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...
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