Yevgeny Yevtushenko composed "Babii Yar" in September 1961. The first public reading of the poem took place at Oktober Hall in Kiev, Ukraine, the following month. The opening lines of "Babii Yar" are a lament that there is no public monument to remind visitors that more than 33,700 Kiev Jews were massacred at Babi Yar in September 1941. In his poem, Yevtushenko uses the less common Russian spelling for Babii Yar; however, the more common and customary spelling for the location itself is Babi Yar, which is how the massacre there is most often referenced. Much of Yevtushenko's focus throughout "Babii Yar" is then directed toward the anti-Semitism that was so prevalent in the Soviet Union after the end of World War II. To illustrate the damage caused by anti-Semitism, he explores the long history of anti-Semitism from the ancient Greeks to the Holocaust.
"Babii Yar" was first published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet magazine, in 1961. After the poem's publication, Dmitri Shostakovich telephoned Yevtushenko and asked if he could set the poem to music. The result is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, in which, during the first movement, a male chorus sings Yevtushenko's poem. The Soviet Communist government would not permit Shostakovich's symphony to be performed, however, unless Yevtushenko changed the words to focus on the Ukrainian and Russian victims who were also killed at Babi Yar rather than on the Jewish victims. Yevtushenko made the changes, as requested; after the fall of Communism, the original text was reinserted in performances outside of Russia. It is the original text that appears in anthologies of Yevtushenko's poetry, such as Early Poems (1966), which was published in the United Kingdom, and The Collected Poems (1992), published in the United States. The former was the first printing of "Babii Yar" in one of Yevtushenko's books. "Babii Yar" is also included in Holocaust Poetry (1995), compiled by Hilda Schiff.
Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko was born at a small settlement, Stantzia Zima (Winter Station), along the Trans-Siberian Railway, on July 18, 1933. Yevtushenko's father, Gangus, was a geologist; he was also a Latvian intellectual who read poetry and other literature and who made sure that his son also read literature. Yevtushenko's mother, Zinaida, also a geologist, was a Ukrainian whose family had lived in Siberia for many generations. Zinaida took Yevtushenko and his sister, Yelena, to live in Moscow in the late 1930s. Because of the war, Yevtushenko and his sister were evacuated from Moscow in 1941 and returned to Zima to live with their grandmother. Their parents divorced shortly afterwards, and their father remarried and moved to Kazakhstan. In 1944, Yevtushenko returned to Moscow and to school. He was expelled from school and joined his father in Kazakhstan, where he found a job with a geological expedition. For a while Yevtushenko thought about a career playing soccer, but then in 1949 his first poem was published in Soviet Sport. Yevtushenko was soon encouraged to become a writer and enrolled at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, where he studied from 1951 to 1954.
Yevtushenko's first book of poetry, The Prospectors of the Future, was published in 1952. He followed this with another collection of poems, Third Snow, in 1955. Additional collections of poetry quickly followed, including Highway of the Enthusiasts in 1956 and Promises in 1957. In 1959 Yevtushenko had two collections of poetry published, The Bow and the Lyre and Poems of Several Years, which was a retrospective anthology of some of his earlier poetry.
Yevtushenko began traveling outside the Soviet Union in 1961. By this time he was quite well known, and his poem "Babii Yar" had added to his notoriety. He attracted large crowds wherever he went. In 1962 he published an unauthorized autobiography (by Soviet Union standards) in Germany, titled A Precocious Autobiography, in which he criticizes Soviet society. He was then denounced by the Soviet government, and his works were heavily criticized. The book was published in English in 1963.
After Yevtushenko's 1965 collection of poetry Bratskaya GES was published to critical acclaim, he was once again in the good graces of Soviet authorities. "Babii Yar" was first included in a dual Russian and English edition of his poetry titled Early Poems. This work was issued in 1966 and reissued in 1989. The edition of Yevtushenko's poetry most frequently discussed is The Collected Poems, issued in 1991. At more than 600 pages, this volume, which contains much of the author's poetry, is considered one of his major works. Also in 1991, Yevtushenko published a collection of political speeches and essays titled Fatal Half Measures: The Culture of Democracy in the Soviet Union. Yevtushenko is a prolific writer. Over the course of his career he has published dozens of books of poetry, both in Russian and in English, as well as plays and novels. He also wrote a documentary, in which he starred. While Yevtushenko was frequently critical of the Soviet government throughout his career, he was honored by that government many times. As of 2008, Yevtushenko lived in both the United States and in Russia. In the United States, he has taught poetry and cinema at Queen's College in New York and at the University of Oklahoma in Tulsa. Yevtushenko has been married four times and has had five children.
No monument stands over Babii Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people. 5
Now I seem to be
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails. 10
I seem to be
is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars. 15
Beset on every side.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace 20
stick their parasols into my face.
I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The bar-room rabble-rousers 25
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
"Beat the Yids. Save Russia!" 30
some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.
O my Russian people!
are international to the core. 35
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these antisemites—
without a qualm 40
they pompously called themselves
"The Union of the Russian People"!
I seem to be
as a branch in April.
And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
is that we gaze into each other. 50
How little we can see
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much— 55
embrace each other in a dark room.
They're coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring: 60
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it's the ice breaking … 65
The wild grasses rustle over Babii Yar.
The trees look ominous,
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head, 70
slowly I feel myself
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here. 75
each old man
here shot dead.
every child 80
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The "Internationale", let it
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew. 90
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
The opening lines of Yevtushenko's poem "Babii Yar" present a lament that there is no public monument to commemorate the massacre of Kiev Jews that occurred at that site in September 1941. Yevtushenko's speaker begins with a geographical image of the site of the massacre, describing a sheer cliff hanging over a ravine that became a mass grave. This site creates fear, which can be understood in two ways. The fear might certainly be the fear associated with an event so terrible that even the location seems to be haunted. In this case the fear that the victims felt at the moment of their death still pervades the location. A second possible fear is the concern that such an event might happen again—that there could once again be a time when people's lives could have so little value that many thousands could die in a brutal fashion in such a short period of time.
After referring to the event and briefly describing the location, the speaker begins a section in which he refers to the history of anti-Semitism. He identifies himself as Jewish. It is important to know that Yevtushenko is not Jewish; instead, his speaker assumes this identity in a rhetorical strategy allowing Yevtushenko to place himself historically into the Jewish experience. He writes that he is as old as the anti-Semitism that Jews have encountered throughout the ages, beginning with the enslavement of Jews by ancient Egyptians. The speaker understands the suffering of each one of the many Jews who have faced oppression during the past several thousand years. He imagines that he is one of the Jewish slaves who were used by the Egyptians to make their ancient land great. The speaker next imagines that he is Jesus, a Jew who was crucified for his religious beliefs. The speaker envisions himself with the scars from the wounds that Jesus suffered at the hands of his tormenters.
The speaker also sees himself as Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer who, though innocent, was tried and convicted of treason in 1894. Dreyfus endured a public shaming ceremony in which he was stripped of his military rank and was then exiled to Devil's Island, a penal colony off the coast of South America, where he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life. Dreyfus was a Jew, and his unjust conviction and imprisonment were the result of anti-Semitismin France at the end of the nineteenth century. Dreyfus is yet another example of the injustice caused by anti-Semitism. He was accused and secretly tried and never permitted to see the contrived evidence used against him. Yevtushenko refers to those who persecuted Dreyfus as Philistines, the ancient biblical enemy of the Jews, who in this case acted as accuser, prosecutor, and judge. In Yevtushenko's poem, Dreyfus's reputation is destroyed and he is subjected to public attacks. He is jailed, an outcast from society.
In the first few lines of this section, Yevtushenko continues to personally identify with Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. He recalls the pogroms of Byelostok, known in English as Bialystok, in what is now Poland. Pogroms were violent riots directed against Jewish inhabitants. The 1906 pogrom in Bialystok killed more than a hundred people. Yevtushenko envisions himself as a young Jewish boy who has been kicked and beaten and who lies covered with blood on the floor. The boy must watch his mother being beaten by drunken men. The smell of vodka helps to define the men, who use alcohol to fuel their violent attack. Perhaps Yevtushenko is suggesting that they need the alcohol to give them the gall to beat up a child and his mother. The setting for the beating is a bar, and the bully who beats the woman is a grain clerk. He is just an ordinary man, not a soldier, and so the violence is not a result of a military action of some kind. These violent men scream that the beating of the boy's mother is a patriotic act. To beat up the Jews glorifies Russia.
- A recording of Yevtushenko reading "Babii Yar" in Russian (with the actor Alan Bates reading the poem in English) was released by Caedmon in 1967.
- A recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, in which "Babii Yar" is sung by a men's chorus, was released by Everest in 1967. The album was recorded during a live performance in Moscow on November 20, 1965.
In the next lines, Yevtushenko moves from the list of anti-Semitic atrocities to call upon his fellow Russians to join the international community and condemn those whose actions denigrate their Russian heritage. He reminds the people that most Russians are good at heart. Yevtushenko argues that people who are kind and good are being abused by those people, whose hands have been dirtied by their crimes. According to Yevtushenko, the actions of those who use anti-Semitism to persecute their fellow Russians have debased all Russians. Russia cannot unite as one people with these criminals in their midst.
Yevtushenko opens this section by recalling the story of Anne Frank, a young girl who hid with her family in an attic until someone betrayed the family's hiding place. She later died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in Poland. Yevtushenko again casts himself as the Jew, vulnerable as the starving girl, who died in April 1945. He imagines that he is Anne, longing to share love with Peter van Pels, the teenage boy who shared Anne's hiding place in the secret attic annex. Yevtushenko imagines the two lovers wordlessly exchanging glances. Although they are imprisoned in their hiding place and cannot experience the world outside, they can still share an embrace. This tender embrace helps them forget the sky that they are not permitted to see or the leaves on the tree that they cannot touch. Then suddenly the lovers' tender embrace is interrupted by the loud noises of the Nazis, who have come to arrest them. But Anne's lover seeks to reassure her and tells her that the noises that she hears are just the sounds of spring coming, of the ice in the river breaking up. He tells Anne not to be afraid, that his embrace and kiss will keep the danger away.
Anne's story is resolved in the following lines, with her fearful worry that the door is being broken down, but her lover provides one last reassurance that the pounding at the door is only the ice breaking on the river. Yevtushenko does not mention that the Frank family was captured in October 1944. It was not spring but fall, and even a lover's embrace could not protect the fifteen-year-old Anne from the Nazi extermination camps. The mindless hatred of anti-Semitism resulted in the deaths of all but one of the eight people who hid in that attic; only Anne's father, Otto, survived their time in the extermination camps.
In the next line, Yevtushenko moves from Anne and the stories of destruction caused by anti-Semitism and returns to Babi Yar, where even the grass cannot rest at the site of so much slaughter. Even the physical location has become representative of the massacre that occurred there. The trees remain as witnesses to the events of 1941, standing as if they judge those who committed this atrocity. The trees also judge those who allowed it to happen and those who have forgotten to honor this massacre. All of nature silently cries out in protest, according to the speaker, who joins in the silent cries of the hundred thousand who died at Babi Yar. He removes his hat in acknowledgment of the events that occurred twenty years earlier and stands at the precipice of death. Slowly the speaker's hair turns gray, and he is each old man who stood in this same place, facing his executioners. At the same time, he is every child who faced the executioners' guns. The speaker recognizes that standing at this place has changed him, and he will remember with every fiber of his being the events that took place at Babi Yar.
In this last section of the poem, the speaker claims that the "Internationale," the official song of the Soviet Union, will be shouted loudly to acclaim the moment when the last anti-Semite is buried and forgotten. Yevtushenko ends his poem by stating that while he is not Jewish, those who are anti-Semitic now rage against him and hate him as if he is Jewish. The anti-Semites who hate Jews are not true Russians. In contrast, Yevtushenko's speaker's hatred of anti-Semitism makes him a true Russian.
An important theme of "Babii Yar" is the destruction caused by anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was responsible for the killing of nearly all European Jewry during World War II, and anti-Semitism at other times in other countries, such as Ukraine and Poland, also caused many Jewish deaths. In his poem, Yevtushenko recalls many of the acts of anti-Semitism that predated the events of Babi Yar and the Holocaust. He recalls the slavery of Jews in Egypt, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the anti-Semitism in France that resulted in Dreyfus being persecuted and jailed. In his final example, Yevtushenko turns to the Holocaust and to Anne Frank, whose death then becomes representative of the suffering endured by all the children whose lives were destroyed because of anti-Semitism.
Death permeates the ravine at Babi Yar. Yevtushenko describes the physical location as emotionally representative of the massacre that occurred on that site. The grass cannot rest, and even the trees stand in judgment of the murders that occurred in that place. The dead are the hundred thousand and more people who continue to scream out in anguish; their silent screams dispel any idea that Babi Yar is a restful cemetery. Traditionally, people think of death as the inevitable end of life, but mass murder is not the natural end of life, and thus so many unjust deaths cannot have left the site untouched. These were not peaceful deaths but lives ended in great fear and pain. When Yevtushenko's speaker imagines that he is each of the old men and children who were slaughtered at that site, he does so to put on the mantle of their suffering and to keep their suffering alive, even beyond their death. Yevtushenko makes sure that these deaths will not be forgotten.
Although genocides occurred before the Holocaust, the word was not used to describe such mass killings until 1944, when a Jewish lawyer combined two classical root words—the Greek geno and the Latin cide—to create a word to describe the deliberate killing of a race or tribe of people. The word was first used at the Nuremberg trials, held after the end of World War II. The word genocide is now used to describe very violent crimes directed against a specific group of people with the intent to destroy that group in its entirety. In his poem, Yevtushenko identifies with the victims of a massacre, the Jews of Kiev, who were destroyed because they were Jewish. Their murder fits the description of a genocide, since the killings at Babi Yar were an attempt to erase all evidence of Jewish life in Kiev.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Half of all the Jews who died during the Holocaust died along the war's eastern front, which spanned Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Belorussia, and other countries bordering Poland and the Soviet Union. Many of these Jews died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads. Investigate the Einsatzgruppen and then write a paper in which you discuss their formation, how they were used, and the events that led to their being demobilized.
- Anatoly Kuznetsov's documentary novel Babi Yar is the story of what he observed there as a sixteen-year-old. Locate a copy of his book, and after you have read it, write an essay in which you compare the novel's depiction of the events at Babi Yar to Yevtushenko's poem. What do you see as the essential differences? In what ways do they capture the emotional impact of Babi Yar? Cite specific lines from both texts to support your findings.
- Unfortunately, Babi Yar was neither the first nor the last massacre of its kind. Choose another massacre either from World War II or from any other period of time. Thoroughly research the events of this massacre and then give a class presentation on your findings.
- With a group of classmates, research the history of anti-Semitism, beginning in the ancient world, as Yevtushenko does in his poem. Assign each member of your group a specific century or two to research and then create a timeline and poster presentation that traces this history. Collectively analyze the eras that you have researched and discuss what can be learned from this history.
Throughout the poem, the speaker's identity continues to shift from one person to another. The speaker assumes the personas of those who have suffered for their religion, beginning with the ancient Jews, who were slaves of the Egyptians. Another identity is that of Jesus. In this guise, Yevtushenko's speaker is crucified and bears the scars of his suffering. Later in the poem, he is the unjustly persecuted Dreyfus, the beaten boy in Bialystok who watches his mother being battered, and Anne Frank, who never grew up to experience a life shared with a man she loved. The speaker does not identify himself as a poet or even as a Russian. His own identity is obscured by the suffering of the Jews and cannot resurface until all anti-Semites in the Soviet Union are dead and forgotten. Only then can his own identity as a Russian once again be the role he assumes.
The opening line of Yevtushenko's poem is about remembering the massacre that occurred at Babi Yar. When he visited Babi Yar twenty years after the events took place, Yevtushenko was dismayed to see that the area was a refuse dump. There was no monument to the nearly 34,000 Jews who were slaughtered at that place in September 1941; there was also no memorial to the many thousands, including additional Jews, Gypsies, Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war, who were also slaughtered at Babi Yar in the following months and years. Although Yevtushenko uses his poem to remember Jewish victims from throughout the centuries, his main theme is that those who died at Babi Yar should not be forgotten. Although monuments help to memorialize the Jews and other victims who died, they can be vandalized or even destroyed. In contrast, Yevtushenko's poem will be a more lasting memorial to those who perished.
In "Babii Yar," Yevtushenko alludes to a number of events and people, trusting that his readers will understand or determine what he means. When he alludes to the Jews in ancient Egypt, he trusts his readers to know that the Jews were slaves under the reign of the pharaohs. The reference to Dreyfus is also an indirect allusion that relies upon the reader's having or gaining awareness of the events that occurred in late nineteenth-century France. Dreyfus's name suggests anti-Semitism, just as Anne Frank's name suggests the events of the Holocaust. Yevtushenko refers to notable events and people with whom his readers can identify, and thus he does not need to provide the complete stories. Allusions serve as a kind of shorthand for the poet; they require some effort on the part of the reader to fill in the gaps, but understanding the allusions makes the poem more enjoyable.
Human Rights Poetry
Although this poem might be considered a poem of political protest, it is really more a call to civic responsibility or to human rights and justice. Human rights poetry is concerned about the rights of the individual, including freedom of expression, such as through religion, and the right to live free of oppression. Poets and poetry are often focused on the individual, since the creation of poetry is a very individual occupation. Concern about human rights formed a significant movement for twentieth-century poets, including Yevtushenko, who uses his poetry to call attention to injustice, in this case the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, which intensified after World War II ended. For Yevtushenko, equality is a human right for all Russians, which he makes clear in the final lines of the poem when he reminds his readers that they will all be true Russians when the last anti-Semite is dead and buried. That will be the moment when all Russians can sing the "Internationale," the song of the Soviet Union.
Free Verse and Split Lines
There is no pattern of rhyme or meter to "Babii Yar," and in fact, there is no division into stanzas. Instead, the irregular line breaks give the poem more of a sing-song rhythm that is best appreciated by reading it aloud. For many poets, the practice of splitting lines is simply an aesthetic choice, with no function. Yevtushenko, however, splits lines of poetry to emphasize the concluding thoughts. If the reader reads the poem aloud, the emphases on the second parts of lines becomes clearer. Splitting the lines simply highlights this importance.
The Soviet Union, Communism, and the Nazis
The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was the largest and most populated of the fifteen countries that comprised the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. Russia became an established country in 1917 and part of the Soviet Union in 1922. Moscow, the capital of Russia, then became the capital of the Soviet Union. Communism had been the dominant political party in the Soviet Union beginning in 1912 and had also dominated Russian politics since its formation in 1917. During most of the twentieth century, the Communist Party was the only political group tolerated by the Soviet government. Communism was the antithesis of Adolf Hitler's belief in the superiority of all things German. Communism promoted equality, especially the equal distribution of rewards for all those who worked. In contrast, Hitler promoted German superiority. For him, the idea that non-Germans, whom he thought subhuman, should be rewarded equally for equal work was intolerable. Hitler simply did not believe that non-Germans could accomplish as much as Germans.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1940s: The Einsatzgruppen begin systematically rounding up and killing the Jews of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen squads kill 1.3 million Jews, about one-quarter of the total number of Jews killed during the Holocaust.
1960s: In Nigeria, an estimated 3.1 million people are killed during the uprisings of 1966. There are also reports of genocide taking place in Indonesia and Uganda in the early 1960s.
Today: In Darfur, Sudan, it is estimated that more than 400,000 civilians have been killed and 2.5 million people have been displaced through genocidal acts.
- 1940s: During Germany's six-month occupation of Krasnodar, Russia, every member of the Jewish community in the city is murdered. After the Germans are driven out in February 1943, Soviet authorities convict eleven Russian collaborators for their involvement in the killings. Three are sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment; eight of the eleven are executed in July 1943.
1960s: From 1963 to 1964, a group of former officials at the Belzec extermination camp, near the Ukrainian border, are tried in West Germany. Only one of the seven officials is found guilty, to receive a sentence of less than five years.
Today: In 2005, ten former Nazis are convicted for taking part in the 1944 massacre of more than 500 villagers at Sant'Anna di Stazzema, Italy. The convicted men are not present at their trial, which was held in Italy, because Germany does not extradite its citizens to stand trial in other countries.
- 1940s: Anti-Semitism exists in the Soviet Union, but it is not a significant aspect of Soviet life through the early part of the decade.
1960s: After the end of World War II, anti-Semitism begins to increase, culminating in the dismantling of the Jewish community structure and the destruction of all Jewish cultural institutions. By the early 1960s, Jews have become the scapegoat for the economic problems faced by the Soviet Union. Nearly half of all executions from 1961 to 1964 are of Jewish citizens.
Today: State sponsored anti-Semitism no longer exists in Russia, but anti-Semitism is still a problem in Russian society. In the twenty-first century, the number of attacks against Jews has not increased, but they have become more violent. Neo-Nazi skinheads have become a stronger presence in Russia, and there are increasing reports of vandalism of Jewish institutions and cemeteries as well as of Holocaust memorials.
Karl Marx, who founded Communism, was a Jew, which added to Hitler's dislike of the ideology. It did not matter to the Nazis that Marx had renounced Judaism and had become a Lutheran. His Jewish background worked well for the Nazi goal of attacking Communism, which became indelibly associated with Jewish thought and Jewish Bolshevism and was thus seen as part of the Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany. Hitler emphasized this purported Jewish Communist conspiracy in speeches that were designed to create more support for his planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler claimed that Moscow and the Communists would invade Germany. Hitler also pointed out that the reason that the Soviets had become Communists was because they were Slavs, a peasant group with no real culture or sophistication. Hitler thought that an invasion of the Soviet Union would be easily accomplished and that the rich fertile lands of the Soviet Union would quickly become available for German expansion. The German invasion of the Soviet Union, labeled Operation Barbarossa, began in June 1941. It is estimated that more than 20 million Soviets died before the Germans were driven out of the Soviet Union, after Hitler's army was defeated in Leningrad in January 1944.
The Massacre at Babi Yar
Before the city of Kiev fell into German hands in September 1941, there were an estimated 175,000 Jewish citizens among the nearly 875,000 residents. When the threat of invasion became certain, the Soviets evacuated factory workers, whom the Soviets considered important to the war effort; among these factory workers were an estimated 20,000-30,000 Jews. The remaining Jewish population was captured by the German army when they invaded. Although some Jews were killed during the initial invasion, there was no organized action directed against the Jewish population. Then on September 24, several bombs were detonated in the city, destroying buildings occupied by the German army and killing hundreds of German soldiers and officers. The bombs had been placed by Soviet partisans, but the blame was placed on the Jewish population. Several German military commanders stationed in that area quickly decided that all Jews in Kiev must be killed as punishment for the sabotage. The large ravine at Babi Yar was chosen as the location, and on September 28, 1941, an order was issued compelling all Jews in Kiev to assemble at the designated location on September 29 at 8 a.m. The date was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The Jewish population was told to bring all valuables and warm clothing, since they were to be relocated to labor camps. The order stipulated that any Jews not complying would be shot immediately.
Thousands of Jews complied with the orders and assembled as directed. They were marched in groups of one hundred to a Jewish cemetery near the ravine at Babi Yar. The area was cordoned off with barbed wire. The people were ordered to undress and leave their belongings neatly sorted and stacked. Many were then beaten with sticks as they awaited their fate. The people were taken in groups of ten to the ravine, where they were ordered to march to the bottom and lie down, often on top of those who had already been killed. They were then shot. The remaining Jews watched their family and neighbors being shot but were unable to escape, since the barbed wire enclosure was heavily guarded. There was not enough ammunition to kill everyone separately, and so in some cases two people were placed together and killed by one bullet. Many small children were thrown in the ravine alive and buried under all of the bodies. The massacre took two days, and by the end of the second day more than 33,700 Jews had been killed. The killing of Kiev's Jews did not end on the second day, however, as this first wave of killings continued at least until October 3, 1941. It is estimated that over the next several months more than 100,000 and perhaps as many as 200,000 people were killed at Babi Yar before the Soviets liberated the area in 1943. The number of dead included nearly all of the remaining Jews of Kiev as well as Gypsies, Communists, Ukrainian civilians, and Soviet prisoners of war. A few Jews survived because they were hidden by their non-Jewish neighbors, and a very few survived the killings because the bullets missed them or because they fell into the ravine just before the shot was fired. These few survivors provided witness testimony to the events that occurred at Babi Yar.
Memorials at Babi Yar
Several efforts were made to clean up the massacre site at Babi Yar. Before leaving Kiev, the German army tried to eradicate any evidence of what they had done; thus, they burned as many corpses as possible before their retreat in 1943. After the war ended, the Soviets burned many of the remaining corpses as well. In the early 1950s a dam was built in that area, and the ravine was flooded. After the dam failed, the ravine was used as a garbage dump. Eventually a park and soccer stadium were built on the site, and in time a television station and factory were also built there. However, no memorial was erected, which Yevtushenko noted in the poem that he wrote immediately after he visited the site in the fall of 1961. Yevtushenko's poem and Shostakovich's symphony created enough government embarrassment that a monument was at last built in 1976. This bronze monument is fifty feet tall, but its inscription does not specifically mention the Jews who died. Instead, it simply states that at this location more than 100,000 citizens of Kiev and Soviet prisoners of war were killed between 1941 and 1943. Finally, in 1991, Jewish groups erected a large bronze menorah away from the ravine and over the site where the bodies had been burned and the ashes buried. The menorah was vandalized in 2006, when the inscription at the base was badly damaged. Jewish leaders remain unhappy that children play soccer on the site of the massacre, but since the site is a popular park, there are no plans to change its use. Yevtushenko's poem "Babii Yar" is considered by many to be the most fitting and enduring memorial to the Jews who died there.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko's "Babii Yar" is controversial and has accordingly attracted critical attention. In 1961, in an essay published in the New York Times, Harry Schwartz reported that the Russian reception of "Babii Yar" was decidedly negative. Schwartz notes that Yevtushenko's reading of his poem resulted in two articles appearing in the Soviet literary journal Literatura i Zhizn. Both articles "bitterly denounced Mr. Yevtushenko for allegedly slandering the Russian people in his poem and for ignoring the Communist party's alleged opposition to anti-Semitism." Schwartz does not deal with the technical or aesthetic virtues of "Babii Yar"; instead, his focus is on the political ramifications of the poem. Indeed, the political ramifications of Yevtushenko's poetry have long been an issue for critics reviewing his work. In a 1966 critique of The Poetry of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1953-1965 in the Russian Review, Louis J. Shein remarked on the success that Yevtushenko had experienced. According to Shein, "Yevtushenko's fame is not due so much to the high quality of his poetry as to his outspoken criticism of Soviet bureaucracy." Shein argues that Yevtushenko should be judged "solely on the quality of his poetry and not on his ‘political’ views."
In a lengthy 1973 New York Times Magazine profile of the poet, Robert Conquest notes Yevtushenko's personal popularity with audiences who attend his readings. In the early 1960s, his audiences at times numbered ten thousand or more, and "his poems were printed in editions of 100,000." This is a number unheard of for most American poets, whose books might sell anywhere from 500 to 2,500 copies. In speaking specifically about "Babii Yar," Conquest notes that Yevtushenko "yielded to pressure on this poem, eliminated two lines and added two others to include Russian and Ukrainian victims of the massacre." In doing so, according to Conquest, Yevtushenko elected to "play down the theme of anti-Semitism" for which the poem is best known. In a 1991 New Republic article, the critic Tomas Venclova devotes most of his attention to criticizing Yevtushenko's more controversial reputation in Russia, especially his perceived betrayal of dissident poets, which benefited his own status and allowed him to travel more extensively outside the Soviet Union. Venclova also singles out a couple of Yevtushenko's poems for closer criticism, including "Babii Yar," which he calls "poetically feeble, and full of sentimental clichés." Regardless of whether critics admire Yevtushenko or his poetry—and clearly many critics are not fans of either the poet or his work—the importance of "Babii Yar" remains. It acts as a memorial to the Jewish victims of the massacre at Babi Yar and as a reminder of the dangers that anti-Semitism presents.
Sheri Metzger Karmiol
Karmiol has a doctorate in English Renaissance literature and teaches literature and drama at the University of New Mexico, where she is a lecturer in the university honors program. She is also a professional writer and the author of several reference texts on poetry and drama. In this essay, Karmiol discusses how "Babii Yar" functions within the tradition of Holocaust poetry that gives voice to the unspeakable.
In the years immediately after the end of World War II, little Holocaust literature was produced. Many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were intent on rebuilding their lives, by establishing careers, marrying and having children—by recreating what had been destroyed by the Nazis. As the events receded into the past and the population of survivors aged, many began writing memoirs, and these memoirs became a way for Holocaust survivors to bear witness. Poetry about the Holocaust is different, however. The role of Holocaust poetry is not clearly defined, nor perhaps is it clearly definable. Holocaust poetry can be, as Susan Gubar suggests in her book Poetry after Auschwitz, "a therapeutic response to the catastrophe." Holocaust poetry can also function as a warning or as a way to teach through verse. This last point is the argument that Sir Philip Sidney makes in his lengthy prose work The Defence of Poesy, in which he claims that the role of literature in a civilized society is to educate and to inspire those who read to ethical and virtuous actions. Sidney's argument for poetry's purpose is one that can be used to help understand poetry written about the Holocaust.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT
- The Collected Poems, 1952-1990 was published in 1991 and contains more than 660 pages of Yevtushenko's vast collection of poetry.
- Yevtushenko's Fatal Half Measures: The Culture of Democracy in the Soviet Union (1991) is a collection of essays, speeches, and articles that the author has written on a variety of subjects, including the unequal status of Soviet women, racism, and anti-Semitism.
- The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (2004), by Michael Wachtel, is a discussion of the last three centuries of Russian poetry. Included is information about concepts and the different styles of poetry most often used by Russian poets, such as love poetry and patriotic verse.
- Lawrence Langer's Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology (1995) contains a large selection of Holocaust poetry as well as excerpts from memoirs, diaries, and short fiction.
- Nelly Sachs's collection of poetry The Seeker, and Other Poems (1970) focuses on different aspects of the Holocaust and includes several poems that deal with death.
- Anti-Semitism: A History (2002), by Dan Cohn-Sherbok, provides a 3,000-year history of anti-Semitism and explores why anti-Semitism has played such an important role in history.
When Holocaust literature is published, the expectation is that readers will buy it. Whether the output is a memoir, fiction, a screenplay, or poetry, the selling of the Holocaust has become a business. There are now a number of excellent documentaries about the Holocaust, and even fictional accounts, whether novels or films, have become somewhat commonplace. Still, there remains an expectation that using the Holocaust will result in a product that educates but does not exploit. The expectation that writing about the Holocaust will result in a treatment that dignifies and honors the victims depends a great deal on perception. For example, in a New York Times review of the 1978 NBC miniseries Holocaust, the Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel objects to the use of the Holocaust to promote spectacle and to the blending of the facts of the Holocaust with the fiction of television. In his review, Wiesel asserts that "the Holocaust is unique, not just another event." The screenwriter who wrote this miniseries no doubt felt that he was honoring the victims and educating the public about these events. In a sense, his goal was probably not much different than Yevtushenko's. The difference is that when Yevtushenko created "Babii Yar," he did not create fictional victims, as did the screenwriter. There was no need to do so; instead, the poet sought to remember those who died by campaigning against the anti-Semitism that fed the hate that killed them.
The ethical issue of how the Holocaust can and should be used as a literary subject is astutely captured by Wiesel's questions: "How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims?" Wiesel's demand that Holocaust literature not be used to trivialize the event presents a concern that Naomi Mandel considers in an article in the journal boundary 2. Mandel notes that the Holocaust is "commonly referred to as unspeakable, unthinkable, inconceivable, incomprehensible, and challenging." The Holocaust is an event that forces us "to reestablish, or to rethink, or to acknowledge" the limits of representation. Speech is too limited to describe the indescribable. The Holocaust is filled with examples of human cruelty beyond simple explanation or description. Words cannot adequately express the unspeakable—which is why Yevtushenko does not try to do so. "Babii Yar" does not describe the details of genocide. Instead Yevtushenko uses a few calculated words and phrases to capture certain images, like that of the small boy bleeding from a kick delivered by the well-placed boot of a drunken anti-Semite. The poet relies upon the imagination of the reader to visualize Anne Frank being pulled from the arms of those she loved, a teenager—a child still—sent to her death. Just as Wiesel worries about the appropriation of the Holocaust, Mandel also worries that using the event, even for poetry, violates the victims, since "to speak their experience would run the risk of understanding that experience, with its concurrent possibilities of trivializing or betraying it."
Yevtushenko uses "Babii Yar" to force his readers to recognize the truth about the injustice of the past. The expectation is that past injustices will be recognized and not repeated. Gubar recognizes that there are stereotypes about Jews, and as a result, she declares that the poetry of the Holocaust must be completely honest, not "too theatrical or too theoretical, too glib or too sanctimonious," but instead it must "make the present see the past." Yevtushenko did not experience the Holocaust. He is not Jewish, and "Babii Yar" is not the poetry of experience. Nevertheless, Yevtushenko's poetry captures the truth of that experience. James Finn Cotter remarks in the Hudson Review that "the truth of poetry is not in reciting facts but in creating veracity." Poetry must create the truth, and this is even more important for Holocaust poetry. Cotter explains that he asks "a poem to be true to itself, to convince me and to capture my attention with its thought, emotion, imagery, and language." In the long sequence of "Babii Yar" in which Yevtushenko imagines that he is each old man or young child facing death there, the imagery fulfills Cotter's requirement that poetry must convince the reader of an essential truth. According to Cotter, Yevtushenko has stood for "poetry as a voice that rallies public consciousness." Yevtushenko demands the "freedom to speak out in protest against human rights violations." His is a worldview, according to Cotter, "that transcends nationalist boundaries" and represents "the power of the individual against bureaucracy and oppression." When Yevtushenko, a non-Jew, imagines himself a Jew, he does so not in a search for sympathy but in an expectation of justice. His poem demands that the Soviet bureaucracy acknowledge the destruction of Kiev Jewry at Babi Yar in 1941.
Wiesel adamantly states that "the Holocaust must be remembered." Yevtushenko's choice to speak of certain Holocaust events through poetry is one way to remember. It is also a way to honor those who died, as with his demand for a memorial at Babi Yar. Poetry is also a way to remind readers of the destructiveness of hate, as Yevtushenko does when he recalls the long history of anti-Semitism. In the introduction to the anthology of Holocaust literature Art from the Ashes, Lawrence L. Langer suggests, "If the Holocaust has ceased to seem an event and become instead a theme of prose narrative, fiction, or verse, this is not to diminish its importance, but to alter the route by which we approach it." Yevtushenko chooses to call attention to an event that had been covered up and ignored. His route is to remind readers of the past. Literature, regardless of the form that it takes, cannot offer a complete picture of the Holocaust, because as Wiesel observes, "You may think you know how the victims lived and died, but you do not." Each experience of having lived through the Holocaust is unique. The picture created by literature, or even by film, cannot create a complete picture, as Langer admits, but it can create a composite of that experience, which he suggests can illuminate the event and help readers decipher it. This is the function of poetry that Gubar argues is essential; what happened at Babi Yar is the kind of moment that when "rendered in writing allows authors and readers to grapple with the consequences of traumatic pain without being silenced by it." There is no way that Yevtushenko or any other poet can make the events at Babi Yar comprehensible, but Yevtushenko's approach in dealing with anti-Semitism and the need for remembrance is one way to allow readers to have a voice in preventing genocide. If poetry is to have the role that Sidney envisioned it having more than three hundred years ago, the ability to teach lessons is even more important for Holocaust poetry.
Yevtushenko wrote "Babii Yar" to change the world. When he found it incomprehensible that no memorial marked the place of such a massive act of genocide, his poem became that memorial. In his text A Defense of Poetry, written in 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that poetry does not simply reflect the world; it changes the world. Poetry makes things happen. According to Shelley, poets "are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society." He emphasizes the social importance of poetry, which plays upon the subconscious and thus can transcend ideology and "creates anew the universe." Poetry is more than beauty; it is useful and beneficial to society because it removes distinctions of class and gender and, by extension, differences of religion. Shelley, of course, could never have predicted an event such as the Holocaust, just as those who now know of it find it difficult to accept that such inhumanity could have ever been directed toward other human beings.
What was missing from the events that took place at Babi Yar, or Auschwitz, or Treblinka, or any of the other sites of mass annihilation of the Jewish population was empathy for those who were being murdered. The perpetrators at Babi Yar did not see Jewish infants and children as human beings. When Yevtushenko places himself at Babi Yar on September 29, 1941, he does what those who committed the murders did not do. He envisions himself as a gray-haired old man or as a young child. Yevtushenko does as Shelley mandates in asserting that "a man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively." According to Shelley, a man must possess the ability to imagine the pain of others, to "put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own." Shelley's words found little application in the actions of the Nazis or even in the actions of the ordinary civilians who collaborated with the Nazis. The poet, as defined by Shelley, not only "beholds intensely the present as it is," or as it should be according to moral laws, but also holds forth the promise of "the future in the present." It took a poet such as Yevtushenko to look at the neglected ravine at Babi Yar and see beyond the garbage-strewn site to witness the humanity of those who lost their lives at that place. It was a poet who looked at that site and saw what bureaucrats did not see—the absolute need to remember the tragedy that occurred there.
The importance of poetry is, as Shelley claims, "never more to be desired than at periods when … an excess of the selfish and calculating principle" exceeds the "laws of human nature." Holocaust poetry can illuminate the injustice of tyranny, the inhumanity of mankind, and the unfathomable suffering of those whose only offense was to have existed. It remains the imperative of poets to illuminate what is unspeakable. As Yevtushenko illustrates with "Babii Yar," poets can change the world. And as Shelley notes at the end of his argument, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
Source: Sheri Metzger Karmiol, Critical Essay on "Babii Yar," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Jonathan Z. Ludwig
In the following review, Ludwig discusses the political importance of Yevtushenko's poetry.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko notes in the opening line of "Bratsk Hydroelectric Station" that "a poet in Russia is more than a poet" (160). Throughout history, poets have used their poetry to call for societal, governmental, and political changes within their country. It is Russian poets, perhaps, who have acted in this political role most openly. In the last forty years, few poets in Russia have been as prolific a writer and as major a political player as Yevtushenko has been. It is fitting, therefore, that this collection of poems, a collection which includes selections spanning his entire career, shows Yevtushenko both as a poet and as a politician. Indeed, as anyone who has followed his career can note, with Yevtushenko, poetry and politics are never far apart.
The book opens with an introduction by Albert C. Todd which demonstrates exactly how true this statement is. Although this introduction is not an orderly examination of Yevtushenko's life and career, it does highlight the points which are significant and defining for his career as a poet and as a politician. In addition, it discusses several poems which are clearly political and gives the history behind them and their publication. Just as important for this collection as a whole, however, the introduction also presents Yevtushenko's personal philosophy, a love for nature, life, and the living which was instilled in him by his grandmother while growing up in Zima Junction, not far from Lake Baikal.
The poems in this collection, which were translated by a number of well-known writers and poets including James Dickey, Ted Hughes, John Updike, and Richard Wilbur, are organized chronologically and divided into nine sections. Each section contains poems written in a specific period, ranging in length from two to six years, and is introduced by a line from one of the poems in that section. Often this epigraph signifies the overriding theme of the section. Of the nine sections into which this collection is divided, four are closely tied thematically to their epigraph. The first section which includes poems written between 1952 and 1955 is introduced by the line "People are really talking now" (1). It includes several poems which indicate the air of freedom which began to be felt after Stalin's death. The second, consisting of poems written between 1956 and 1962 and including poems such as "Babi Yar" and "The Heirs of Stalin," is aptly introduced by the lines "that time so strange when simple/honesty looked like courage" (59). The sixth section of poems are those which were written between 1973 and 1975. It is introduced by the lines "A poet is always in danger/when he lives too safely" (367) and notably contains a number of poems less politically controversial than several others in this collection. The ninth and final section, introduced with the exclamation "We can't go on this way!" (595), includes "Requiem for Challenger," "We Can't Go On," "Half Measures," and other poems penned between 1986 and 1990, all of which plaintively wonder where the world is heading and where its future lies.
Although the remaining five sections do not tie in closely with their respective epigraphs, they are, nevertheless, no less significant. The third section, introduced by the lines "The sea was what I breathed/it was sorrow I exhaled …" (117), includes poems such as "Nefertiti," "Wounded Bird," and "The City of Yes and the City of No," written in 1963 and 1964. The fourth section includes very solemn poems written between 1965 and 1967 such as "Yelabuga Nail," "Monologue of a Blue Fox," and "Cemetery of Whales." It is introduced by a statement of Yevtushenko's views on the power of poetry on the self: "It acts kind of crazy, flutteringly,/when it chooses us" (177). The fifth section, comprised of poems written between 1968 and 1972 and introduced by the lines "… I'll come seeping through/these rainy bits of slipperiness/between the toes of barefoot urchins" (273), is a selection of rather somber poems which concludes with the very upbeat "I Would Like." The seventh section, introduced by the lines "Hunger has the speed of sound,/when beginning as a moan, it becomes a scream" (437), contains another selection of very somber poems written between 1976 and 1978. The eighth section, introduced by the lines "A half blade of grass in the teeth—/there's my whole secret" (519) and containing poetry written between 1979 and 1985, is comprised of several of the most openly politically controversial poems written by Yevtushenko since the late 1950s and the early 1960s.
Throughout the collection, significant events, individuals, places, and cultural motifs are explained in notes, thus allowing a reader not thoroughly versed in Russian and Soviet history, politics, culture, and current events to more readily understand these pieces. Also useful to readers and scholars of this poetry are the four appendices with which the book concludes. The first two are listings of writers, historical figures, rivers, and geographic names frequently referred to in the poems. The third identifies smaller collections of Yevtushenko's poetry which have been published in English translation, and the fourth lists bibliographic data for each of the poems in the collection. In this final appendix, each poem is listed both in English translation and in transcription and is followed by the place and date of first publication, generally in a journal or newspaper; an indication of the first book publication of the poem; and a notation of where it is located in Yevtushenko's three-volume collected works.
Yevtushenko scholars, obviously, will find the bibliographic data in the final appendix useful, especially in order to locate a copy of the poem in the original Russian or to compare the book publication version(s) with the original published version. Those who study Russian and Soviet culture will also find much of interest in this collection, since Yevtushenko quite often integrates a number of literary and cultural allusions into his poetry. Finally, historians and political scientists, who normally might not use poetry as a source of information, will find many poems in this collection of use, especially in a study of the last four decades of Soviet and Russian history.
Since the appearance of this collection, Yevtushenko has published two other works of note. The first work appears in the collection 20th Century Russian Poetry: Silver and Steel (Doubleday: New York, 1993) which Yevtushenko himself edited and introduced. Included among the several poems of his own which he placed in this collection is the 1991 poem "Loss," a poem previously unpublished in English. This poem is particularly timely, for it poses several political questions, including "Is it true that we Russians have only one unhappy choice?/The ghost of Tsar Ivan the Terrible?/Or the Ghost of Tsar Chaos?" (820), questions which are surely on the mind of nearly every Russian yet today.
The second work, the novel Don't Die Before Your Death: A Russian Tale (Liberty Publishing House: New York, 1993) is set during the attempted 1991 coup. It is not only an historical novel, but it is also a detective story, a sentimental romance, a satire, and a philosophical treatise in which the author himself is the hero. Above all, however, it represents a serious look at everyday life in contemporary Russia. The publication of this novel and the aforementioned poem demonstrates that Yevtushenko is continuing to write in the way that made him well-known both in Russia and in the West: critical of that which he considers wrong, yet continuing to affirm nature, life, and the living.
Source: Jonathan Z. Ludwig, Review of The Collected Poems: 1952-1990 and Don't Die before Your Death, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 38, No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 515-17.
Patricia Pollock Brodsky
In the following review, Brodsky evaluates a collection of Yevtushenko's poetry that includes the poem "Babii Yar."
The new Collected Poems 1952-1990 reflects Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poetic career in microcosm: vast and uneven, sometimes irritating, often appealing, and ever astonishing in its variety. The title is somewhat misleading, since the volume offers only a selection from Yevtushenko's extensive oeuvre, and in addition, several long poems are represented in excerpts only. Yevtushenko's allusiveness can be a problem for Western readers; a few names and terms are explained in footnotes, but this practice could profitably have been expanded. A helpful feature is the chronological list of poems with their Russian titles, date and place of first publication, and location, if any, in the 1983 Sobranie sochinenii (see WLT 59:4).
Like the poems themselves, the translations by twenty-five translators vary in quality. A few are revisions of earlier versions. Most of Yevtushenko's poems use slant rhyme relying heavily on assonance, a practice so closely associated with him as to be called "Yevtushenkean rhyme" (evtushenkovskaia rifma). Russian's rich phonetic structure allows almost limitless use of this kind of rhyme; a master of the form and clearly one of Yevtushenko's teachers was the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Wisely, few attempts are made to retain this feature in the English translations, or indeed to use rhyme at all.
From the beginning of his prolific career in the early 1950s, Yevtushenko's poetry has been characterized by strong stances on political issues. He praises Allende and Che Guevara, condemns the Vietnam War, and deplores the situation in Northern Ireland. His criticism is not limited to the West, however. A popular and privileged poet whose readings at one time filled football stadiums and who was given unprecedented freedom to travel abroad, he nevertheless warned against abuses at home, castigating militarists, dishonest bureaucrats, and toadies of all kinds. These critical poems range from "The Heirs of Stalin" and "Babi Yar" in the early 1960s to "Momma and the Neutron Bomb" and poems about the dissident Andrei Sakharov and the Afghanistan war in the 1980s. The roots of his ferocious morality are to be found in his love for Russia, and in his stubborn belief in the ideals of the revolution.
Even the semiofficial poet was not immune from censorship, however. Included in the new collection are a number of poems that were written during the sixties but for political reasons could not be published until many years later. Among them are verses to fellow poets Tsvetaeva (1967/1987) and Esenin (1965/1988), "Russian Tanks in Prague" (1968/1990), and "The Ballad of the Big Stamp," a bawdy tale about castration for the good of the party (1966/1989).
Yevtushenko is at his best when he is specific and detailed, and this happens most frequently in poems dealing with his native Siberia, its nature and history, its sailors, whalers, berry pickers. These include the long poem "Zima Junction" (1955) and a series written in 1964 about life on the northern frontier. Yevtushenko has a strong visual sense (he is an accomplished photographer), and color often plays an important role in his works. In the fairy-tale-like "Snow in Tokyo: A Japanese Poem" (1974), for example, a proper and repressed Japanese matron discovers the wonders of painting and finds the courage to rebel against her stultifying life through the world of color.
A thread running through Yevtushenko's work is the importance of poetry and the responsibility of the poet to mankind. He constantly questions his own talent and mission, thus continuing the Russian tradition of meta-poetry. Likewise very Russian is the dialogue between writers living and dead that Yevtushenko carries on, in poems addressed to or evoking Pushkin, Pasternak, Neruda, and Jack London, along with numerous others.
Finally, Yevtushenko's poetry is a kind of personal diary which details his extensive travels and especially his many love affairs and marriages. Remarkable love poems follow the poet from first love, to the birth of his sons, to the sadness of falling out of love again. The poems contain a rich fabric of quarrels, memories, farewells, even a conversation with his dog, who shares the poet's grief that his woman has gone. Perhaps the most attractive thing about Yevtushenko is his human breadth, his willingness to lay himself open to our reactions. The Collected Poems provides the reader with numerous opportunities to become acquainted with this engaged and engaging poet, one of the important, questioning voices of our age.
Source: Patricia Pollock Brodsky, Review of The Collected Poems 1952-1990, in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter 1992, pp. 156-57.
In the following appraisal of Yevtushenko's poetry, Venclova calls "Babii Yar" the "high point of Yevtushenko's personal and political career."
An interesting article by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, part essay, part memoir, recently appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta in Moscow, in which the poet dwells at length on his skirmishes with Soviet reactionaries. The title of the article is "Fencing with a Pile of Dung," which is meant to be a bold metaphor. Among other tales, Yevtushenko tells the story of his visit to the preperestroika Kremlin, where he was to be honored with the Order of the Red Banner:
The Order was presented by a vice-chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, an Azerbaijani whose last name I cannot, for the life of me, recall. Pinning the order to the lapel of my jacket and inviting me to a hunting party in Azerbaijan, he awkwardly pierced my jacket, my shirt, and even pricked me. It was rather painful. The Kremlin people hurt me often enough. They hurt others, too.
The next story deals with the presentation of a State Prize to Yevtushenko in 1984 for his long poem "Momma and the Neutron Bomb." "The censorship office attempted to ban the poem," he writes, "but it did not succeed." Yevtushenko took his medal and his certificate (and his money). According to the requirements of Soviet protocol, he was expected to express his gratitude to the Party at the ceremony. His wrath was so impossible to contain, however, that he neglected etiquette and returned to his seat without breaking his proud silence. His bravery, he tells us, inspired several other recipients of the prize, who also refused to say thanks.
Now, there is something fundamentally wrong about this picture. You are pampered by a totalitarian government, or you are persecuted by it. You are given honors and awards by party functionaries, or you are not. You are invited to their hunting parties, or you are their open enemy. But both cannot happen to you at the same time. Andrei Sakharov received perks similar to Yevtushenko's while he was busy with the Soviet nuclear program; but later his moral rectitude led him to the camp of the dissidents, and the world knows what followed. You see, you cannot fence with a pile of dung. You either sink into it or you leave it. To pretend otherwise requires extraordinary cynicism, extraordinary naïveté, or both. When Yevtushenko implicitly compares the pain caused by that pricking pin to the sufferings of Sakharov, Pasternak, and many, many others, he goes beyond the limits of naïveté, and even of cynicism. He approaches the obscene.
The case of Yevtushenko is one of the most unusual cases of our times. (Stanislaw Baranczak recently listed it, in Newsday, among the top ten hoaxes of the twentieth century.) Two large books by Yevtushenko, which just appeared in English, provide an opportunity to study it more closely. The first is a volume of verse [The Collected Poems] put into English by many translators, including some of the masters of the language. The second is a collection of political speeches, essays, travelogues, and divagations on Russian writers [Fatal Half Measures]. Both books are provided with rapturous introductions and blurbs: the author is "the legendary Russian literary leader," "a people's poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman," "a seeker of Truth like all great writers," and so on. It seems that many members in good standing of the American literary establishment consider these descriptions to be true, or at least partly true. Unfortunately, they are false.
One thing has to be admitted: Yevtushenko is an incredibly prolific writer who is endowed with a buoyant personality. He is not only a versifier and an essayist, but also a scriptwriter, a film director, an actor, a photographer, a novelist, a political figure, and a world traveler—a Soviet cultural emissary in virtually all parts of the globe, which is a function that he inherited from Vladimir Mayakovsky and Ilya Erenburg, who played the same role on a less extensive scale. In his tender years, Yevtushenko was also a goalkeeper and a folk dancer of repute.
The amount of energy, the sheer labor, devoted to all these enterprises cannot fail to impress. Yevtushenko says about himself, without false modesty but not without reason: "my fate is supernatural, / my destiny astonishing." Sixty-four countries visited by 1976 (by now the number is larger) and forty-six books of original poetry so far—this certainly is supernatural, if we recall that permission to travel abroad once or twice was the sweetest dream of almost any Soviet writer before the Gorbachev era, and that many good poets of the USSR considered themselves lucky if they managed to publish a slim and heavily blue-penciled volume once in a decade. On top of all that, we learn (from his editor Antonina W. Bouis) that Yevtushenko "has been banned, threatened, censored, and punished," though he has not been imprisoned.
The tales of Yevtushenko's tribulations are not totally unfounded. In the beginning, he did not fit snugly into the Procrustean bed of Stalinist literature, and he was attacked by some of the worst hacks of the period, not least by the anti-Semites. (Yevtushenko has no Jewish background, but his Latvian father's last name, Gangnus, looked suspicious.) Yet the controversy about Yevtushenko was always a quarrel within the Soviet literary framework. Yevtushenko never displayed the slightest inclination to work outside it.
A fight within the Soviet establishment, even if it is conducted for a liberal cause, is bound to degenerate into a fight for the benevolence of the authorities. In this regard, Yevtushenko happened to be more skillful, and incomparably more successful, than his dull opponents. And so they never forgave him. Yevtushenko is still denounced by the lunatic fringe, by the Pamyat people and their supporters. (Pamyat has done him a great favor: its opposition has been adduced as proof of his credentials as a humanist and a fighter for freedom.) Much less publicized is the fact that democratic and dissident Soviet critics exposed Yevtushenko's literary weaknesses and moral vacillations long ago and mercilessly. Today hardly anyone in that literary community considers his work worthy of serious study.
He started out, in 1949, at the age of 16, as an average if precocious maker of Soviet-style poems. His first book appeared at the very nadir of Stalinism, in 1952, and suited the time rather nicely: it was optimistic, full of clichés, and boring. But after coming from his native Siberia to the Moscow Literary Institute, Yevtushenko felt the first timid stirrings of the post-Stalin mood and expressed them, too, in his verses. This stage of his poetry is amply represented in the new English collection. In the era of glasnost, it looks antediluvian. Still, there is something attractive in it: youthful sentimentality, straightforward intonation, impetuous imagery.
Yevtushenko was among the first writers of the period to introduce into his work a slice of real Soviet life—of the so-called byt, the daily grind of tedium, hardship, and deprivation. Here and there he mentioned queues, dirty staircases, bedbugs, fences with obscene inscriptions, and so on. (Later even such taboo subjects as condoms and drinking eau de cologne appeared in his lyrics.) He also wrote about love and its betrayals; and though they are essentially Victorian, those poems provoked attacks on Yevtushenko as an advocate of promiscuity.
His early verses can be read as an anthology of modes and fads of the bygone days. Some of his heroes (including the narrator) were stilyagas, the scornful name for a member of the Soviet "golden youth" who were fond of Western clothes, dances, and so on—a sort of mixture of hippie and yuppie; and the message of Yevtushenko's poetry was that they were good Soviet people who would bravely fight for their socialist fatherland. Yevtushenko played up his Siberian heritage, moreover, and employed all the trivial mythology of Siberia—not the land of the Gulag, but the magnificent wilderness inhabited by rough and honest men. And he emphasized his manifestly difficult childhood ("I started out as a lonely wolf cub"). All these traits were at their most obvious in the long poem "Zima Junction," which appeared in 1955. It made Yevtushenko's reputation.
"Zima Junction," a narrative poem about Yevtushenko's visit to his native Siberia, very cautiously touched the political sensitivities of its era: the so-called Doctors' Plot, Stalin's death, the fall of Beria. On the whole, it was full of the usual stuff—decent Chekists, naive but nice Red cavalrymen, upright but flawed Russian peasants, and the author himself, a young lad in search of a way to serve his country. It was attacked by literary conservatives, but it was also instrumental in generating strong support for Yevtushenko in some circles of the Party, among people whose background and experience were similar to his own. There is a persistent rumor that Mikhail Gorbachev was one of them.
Today Yevtushenko states that "in 1953 it seemed I was all the dissidents rolled up into one." And "the early poetry of my generation is the cradle of glasnost." Such revelations are less than modest. In addition, they are untrue. There were many thousands of dissidents in 1953. Most of them were in prison camps or in internal exile. Some of them, like Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Nadezhda Mandelshtam, were still at large, but they were totally cut off from their readers and from the general public. Glasnost—to be more precise, the revolution taking place in the Soviet Union today—was the fruit of their untold suffering, and their incredibly stubborn efforts to maintain moral and cultural standards during that era of contempt. Yevtushenko and his ilk, in other words, took the place that rightfully belonged to others. They promoted literature and ideology that was adapted to their totalitarian milieu, into which they introduced a measure of half truth and half decency.
Many Western critics are fond of uncovering the influences of Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Pasternak, and Blok in Yevtushenko's poetry, thereby suggesting that he is a rightful heir to the giants. The poet himself never tires of invoking their shades, although he does not transcend the level of schoolboyish clichés when he talks about their heritage. His real mentors, however, were second-rate, incurably Soviet, and largely obscure poets such as Stepan Shchipachev, Mikhail Svetlov, Aleksandr Mezhirov, and Konstantin Vanshenkin. (Numerous dedications to them can be found throughout The Collected Poems.)
For a time their heir Yevtushenko surpassed them, since he became genuinely popular. His popularity might have been owed in part to his great histrionic gifts. As Andrei Sinyavsky has observed, Yevtushenko managed to revive the theatrical concept of a poet's destiny (rejected by Pasternak, but characteristic of Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva), according to which a poet's biography had to become an integral part, even the principal part, of his or her work. Readers and audiences had to be well acquainted with a poet's personal life, with his or her everyday dramas. For Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva, the theatrics were genuinely tragic. For Yevtushenko, in accordance with the worn Marxist dictum, they tended to be farcical.
He succeeded in creating an image of a nice guy, an old chap, a macho simpleton who matter-of-factly recounts his family problems, his sexual exploits, his daily chores and daily doubts. Yevtushenko's audience of Soviet youths, immature and disoriented after several decades of Stalinist isolation, longing for a touch of sincerity, hungrily gulped down anything "Western" and "modern," and adopted Yevtushenko (together with Voznesensky and several others) as their idol. This did not last too long; the more sophisticated part of the audience found real, previously suppressed Russian poetry, and the other and larger part became rather apathetic to all poetry, including Yevtushenko's.
I should acknowledge that two early poems by Yevtushenko made history. Politically, if not poetically, they have a lasting place in the annals of Soviet liberalism. "Babii Yar" (1961) treated anti-Semitic tendencies in Russian life, and provoked a rabid reaction in fascist and fascistoid circles. It was a noble public act, perhaps the high point of Yevtushenko's personal and political career. And it differs favorably from Voznesensky's poems on the same topic; it is more measured, discreet, and restrained, and it avoids formal experimentation and the homespun surrealism that is decidedly out of place when one speaks about the Holocaust. Still, it is poetically feeble, and full of sentimental clichés ("Anne Frank / transparent as a branch in April"). But perhaps these weaknesses may be overlooked.
The other famous poem is "The Heirs of Stalin" (1962). In its case, the situation is different. Most likely "Babii Yar" was a spontaneous outpouring. "The Heirs of Stalin" was a calculated gamble, a move in the intra-Party game of old fashioned Stalinists and Khrushchevian liberals. It did not avoid dubious statements, like "prison camps are empty." (In 1962 they were not.) "The Heirs of Stalin" impressed Khrushchev and was printed in Pravda. Yevtushenko had managed to place his bet on the winning horse. In his memoirs of the time, the poet portrays himself as a virtual outcast, but the scene that follows in his telling leaves the reader a bit doubtful about the depth of his predicament. At a reception in Havana, presumably in Castro's residence, where Mikoyan also is present, Yevtushenko picks up the issue of Pravda with his provocative poem. "[Mikoyan] handed Castro the newspaper. Mikoyan apparently thought that I knew all about it and was rather shocked to see me practically tear the newspaper out of Castro's hands." Hardly an episode in the life of a freedom fighter.
Of course the world traveler did not confine himself to Cuba. Travelogues in verse and prose, including long and not terribly interesting poems on Chile, Japan, the United States, and other places, make up a very considerable part of his creative output. The Western establishment, eager for reassuring signs of moral and cultural revival in Russia, was encouraged by the sight of an audacious person who seemed enlightened and tractable compared with the typical Soviet nyet people. And the advertising tricks usually reserved for movie stars were trotted out on the poet's behalf, which increased his already appreciable vanity. (Yevtushenko proudly recounts instances when a Western cultural figure called him "Mayakovsky's son.")
Some misunderstandings with the authorities ensued. Some credit must be given to Yevtushenko, since he behaved with dignity even when he was assaulted by Khrushchev himself. (At his famous meeting with the intelligentsia, Khrushchev delivered himself of the Russian proverb that "hunchbacks are corrected by the grave," at which Yevtushenko retorted: "The time when people were corrected by the grave has passed.") Still, it was as clear as the noon sun that he remained totally loyal to the Party, even if he was a bit heterodox in secondary matters. Thus the campaign against him fizzled. In 1964 he expiated his sins by writing the long poem "Bratsk Hydroelectric Station." The poem, long selections of which are included in the English volume, marked a new stage in Yevtushenko's development: an era of resourceful compromises, cheating moves, and clever adaptations to existing conditions (which became more and more stifling after Khrushchev's removal in October 1964). The poet himself pictured his rushing about as a wise stratagem serving the liberal cause. But not many Russian and non-Russian intellectuals agreed with him; the dissident movement virtually discarded Yevtushenko as an ally. And that was irreversible.
"Bratsk Hydroelectric Station" is a paean to one of the typical Soviet industrial projects in Siberia. (Today such projects, usually unprofitable and fraught with ecological disasters, are repudiated by public opinion, and even by the government itself.) The central part of the poem consists of an argument between an Egyptian pyramid and the Siberian powerhouse: the former symbolizes all the conservative and enslaving tendencies of history (Stalinism supposedly included), while the latter defends the cause of idealist faith and human emancipation. Yevtushenko overlooked the fact that the opposition is far from perfect: slave labor or near-slave labor played an approximately identical part in building both monuments. And the forces of freedom are represented in the poem by rather dubious figures. One of them is Stenka Razin, leader of a savage peasant revolt in the seventeenth century, whose confessions sound chilling ("No, it is not in this I have sinned, my people, / for hanging boyars from the towers. / I have sinned in my own eyes in this, / that I hanged too few of them"). There is also a scene where young Lenin (never named but perfectly recognizable) guides a drunken woman (supposedly Mother Russia) by the elbow, and she blesses him as her true son. This transformation of Lenin into a Christ-like figure insulted equally the followers of Lenin and the followers of Christ.
Virtually the same applies to many of Yevtushenko's later poetic works. The long poem "Kazan University" (1970) described czarist Russia with some wit and verve. Reactionary tendencies of the nineteenth century brought to mind Brezhnevian stagnation, and the liberal scholar Lesgaft, harassed by the authorities, might be easily interpreted as a forebear of Sakharov. But the university of Kazan was also the breeding ground for Lenin, who, according to the author (and to the Soviet textbooks), was the crown prince of Russian democracy. Never mind that Lenin was the very opposite of democracy—and that he never attempted to conceal it. Transforming him into a prophet of human rights, of brotherhood and justice, into a Gandhi or a Sakharov avant la lettre, is nauseating. (It is also un-Marxist.)
Many of Yevtushenko's poems on Western topics are characterized by the same double-think. Harangues against the "doltish regime" of Salazar, against the Chilean murderers or American bureaucrats ("Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty," 1968) can be construed as transparent allegories: in fact, the poet is attacking native Soviet deficiencies. But at the same time the attacks perfectly conform to the general tenor of the Party's propaganda; Salazar, Pinochet, the FBI, and the Pentagon always were convenient bugaboos, and in that capacity helped the Party to keep the people silent and loyal. Moreover, the general picture of the West in these poems is usually touristy and superficial. Fascinated by material standards and the ever changing fashions of the First World, Yevtushenko nevertheless mythologizes his role as "the ambassador of all the oppressed" and a Russian (and Soviet) patriot. There are also endless exhortations for peaceful coexistence and friendship of peoples ("Russia and America, / Swim closer!"), essentially noble, but less than irreproachable in the era of détente.
The poet's editors and promoters tend to emphasize his heroic gestures during the crisis periods in the USSR. It is true that he sent a telegram to Brezhnev protesting the Czech invasion. It is also said that he phoned Andropov to express his intention to die on the barricades if Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned. But his protests were incomparably more cautious, and much less resonant, than the protests of real dissenters, who paid with their freedom. And the telegram to Brezhnev has the air of an intimate exchange of views between allies: Yevtushenko speaks in it about "our action," which is a damaging mistake, "a great gift to all the reactionary forces in the world." The poem "Russian Tanks in Prague," moreover, was circulated secretly and reached a very limited circle, so as to avoid doing any harm to the poet's career.
A poet's dubious moral and political stance does not always preclude good poetry. In Yevtushenko's case, though, it does. His verses, as a role, do not belong to the realm of poetry at all. They are made up of middlebrow journalism and an interminable flow of didactic chatter; they have virtually nothing in common with the true problems of modern (or any) poetics. For all his declarations of ardor and fervor, Yevtushenko is hackneyed, kitschy, and lukewarm. On almost every page you stumble on something like "eyelashes laden / with tears and storms," or "eyes half-shut with ecstasy and pain." Melodramatic effusions ("My love is a demolished church / above the turbid river of memories") alternate with revelations worthy of a sex manual ("When we love, / nothing is base or tasteless. / When we love, / nothing is shameful.").
I am trying not to be unfair. There are some concessions I must make in Yevtushenko's favor. He is usually free of Voznesensky's pretentiousness. You can find in his books good similes, successful vignettes of daily life, touching characters, and hair-raising stories that may, alas, be tree. And his weaknesses become more obvious in translation. I would be inclined to praise such poems as "Handrolled Cigarettes" or "The Ballad of the Big Stamp" (the latter is hilarious, though it suffers in translation since it lacks a factual commentary about Russian religious sects). And of course Yevtushenko is a figure to reckon with because of his inexhaustible energy. But all these attractive traits are deeply tainted by his taste for comfort and accommodation, by his eagerness to play humiliating games with the censors, by the mixture of self-admiration, self-pity, and coquettish self-deprecation that have become his indelible mark.
Today Yevtushenko is a member—by no means the leader—of the liberal wing of the perestroika establishment. His book of journalistic prose, Fatal Half Measures, from which I have quoted extensively, traces his political career between 1962, when A Precocious Autobiography, published in the West, caused a passing commotion, and 1990, when his speeches resounded, rather hollowly, in several public forums. The book is preceded by a poem in which Yevtushenko seems to be admonishing Gorbachev: "Don't half recoil, / lost in broad daylight, / half rebel, / half suppressor / of the half insurrection / you gave birth to!"
But the book's title perfectly applies to the poet's own style of action. Fatal half measures, indeed. Yevtushenko lags desperately behind events. The gap between his wordy, complacent prose and the Soviet public mood became unbridgeable long ago. In the book, Yevtushenko launches crusades against nuclear war, against the monopoly of the Party, against Russian chauvinism, against cruelty to animals, and lots of other unsavory phenomena. Most of his thoughts on these topics are with the angels. But they are still wrapped in the old Soviet discourse, and that discourse is finally as dead as nails. He strives to improve his fatherland without rejecting the main part of the ideology that makes such a project hopeless. He is what he always was, a man of fatal half-truths, of fatal half measures. In this way, he is the counterpart of his presumably avid reader Gorbachev. Both attempt to promote something like totalitarianism with a human face. It never worked. It never will.
Source: Tomas Venclova, "Making It," in New Republic, May 6, 1991, pp. 33-37.
In the following article, D'Evelyn discusses several of Yevtushenko's most famous poems, including "Babii Yar."
For about 30 years now, Yevgeny Yevtushenko has lit up the international scene with his unique fireworks, a blend of chutzpah, charm, and sheer gall. His most recent coup—a teaching stint at the University of Pennsylvania—brings the career of this Soviet poet to a pinnacle of success. Now the publication of his complete poems in English [The Complete Poems] will provide opportunities for a long look at the basis of his career, a large body of poems of diverse kinds that is at once accessible and beguilingly obscure.
Yevtushenko was 20 when Stalin died. He rode the anti-Stalin wave to prominence, reading in front of thousands and selling tens of thousands of his books of poetry. Even when the inevitable swerve came and Khrushchev attacked modern art, Yevtushenko kept baiting dogmatic bureaucrats and those he would call "comradwhatifers" in a poem. He also spoke in solidarity with Jews. In 1963, the great hammer fell. Yevtushenko was forced to confess his irreparable error. While others, like Solzhenitsyn, chose silence, Yevtushenko got a second wind and was praised by party organs for his civic-mindedness.
This patriot, who has achieved extraordinary freedom of movement, uses the word "international" as a term of highest praise. In one of his earliest and most publicized poems, "Babii Yar," he addresses his audience: "O my Russian people! / I know / you / are international to the core." While this cannot be taken literally, it does confirm usage elsewhere. For Yevtushenko, patriotism and internationalism do not conflict.
Yet the springs of Yevtushenko's art appear to well up from the same source that fed the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. In his introduction to The Collected Poems, 1952-1990, Albert C. Todd says, "Confession, grappling with self-understanding, is the impetus behind most of the poems that are mistakenly understood to be merely social or political. His sharpest attacks on moral cowardice begin with a struggle within his own conscience."
Yevtushenko wrote in 1965: "The first presentiment of a poem / in a true poet / is the feeling of sin / committed somewhere, sometime." His experience in the '60s gave him many opportunities for his brand of poetry. In 1964 he published the big patriotic poem "Bratsk Hydroelectric Station." Although he's silent about the cruel slave labor used to erect the station, in a section entitled "Monologue of the Egyptian Pyramid," he does mention the whip under which the Egyptian slaves labored. The comparison seems obvious and intentional.
Yevtushenko often uses the monologue to speak indirectly about himself. In "Monologue of an Actress," he speaks as an actress from Broadway who can't find a suitable role. "Without some sort of role, life / is simply slow rot," she says.
This throws light on the public nature of Yevtushenko's calling as a poet, as well as on his passivity toward events. Despite the confessional nature of much of his poetry, he needs public events—including his own feelings, which he makes public—to become inspired.
In "Monologue of a Loser" (1978), he voices the moral ambiguity of one who has played the game of moral dice, the game into which every poet in a closed society must buy if he wishes a big public. "My modest loss was this: / dozens of tons of verses, / the whole globe, / my country, / my friends, / my wife,/ I myself—/ but on that account, however, / I'm not very upset. / Such trifles / as honor / I forgot to consider."
Other poems put his difficulties more objectively.
In "My Handwriting," he symbolizes the Soviet ship of state as a "pugnacious coastal freighter." The lurch and list of the freighter makes it difficult for the poet to write neatly. Besides that, it's very cold. "Here—/ fingers simply grew numb. / Here—/ the swell slyly tormented. / Here—/ the pen jerked with uncertainty / away from some mean shoal." Nevertheless, sometimes "an idea breaks through the way a freighter on the Lena / breaks through to the arctic shore—." Most poets wouldn't shift the metaphor this way, using it first as a narrative idea, then using it to point to a specific experience.
Todd suggests in the introduction that "ultimately Yevtushenko will be judged as a poet, a popular people's poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman." But Yevtushenko himself uses the uncompromising standards of art to illuminate his moral life. In "Verbosity," he confesses, "I am verbose both in my daily life / and in my verse—that's your bad luck—/ but I am cunning: I realize / that there's no lack of will / behind this endless drivel, / rather my strong ill will!" In the end, though, he admits that "Eternal verities rest on the precise; / precision, though, consists in sacrifice. / Not for nothing does the bard get scared—/ the price of brevity is blood. / Like fear of prophecies contained in dreams, / the fear of writing down eternal words / is the real reason for verbosity." Writing this clearly about the moral intersection of poetry and precision is no mean achievement.
It helps to read Yevtushenko literally. Doubtless Yevtushenko felt he was speaking for thousands like him. In "The Art of Ingratiating," he seems to speak for the whole country. "Who among us has not become a stutterer, / when, like someone dying of hunger / begging from ladies on the porch steps, / we mealymouth: / ‘I want to call long-distance …’ / How petty authorities / propagate themselves! / How they embody / the supreme insolence!" Then he reports a prophetic dream: "By breeding / bulldogs / from mutts, / we ourselves / have fostered / our own boors. / I have a nightmare / that in the Volga / our groveling / has begotten / a crocodile." The well wisher who now contemplates the self-destruction of perestroika may well hear in Yevtushenko's words the feelings of Gorbachev himself. Bulldogs and crocodiles indeed!
On the other hand, it's tempting to simply say of Yevtushenko's collected poems, "how they embody the supreme insolence!" For all his clarity, Yevtushenko does not seem to anticipate certain cruel ironies. He writes "To Incomprehensible Poets," and confesses, "My guilt is in my simplicity. / My crime is my clarity. / I am the most comprehensible of worms," he may not hear his audiences silently agreeing. When he says to the incomprehensible poets (he has in mind some of the main lines of modern Russian poetry), "No restraint frightens you. / No one has bridled you with clear ideas." But he may not realize that the kinds of "restraint" he accepts as a public poet are child's play compared with the restraints accepted by Pasternak and Joseph Brodsky, restraints that originate in the subtlety of their analysis and the purity of their taste. Finally, when he says, "All the same it is frightening / to be understood like me / in the wrong way, / all of my life / to write comprehensibly / and depart / so hopelessly uncomprehended," one cannot be too sympathetic.
Long ago he stuck up for the Jews and recited his poem "Babii Yar" one too many times. Khrushchev exploded at him. This was the turning point of his career and his life. He knew what mattered most to him. He wanted a role in society; he wanted to be accepted as a poet.
In his own eyes, on his own terms, Yevtushenko has been highly successful. If he does not go down as a great Russian poet, it's because choosing to be what he has become meant he could not travel the higher road of art.
Source: Thomas D'Evelyn, "A Soviet Whitman," in Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1991, p. 10.
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As the title of this book makes clear, this short text provides an easy to read and understand introduction to the events that occurred during the period that came to be called the Holocaust.
Duffy, Peter, The Bielski Brothers: The True Story of Three Men Who Defied the Nazis, Saved 1,200 Jews, and Built a Village in the Forest, HarperCollins, 2003.
This book is a very readable and true story of three brothers who hid in the forest while the Nazis murdered their parents, siblings, and the rest of the villagers in their small Belorussian town. The brothers formed a guerilla fighting unit that successfully waged war against the Nazis.
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In the first section of this book, Wiesenthal relates a story of how, as a prisoner of war in a concentration camp, he was brought in to see a dying SS officer who asked the prisoner to forgive him for what had happened to the Jewish people. In the second part of the book, Wiesenthal asks a number of well-known intellectuals whether he should have offered forgiveness to the soldier.