19 July 2017

Ersatz Freedom – Remembering Yevgeny Yevtushenko

"I call Yevtushenko a surfer poet. He always caught the wave. In his first collection, published in 1952, Yevtushenko managed to laud Stalin, and twenty years later published his anti-Stalinist poem “The Heirs of Stalin” in Pravda. In 1961 he wrote “Babi Yar” and infuriated the anti-Semites."


In the pantheon of German literature Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s place is secure. For one simple reason: his poetry was translated into German by the Austrian genius Paul Celan. Yevtushenko will also remain in the history of music: his poems, including “Babi Yar” were the basis for Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony. But will his verse last in Russian poetry? That question relates to the artistic value of his poetry. As far as its political and social significance is concerned, Yevtushenko has no equal. He encapsulated the age in which he lived and worked for decades (Yevtushenko lived to a ripe old 85). It was he who best represented it, not Solzhenitsyn or Brodsky, who wrote in defiance of their era. I call Yevtushenko a surfer poet. He always caught the wave. In his first collection, published in 1952, Yevtushenko managed to laud Stalin, and twenty years later published his anti-Stalinist poem “The Heirs of Stalin” in Pravda. In 1961 he wrote “Babi Yar” and infuriated the anti-Semites. On 22 August 1968 he condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the poem “Tanks Are Driving Through Prague”, which, for all that, did not stop him from being published in the USSR and travelling abroad.

Abroad” was Yevtushenko’s calling card. Permission to travel was a very rare privilege in the USSR. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s he played the same role in the West that Ilya Ehrenburg had done in Stalin’s time.

In the West his behaviour was free, even provocative, unlike, for example, Shostakovich, who was, as Sir Isaiah Berlin recalled in his memoirs, paralysed with fear during his visit to Oxford in 1958. Yevtushenko knew many of the cult figures of the era personally: Picasso and Chagall, Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende, he had his photo taken with Richard Nixon, paid court to Marlene Dietrich, held frank conversations with Robert Kennedy, visited Mstislav Rostropovich living in isolation in his dacha near Moscow after falling foul of the authorities. He was nominated (unsuccessfully) for the Nobel Prize, while his absolute opposite who did get the Nobel, Joseph Brodsky, gave him a wide berth, to put it mildly.

Yevtushenko’s best known line is A poet in Russia is more than a poet”. The role of “more than a poet” squeezed the poet out of Yevtushenko, but allowed him to remain topical until the very end (he died in Oklahoma). In 1961 Yevtushenko wrote the lyrics to the song “Do the Russians want war?”. It was his answer as a Soviet patriot to Western sceptics and critics of the USSR. Soviet interventions and subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and Syria provided an answer to his question. His song now sounds grotesque.

I met Yevgeny Yevtushenko once. It was in Munich at the studios of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the mid-1990s. I asked him if one could call the poetry he wrote during the years of the Thaw after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin and later, after the stagnation of the Brezhnev era, “ersatz freedom”. Yevtushenko did not take offence. He said sadly: “I would prefer to call it ‘a sip of freedom’.” I am certain he sincerely believed what he said.
 

Translation by Frank Williams




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