Yevgeny Yev­tushenko

Rus­sian poet who wrote the poem, ‘Babi Yar’, a stir­ring de­nun­ci­a­tion of an­ti­semitism

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Yevgeny Yev­tushenko, born July 18,1932. Died April 1, 2017

THERE ARE no mon­u­ments over Babi Yar. But the sheer cliff is like a rough tomb­stone./I am afraid. /Today, I am as old as all the Jewish peo­ple./It seems to me now, that I, too, am a Jew. When Yevgeny Yev­tushenko, who has died aged 84, wrote Babi Yar in 1961, the ravine near Kiev where more than 33,000 Jews had been mas­sa­cred by the Nazis 20 years ear­lier stood un­marked.

Soviet au­thor­i­ties never de­nied that a mas­sacre had taken place but they re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the vic­tims’ Jewish iden­tity, opt­ing in­stead to re­fer to them as “Soviet ci­ti­zens”.

Stalin had been dead for eight years but the Soviet Union was still strug­gling to shake off his le­gacy of fear and sus­pi­cion, and an­ti­semitism was ubiq­ui­tous. In the West, the Swing­ing Six­ties were blow­ing away the cob­webs of the past with new mu­sic, new drama, new ev­ery­thing. In the cra­dle of Com­mu­nism, peo­ple were afraid to stand out.

But not Yev­tushenko. The au­thor of seven vol­umes of poems, he had suc­ceeded in achiev­ing lit­er­ary star­dom in spite of mov­ing away from Soviet Re­al­ism, the of­fi­cially sanc­tioned artis­tic style. As his pop­u­lar­ity grew, he was even al­lowed to give read­ings abroad.

He was the Soviet Union’s own “an­gry young man”, an elec­tri­fy­ing per­former whose work dealt not with pro­duc­tiv­ity but per­sonal, in­ti­mate sub­jects.

His su­per­star sta­tus may have af­forded him some pro­tec­tion but Yev­tushenko, who was not even Jewish, still took a risk when he de­cided to break the code of si­lence around Babi Yar. He pow­er­fully de­nounced Soviet re­vi­sion­ism and, more bravely, the coun­try’s deep-rooted an­ti­semitism and the state’s own per­se­cu­tion of the Jews.

The poem ap­peared in the jour­nal Lit­er­atur­naya Gazeta and made a huge im­pact. When­ever he per­formed Babi Yar at one of his read­ings-cum-ral­lies, the re­ac­tion was al­ways the same: stunned si­lence fol­lowed by thun­der­ous ap­plause. When the fol­low­ing year, Dmitri Shostakovich used Babi Yar in his 13th sym­phony, it fur­ther en­hanced the poem’s al­ready iconic sta­tus.

Yevgeny Alek­san­drovich Yev­tushenko was born in Zima, Siberia, to Alek­sandr Gangnus, a ge­ol­o­gist with a love of lit­er­a­ture, and Zi­naida Yev­tushenko, also a ge­ol­o­gist, whose sur­name he would adopt after his par­ents’ di­vorce.

As a young boy, Yevgeny de­vel­oped a taste for po­etry and a love for the nat­u­ral world dur­ing ex­pe­di­tions to the Al­tai Moun­tains with his fa­ther. A tall, ath­letic boy, he also showed a tal­ent for football and at 16 was scouted by a pro­fes­sional team but turned down their of­fer, to ded­i­cate him­self to lit­er­a­ture.

Suc­cess ar­rived quickly and soon his poems ap­peared in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines with the bless­ing of the au­thor­i­ties. Even as he adopted a more anti-to­tal­i­tar­ian stance, Yev­tushenko man­aged to stay within the sys­tem.

He had no trou­ble pub­lish­ing his books or trav­el­ling abroad. Although his pro­tester cre­den­tials were ques­tioned by some, his body of work speaks up for him. Poems such as Stalin’s Heirs, Rus­sian Tanks in Prague and, above all, Babi Yar cap­tured the spirit of a coun­try wak­ing up from a long win­ter of the soul.

Yev­tushenko mar­ried four times: his first mar­riage, to the poet Bella Akhmadulina, ended in di­vorce as did his sec­ond, to Galina Se­men­ova and his third, to Jan But­ler. He is sur­vived by his fourth wife, Maria Novikova, and five sons: Yevgeny, Py­otr, Anton, Alek­sander and Dmitry.

JULIE CARBONARA

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

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