A Precocious Autobiography

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In A Precocious Autobiography, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko gives an account of the first three decades of his life—hence, the title “precocious”—before most people, especially artistic creators, go through the most productive part of their life. The reason for the poet’s premature effort is undoubtedly his conviction that the experiences of his early years, coupled with important changes in the life of his country (the death of Joseph Stalin and the emergence of the postwar generation), are worth telling. He begins with the simple fact that both of his grandfathers were accused as “traitors” and “spies” and vanished in the concentration camps. His paternal great-grandfather was deported from Ukraine to Siberia for rebelling against his landlord. His maternal grandfather was born in Latvia. By stating that “revolution was the religion” of his family, Yevtushenko underscores the tragedy of the demise of his grandfathers, who were old revolutionaries.

The incompatibility of Yevtushenko’s parents—who met as students at the Geological Institute, married, but soon divorced—was another decisive factor in the poet’s life. He spent his childhood torn in his loyalty to his parents. This, along with the war, made his earliest years difficult, although he spent some happy days in his native Siberia, close to nature and to the simple, hardworking people. Yevtushenko grew up on the streets, fighting with his peers, doing poorly in school, and at times being expelled for speaking the truth, a habit that he inherited from his Siberian ancestors.

Yevtushenko discovered early that he liked writing poetry despite receiving bad marks in grammar. He also had a desire to become a professional soccer player. He published his first poem in the magazine Soviet Sport and celebrated it by getting thoroughly drunk. The next day, he had the first trial as a goalie for a soccer team, but, because of his hangover, he saw two balls coming at him at the same time and failed the test; this failure prompted Yevtushenko’s decision to stay with poetry. His rise as a poet was slow but steady. At first, he wrote all kinds of inferior, impersonal verses, but later he turned to writing about his own feelings and thoughts.

Yevtushenko also became increasingly aware of the social problems besetting his society, and he began to voice his concerns. Stalin’s death in 1953 was a turning point in his thinking. He was appalled at the authorities’ insensitivity, allowing many people to be crushed to death during the commotion at the funeral, and saw for the first time the inhumane nature of the government. He decided to speak the truth. As more and more of his books were published and as he read his poems before thousands at poetry gatherings, he became one of the “angry young men” and a spokes-person for his generation, a role that he continued to play.

Analysis

Yevtushenko’s autobiography is more than an account of his early years. Even though the book tells about his beginnings as a poet and about the important influences in his life, it is also a commentary on Soviet society. Because his family background predisposed him toward a revolutionary way of thinking, and because he was born and reared in a communist society, he identified early with communism as the best political system. At the same time, he was not blind to the faults and shortcomings of this system, as demonstrated to him most vividly during Stalin’s funeral. In his most famous poem, “Babi Yar,” he states defiantly that the Russian people are international to the core and he has retained that belief. It is not surprising, therefore, that he describes himself as a convinced communist until the end of the autobiography.

The only way to reconcile his faith in communism with its obvious disappointing results and with crimes committed in its name—the murder of his grandfathers, for example—was for Yevtushenko to cling to an idealistic faith in the innate goodness of communist ideals. His argument was that, if only Stalin and other leaders had followed the shining examples of Lenin and other early revolutionaries instead of perverting the revolutionary ideas, then the Soviet Union would have been spared an embarrassing history and remained the beacon for foreign true believers. Much of Yevtushenko’s activism is fueled by this belief in the pristine nature of communism. Yet Yevtushenko does not examine the basic premises of the communist system, most likely because he wrote the book while he was relatively young and because the country was still decades away from the serious self-examination of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Nevertheless, he is to be admired for his idealism and for his desire to help the needy and the oppressed.

Yevtushenko’s courage and willingness to suffer for his beliefs are clearly shown in his autobiography. His portrait of the “cynics” and the “dogmatists” as the chief enemies of Soviet society and the traitors of the pure communist ideal is particularly convincing, as is his depiction of Stalin’s “cult of personality” wreaking havoc among both the believers and the opponents. Yevtushenko was one of the first to warn against the resurgence of Stalinism in his poem “The Heirs of Stalin,” in which the dead Stalin keeps a watchful eye on the potential “enemies” with the help of many little Stalins.

Yevtushenko claims that his country began a spiritual revolution in 1953, after Stalin’s monumental corruption of the human spirit. The most important characteristics of this revolution were a resolute search for the truth and a fight against lies, the abuse of power, and the exploitation of humanity. Yevtushenko sees these goals as the aim of his poetry as well, thus taking upon himself the age-old role of a Russian poet—to be his society’s spokesperson. In these efforts, he is dangerously skirting the primary tenets of socialist realism; what saves him is a merciless honesty with himself and with his compatriots and a craving for the truth.

Critical Context

A Precocious Autobiography occupies a modest place in Yevtushenko’s literary opus, as he is primarily a poet. In other ways, however, it is an important work for him, as well as for Russian literature. The autobiography is a declaration of the poet’s readiness to join the struggle for the truth and for the rejuvenation of his country’s spirit. By making the declaration strongly personal, Yevtushenko elevates the struggle to the highest level of commitment. His call for action gains in significance within the historical context of a post-Stalin Soviet Union, at the time when it was dangerous to be brave and bold.

The autobiography offers glimpses of the literary development of one of the leading Russian poets of the second half of the twentieth century. The cameo appearance of Boris Pasternak is also very illuminating; in a very few strokes, Yevtushenko paints the essential Pasternak. The author’s early patrons, Nikolay Tarasov and Volodya Barlas, receive their just reward for seeing in Yevtushenko a poet when even he was not sure of his poetic future. His first wife, Bella Akhmadulina, demonstrates the breadth and strength of the movement of young Soviets toward a better life.

Aside from its literary merits as a lively and heartfelt narrative, A Precocious Autobiography remains a document of the spiritual and political awakening of an entire nation, especially of its poets and intellectuals, after a decades-long winter night. The book also augurs well for the future of the poet’s country and its literature.

Biography

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Yevtushenko gained national stature in the Soviet Union in the early 1960’s through his popular poetry readings to large audiences. His fame permitted him to travel to the West, enhancing his reputation. Many of his poems praised Soviet economic achievements, criticized United States involvement in the Vietnam War, and portrayed the Soviet Union as a peaceful nation. However, his poetry also criticized Russian anti-Semitism and the dangers of latent Stalinism within the communist leadership.

After unauthorized Western publication of Yevtushenko’s outspoken and self-assured autobiography in 1963, Soviet authorities temporarily forbade him to travel out of the country. His independent voice was heard during the Leonid Brezhnev era, as when he openly supported Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when the latter was deported in 1974—despite public and official condemnation for his temerity in speaking out against Soviet censorship.

The Mikhail Gorbachev years raised Yevtushenko’s hopes for genuine reform. Following the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991, he urged Russians to break with the old servile obedience to those in power. His initial support of Boris Yeltsin as a reformer later diminished. Several of his books in the 1990’s have focused more on the challenges facing Russia’s population in the post-Soviet period. Yet optimism is characteristic of Yevtushenko’s poetry and life.

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