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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Sunday Poet

Writing in the New York Sun Pajamas Media editor Michael Weiss interviews Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko as neo-Soviet Russia

On December 12, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was honored with "White Snows Are Falling," a state-funded rock opera tribute staged at Moscow's Olympic Stadium. At 74, Mr. Yevtushenko is well acquainted with the concert arena venue, having become famous in the late '50 for declaiming his verses before youthful crowds hungry for genuine art in the post-Stalin — and anti-Stalinist — period. Back then, he published collections that sold in the 100,000-range. His good looks, charisma, and cultivated "public" persona only legitimize the inevitable comparisons with Western pop stars: Mr. Yevtushenko was always something of a Mick Jagger of the taiga.

It was with this slightly kitsch portrait in mind that I phoned him up a few weeks ago at his dacha at Peredelkino, just outside the Russian capital. Mr. Yevtushenko divides his time between Russia and the University of Tulsa, where he has taught poetry and film for nearly 20 years. The rock opera, coincident with his 75th birthday, was based on a 1980 record, "Confession," composed by Gleb Mai, who set Mr. Yevtushenko's decades-old poems to music, accompanied by the Bolshoi Theater orchestra. The poet himself was onstage to deliver more traditional live readings.

"The first part was written 25 years ago exactly," Mr. Yevtushenko, whose English is admirable, tells me of "White Snows Are Falling." "It's about an intimate relationship between a young man and a young woman, about the fear of separation of the body and soul. When the soul lives separately from the body or vice versa, there is no harmony … there is no plot. This is an inner fight for the soul of man."

The metaphysical was always a part of Mr. Yevtushenko's "individualist" style; he still professes to think of himself as foremost a love poet. I couldn't help but think, however, that his talk of the mind-body distinction — and he could go on like this for quite a while — was only a prologue to the rock opera's historical significance. "The twentieth century has left so many ruins of marketism, Stalinism … not ruins of democracy. Young people are incredibly scared about themselves because they feel some apathy. They long for ideals, not ideology." He seemed to believe his performance answered this longing. "They were singing, applauding — they didn't want to leave! This rock opera united so many people of different ages, from 60-year-olds to 17- year-olds."

The satirist Mikhail Zadornov, Mr. Yevtushenko told me, recently nicknamed him "The Lighter" for his ability to set a stadium full of Russian spirits aflame, though he did not emphasize the necessity of such an enterprise in the consensus-choked, opposition-starved Age of Putin. Mr. Yevtushenko has spoken only euphemistically about the KGB tsar's abrogation of democracy, claiming, "Putin, like Russia, is struggling to find his way in a time when ideals have been shattered and expedience reigns." This rather paltry analysis of current affairs may seem a great distance from the man who warned, in "The Dead Hand of the Past" (1962), that "Someone still glares in the Stalin manner, / looking at young men askance." In truth, Mr. Yevtushenko's politics have always been a complicated mixture of bravery, populism, and vulgar accommodation with dictatorship. "The writers who had briefly flourished [under Khrushchev's thaw] … went two different ways," the great Sovietologist and literary critic Robert Conquest put it in a 1974 profile. "Solzhenitsyn and his like into silenced opposition; Yevtushenko and his like, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes in the hope of still influencing matters a little, into well-rewarded collaboration."

And yet, a hagiography of Mr. Yevtushenko as the Byronic rebel has flourished in the West — he is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters — and this surely owes to "Babi Yar," his most famous poem, written in 1961 as a moving threnody to the Ukrainian Jews massacred by the Nazis: "In my blood there is no Jewish blood. / In their callous rage, all anti-Semites / must hate me now as a Jew. / For that reason / I am a true Russian!" It made its 28-year-old author an international icon of Russian liberalism a year before Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" came out; it also made him a martyr to his own attempts to address the taboo subject of Judeocide. (Shostakovich later rendered the poem, along with three others by the same author, as an orchestral piece for his 13th Symphony.)

Mr. Yevtushenko once defiantly recited the closing staves of "Babi Yar" to Khrushchev, who replied that the poem had no place in the Soviet Union because "official" anti-Semitism didn't exist there. But because the poem was an indictment of an unofficial Russian pathology, as opposed to an ideologically sanctioned bigotry, it was not suppressed, only watered down. After the leftist French weekly L'Express put out his "A Precocious Autobiography" (1963) — a volume that also addressed anti-Semitism and carried the observation that in "Russia all tyrants believe poets to be their worst enemies" — Mr. Yevtushenko was formally brought to heel. He was one of the few writers to confess to having committed "an irreparable mistake," which he vowed to rectify.

Not that his reputation abroad suffered: As Mr. Conquest put it, he "was not just the shining liberal knight who sold out and became a mere cynical agent of the oppressor. His original liberalism was of a limited nature, and it was not he, but his Western fans, who made higher claims." Such fans included Arthur Miller and William Styron, who called Mr. Yevtushenko a "voice of conscience among his colleagues," a judgment that could not have been more wrong — it was precisely his colleagues who hated him most.

The poet himself once wrote that the "Russian Parnassus is rife with squabbles," but the antagonism which met Mr. Yevtushenko at home was not merely the result of Leavisite feuds. Critics such as Vasily Aksyonov and Grigory Pozhenyan accused him of using his perch as secretary of the Soviet Union of Writers to "settle personal scores" and engage in "hypocritical demagogy." Also troubling was that this avowed admirer of Pasternak — whom he called "Pushkin's double"— would say that "Dr. Zhivago" was "not worth publishing" in the Soviet Union. Overseas, Mr. Yevtushenko took to defaming the deceased novelist's lover and heir, Olga Ivinskaya, who had been jailed for eight years on false charges of unlawfully administering Pasternak's Western royalties. When asked about her plight, Mr. Yevtushenko replied that he wouldn't have anything to do with currency criminals.

Indeed, the greatest feat of Kremlin public relations may have been to convince the world of the existence of an uncompromised dissident with a passport. Mr. Yevtushenko was at his most amenable to Moscow when far away from it. He took no position, despite numerous entreaties, on the notorious Ginzburg-Galanskov trial, because he was preparing for a trip to Chile at the time. He got to travel regularly to Italy, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Senegal, and Cuba, where he directed an idolizing film about that country's revolution (Fidel Castro is still a personal friend).

During his 1972 trip to America, he produced such vulgar propaganda verses that even Eugene McCarthy — no fan of American foreign policy then — had heard enough. Allen Tate called him a "ham actor, not a poet," and others not unsympathetic to criticisms of Washington found his frequent condemnations of American "imperialism," and comparatively footling criticisms of the Russian police state, thoroughly repulsive.

Much has been made of Mr. Yevtushenko's protest of the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel, an event now credited with inaugurating the modern dissident movement and readying the national pulse for perestroika. Both writers had toiled under pseudonyms and stood accused, in 1966, of "anti-Soviet activity" for the views espoused by their fictional characters. But Mr. Yevtushenko's actual position was that the writers were guilty, only punished too severely.

There is something uneasy and defensive about his response some 40 years on to any questions concerning his dubious role as a cultural statesman. "When I wrote 'Babi Yar,'" he told me, "one high official said to me, 'Why [did] you write this? We could make you our first national poet if you wrote something about Vietnam.' I said to him, 'If I couldn't write poems like "Babi Yar" against something I didn't like, like anti-Semitism, I will never have the moral right to write poetry about Vietnam.' I dislike both, this is my position. You know the proverb 'You couldn't sit between two chairs'? I once wrote a poem that used this proverb. I said if both chairs are dirty, to sit between them is the best place for a poet."

That Mr. Yevtushenko managed to both captivate and unsettle is best evidenced in his twin run-ins with Kingsley Amis, a man not known for his generosity toward foreigners, much less foreign literary types. The cold warrior Falstaff first met the blue-eyed Siberian at Cambridge in 1962 during one of the latter's media-frenzied tours of Europe. They bonded in discussion of ugly bourgeois architecture, the existence of God, and the rewards of literature ("Kipling good"), so much so that Amis wrote that Mr. Yevtushenko was not a "charlatan" — high praise coming from the author of "Lucky Jim" — and that he had just found "the first completely good reason … for liking the U.S.S.R."

Yet just six years later, the scales fell from the eyes. When Mr. Yevtushenko was nominated for the poetry chair at Oxford in 1968, Amis, Bernard Levin, and the Russian-Hungarian historian Tibor Szamuely led the campaign against him, arguing correctly that he had made life difficult for his fellow Soviet writers. In the event, he did not get the post, and when asked about it today, Mr. Yevtushenko responds that Amis was "misinformed." In his defense, he cites an unfair rumor going around at the time that he had not signed a telegram protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia when he had in fact done so; he'd also written a poem, "Russian Tanks in Prague."

Nevertheless, it is absurd to credit his insistence that he was ultimately denied the cap and gown due to KGB disinformation feeding the small but potent band of naysayers. For one thing, the Soviet Embassy in London supported his candidacy, as did even the conservative element on Fleet Street. The whole affair was recently recounted in the British magazine Prospect by Bernard Wasserstein, the student who first proposed Mr. Yevtushenko for the position, as he admits, purely for "political" reasons. As with most of the New Left, the poetry was a secondary consideration.

And yet if evaluated "primarily as a politician," Mr. Conquest wrote, "we might yet accept that in Soviet circumstances his record, with all its shifts and compromises, may merit, on balance, a positive assessment." Auden's clement judgment that time "Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives" might also apply here. Though for the orphans and prodigal children of 20th-century totalitarianism, Mr. Yevtushenko's one-line autobiography says it best: "I am a citizen of human grief."

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