The Poetic Legacy Of Russia's Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Apr 3, 2017
Originally published on April 4, 2017 3:13 pm
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YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO: (Speaking Russian).

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet who was known for speaking out against anti-Semitism and the Soviet Union. He died over the weekend at age 83. NPR's Andrew Limbong has this appreciation.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In 1961, a young Yevgeny Yevtushenko visited a ravine just outside of Kiev known as Babi Yar. It was a site where 20 years earlier, German troops killed over 30,000 Jews in two days. At spots like this there's often a memorial or a plaque. But Yevtushenko didn't find anything like that.

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YEVTUSHENKO: I was so ashamed that I wrote this poem very quickly.

LIMBONG: Here's Yevtushenko talking to NPR in 2000.

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YEVTUSHENKO: Probably it was three hours, four hours.

Today, I am as old in years as all the Jewish people.

LIMBONG: He wasn't Jewish, but still he was upset about the lack of recognition. "Babi Yar" became his most famous poem.

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YEVTUSHENKO: The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. Here all things scream silently.

LIMBONG: Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born in Zima Junction, Siberia, in 1933. Divorce and war meant he moved a bunch as a kid. And yet he still managed to publish his first poem at the age of 16. By his 30s, his readings would pack auditoriums with crowds of people.

STEVEN MARKS: Here's the thing about the Soviet Union is that people read a lot.

LIMBONG: Steven Marks is a professor of Russian history at Clemson University.

MARKS: And so when his writings appeared and they appeared to challenge the orthodoxy of the regime, it certainly sent a kind of thunderclap throughout the society.

LIMBONG: Yevtushenko walked a fine line. Some of his peers said he didn't go far enough against the Soviet Union. But, Marks says...

MARKS: He did something that a lot of people would have been afraid to do, to speak honestly about certain things.

LIMBONG: He eventually started teaching poetry at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, spending time in both the U.S. and Russia. Even as Yevgeny Yevtushenko continued to write poetry criticizing Russia, there was always a sense it was out of love.

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YEVTUSHENKO: And Russia, full of blizzards but short of wizards, is still alive.

LIMBONG: Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.