Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko (yehv-tew-SHEHNG-koh) is considered, with Andrey Voznesensky, among the best representatives of the generation of Russian poets after Stalin’s death. He was born at Zima Station, a small Siberian junction near Lake Baika. His ancestors had been deported from Ukraine for political reasons. He spent his childhood surrounded by beautiful Siberian nature but also amid political uncertainty: Both of his grandfathers were purged in the late 1930’s. After World War II his mother took him to Moscow, where he began to write poetry and almost became a professional soccer player. He published his first poem in 1949, then entered the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow and, after publishing his first collection of poems, Razvedchicki gryadushchego (prospectors of the future), in 1952, decided to devote his life to literature.
Emotionally charged poems and audacity made him a leader of the poets of his generation, who questioned everything, even the results of the revolution. From the beginning Yevtushenko believed that, in line with the age-old tradition of poets’ role in Russian society, he was bringing something new to Russian poetry. In the first line of “Prologue,” 1953, he declares “I am different,” speaking not only for himself but for his entire generation. His early poems are characterized by yearning for freedom and rebellion against restrictions, love and respect for nature, faith in people and love for one’s land, a strong belief in oneself, and loyalty to the original aims of the revolution. A strong lyrical bent and readiness for poetic experiments complete his early poetic portrait.
At the height of the campaign against Stalin in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Yevtushenko wrote several rebellious poems. The best of these, and the one that became best known, is “Babii Yar,” a poem about a ravine in Ukraine where thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis. Yevtushenko bemoans the fact that there is no monument to these innocent victims, indirectly accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism, for the Russian people, “international to the core,” are not guilty of this oversight. In “The Heirs of Stalin” and “The Dead Hand” he warns that many heirs to Stalin are still around and that his hand still holds the people in its grip. What saves these poems from being merely political manifestos is Yevtushenko’s reliance on strong emotions and dramatics and his use of striking metaphors and similes.
Another audacious work, A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963 in Paris without the permission of Soviet authorities, reveals much about the poet’s early life and thinking, as well as being a commentary on Soviet society. At first Yevtushenko considered Communism the best political system, though he was not blind to its shortcomings, as demonstrated most vividly during Stalin’s funeral. The only way to reconcile his faith in Communism with crimes committed in its name (the murder of his grandfathers, for example) was for him to cling to an idealistic faith in the innate goodness of the Communist ideas. Although Yevtushenko initially refrains from examining the basic premises of the system, he expresses the belief that his country has been in a spiritual revolution since Stalin’s death in 1953, searching for the truth and fighting against lies, the abuse of power, and the exploitation of humankind. Aside from its literary merits as a lively and heartfelt narrative, A Precocious Autobiography remains a document of the spiritual and political awakening of an entire nation, especially its poets and intellectuals, from a decades-long dream.
As the political climate in the Soviet Union changed in the mid-1960’s, Yevtushenko began to experience difficulties with the authorities. He was publicly chastised and even exiled for a short while in the Caucasus, yet he was able to return. When he was allowed to publish again he softened his attacks but remained firm in his opposition to censorship.
As he matured Yevtushenko turned to wider themes and concerns. He remained politically active, as evidenced in poems such as “Zima Station” and “Conversations with an American Writer,” but this attitude had as its price that Yevtushenko has often been labeled a topical poet who lent his talent to prosaic social and political causes of the day. It cannot be denied that his political activism contributed heavily to his popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad. Yevtushenko himself resents being labeled as a political or topical poet, pointing out his faith in the integrity of poets, who, though interested in social issues, should express themselves artistically and pursue aesthetic goals.
In the 1980’s Yevtushenko became even more involved in politics and supported democratic reforms. He also wrote film scenarios, directed and acted in movies, though still claiming poetry as his main avocation. His forays into long fiction have not been considered successful. Wild Berries and Don’t Die Before You’re Dead suffer from the fact that, being foremost a poet, he has not mastered novelistic technique. His collection of essays, Talant est’ chudo nesluchainoe, along with many articles, reflects his ongoing fascination with social and political matters. However, his main contribution to Russian and world literature remains his poetry.