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