Monday, April 3, 2017

Yevgeny Yevtushenko Passes—Babi Yar Poet and Maybe Dissident

Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1972

Yevgeny Yevtushenko died at the age of 84 on Saturday in Oklahoma where he was a longtime faculty member at the University of Tulsa and active up to his death.  That is a long way from a Siberian town named ZimaWinter in Russian not the unlamented crappy clear beer.  No April fools.
He was one of the towering literary figures of the post-World War II era, celebrated like a rock star in poetry loving Russia, celebrated as a heroic Soviet dissident in the West, and lavished with honors including many by the very regime he criticized.  And therein lies a problem for those who would hold him up as an example of the kind of resistance poet speaking truth to power regardless of consequence.
Born Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gangnus on January 18, 1932 a product of an ethnic stew of Imperial Russia—Baltic German (decedents of Catherine the Great’s imported colonists), Ukrainian, Polish, Belarusian, and Tatar as well as Russian.  Some were exiled to Siberia by the Tsar, others served in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War.  Both of his grandfathers were swept up and arrested in Joseph Stalin’s 1936 purges.  When his geologist father abandoned the family when Yevgeny when he was 7 years old on the cusp of World War II he was raised by his mother who was also a geologist and later a professional singer and adopted her Ukrainian origin name, Yevtushenko;
Too young to be called for service in the Great Patriotic War, he was none-the-less swept up in Soviet patriotism and inoculated with passionate anti-fascism despite his heavy dollops of suspect German blood.  He was member of the Young Pioneers and after the war a Young Communist and an avowed Marxist-Leninist ideologue.  He also began to write comic verse for youth sports magazines and showed enough promise to catch the attention of Soviet cultural talent scouts.
At 19, still living in Zima, he published his first book of poetry, The Prospects for the Future which predicted a glorious and peaceful socialist world arising from the ashes of the war.  In 1951 he was given permission to live in Moscow—proof that his loyalty was unquestioned—and to study at the prestigious Gorky Institute for Literature.  He joined the official Union of Soviet Writers.  While still a student he began to develop a devoted following spurred by the use of his poem That’s What is Happening to Me was used as the lyric for a very popular song.

Yevtushenko, a rising young Soviet star.
Meanwhile Joseph Stalin had died in 1953 and in February of 1956 Nikita Khrushchev delivered his secret speech On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences to the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress.  The era of de-Stalinization and a thaw of cultural liberalism was at hand.  In those circumstances Yevtushenko became one of the first important young poets to denounce elements of Stalinism in Zima Station, which bemoaned the effects of Soviet borders on his life.  The work attracted the attention of the godfather of Soviet dissident writers Boris Pasternak, author of Dr. Zhivago and was praised by American poets Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.

Even then, de-Stalinization was not total protection from  the consequences of dissent—after all who could say if Khrushchev would stay in power or if he, too, might fall for the old temptation of authoritarian absolutism that seemed genetic to Russian rulers whether Tsars or Commissars.  Yevtushenko was expelled for “individualism” by the Gorky Institute in 1958 and his ability to travel internationally restricted but not yet banned.
Still, despite being lauded as a heroic figure in the West, he was careful not to cross certain lines in his criticism and avoided arrest.  Others had not been so lucky.  Back in 1952 on the Night of the Murdered Poets 13 Jewish poets, writers, and intellectuals had been executed after three years of torture and imprisonment.  Even under Khrushchev Jewish writers not much more daring than Yevtushenko like Joseph Brodsky were arrested and sent to the Gulag or forced into exile.  It turned out that he had what we might call Slavic privilege compared to Jews and minority ethnics.  As did his refusal to leave the Communist Party.  Even though he spoke up in defense of Brodsky during his trial, the future Nobel Prize winner, denounced Yevtushenko for tepid and safe dissent—he had not protested Brodsky’s conviction, only the severity of his sentence. 

Perhaps Yevtushenko had that privilege in mind when in the summer of 1961 he met another writer, Anatoly Kuznetsov who was a witness to the horrific mass slaughter of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews at a remote ravine in 1941.  One of the first major events of the Nazi Final Solution, more than 34,000 men, women, and children were rounded up from their villages, trucked to the ravine, stripped naked, marched in groups to the edge of the gully, and shot by units made up of German police, their bodies falling into and filling the ravine.  But almost no one knew a thing about it.  It was not mentioned in Soviet histories of the war, acknowledged, or commemorated.  At best it was a rumor spread by witnesses like Kuznetsov and a handful of survivors who hid from the hail of bullets under the bodies of their friends, neighbors, and families.

Women and children line up for execution at Babi Yar.  The Nazis carefully documented their accomplishment.  And still it remained almost a secret to the world.

Kuznetsov took Yevtushenko to the site.  The poet said he knew there would be no monument, but was unprepared for what he saw—garbage trucks covering the bones of the dead with trash and refuse.  Or the attitude of the local Ukrainians he met who either professed ignorance of who spat on the ground and said the “Jews got what was coming to them.”  Or the refusal of the Ukrainian Soviet government to acknowledge in any way what had happened or combat on-going rampant anti-Semitism.  
Back in a Kiev hotel room the words poured out of him.  He completed Babiyy YarBabi Yar in English in less than two hours.  It was an indictment of the atrocity itself but also of the common as dirt anti-Semitism in Russian society and of the calculated indifference of Soviet authorities.
But even in this powerful poem, Yevtushenko took pains to appeal to the ideals of The Internationale and to aver “There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine.”  Jews may have had his Russian sympathy but he must not be mistaken for one.
Unable at first to publish the poem in circulated hand to hand among the intelligence in hand typed samizdats and was smuggled out of the USSR where it created a sensation and first revealed the horrific story to the world.  Later that year authorities allowed it to be published in the leading cultural newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary Gazette).  They found his denouncement of anti-Semitism a useful attack on right wing nationalists who the West lumped together with all other dissidents and who were often supported and encouraged by the CIA.  Still later the great composer and Hero of the Soviet Union Dmitri Shostakovich set Babi Yar to music along with four other Yevtushenko poems in his Thirteenth Symphony.  That represented Soviet cultural approval at the highest level possible

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me—and  now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The anti-Semites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

—“They come!”

— “No, fear not—those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

— “They break the door!”

“—No, river ice is breaking...”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May Internationale thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of anti-Semites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by anti-Semites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Yevgeny Yevtushenko  
Translated by Ben Okopnik

Nikita Khrushchev found Yevtushenko useful for his de-Stalinization campaign and the poet in turn took advantage of the protection that afforded.
Those early ‘60’s days were marked with enormous popular acclaim for the young poet with a reputation for being a daring dissident while remaining officially approved.  In 1961 Yevtushenko performed more than 290 public readings with a theatrical flair that enchanted audiences.   He was allowed to travel widely abroad as a cultural ambassador and proof that under Khrushchev Soviet society was both flourishing and opening up.  In 1961 he also published Nasledniki Stalina (The Heirs of Stalin), his powerful public condemnation of Stalinism and an admonition to Soviet authorities not to return to his brutal dictatorship.   Of course that was exactly the message Khrushchev wanted to send those in the Politburo who thought he had gone too far.
The Heirs of Stalin
Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fixed bayonets.
He also was mute- his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious,
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal,
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare,
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin:
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go!
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin!
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
“Why care?” some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.

—Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by  George Reavey   
Of course secretive Soviet politics at the highest levels was not firm ground on which to stand.  By 1963 traditional hard liners were getting an upper hand and perhaps pushed over hard.  From 1963 to ’66 he found himself barred from travel abroad.  Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 and eventually replaced with hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev and Yevtushenko aroused the suspicion of KGB Chief Yuri Andropov, who led a heavy-handed crackdown on dissenters especially after the suppression of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, which the poet had criticized. 

Yevtushenko was idolized in the West as a brave dissident.
Yevtushenko was somewhat protected by his public devotion to Marxist-Leninism as evidenced by his ardent support for Cuba and for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who became personal friends.  He did speak up cautiously for dissidents like Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but neither appreciated it and for different reasons criticized him.  Brodsky and other Jews felt he “only threw stones in approved directions” and Solzhenitsyn was a Russian nationalist and ardent anti-Communist who rejected the support of someone who maintained his Party affiliation and prestigious Writer’s Union positions. 
As Jewish dissidents came in for increased persecution attracting international protest Yevtushenko muted his criticism of the state and generally pulled in his horns on political commentary in his poetry.  He preserved his privileged position and continued to be published.  He turned his attention to other forms of expression, including acting, film making, and writing novels.
With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the era of glasnost—openness—and perestroika—restructuring—Yevtushenko returned to political activity with eagerness.   In 1989 he was elected as a representative for Kharkov in the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in support of Gorbachev.  Two years later in 1991 he joined Boris Yeltsin in opposing a hardline coup d’état.   While Boris stood down Red Army tanks Yevtushenko spoke and read poetry to a soccer stadium filled with more than 100,000 defenders of reform.
Later, however when Yeltsin was elected President of the new Russian Federation, Yevtushenko broke with him over the invasion of Chechnya.  He also took up environmental causes and warred with right wing Nationalists who split from the Writer’s Union of which he was a leading officer to set up an alternative Union of the Writers of Russia.
After 1991 Yevtushenko began to spend most of his time abroad, mostly in the United States where he accepted several academic appointments.  His most enduring relationship was at the University of Tulsa where he taught since 1994 and Tulsa became his main residence.  He was a popular instructor who was interested in his students—he preferred the “sons of cowboys and engineers” to the Eastern elite.  “New York is thrilling, but it is not America,” he observed.   He also maintained an apartment in Moscow which he visited frequently and regularly picked up prestigious honors in both countries.

Professor Yevtushenko;
There you have him Yevgeny Yevtushenko—genius or hack, hero or opportunist—take your pick.  Perhaps he was just a man trying to thread a narrow path between land mines and tigers.
Conversations With an American Writer
“You have courage,” they tell me.
It’s not true. I was never courageous.
I simply felt it unbecoming
to stoop to the cowardice of my colleagues.

I’ve shaken no foundations.
I simply mocked at pretense and inflation.
Wrote articles. Scribbled no denunciations.
And tried to speak all on my mind.
Yes, I defended men of talent,
branding the hacks, the would-be writers.
But this, in general, we should always do;
and yet they keep stressing my courage.
Oh, our descendants will burn with bitter shame
to remember, when punishing vile acts,
that most peculiar time, when
plain honesty was labeled “courage”...

—Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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