, for it is fine poetry…. (p. 78)

J. M. Cohen, in The Spectator (© 1967 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 21, 1967.

Rima Shore

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The actors in Yevgeny Yevtushenko's Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty wait onstage for the audience to enter…. Sitting casually against the large metal backdrop, eighteen youths talk in undertones, chew gum, smoke and stare indifferently or defiantly at the people who are joining them in the hall.

Cramped and restless, the actors are very close to the audience, practically within reach of the first row of seats. This first row is reserved. The audience, settling into place, has the time and proximity to absorb details of set and costume on the shallow stage…. This is American Youth as the Moscow audience might expect it to be, but the actors would probably strike the American viewer as middle-aged and dated, belonging more to the Beat Generation than to today's counter-culture….

The main presence in the theatre is the metal backdrop, which replaces a curtain. All of the action of the performance takes place in front of this backdrop. Seamed together from sturdy sections of flat and corrugated metal, it creates a cold and urban setting. The last two words of a slogan, the WAR, painted in large, white English letters at the extreme left, leave to the imagination the beginning of the slogan and the extension of the metal curtain beyond the dimensions of the stage and theatre. (p. 138)

What we see and hear on stage is a series of enactments of political events or of events that are portrayed as central to the American Experience. (p. 139)

[Violence] alternates with less devastating skits. Some seem irrelevant, like a barker selling lottery tickets. Others strike the American viewer as on target, such as when a Gallup pollster, using the rope as a microphone, puts questions to Americans on the street who are handily portrayed by the four skulls….

When the students play themselves, Yevtushenko's treatment is sympathetic, and the youth movement is depicted as a helpless, desperate attempt to reclaim innocence. Dr. Spock, "wiser than us all," emerges as a hero because he knows that parents should be treated for the diseases of childhood.

In the blending of old and new Yevtushenko verse, the male actors imitate the delivery style of Yevtushenko himself, whose image is present onstage in the form of a poster announcing the American concert tour of "Yevtushenko and Friends." To the American spectator, the declamation of poetry makes the character onstage impossible to identify with. The American viewer becomes acutely aware that the actor before him is a Soviet youth in American blue-jeans.

The effect on the Soviet theatregoer is much different, and hard for an American to assess. The performance of poetry, a Soviet phenomenon, is central to the experience of Soviet youth…. Such performances have had an impact on Soviet youth culture that might be compared with that of rock festivals in America. Many lines of Yevtushenko poetry revived in Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty are as familiar to the Moscow audience as lyrics of rock hits might be to a young American audience. This familiarity adds a note of nostalgia to the performance, for the height of Yevtushenko's popularity and visibility to the Soviet public passed with the sixties.

Some Western critics interpret the fact that Yevtushenko has chosen to portray Americans through a wholly Soviet art form as one more indication that the moral action of Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty is not set in America at all. References to listening through walls, the recreation of Dostoevsky's character Raskalnikov, and even the presence onstage of a metal backdrop that could suggest an "Iron Curtain" might convince such critics that political innuendos of the play cut two ways, that there are anti-Soviet as well as anti-American elements. Some American viewers have concluded that Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty is actually a thinly disguised anti-Soviet production. (p. 141)

The play is considered controversial,… [but Muscovites] seem to feel that its controversy stems from the play's anti-American implications at a time of official détente, not from anti-Soviet intentions.

Yevtushenko clearly does intend to reach beyond exclusively American experiences for more universal meaning, although his symbolism becomes ambiguous in the attempt. He blurs ideological lines with the token presence of non-American characters such as Raskalnikov and Pancho Villa, with the portrayal of positive American heroes such as Dr. Spock and President Kennedy, and with references to literary truisms, as Donne's "Ask not for whom the bell tolls …" America's various shames are actualized on the stage, but it is the Russian and fictional murderer Raskalnikov who smashes an ax into the symbolic skulls. All men kill that which they fear, all men murder that which causes them shame, Yevtushenko seems to be saying in his portrayal of American youth's search for innocence and redemption. (pp. 141-42)

Rima Shore, in The Drama Review (© 1973 by The Drama Review; reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), No. 1, 1973.

A. Lawton

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The general reader as well as the specialist in Russian literature will find [Le betullenane] extremely valuable. Although Yevtushenko is probably the Soviet poet best known abroad, several of the poems included in this collection are published for the first time outside of the Soviet Union….

Yevtushenko, caught between [poles of eradicated traditions and anticipated phenomena], voices the "Soviet" anguish of the individual, whose ideological opposition to the old beliefs is frustrated by the absence of new positive values. In the search for new values, he alternately rejects and accepts official Soviet dogmatism and the pseudo-ideals of Western consumer society. This suffered uncertainty, far from being the reflection of a calculated compromise (as it has often been considered), reveals the full measure of his moral and artistic integrity. As a "dwarf birch" (the image which gives the title to the collection) tenaciously rooted in its inhospitable, frozen ground, he commits himself to life, even if its significance may forever remain a mystery. (p. 805)

A. Lawton, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 4, Autumn, 1975.

Vickie A. Babenko

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Many contemporary Soviet poets write about women … but Evtushenko's poems on the subject are somewhat different from those of other poets. While most of them present women in love this is a minor subject for Evtushenko…. His female characters have specific qualities; they are earthly creatures; their feelings are intense and real. Evtushenko does not distance them with abstract associations. At the same time his poetic "I" is less personally involved in the action than those of poets like Voznesenskii. Like Voznesenskii, however, he sees women as victims of a cruel fate who are to be pitied or admired. Yet each of them is an unique human being, and there is always a certain tragic tone about each one. Although his female characters are not the beauties that most poets present, Evtushenko dramatizes them in such a way that they appear more moving and attractive than the conventional love-goddesses.

Another feature of Evtushenko's poetry which distinguishes him from many poets who write about women is that he is particularly fascinated by old women, those whose lives are filled with experience and on whom time has left its mark. He observes every reflection of their eyes, every movement of their hands, the color change of their faces. He is an astute psychologist in that he, like Gogol' and sometimes Tolstoi, uses outward signs to disclose the inner world of his characters. (pp. 320-21)

Love poems are relatively rare in Evtushenko's poetry. Most of them can be found in his earlier collections. In the 1959 edition of Stikhi raznykh let [Poems of Various Years] there are about a dozen poems dealing with love. The treatment of that theme seems artificial, however, the reader is not impressed. On the other hand, these poems do show the poet's maturing powers of observation and especially his attention to detail already being used as a means to penetrate more deeply into the nature of feelings and situations. (p. 322)

The colloquial speech used in all [Evtushenko's] poems and the carefully chosen detail of the scenes of Soviet life make the portrayal of the women come alive convincingly.

From his presentation of Russian women we deduce that they are no different from other women in the world, who all need love and care. But the different environment of the Russian women has certainly laid its mark on them. Evtushenko has caught the grotesque contrast between the theory and the reality, which has produced courageous and strong women, qualities that make them the "best men." According to Evtushenko, suffering, patience and loving hearts, which remain unhardened by everyday struggles, have ennobled these simple women. (pp. 332-33)

Although the tone of his lyrics is usually sad, when he is depicting these women's struggles against all kinds of misery, the sadness at times gives way to an optimistic, almost joyful mood, as is the case in "Po jagody," "Zhenshchina i more" and other poems. Suffering is a sign of life. That Russian women seem to master the impossible and survive enables Evtushenko to see them as superior human beings. (p. 333)

Vickie A. Babenko, "Women in Evtushenko's Poetry," in The Russian Review (copyright 1977 by The Russian Review, Inc.), July, 1977, pp. 320-33.

L. B. Croft

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For the specialist, there is patently little point in acquiring [From Desire to Desire]. It is obviously intended for those romantic but uninitiated poetophiles who have somewhere heard of Yevtushenko and seek another name to drop in literary conversation. To this purpose it is well designed. (p. 642)

L. B. Croft, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 4, Autumn, 1977.

Blake Morrison

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Love Poems cannot be regarded as one of [Yevtushenko's] major publications: only half a dozen poems have not appeared in translation before…. But it is part of the same venture to divert attention from public works such as "Babiy Yar" towards the more personal, though never hermetic, love lyrics….

Recent poems suggest the development in Yevtushenko of a dutiful and at times tiresomely moralistic persona—"Where there is no love, how foul and disgusting / to copulate", "Oh bless the family, dear Lord, the crown of all mankind"—but it would be wrong to expect a complete, "Dover Beach"-like withdrawal from public concerns. (p. 846)

Blake Morrison, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 28, 1978.

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Yevtushenko, Yevgeni (Vol. 3)