Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4720
Although not the most original poet of the post-Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has shown himself to be one of the most significant. This is essentially because he has been able to put his finger on the pulse of the times. He became the spokesperson for a...
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- Critical Essays
Although not the most original poet of the post-Stalinist era in the Soviet Union, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has shown himself to be one of the most significant. This is essentially because he has been able to put his finger on the pulse of the times. He became the spokesperson for a new generation, not only in his native land but also all over the world. Unflinchingly honest and sincere, he has spoken with clarity and courage on issues that threaten freedom. He is best known for his poems of protest such as “Babii Yar” and “Stalin’s Heirs.” In the tradition of Russian poetry, Yevtushensko sees himself invested with a mission and a message, and he proclaims it fearlessly. He directs his criticism not only against the cult of personality, anti-Semitism, and oppression in his own land, but also against the same abuses in other countries, especially in the United States. Images of Martin Luther King, Jr., John and Robert Kennedy, and Allison Krause of Kent State University appeared in his work in the 1970’s; the perils of television and advertising, war in Northern Ireland, and the threat of nuclear weapons in poems of the late 1970’s. “Freedom to Kill,” “Flowers and Bullets,” and “Safari in Ulster,” among others, explore these themes.
Yevtushenko knows how to combine the social with the personal and how to move effortlessly from one to the other. His poetry is extremely autobiographical, and one can read his life by exploring his verse. He tells whimsically of his Siberian childhood in Zima Junction, in the poem by the same name; of his youth in Moscow; of his travels and disappointment in love; and of his family and children. He reflects on the idealism of youth and the fears of impending old age. He is especially sensitive to childhood and can frequently combine his own experiences, a universal theme of childhood, and social observation. A typical poem is “Weddings,” which recounts his folk dancing at ill-fated wartime weddings in Siberia.
A child of the North, Yevtushenko speaks best of nature when evoking the taiga, the lakes, and the rivers of Siberia; or the smell of fresh berries or the blue glow of fresh snow in “Zima Junction,” “Monologue of the Fox,” and “The Hut.” He is close to the sea and often associates it with love (“The Sea”), with women (“Glasha, Bride of the Sea”), and with contemporary problems, as in “Kachka” (“Pitching and Rolling”). Nature, however, is not the most common source of images for this contemporary poet, who prefers the city with its neon lights, the sound of jazz, and the smell of smog. He is especially fond of New York and records his impressions in many poems such as “New York Elegy,” “Smog,” and Pod kozhey statuey sbobody.
People, more than nature, dominate Yevtushenko’s poetry. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevski, Anton Chekhov, and Maxim Gorky, the lowly and the downtrodden occupy an important place. Socialist Realism places an emphasis on the “people.” Yevtushenko adopts this attitude, but he goes even further, showing genuine sympathy for the worker and the peasant, especially evident in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems, in which he also speaks of the unmarried mother (“Nushka”). While extolling the humble and the poor, he manifests hatred for the cruel overseer, the bully, or the compromiser. Such characters appear in “Babii Yar,” “Zima Junction,” and “Song of the Overseers” and in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. He detests hypocrisy and slavery in any form and denounces it loudly in the Soviet Union, the United States, South Africa, and anywhere else in the world.
Women occupy an important place in Yevtushenko’s verse. In keeping with his sympathy for the peasant and workers, he dedicates many poems to the hardworking Russian woman, as in “The Hut.” Old women in particular are among his favorites, such as the one who brings the red flowers of the taiga to the workers of Bratsk Station. The young innocent girl in love, such as “Masha”; the mothers who work for their young children and are never appreciated; the dancer; the singer: All these are living people who impart to Yevtushenko’s works a strong dramatic quality.
The narrative, along with the lyric, is an important feature of Yevtushenko’s poetry. He prefers the epic style, and “Zima Junction,” Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems, and Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool illustrate this tendency, although he often falls short of his goals. All his verse is dynamic rather than static. Many of his shorter works have a balladlike quality; among these are “Glasha, Bride of the Sea,” “Rhythms of Rome,” and “Nushka” in Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. Dialogue occurs frequently and enhances the dramatic effect of his verse. Pod kozhey statuey sbobody, partially prose and partially verse, was staged in Moscow as a play in 1972; it satirized Russia as well as the United States.
Yevtushenko claims as his masters Hemingway (to whom he had dedicated one of his finest poems, “Encounter”), Esenin, Mayakovsky, and Pasternak, whom he knew personally and who offered friendly criticism of his early verse. The influence of Esenin and Mayakovsky is not always evident in his style, although at first glance he seems to be an avid disciple of Mayakovsky. Yevtushenko uses the “step lines” of Mayakovsky, but the verbal brilliance, bold speech, and innovation of the older poet are rarely evident. Yevtushenko employs a colloquial style, with many words borrowed from foreign languages. His poetry is filled with vivid twentieth century speech, with frequent sound effects, internal rhymes, and wordplay not always evident in English translations. He uses a wide variety of rhymes and rhythms, as well as free verse. His earlier poems tend to be freer than the poems of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, which make use of regular meters and indulge in much less verbal experimentation. At all times he seems to write with ease and facility, although his poems frequently give the impression of too great haste. He is a prolific, spontaneous poet who writes without looking back and sometimes produces profound and startling insights.
Yevtushenko is a poet who wishes to be accessible to as many people as possible. He refuses poetic isolation and an elitist concept of art. In fact, he has chosen photography as a medium because its meaning is immediately obvious and it does not become obscure in translation. Above all, he is an apostle of human brotherhood. He believes in kindness and mutual understanding. Invisible Threads captures this theme dramatically. He is satirical, disarmingly frank, yet idealistic and trusting. Images of Christ, the sea, African jungles, and neon lights all serve to highlight his essential optimism and hope for the future.
Yevtushenko’s poetry falls into distinct periods. The first, from 1952 to 1960, contains poems of youthful enthusiasm and is extremely autobiographical, as in “Zima Junction,” “The Visit,” and “Weddings.” Memories of war and the child’s inability to grasp its impact appear in “Weddings,” “Party Card,” and “A Companion.” Since Yevtushenko had not begun his travels at this time, his inspiration was limited to Russia, centering especially on Moscow, Siberia, and Georgia. Although Yevtushenko was born long after the Revolution and did not know it at first hand, he manifests amazing conviction and enthusiasm for its ideals. “Lies” and “Knights” are among the many typical examples. Lyricism, love, and, above all, human sympathy characterize this early period.
Perhaps the best and most important poem of this period is “Zima Junction,” first published in the journal Oktyabr in 1956. It refers to a visit to his native village in 1953, after the death of Stalin, the Doctors’ Plot, and the deposition of Lavrenti Beria. Relatives and friends in far-off Siberia are anxious to learn all the news at first hand from this Moscow visitor, who, they expect, has all the information and has known Stalin personally. He accepts their naïveté with humor and respect for their simple lives, while at the same time noticing how both he and they have changed, and how they too have anxieties beneath the apparent simplicity of their ways.
The return to Zima Junction is the occasion for a retrospective glance at his own past and the past of his ancestors, as he recalls his great-grandfather’s trip to Siberia from his peasant village in the Ukraine, and his grandfather’s revolutionary idealism. Yevtushenko returns to the place where he was born not only for the past but also for the future, to seek “strength and courage.” He realizes that he, like the people of the village, has changed, and that it is difficult to decide wisely on a course of action. He personifies Zima Junction, which speaks to him through the forest and the wheat, in some of his best nature images. The section “Berry-Picking” has frequently been reprinted separately.
Throughout the poem, local color abounds, and Yevtushenko’s narrative quality emerges through images of such people as the barefoot berry picker, the garrulous fisherman, and the disappointed wife in the hayloft who complains of her ungrateful and inattentive husband. Yevtushenko’s family such as Uncle Volodya and Uncle Andrei, simple laborers, contrast with Pankratov, “the ponderous didactic president.” The wheat and the village speak to young Zhenya, who is on the uncertain threshold of manhood, urging him to explore the world over and to love people.
Although the poem consists of many isolated incidents, they are obviously linked by the village and its message of courage and hope. The style is simple and colloquial, interspersed with local Siberian and Ukrainian expressions. The dialogue is suited to the speaker, and the nature imagery is among Yevtushenko’s best. Belief in revolutionary ideals is evident, and party ideology, although present, is sincere and unaffected. Yevtushenko began to acquire fame after publishing this poem, where the personal note becomes universal.
Yevheny’s second distinct period—the poems of the 1970’s—shows a broader scope and is mainly influenced by travel. Yevtushenko writes especially of the United States, Latin America, Cuba, Alaska, Hawaii, and Rome. He speaks out more freely against hypocrisy and loss of freedom, and he addresses social and political abuses, of which “Babii Yar” is the most significant example. At the same time, he professes strong patriotism, as evidenced in the lengthy Bratsk Station, and Other New Poems. The North, especially Siberia, is an inspiration for his work, especially Kachka. The personal and autobiographical theme returns in poems about love and loss of love. A more serious note is expressed in images of guilt, suffering, and repentance. Poems such as “Twist on Nails” and “Torments of Conscience” (published in English in Stolen Apples) express these themes through religious and dramatic imagery, of which one of the most striking examples is that of the pierced hands of the crucified Christ. These are poems of maturity and of considerable depth and sensitivity in both the personal and the social order.
“Babii Yar” was first published in the Literaturnaya gazeta in 1961. It is a poetic meditation on the tragic fate of the Jews in Eastern Europe, thirty-three thousand of whom were killed by the Germans in 1941 at Babii Yar, a ravine near the city of Kiev. As an attack on Soviet anti-Semitism, the poem stimulated controversy in the Soviet press and provoked counterattacks from leading journalists, but Yevtushenko continued to publish. In the poem, Yevtushenko deplores the absence of a monument at Babii Yar. One has subsequently been erected, without reference to the specific massacre of 1941.
The poem is not confined to Soviet anti-Semitism; it attacks prejudice against all peoples, but especially against Jews everywhere. In the poem, Yevtushenko, who is not Jewish himself, identifies with all the Jews of the past: those in ancient Egypt, Christ on the Cross, Alfred Dreyfus, and Anne Frank. Amid the harsh indictment of those who killed the Jews, Yevtushenko inserts delicate poetry: “transparent as a branch in April.” He emphasizes the need for all people to look at one another and to recognize their responsibility and their brotherhood. By poetic transfer, Yevtushenko sees in himself each of these murderers and accepts responsibility for the terrible massacre. With characteristic optimism, he expresses trust in Russia’s international soul, which will shine forth when anti-Semitism is dead.
“Bratsk Station” was first published in the April, 1965, issue of Yunost. It is a long discursive poem of epic proportions: five thousand lines divided into thirty-five unequal and loosely connected parts. The main idea, as expressed by Yevtushenko himself, is a “controversy between two themes: the theme of disbelief expressed in the monologue of the Pyramid and the theme of faith, expressed by Bratsk Station.” The Bratsk project was launched in 1958. It is a gigantic hydroelectric station, and it also contains lumber mills and plants for pulp, cardboard, wood by-products, and aluminum. Located in central Siberia along the Angara River, it is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in Russia. Yevtushenko sees it as a monument to free labor and considers the manpower that constructed it and keeps it in operation as a symbol of brotherhood, expressed in the word “bratsk,” which means “brotherly.”
The essential conflict is expressed in the recurring dialogue between the Egyptian Pyramid and Bratsk Station. Yevtushenko sees the Pyramid as a construction of slaves, and therefore it has no faith in itself. Moreover, it maintains that all men will ultimately turn to slavery and that freedom is only an illusory dream. This naïve interpretation of Egyptian history has provoked much criticism, notably from Andrei Sinyavsky in “In Defense of the Pyramid,” where he maintains that Yevtushenko does not understand the significance of Egyptian society. The Bratsk Station, on the other hand, extols the free labor that built it, for it is the daughter of Russia who has attained freedom through centuries of suffering.
To illustrate the quest for freedom in the Russian soul, Yevtushenko evokes a number of events and heroes from Russian history, especially Stenka Razin, the Decembrists, and the followers of Mikhail Petrashevsky. To these he adds Russia’s greatest writers; Alexander Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevski, and the modern writers he so admires; Esenin and Mayakovsky, with a poem in the style of the latter. Finally, there are the unsung heroes of the people: Issy Kramer, the Light Controller, who still suffers from anti-Semitism; Sonka and Petka, the concrete pourers; and Nushka, the unwed mother. Yevtushenko relates that when he read his poem to the workers of Bratsk Station, mothers like Nushka held their children up to him, recognizing themselves in his poem.
Themes of socialism and patriotism abound in the poem, frequently exaggerated. Despite its loosely connected parts, the poem moves quickly, with dramatic and lively style and balladlike quality. There are echoes of “Babii Yar” in the Light Controller and of “Zima Junction” in the images of the taiga and the Simbirsk Fair, and the work is autobiographical as well as political and social. It begins and ends with poetry. In the “Prayer Before the Poem,” Yevtushenko invokes Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Nekrasov, Blok, Pasternak, Esenin, and Mayakovsky and asks for their gifts (mutually exclusive, claims Sinyavsky). The final section, “The Night of Poetry,” evokes the Siberian custom of improvising poetry and delivering it to musical accompaniment. In the moment of recitation, Yevtushenko sees before him the great Russian heroes and writers of the past and experiences with them the glory of freedom symbolized by Bratsk Station.
The years from 1970 to 1981 show both a return to basic structures in theme and composition and a broadening of scope into various genres: photography, the theater, the novel, and the essay. As the father of a child, Yevtushenko again writes about childhood, as in “Father and Son,” “Walk with My Son,” and “A Father’s Ear.” Now approaching middle age, he writes more of death (“A Child’s Grave,” “Come to My Tomb”) and speaks of his desire to live in all lands and be all types of people possible, but to be buried in Russia. The travel theme is still uppermost, with an emphasis on the Far East, where Vietnam becomes an important social and political question. Yevtushenko, always against war, continues to make an appeal to human brotherhood in Northern Ireland, in South Africa, and between the United States and Russia.
Still drawn to the epic theme, Yevtushenko published Ivanovskiye sitsi in the journal Avrora in 1976. The title means literally “calico from Ivanovo” and refers to Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a large textile center important for the labor movement. In 1905, there was a strike there that led to the establishment of one of the first Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. Yevtushenko is always fond of wordplay and thus uses “Ivan” in several contexts. There is Ivan the Terrible, czar of Russia from 1533 to 1584, the symbol of autocracy in constant conflict with the people. Ivan the Fool is an important but composite character from folk epic and represents the growing popular consciousness. The poem glorifies the Revolution and the proletariat and expresses faith in the consciousness of the working class, bearers of the Russian soul. Yevtushenko maintains, however, that the Revolution extols heroes of all nations—Joan of Arc, John Brown, and Anne Frank—and aims for human brotherhood and a real International.
Invisible Threads, published in the United States and composed of poetry and photography, takes its inspiration from Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibit and emphasizes the same theme. It contains poems from the late 1970’s and addresses contemporary themes such as the threat of atomic warfare, the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the universal themes of birth and death, the former inspired by the birth of Yevtushenko’s son in London. In the poem “Life and Death,” a balladlike lyric, Life and Death exchange places. Death realizes that she is respected, if only because of fear, whereas Life is not. Yevtushenko pleads again for human dignity. Religious images are more evident than in the past, although Yevtushenko sees salvation among human beings on earth. He wishes to echo every voice in the world and “dance his Russian dance on the invisible threads that stretch between the hearts of men.”
The Collected Poems, 1952-1990
The Collected Poems, 1952-1990 reflects Yevtushenko’s poetic career in microcosm: vast and ever astonishing in its variety. The title is somewhat misleading, since the volume offers only a selection from Yevtushenko’s extensive career, and in addition, several long poems are represented in excerpts only. The translations by twenty-five translators vary in quality: A few are revisions of earlier versions, and because most of Yevtushenko’s poems use slant rhyme relying heavily on assonance, few attempts were made to retain this feature in the English translations, or indeed to use rhyme at all.
Yevtushenko’s characteristic political criticisms and commentary find a dominant place in this collection. He praises Chile’s Salvador Allende and Cuba’s Ché Guevara, condemns the Vietnam War, and deplores the situation in Northern Ireland. He also warns against Soviet political abuses, castigating militarists and dishonest bureaucrats. These critical poems range from “Stalin’s Heirs” and “Babii Yar,” from the early 1960’s, to later poems, including “Momma and the Neutron Bomb” and poems about the dissident Andrei Sakharov and the Afghanistan war (with the Soviets) in the 1980’s. When one considers that, due to censorship, many of Yevtushenko’s poems were not published when they were written in the 1960’s, his cynical critique of Soviet politics is understandable. Included in this collection are a number of his censored poems. Among them are verses to fellow Russian poets, “Russian Tanks in Prague,” and “The Ballad of the Big,” a bawdy tale about castration for the good of the party.
Another thread running through Yevtushenko’s work is the importance of poetry and the responsibility of the poet to humankind. He constantly questions his own talent and mission, thus continuing the Russian tradition of meta-poetry. Likewise very Russian is the dialogue between writers living and dead that Yevtushenko carries on, in poems addressed to or evoking Pasternak, Pablo Neruda, and Jack London, along with numerous others. He also blasts modern writers in “The Incomprehensible Poets,” in which he admits: “My guilt is my simplicity./ My crime is my clarity.” In “I Would Like,” he notes: “I would like to belong to all times,/ shock all history so much/ that it would be amazed/ what a smart aleck I was.”
Personal accounts, such as “On a Bicycle” and “Flowers for Grandmother,” fill several pages in the collection. “Blue Fox” combines his concern for animals with an allegory of the collective state; “Monologue of an Actress” is a witty complaint by an aging actress that no worthwhile roles are left to play. His own experiences are represented here as well, contributing to his range of personal stories. His poetry is a kind of diary that details his extensive travels and especially his many love affairs. Remarkable love poems follow the poet from first love, to the birth of his sons, to the sadness of falling out of love again. The poems contain a rich fabric of quarrels, memories, farewells, and even a conversation with his dog, who shares the poet’s grief that his woman has gone. The human breadth that he captures is perhaps the strongest aspect of this collection.
Walk on the Ledge
Walk on the Ledge, despite the subtitle “A New Book of Poetry,” contains both new and old poems, including “Babii Yar” and “Fears,” which were written more than forty years earlier but appear in new translations alongside the original Russian. A few of the poems, such as “On the Grave of May the First” (1996) and “The City of Yes and the City of No” (1964), were also written earlier. However, the majority of the thirty-seven poems in this book are new and come from the early twenty-first century. Most of these poems were translated and edited by Gracie and Bill Davidson with help from Deborah Taggart. Yevtushenko has continued to tinker with his best-known poems long after they were first published. The 2005 version of “Babii Yar” differs from the 1961 version in significant ways, perhaps due to different translations and continued additions. Yevtushenko’s postscript to “Fears” states that ever since Shostakovich based his thirteenth symphony on the poem, the poet had wanted to revise it because some stanzas seemed poetically weak. He attributes the flawed earlier version to his own hurried composition and the censorship standards of the Soviet magazine that first printed it. The predominant themes are by now familiar to Yevtushenko’s readers: the expansiveness and generosity of youthful love, alienation from mother Russia, feelings of displacement in foreign countries, cultural conflict between western capitalism and idealistic socialism, Chechen separatists and their battles for ethnic identity, and the effects on people clinging to the failed Soviet socialist system.
Walk on the Ledge follows the modern trend towards bilingual publishing, printing English and Russian language versions on opposite pages. Perhaps Russia’s increasing importance as a strategic partner of Western Europe and the United States has increased the attractiveness of Russian language study in schools and colleges.
The title poem, “Walk on the Ledge,” describes Yevtushenko’s tenuous relationship with his homeland during Stalin’s 1950’s repressions, when the poet felt as if he were balanced on a precipice with a glass of vodka in his hand, a metaphor for the political balancing act of creative expression in an authoritarian state. The poet confesses his joy of singing and climbing to the rooftops, playing at love and clamoring to escape through the Iron Curtain to the liberties beckoning from Rome or Paris. Much of the appeal of Yevtushenko’s poetry comes through his exuberance and desire to thumb his nose at the humorless doctrine of Soviet socialism. Equally joyful are the poet’s many effusions dedicated to love of women and relationships such as “My First Woman,” “Eyelashes,” and “Men Don’t Give Themselves to Women.” In “Old Photograph,” Yevtushenko reflects on a youthful dalliance with a fellow intellectual, a young American woman who left the poet with a photo inscribed with her wish for his future success. As he holds the photo of his old girlfriend, the poet hears her voice admonishing him to keep producing, to keep loving, and to keep living zestfully.
Another of Yevtushenko’s favorite themes is the idealism of the early Soviet vision for an egalitarian utopia versus the crumbled reality of a corrupt political system and severe restrictions against artistic freedom. “Tsunami” deals with the disastrous 2004 earthquake and resulting tsunami that claimed thousands of lives in Thailand and across Southeast Asia. The poet recalls hiding in San Francisco during the 1960’s with his American girlfriend under the watchful eyes of the Central Intelligence Agency and the KGB. At this time, young people idolized Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara and admired Fidel Castro’s new socialist republic in Cuba, but the reality of Cold War politics became clear. Fashionable “socialists” in Hollywood did not care about the political message as long as profits from films and records kept flowing. Meanwhile, new oil-rich Muscovites cared nothing for political theory as long as they could wear shiny new clothes and ride around in chauffeur-driven stretch limousines. The intensity and loss of life of the tsunami that hit Thailand rendered political discussions meaningless. Political commentary continues in many poems such as “When Will a Man Come to Russia,” “Gorbachev in Oklahoma,” and “On the Grave of May the First.”
In “School in Beslan,” the poet reflects on the 2004 hostage crisis when Chechen rebels stormed a school and took children as hostages, demanding that Russia stop the war. Yevtushenko compares Beslan to a place of his youth much like in “Zima Junction” and finds abundant buried reminders of the unconscious powers that shaped his imagination. He feels the jumbled emotions of his expectations for greatness and early fame in his homeland mingled with his strange twenty-first century irrelevance in midwestern America. Yevtushenko looks over the range of twentieth century history with the wreckage of Stalin’s purges, dissidents, deportations to Kazakhstan, the war against Chechen rebels, and Yeltsin’s egoism. The poet wonders whether the multinamed “gods” of Muhammad, Christ, or Vladimir Ilyich Lenin will together be able to save anyone in the ongoing war between religions, nations, and armies.
The final poem in this collection is “La Corrida” (“The Bullfight”). The long, discursive narrative poem employs a variety of stanza structures, voices, and tones ranging from talking horses to political commentary. The poet discusses seeing the spectacle of sport and savage animal sacrifice in Seville, Spain, which becomes a statement of universal suffering, human hypocrisy, and passions of the moment. The grandiose celebration of toreadors, street parades, and drunken revelry masks the brutality of primitive religion and blood sacrifice. Animals are enslaved for human entertainment much in the same way that power politics views individuals as expendable pawns in a game of conquest. The public spectacle renders brutality into grand theater for the benefit of those in power, the bullfighters or politicians. Murderers are viewed as heroes by the frenzied crowd as blood flows through the streets of Seville, Berlin, or Moscow.
Yevtushenko: Selected Poems
This work pays homage to the importance of Yevtushenko in the revival of the traditional lyric poem in the Soviet Union/Russia of the twentieth century. Translated by British scholars Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi, Yevtushenko: Selected Poems is a reissue of the original 1963 Penguin Classic that wound up on many shelves of politically aware college students in the United States and Europe. When first published, Yevtushenko: Selected Poems outsold every book of foreign poetry in translation except E. V. Rieu’s Odyssey. It contains many of Yevtushenko’s strongest works, such as “Babii Yar,” “Zima Junction,” and “Fears,” and an assortment of amorous and politically inspired short poems. Levi writes that the appeal of Yevtushenko has to do with the poet’s personal sensibilities and his concept of what are acceptable topics, which are far outside the Westerner’s experience. The core of Yevtushenko’s message is found in honesty, acceptance of what life brings, and a hopefulness about human nature that transcends politics. It destroys the common image of Soviet society as being hostile, impenetrable, and cold-blooded.