Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (b. 1933)

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Russian poet.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko rose to fame in the post-Stalin period. He became the most famous Russian poet in the 1950s and 1960s and the figurehead of the new generation that championed the liberal policies of destalinization and sincerity and openness in literature and society.

Yevtushenko was born in 1933 in Zima, a small town on the trans-Siberian railway. His parents were both trained as geologists; his mother came from a peasant background, his father from an intellectual family. In 1935 the family moved to Moscow, but in 1941 Yevtushenko was evacuated back to Zima, where he stayed until the end of the war. The childhood memories of his birthplace that figure in his poems date from these years of evacuation.

Yevtushenko began writing poetry as a teenager, and his work was first published in the newspaper Soviet Sport in 1949 when he was sixteen years old. Two years later he entered the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow to receive official training as a Soviet writer. He studied there for four years; during this time Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) died, and the first signs of the lessening of political repression under Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971)—which came to be known as the Khrushchev Thaw—began to appear. Importantly for Yevtushenko, in these early years of the Thaw lyric poetry returned to the pages of Soviet journals, from which it had been expunged by censorship in the previous two decades. His poetry is typically written in conservative form, using strict syllabotonic meters with predominantly exact rhyme and regular rhythm. His use of repetition and the syntax of speech gives his work a folksy rather than a literary feel, which was eminently acceptable to socialist realism.

Yevtushenko first caught the public's attention in 1956 with the long, largely autobiographical poem "Zima Station," which describes a visit to Zima in 1953 during which, in the spirit of the Thaw, Yevtushenko tried to discover the truth about Russia. The poem confronts the Stalinist past but, like all of Yevtushenko's work, is not anti-Soviet. It captures the spirit of sincerity that was wanting in literature at the time, and launched Yevtushenko as a poet of the Thaw.

After "Zima Station," Yevtushenko became a star poet who enjoyed enormous success during the late 1950s and the 1960s. He was arguably the most famous of the five poets whose reputations grew strong during the Thaw; the other four were Bulat Okudzhava, Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky, and Yevtushenko's first wife, Bella Akhmadulina. These poets gave readings in huge stadiums filled with fans; they were the superstars of the period. This fame gave Yevtushenko a degree of independence from the authorities and put him in a bargaining position. He was able to publish poems with more politically risqué subjects than were other, lesser-known poets. He was also allowed to travel abroad on poetry reading tours.

Although "Zima Station" was a poem very much in the spirit of the Khrushchev Thaw, Yevtushenko gained his reputation as a liberal poet in the USSR with more challenging and contentious poems. In 1961 he published "Babi Yar," a poem commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of Jews that took place at a ravine of that name outside occupied Kiev in 1941. The poem was published in The Literary Gazette on 19 September 1961 and caused a scandal in the USSR because the subject of anti-Semitism in Russia was a controversial one. Officially there was supposed to be no anti-Semitism in the USSR, but unofficially it was known that the prejudice was found in many spheres and at many levels of society. Yevtushenko's poem follows a somewhat convoluted argument: he acknowledges that there are some anti-Semites who claim that they belong to the Union of the Russian People, but argues that their claim is false because true Russians are not anti-Semitic. The poem was published despite its thinly veiled criticism of anti-Semitic tendencies in the USSR, but the authorities ensured that it was not republished until 1984. Nonetheless, the poem was well known in the USSR and circulated widely in unofficial samizdat copies.

The following year Yevtushenko published another contentious poem; this time his attack was aimed at relics of the Stalinist era who, he claimed, wished to reverse the policies of the Thaw and return to the policies of the 1930s and 1940s. The poem, "The Heirs of Stalin," uses the image of Stalin in his grave—not dead, but waiting for an opportunity to return to power, scheming meanwhile with his few faithful followers, some of whom are still in government and only pretending to endorse the policy of destalinization. The poem thereby warns against the possibility of a freeze in Soviet politics and a return to the repressions and lies of the past.

In 1963 Yevtushenko made an official visit to France and released his autobiography to a publisher there. While it was not illegal for a Soviet citizen to publish work abroad as such, it was easy for the authorities to decide that a writer's foreign-published work was anti-Soviet and thus deem the act of publishing to be an illegal act of anti-Soviet propaganda. The authorities did not approve of the publication of Yevtushenko's A Precocious Autobiography and he was not allowed to travel abroad for several years after this episode. The book deals explicitly with the period of late Stalinism and articulates Yevtushenko's realization that the past of his childhood belonged to a world built on lies and deception. At the same time it expresses his commitment to a life that is genuine and free in the post-Stalin USSR.

Despite public avowals of loyalty to the state, Yevtushenko was not left alone by the political authorities, and at times he was clearly coerced into writing poems that endorsed the current party line. This could make him unpopular with his fans, as it did in 1969, when he wrote anti-Chinese poems to support the current Soviet position in Sino-Soviet relations. When in the late 1960s and 1970s younger poets of the Thaw period appeared to be less inclined to compromise with the state, Yevtushenko lost much credibility, and his position never really recovered. Nowadays he is characterized more as an opportunist who managed to have a remarkably successful career in the unpromising conditions of the USSR than as the spokesman for freedom that he at first appeared to be. Nevertheless, he undoubtedly played an important role in the popularizing of poetry as a medium for liberal opinions that occurred during the Khrushchev Thaw.

See alsoBabi Yar; Kiev; Socialist Realism; Soviet Union.


Primary Sources

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. A Precocious Autobiography. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. New York, 1963.

——. The Collected Poems, 1952–1990. Edited by Albert C. Todd with the author and James Ragan. Edinburgh, 1991.

Secondary Sources

Pursglove, Michael. "Yevtushenko's Stantsiya Zima: A Reassessment." New Zealand Slavonic Journal 2 (1988).

Sidorov, E. Evgenii Evtushenko: Lichnost' i tvorchestvo. Moscow, 1987.

Emily Lygo