Anti-Stalinist poet dies, aged 84
Yevgeny Yevtushenko (pictured with Richard Nixon in 1972. ), the poet whose defiant verse inspired many young Russians to oppose Stalinism, died aged 84 on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been teaching for many years.
Yevtushenko’s protest poems, often delivered with sweeping gestures to large crowds, appeared as the Soviet Union tried to free itself from repression after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1961 alone, Yevtushenko gave 250 poetry readings.
He later taught at American universities, including the University of Tulsa, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yevtushenko became well known in his 20s with poetry denouncing Stalin and international acclaim with Babi Yar, a 1961 poem that told of the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis. He also denounced the wider anti-semitism that had spread through the USSR.
Until Babi Yar was published, the massacre was largely ignored because of Cold War politics.
“I don’t call it political poetry,” Yevtushenko, who lived in both Oklahoma and Moscow, told Associated Press in 2007. “I call it human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value.”
Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site near Kiev, Ukraine, and searching unsuccessfully for something marking what happened there.
“I was so shocked,” the poet said. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it.”
The poem, which took him two hours to write, begins: “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”
Yevtushenko read his work to crowded football grounds, including to a crowd of 200,000 in 1991, during the botched Russian coup attempt. Poetry is more widely respected as an art form in Russia than in the west.
“He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” said former University of Tulsa president Robert Donaldson, who was a Soviet scholar at Harvard.
Under former leader Nikita Khrushchev, his poetry was outspoken although some said he was only a showpiece dissident whose work never went beyond the limits of what the authorities would permit.
The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky said: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”
Brodsky resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Yevtushenko was named an honorary member.
Picture credit: Wikimedia