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Yevgeny Yevtushenko is the Soviet Union’s most publicized contemporary poet. He became the leading literary spokesman for a generation of Russians in the post-Stalin era, and he is often considered one of the first dissident voices to speak out against Stalinism. His 1987 prose and poetry collection Almost at the End established him as a prominent spokesman for Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign of political liberalization.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Born under the Sign of Stalin

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born on July 18,1933, in Stanzia Zima, Siberia. His father Gangnus was a geologist, and his mother, Zinaida, was also a geologist, as well as being a singer. Yevtushenko’s family was of mixed Ukrainian, Russian, and Tatar heritage. His maternal grandfather, Ermolai, was a Red Army officer during the Russian Revolution and the civil war; both Ermolai and Yevtushenko’s paternal grandfather were accused of being ”enemies of the people” and were arrested in 1937 during Stalin’s purges. Estimates of the number of deaths associated with the Great Purge, the most significant of these, range from the official Soviet number of 681,692 to close to 2 million.

Spokesman for a Liberal Youth

Yevtushenko began writing early, and crafted his first verses and song lyrics by the time he was seven years of age. After his parents divorced in the early 1940s, the young Yevtushenko spent his early childhood in Moscow with his mother and sister, Yelena, and in the late 1940s traveled with his father on geological expeditions to Kazakhstan and Altai, Siberia.

Yevtushenko was attending Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow when he published his first volume of poetry, The Prospectors of the Future (1952). Following the Twentieth Communist Party Congress of 1956—during which Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly enumerated the crimes of former leader Joseph Stalin— Yevtushenko emerged as a prominent spokesman for Russian youth and for the new regime’s commitment to more liberal policies. At about the same time he published his next work, Winter Station (1956), a highly acclaimed long poem first published in the Soviet journal Oktiabr.

Political and International Attention

In 1955, his third poetry collection, Third Snow, was published, followed by Highway of the Enthusiasts in 1956, Promise in 1957, and The Bow and the Lyre in 1959. During the late 1950s, Yevtushenko emerged as a leading nationalist proponent of the Cold war ”thaw” between the Soviet Union and the United States. This thaw was envisioned as a way for the two cultures to better the chances of a peaceful future through cultural exchanges with one another. Granted permission by government authorities to deliver poetry readings in both countries in 1960, Yevtushenko soon became Russia’s best-known living poet.

While new volumes of his verse—including The Apple (1960), Tenderness: New Poems (1962), and A Wave of the Hand (1962)—appeared in the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko’s early verse was introduced to English readers through such collections as Selected Poems (1962) and Selected Poetry (1963). In one of his most controversial poems of this period, ”Stalin’s Heirs,” Yevtushenko describes a fictional reawakening of Stalin following a brief interment in the tomb of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin, implying that Russians should beware the reemergence of Stalinism. Such a warning was not entirely without merit, as the rise to power of Leonid Brezhnev signaled a movement away from the reforms of his predecessor, Khrushchev, and the reconstitution of a Stalinesque authoritarian state (culminating first in the crushing of the anti-Soviet Prague Spring in 1968 and then in the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979).

Russian Reprimand

While Yevtushenko was on tour reading from his latest works, the publication in France of his A Precocious Autobiography (1963) was arranged without Soviet permission. With this volume— combining his political views with memoirs of his youth—Yevtushenko was reprimanded for his personalized interpretation of Russian history. He was, however, permitted to continue publishing, and he again attracted international recognition for his next volume, New Works: The Bratsk Station (1965), in which the poet praises Russian workers by contrasting them with earlier, ancient civilizations. That same year Yevtushenko received the USSR Commission for the Defense of Peace award.

Diversified Work

Yevtushenko’s poetry of the early 1970s was collected in several books, including the particularly successful Stolen Apples (1971). It was also in these years that Yevtushenko began working on plays. His drama Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty (1972), a series of revue sketches set in the United States, was originally produced by Yuri Lyubimov, a leader in the Soviet avant-garde theater. Under the Skin achieved popular success in Russia, though it was faulted for Yevtushenko’s inability to impart his concerns to Western audiences.

Yevtushenko followed his dramatic work with two more poetry collections, The Face behind the Face (1979) and Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool (1979). In 1979 he also expanded his repertoire to include acting for the cinema. He appeared in such Soviet films as Take-Off (1979) and The Kindergarten (1983). In the early 1980s, Yevtushenko gradually moved away from poetry to experiment with various prose forms, including A Dove in Santiago: A Novella in Verse (1982).

A Celebrated Novelist, a Politician, and a Traveling Poet-Teacher

Yevtushenko’s first novel, Wild Berries (1984), was originally published in 1981 in the Soviet periodical Moskva, and is likened to an American thriller with its emphasis on action, sex, and exotic locales. Despite that work’s mixed reception—Soviet critics faulting it for focusing on war miseries instead of triumphs; Western critics praising its sincerity—Wild Berries made Yevtushenko a 1985 finalist for the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award for best 1984 novel published in English. That same year also saw him receiving the esteemed USSR state prize and publishing his second novel, Ardabiola.

In the waning moments of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain (under Gorbachev), Yevtuskenko served from 1988 to 1991 in the first freely elected Russian parliament since the revolution, where he fought against censorship and other restrictions. Yevtushenk’s more recent works, both then and in the post-Soviet era, have focused on problems in human interaction with the natural environment; but he has—to the surprise and chagrin of many observers—been less than critical of autocratic president Vladimir Putin. Today, Yevtushenko divides his time between Russia and the United States, teaching at both the University of Oklahoma at Tulsa and at Queens College of the City University of New York. He has also served as an artist in residence at a number of other institutions. His more recent works include the film Stalin’s Funeral (1990) and the novel Don’t Die before You’re Dead (1995), which is a satirical retelling of the 1991 events that ended the Soviet Union and lifted Boris Yeltsin to power.

Works in Literary Context

Lyrical Style for Political and Personal Themes

Long prescribed by scholars of Russian poetry is a favoring of emotion over principles, and it is a prescription Yevtushenko follows. He makes use of a lyrical style that many critics have compared with early twentieth-century poet Vladimir Mayakovsky for its rage against hypocrisy and passivity. In all of his works Yevtushenko presents nationalistic and critical views on political, civic, and personal themes.

The long poem Winter Station (1956) is Yevtushenko’s attempt to resolve personal doubts as well as moral and political questions raised by Stalin’s regime. In the title piece of New Works: The Bratsk Station (1965), Yevtushenko contrasts the use of slaves to construct the Egyptian pyramids with the willingness of Russian workers to build a hydroelectric complex in Siberia. In his drama Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty (1972), Yevtushenko condemns American violence while praising the idealism of the nation’s youth. In Ivan the Terrible and Ivan the Fool (1979), he returns to nationalistic concerns to contrast the abused working class with the dreaded autocrat who transformed Russian culture and society during the sixteenth century. In Ardabiola (1984), composed of chapters written in diverse styles and combining elements from several genres, he takes the opportunity to satirize Soviet culture and government and to address the influence of American materialism on Russian youth. And Almost at the End (1987—and it came indeed almost at the end of the Soviet Union) features as its centerpiece the poem “Fuku,” a long work in which Yevtushenko uses a cinematic style and combines traditional poetry, free verse, and prose to comment on such characteristic concerns as history, tyranny, and justice.

Works in Critical Context

Eastern-bloc and Western critics alike have often vacillated in their opinions of Yevtushenko’s work, in part because he tends to embrace opposing ideologies and he tends to alternately celebrate and censure elements of both Communist and capitalist approaches to civilization. Yet his poems are often commended for their political significance, optimism, and explosive use of language. Representative of the wide array of criticism are responses to two works, Babi Yar and Wild Berries.

Babi Yar (1961)

Originally published in the periodical Literaturnaya gazeta, Babi Yar garnered international acclaim. The title of this long poem refers to a ravine near Kiev, where historians estimate that between thirty-four thousand and one hundred thousand Jews were massacred by the Nazis during World War II. Babi Yar was ridiculed by many Soviet critics for its accusation that many Russian people harbor anti-Semitic sentiments—a claim that, Yevtushenko asserted, was corroborated by public indifference to erecting a memorial on the site. Contemporary critics have often read Yevtushenko through the lens of Holocaust studies, as seen in historian Dagmar Herzog’s argument that Yevtushenko’s political victory with the poem Babi Yar ”was a hollow one,” because the memorial erected after the poem’s success refers to those massacred not as Jews but simply as ”citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war.”

Wild Berries (1981)

Yevtushenko’s first novel, Wild Berries, is said to celebrate Russian philosophy and existence but at the same time is similar to an American thriller. The book was faulted by Soviet critics for its emphasis on the miseries of war rather than past military triumphs and for its treatment of Stalin’s deportation of the kulaks (landowning peasant farmers) in the 1930s. Wild Berries was praised by many Western reviewers for Yevtushenko’s sincerity of purpose. Critic Susan Jacoby further expressed the multiple views on the author when she commented, In American terms, [Yevtushenko] might best be imagined as a hybrid of Walt Whitman and Norman Mailer—with all the extravagant enthusiasms, risk-taking, self-promotion, blundering and talent that might be expected from such a creature.”

References:

  1. Blair, Katherine Hunter. A Review of Soviet Literature. Port Townsend, Wash.: Ampersand, 1966.
  2. Brown, Edward James. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. New York: Collier, 1963.
  3. Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. A Precocious Autobiography. New York: Dutton, 1963.
  4. Brownjohn, Allen. ”Travellers Alone.” Poetry 89 (October 1956): 45.
  5. Jacoby, Susan. ”Shostakovich; ‘Babi Yar’ Troubles.” New York Times, March 19, 2000.
  6. Aytmatov, Chingis. Spin Tongues. The Sail of Poetry. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://spintongues.msk.ru/aytmatov.html.
  7. Bedford/St. Martin’s Lit Links. ”Yevgeny Yevtushenko, b. 1933.” Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/litlinks/Pages/Main.aspx.
  8. Nation, Brian. Boppin a Riff. Three Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://www.boppin.com/poets/yevtushenko.htm. Last updated on May 7, 2008.
  9. Russian Culture Navigator. ”A Poet in Russia” (Marking the 65th birthday of Yevgeny Yevtushenko). Retrieved May 16, 2008, from http://www.vor.ru/ culture/cultarch30_eng.html. Last updated on July 18, 1998.

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