Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 2009
|Born||July 18 1933
Zima Junction, Siberia
|Died||April 1 2017 (aged 83)
Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
|Occupation||poet, film director, teacher|
|Nationality||Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar|
|Notable work(s)||Babi Yar|
Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko (Russian: Евге́ний Алекса́ндрович Евтуше́нко) (July 18, 1933 - April 1, 2017) was a Russian poet. He also directed several films. Before the appearance of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and the dissident movement in Russia, Yevtushenko, through his poetry, was the first voice to speak out against Stalinism. His most famous poem Babi Yar addressed a taboo subject, the Soviet reluctance to officially address the Nazi massacre of Jews in Kiev in 1941.
Despite his willingness to speak out on taboo subjects, Yevtushenko was never a member of the Soviet dissident community, who viewed him with some suspicion. His work was tolerated if not accepted by the government, and he received perks that were denied to them, such as permission to travel abroad, all of which led them to view his work as somewhat compromised.
Born Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Gangnus (later he took his mother's last name, Yevtushenko) in the Irkutsk region of Siberia in a small town called Zima Junction on July 18, 1933 to a peasant family of mixed Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar heritage. His maternal grandfather, named Ermolai Naumovich Yevtushenko, had been a Red Army officer during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. Both of Yevtusheko's grandfathers were arrested as "enemies of the people" in 1937 during Stalin's Great Purge. The future poet's father, named Aleksandr Rudolfovich Gangnus, was a geologist, as was his mother, named Zinaida Ermolaevna Yevtushenko, who later became a singer. The boy accompanied his father on geological expeditions to Kazakhstan in 1948, and to Altai, Siberia, in 1950. Young Yevtushenko wrote his first verses and humorous songs chastushki while living in Zima, Siberia.
After the Second World War, Yevtushenko moved to Moscow. From 1951-1954 he studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, from which he dropped out. He published his first poem in 1949 and his first book three years later. In 1952 he joined the Union of Soviet Writers after publication of his first collection of poetry. His early poem Со мною что-то произходит (So mnoyu chto-to proiskhodit or (Something is happening to me)) became a very popular song, performed by actor-songwriter Aleksandr Dolsky. In 1955 Yevtushenko wrote a poem about the Soviet borders being an obstacle in his life. His first important publication was the poem Станция Зима (Stantsiya Zima or Zima Junction 1956). In 1957, he was expelled from the Literary Institute for "individualism." He was banned from traveling, but gained wide popularity with the Russian public. His early work also drew praise from the likes of Boris Pasternak, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost.
Yevtushenko was one of the authors politically active during the Khrushchev Thaw (Khrushchev declared a cultural "Thaw" that allowed some freedom of expression). In 1961 he wrote what would become perhaps his most famous poem, Babi Yar, in which he denounced the Soviet distortion of historical fact regarding the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population of Kiev in September 1941, as well as the antisemitism still widespread in the Soviet Union. The usual Soviet policy in relation to the Holocaust in Russia was to describe it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and to avoid mentioning that it was a genocide specifically of the Jews. Therefore, Yevtushenko's Babi Yar was quite controversial and politically incorrect, "for it spoke not only of the Nazi atrocities, but the Soviet government's own persecution of Jewish people." Following a centuries-old Russian tradition, Yevtushenko became a public poet. The poem achieved widespread circulation in the underground samizdat press, and later was set to music, together with four other Yevtushenko poems, by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled "Babi Yar." Despite its popularity, publication of the poem in the state-controlled Soviet press was delayed until 1984 due to its implied criticism of Soviet antisemitism. Reportedly, the poem "was published abroad and appeared in clandestine fashion in the Soviet Union." Alternatively, some note that the poem was published in a major newspaper "Literaturnaya Gazeta"  and achieved widespread circulation in numerous copies.
In 1961, Yevtushenko also published Наследники Сталина (Nasledniki Stalina or The Heirs of Stalin), in which he stated that although Joseph Stalin was dead, Stalinism and its legacy still dominated the country; in the poem he also directly addressed the Soviet government, imploring them to make sure that Stalin would "never rise again." Published originally in Pravda, the poem was not republished until a quarter of a century later, in the period of Glasnost' under the leadership of party leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yevtushenko became one of the best known poets of the 1950s and 1960s in the Soviet Union. He was part of the 1960s generation, which included such writers as Vasili Aksyonov, Andrei Voznesensky, Bella Akhmadulina, Robert Rozhdestvensky; as well as actors Andrei Mironov, Aleksandr Zbruyev, Natalya Fateyeva, and many others. During the time, Anna Akhmatova, a number of whose family members suffered under the communist rule, criticized Yevtushenko's aesthetic ideals and his poetics. The late Russian poet Victor Krivulin quotes her saying that "Yevtushenko doesn't rise about an average newspaper satirist's level. Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky's works just don't do it for me, therefore neither of them exists for me as a poet." Alternatively, Yevtushenko was much respected by others at the time both for his poetry and his political stance toward the Soviet government. In 1963 (until 1965), for example, Yevtushenko, already an internationally recognized literateur, was banned from traveling outside the Soviet Union.. Generally, Yevtushenko was the most extensively travelled Soviet poet, possessing an amazing capability to balance between moderate criticism of Soviet regime, which gained him popularity in the West, and strong Marxist-Leninist ideological stance, which proved his loyalty to Soviet authorities. At that time the KGB Chairman Vladimir Semichastny and the next KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov reported to the Communist Politburo on the "Anti-Soviet activity of poet Yevtushenko." Nevertheless, some Soviet dissidents in the 1960s nicknamed Yevtushenko "Zhenya Gapon," comparing him to Father George Gapon, a Russian priest who at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was both a leader of rebellious workers and a secret police agent.
He was filmed as himself during the 1950s as a performing poet-actor. Yevtushenko contributed lyrics to several Soviet films and contributed to the script of Soy Cuba (1964), a Soviet propaganda film. His acting career began with the leading role in Взлöт (Vzlyot) (1979) by director Savva Kulish, in which he played the leading role as Russian rocket scientist Tsiolkovsky. Yevtyshenko also made two films as a writer/director. His film 'Detsky Sad' ('Kindergarten', 1983) and his last film, 'Pokhorony Stalina' ('Stalin's Funeral', 1990) are dealing with life in the Soviet Union.
In 1965, Yevtushenko joined Anna Akhmatova, Kornei Chukovsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and others and co-signed the letter of protest against the unfair trial of Joseph Brodsky (a fellow poet influenced by Anna Akhmatova) as a result of the court case against him initiated by the Soviet authorities. He subsequently co-signed a letter against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, "when Yevtushenko was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Brodsky himself led a flurry of protest, accusing Yevtushenko of duplicity and claiming that Yevtushenko's criticism of the Soviet Union was launched only in the directions approved by the Party and that he criticized what was acceptable to the Kremlin, when it was acceptable to the Kremlin, while soaking up adulation and honors as a fearless voice of dissent."
However, Yevtushenko was not widely popular in the dissident community. Brodsky repeatedly criticized Yevtushenko for what he perceived as his "conformism."  Commenting on this controversy in A Night in the Nabokov Hotel, an anthology of Russian poetry in English translation, Anatoly Kudryavitsky wrote the following: "A few Russian poets enjoyed the virtual pop-star status, unthinkable if transposed to other parts of Europe. In reality, they were far from any sort of protest against Soviet totalitarianism and therefore could not be regarded as anything else but naughty children of the regime." Responding to the criticism, Yevtushenko reportedly said:
Who could sanction me to write Babi Yar, or my protests against the (1968 Soviet) invasion of Czechoslovakia? Only I criticised Khrushchev to his face; not even Solzhenitsyn did that. It is only the envy of people who couldn't stand against the propaganda machine, and they invented things about my generation, the artists of the '60s. Our generation was breaking the Iron Curtain. It was a generation crippled by history, and most of our dreams were doomed to be unfulfilled–but the fight for freedom was not in vain.
In 1989 Yevtushenko was elected as a representative in the Soviet Parliament as a member of the pro-democratic group supporting Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1991, he supported Boris Yeltsin, as the latter's defended the parliament of the Russian Federation during the hardline coup that sought to oust Gorbachev and reverse perestroika. Later, however, when Yeltsin sent tanks into restive Chechnya, Yevtushenko reportedly "denounced his old ally and refused to accept an award from him."
In the post-Soviet era Yevtushenko actively discussed environmental issues, confronted Russian Nationalist writers from the alternative Union of the Writers of Russia, and campaigned for the preservation of the memory of victims of Stalin's Gulag. In 1995 he published his huge anthology of contemporary Russian poetry entitled Verses of the Century. Reviewing this anthology, Russian poet Alexey Purin referred to it as "a huge book, a huge flop. Really, a collection of names rather than a collection of good poetry." Purin (himself a traditionalist) mentioned that Yevtushenko included only mainstream poetry written according to "good old canons," and totally ignored nearly all of the avant-garde authors, notably Gennady Aigi, Vladimir Earle and Rea Nikonova. More recently, Yevtushenko has been criticized for refusing to speak out against Russian President Vladimir Putin's liberties during his presidency. Yevtushenko responded by saying that "Putin, like Russia, is struggling to find his way in a time when ideals have been shattered and expedience reigns."
After October 2007, Yevtushenko divided his time between Russia and the United States, teaching Russian and European poetry and the history of world cinema at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and at Queens College of the City University of New York. In the West he is best known for his criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy and appeals for getting rid of the legacy of Stalin.
In October 2007 he was an artist-in-residence with the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, College Park, and recited his poem Babi Yar before a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, which sets five of his poems, by the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra and the men of the UM Choirs, with David Brundage as the bass soloist. The first performance of the two works on the same program that Shostakovich set to Yevtushenko texts, "Babi Yar" (Symphony 13) and "The Execution of Stepan Razin," with Yevtushenko present, took place at the University of Houston's Moores School of Music in 1998, under the baton of Franz Anton Krager. The performance was the idea of the then-President of the Moores School of Music Society, Philip Berquist, a long time friend of Yevtushenko, after the poet informed him that both works had never been performed together. Yevtushenko had told Berquist that Leonard Bernstein had wanted to do so, but it never came to realization. The first translation of Yevtushenko's poetry into English was Yevtushenko: Selected Poems, a translation by Robin Milner-Gulland and Peter Levi published in 1962.
Yevtushenko was known for his many alleged liaisons. He was married four times: in 1954 he married Bella Akhmadulina, who published her first collection of poems in 1962. After divorce he married Galina Sokol-Lukonina. Yevtushenko's third wife was English translator Jan Butler (married in 1978) and his fourth Maria Novikova whom he married in 1986. He had five sons: Dmitry, Sasha, Pyotr, Anton and Yevgeny. His wife teaches Russian at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Yevtushenko himself spent half the year at the University of Tulsa, lecturing on poetry and European cinema.
Yevtushenko died on the morning of April 1, 2017, at the Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His widow, Maria Novikova, reported that he died peacefully in his sleep of heart failure. His son Yevgeny reported that Yevtushenko had been diagnosed with cancer about six years before and that he had undergone surgery to remove part of a kidney, but the disease had recently returned.
Following his death, Yevtushenko was described by his friend and translator Robin Milner-Gulland as "an absolute natural talent at performance" on BBC Radio 4's Last Word programme. Milner-Gulland also wrote, in an obituary in The Guardian, that "there was a brief stage when the development of Russian literature seemed almost synonymous with his name," and that amidst his characteristics of "sharpness, sentiment, populism, self-confidence and sheer enjoyment of the sound of language," he was "above all a generous spirit." Raymond H. Anderson stated in The New York Times that his "defiant" poetry "inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the Cold War."
In 1962 Yevtushenko was featured on the cover of Time magazine. In 1993, Yevtushenko received a medal as 'Defender of Free Russia,' which was given to those who took part in resisting the hard-line Communist coup in August 1991. In July 2000 the Russian Academy of Sciences named a star in his honor. In 2001, his childhood home in Zima Junction, Siberia, was restored and opened as a permanent museum of poetry. Yevtushenko received in 1991 the American Liberties Medallion, the highest honor conferred by the American Jewish Committee. He was awarded the Laureate of the International Botev Prize, in Bulgaria in 2006. In 2007, he was awarded the Ovid Prize, Romania, in recognition of his body of work.
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