YEVGENI YEVTUSHENKO-V.SUNDARAM-AYTMATOV'DAN ALINTILAR

 

An unacknowledged legislator of Russia

V SUNDARAM

        The great English poet P B Shelley (1792-1822) in his famous essay 'An Apology for Poetry' wrote for all time when he said that the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind. If that be so, the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, is an unacknowledged legislator of Russia. If Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was right in saying that 'literature is humanism plus politics' then the best example of it should be Soviet literature and, in particular, the creative work of Yevtushenko.

      Another great contemporary Russian writer Chingis Aytmatov pays his tribute to his country's fellow poet in these beautiful words: 'A great poet cannot be a spoilt child of fortune, much less a spoilt child of public; he cannot be a self-complacent lucky man, not even when known by millions of readers. I am saying it because Yevgeny Yevtushenko's artistic fate is unique, and the way he faced it is also unique and edifying. People of my age remember how sudden and impetuous Yvtushenko's emergence in the literature of the 50-ties was: an awkward and daring youngster, a man of outrageous and delicate talent, a thirsty child of the war time, a rowdy looking fellow was somehow cast onto the skating-rink of literature where his first steps, his vertiginous verses resembling the jumps and turns of a figure-skater sliding on glittering skates of rhymes immediately attracted the reader's attention. He slid on, with a swing, making 'rollicking figures' to excessive whistles and jeers from the joyful audience which was carried away by his courage, the audience that applauded him heeding and rejoicing in his loud fresh voice, or was irritated, unwilling to accept the unusually open, uninhibited rhymes; but amidst this ballyhoo and hubbub one could hear, louder and louder, the music of Russian poetry, the music of the immortal Russian style, the music of the present, picked up by the young poet from the lips of men in the street and from the pages of high classics....'
Yevgeny Yevtushenko
        Yevtushenko was born in 1933 in Zima (literally 'Winter'), a remote settlement on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and brought up partly there, and partly in Moscow. His surname is derived from his mother's family of peasants who were originally exiled to Siberia from the Ukraine after an insurrection. His father by contrast was a Latvian and an intellectual. It will not be too fanciful to assert that these contrasts in his origins and upbringing reflected in a dichotomy in his personality, between the simple and the sophisticated, in his work between the public and the private, the international and the provincially Russian.

        As a precocious versifier, he published a volume as early as in 1949 under the title Prospectors of the Future. This was followed by 'Third Snow.' His long autobiographical poem 'Stantsiya Zima Junction' published in 1956 marked a definite stage in the maturing of his talent. He gave up his early intention of becoming a professional footballer and attended the Moscow Literary Institute and left it without taking a diploma. However, tremendous popular success began to come his way from the mid-1950s, the period of Soviet 'de-Stalinization'. The more intimate aspect of his work with its fresh spontaneity and his public voice, touching on the traumas of politics and history (both his grandfathers had disappeared in the Great Terror) stirred the conscience of his contemporaries. The Soviet officialdom found it difficult to deal with a loyal subject with a wide popular reputation, an irrepressible poet with a sharply questioning approach and an unquenchable inclination to expand the bounds of the permissible in literature. Though Khrushchev, the Russian dictator, called Yevtushenko 'ungovernable,' yet evidently he came to respect him.

        His work in the late 1950s was in the nature of scathing attacks on the Soviet bureaucracy as a legacy of Stalin. Yevtushenko became politically more active as a writer during the Khrushchev Thaw in the early 1960s. In 1961 he produced the poem 'Babi Yar,' in which he attacked Soviet indifference to the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kiev in September 1941. The poem was widely circulated in samizdat but a typical Soviet policy regarding the Holocaust was to present it as atrocities against Soviet citizens, not acknowledging the genocide of the Jews. In the same year that he released 'Babi Yar', Yevtushenko also published 'The Heirs of Stalin,' claiming that the legacy of Stalinism still dominated the country. In 1963, Yevtushenko, already an international literary sensation, was banned from traveling outside the Soviet Union. This ban was, however, lifted in 1965. Yevtushenko (along with Jean Paul Sartre and others) was one of the signatories of the protest against the harsh sentence given by the Soviet authorities to Joseph Brodsky. In the 1970s, Yevtushenko was closely associated with dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (born 1918). In the post-Soviet era, Yevtushenko has been active promoting the works of former dissident poets, environmental causes, and the memory of victims of the Soviet Gulags. Yevtushenko now teaches Russian and European poetry and film at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and at Queens College of the City University of New York.

        One of the greatest poems in the history of not only Russian literature but world literature is Yevtushenko's 'Babi Yar.' Let us hear the sublime lines of this supreme timeless poet:

        No monument stands over Babi Yar.

        A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.

        I am afraid.

        Today I am as old in years

        as all the Jewish people.

        Now I seem to be a Jew.

        Here I plod through ancient Egypt.

        Here I perish crucified, on the cross,

        and to this day I bear the scars of nails.

        I seem to be Dreyfus.

        The Philistine is both informer and judge.

        I am behind bars.

        Beset on every side.

        Hounded, spat on, slandered.

        Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace

        stick their parasols into my face.

        I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok.

        Blood runs, spilling over the floors.

        The barroom rabble-rousers

        give off a stench of vodka and onion.

        A boot kicks me aside, helpless.

        In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.

        While they jeer and shout,

        'Beat the Yids. Save Russia!'

        some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.

        O my Russian people!

        I know

        you are international to the core.

        But those with unclean hands

        have often made a jingle of your purest name.

        I know the goodness of my land.

        How vile these anti-Semites-

        without a qualm

        they pompously called themselves

        the Union of the Russian People!

        I seem to be

        Anne Frank

        transparent as a branch in April.

        And I love.

        And have no need of phrases.

        My need is that we gaze into each other.

        How little we can see or smell!

        We are denied the leaves,

        we are denied the sky.

        Yet we can do so much � tenderly

        embrace each other in a darkened room.

        They're coming here?

        Be not afraid. Those are the booming

        sounds of spring:

        spring is coming here.

        Come then to me.

        Quick, give me your lips.

        Are they smashing down the door?

        No, it's the ice breaking ...

        The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.

        The trees look ominous, like judges.

        Here all things scream silently,

        and, baring my head,

        slowly I feel myself turning gray.

        And I myself

        am one massive, soundless scream

        above the thousand thousand buried here.

        I am each old man

        here shot dead.

        I am every child

        here shot dead.

        Nothing in me

        shall ever forget!

        The 'Internationale,' let it thunder

        when the last anti-Semite on earth

        is buried forever.

        In my blood there is no Jewish blood.

        In their callous rage, all anti-Semites

        must hate me now as a Jew.

        For that reason

        I am a true Russian!

        The most amazing traits of Yevtushenko's poetry lie in his ability of continuous self-perfection, continuous enrichment and cognition of new facets of human essence, constant renovation of feelings and perception of the world, and, consequently, of content and form of his creative work. As a great creator of poetic art Yevtushenko always looks upon the world with the thirst of an adventurous discoverer; each time he displays a new flash of genius that seems to be capable of depicting the complexity of every day life and his clairvoyant vision of the future.

        Surveying Yevtushenko's life as a whole as an intellectual and as a poet, any one can see that civic duty and lyric are the two carriers and two criteria by which we have to measure him. Time will also measure the value and the global significance of his poetry, including his personal experiences and feelings, his ideology, the epic and the national character of his creative work through these two criteria. To quote the succinct words of Chingis Aytmatov once again: 'From this point of view Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a poet of extraordinarily wide scale and capacity. Surprisingly, his poetry contains the description of street life and also something imperceptible, something of celestial mechanics, and, amazingly, a contemporary individual is presented in his rhymes from the inaudible 'rustle of soul' to his global cosmic tossing when he, like the figures of Michael Angelo creating the world, seeks support in heaven and earth, when he is a working man, a creator, when he is just a tired man... There is room for all that in the poetry of a great poet.'

        I do not know Russian and yet I enjoy the English translations of Yevtushenko's poetry. His Poetry is beautiful because it is specific; it is as courageous, steadfast and unflinching as a Russian soldier. His poetry is musical and that is what makes it fascinating. His great poems show that there is no limit to the embodiment of man's spiritual life.

        (The writer is a retired IAS officer)

        e-mail the writer at vsundaram@newstodaynet.com
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