By Ross Kenneth Urken
In the summer of 2007, in Moscow, when I was 21, my Russian host brother, Volodya Volkov, took me to the Polytechnic Museum to see the annual birthday reading of famed poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who died Saturday in Oklahoma at 84. Afterwards, while drinking Baltika 4 outside with friends, we saw a black Jaguar crawling by. We rushed it and knocked on the tinted windows. The car stopped. The back window slid down and Yevtushenko gazed at us with raised eyebrows. I explained in Russian that I was an American student and journalist working in the city for the summer. Volodya noted he was “bezrabotny” (unemployed), but that we both wanted to be writers.
“So you’re professional dreamers,” Yevtushenko said in English.
On a Sunday afternoon that August, we visited Yevtushenko at his dacha, neatly tucked into literary history at Peredelkino. This southwestern suburb of Moscow, which was made into a literary colony for the Union of Soviet Writers in 1934 at the suggestion of Maksim Gorky, has become a time warp — the site of such treasures as the former home of Boris Pasternak and the old digs of Mikhail Bakhtin. Yevtushenko himself was, of course, wrapped up in the tradition.
It had been 46 years since Yevtushenko launched onto the international literary scene with the publication of his controversial 1961 poem “Babi Yar,” a statement against the Soviet concealment of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population. The poem stirred such national and international noise that Dmitri Shostakovich selected Yevtushenko’s lyrics to accompany his Thirteenth Symphony.
The poet, who had been the shining emblem of liberalism in the face of a stalwart and unmoving Soviet regime, was a spry 74-year-old when I met him. He was dressed in a flamboyant silk shirt with a gold and black Grecian design, and his blue eyes glinted in the sunlight below his gray hair, which flopped boyishly over his forehead. He punctuated the look with a sapphire pinky ring.
One of the few writers active in politics during Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw, Yevtushenko was given the rare privilege to travel freely out of the Soviet Union. He served as an unofficial poetic ambassador — visiting over 96 countries and even staging a stadium-sized reading of his poetry at Madison Square Garden in 1972.
“I am happy that I was the first Russian poet to break through this rusty Iron Curtain,” he told me.
Friend of such figures as Federico Fellini, Che Guevara, Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and John Updike, Yevtushenko was an international celebrity and a genuine pop star in the USSR. Indeed, many of his poems were put to music, such as “Something is Happening to Me,” which was featured in the celebrated 1975 Soviet comedy The Irony of Fate.
What struck me during my visit was Yevtushenko’s concern with self-preservation. Having published his first important narrative poem about his hometown in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, Zima Junction, in 1956, he reveled in the fact that the town had established a Yevtushenko museum. “I am the only living writer whose museum was opened while the writer was still alive,” he said. “And it was by local people. It’s not the government; local people built this.”
Yevtushenko was the last of the shestidesyatniki, a generation of poets and writers who emerged in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, which included Vasily Aksyonov, Andrei Vozhesensky, Robert Rozhchestvensky, and Bella Akhmadulina, his onetime wife. An icon and one of the key voices of his generation, he now struck us a lighthearted grandfather with a passion for spinning self-aggrandizing yarns. It was difficult not to be enamored of Yevtushenko’s charisma. But, of course, he was an immensely complicated character.
Many harbored suspicions about Yevtushenko’s covert collaboration with the Soviet authorities, but the poet denied any involvement in espionage. Perhaps the biggest stain on Yevtushenko’s reputation is his literary feud with Joseph Brodsky. The problem arose after Yevtushenko tried to help Brodsky when he was arrested by Soviet authorities in 1963 and charged in 1964 as a “parasite” under the decree targeting “persons avoiding socially beneficial labor and leading an antisocial, parasitic form of life.” Brodsky was sentenced to five years of internal exile and obligatory physical work, serving 18 months in the Archangelsk region.
“Brodsky first of all was just an exception,” Yevtushenko told me. “I didn’t know Brodsky personally. [Journalist] Frida Vigdorova showed me her article and stenograph files from the court. I filled with such indignation. She said, ‘Could I show you his poetry?’ I looked at it, and afterwards I said, ‘We need to help him.’ She said, ‘How?’ I said, ‘You need to give it to the West.’ So I immediately called writers abroad and sent letters.” He joined forces with Anna Akhmotova and Jean Paul Sartre, among others, to co-sign a letter of protest.
At Peredelkino, while recalling the conflict, Yevtushenko paused. Opulent, golden Russian Orthodox icons stood to his left, a cornucopia hung on the wall over his right shoulder, and a plaster model of Pushkin’s face looked down from the corner.
“I didn’t know [Brodsky],” he insisted, “But after he was freed, [the poet] Yevgeny Rein and I, we were sitting in a Georgian restaurant with Brodsky, and I took my coat — a raincoat — from my shoulders. I wanted to put it on Brodsky’s shoulders, because he looked cold. He trembled. He threw the coat off and said, ‘I don’t need anyone to put a coat on my shoulders.’ He said, ‘I will not accept this coat from anybody…’”
This literary conflict involved jealousy, distrust, and political differences. Although it marred Yevtushenko’s legacy, we should also remember how much he did to further good causes, such as the rights of minorities and the marginalized. It is interesting to observe how the force of his individuality and his personal ambition — there is a lot of “I” in his work — served as vehicles for a more inclusive message. His poem “I Would Like” (1972) begins: “I would like/ to be born/ in every country,/ have a passport for them all/ to throw/ all foreign offices/ into panic,/ to be every fish/ in every ocean/ and every dog/ in the streets of the world.”
Over the following decades, he continued his advocacy for disenfranchised demographics in poetry. He considers, for instance, what it meant to be Armenian during the ethnic conflict in Azerbaijan in “Mixed-Up Tags” (1995): “In the Baku maternity ward the old nurse/ Without guilt told the pogrom bullies:/ ‘Get back! I mixed up all the ID tags…/ Now you can’t tell who are the Armenians.”
He himself told me he had “twelve bloods,” including Ukrainian, Mongol, and Belarusian roots.
“When the globe was born, according to my understanding, there were not any borders, any of those power borders,” Yevtushenko told me at Peredelkino. “These borders — these borders are scars of money, conflicts, quarrels, wars — and we have to destroy these borders that divide people from people.”
Yevtushenko said he discussed this with Robert Frost at the Soviet nightclub Aelita in 1957, when the poem “Mending Wall” came up. “But you know one thing,” Frost said, “if a poet wants to embrace all humanity, sometimes he has no time to embrace his own wife.”
The most evident thing about Yevtushenko was this: his thirst for life.
A notorious ladies’ man, who was married four times and whose five children are all male, Yevtushenko always wore a gold crucifix around his neck, rumored to be a gift he received from an Irish-American lover in Senegal in the 1960s.
During my visit, Yevtushenko told me about how he befriended Fellini, and recounted a visit to the director’s villa in Italy in the 1970s, where the two men ate and drank wine to excess.
“Afterwards, it was midnight,” he said. “Fellini’s villa was on the seashore, the Mediterranean, and I said that I would like to swim. It was terribly hot. He said, ‘Look, we are just fools full of wine.’ But I insisted, and then he said, ‘Eugenio, per favore, calmate,’ and I said to him, ‘I want to.’ It was such a wonderful night, and he was walking on the beach, watching me — really, I don’t think we were drunk, just full of wine, and I got cramps in my legs in the water. And I cried, I cried, and he jumped into the water, and he was swimming to me and he pulled my hands, and his five nails dug very painfully into my knee, but the cramps were gone. He squeezed so, so deeply that I had these five red spots for one year, and I was in many restaurants, in Italy, and I was saying, ‘Would you like to see Fellini’s autograph?’”
After my visit, we didn’t really stay in touch. I ran into him randomly one evening at the Russian Samovar in Manhattan. But he did call my cell phone once, like an echo out of the past.
“Hello, Ross — it’s Yevtushenko,” he said. “I hope you are in the arms of a lady.”