“My uncle, he really second father, had beautiful expression. He said, ‘You can divide life of man into two parts. The first part, till 35, you are going to fair. After 35, you are coming back from fair.’ And I asked him, ‘How you feel now, being 62?’ And he gave answer, ‘I have strange impression. One of my feet still goes, and the other one coming back.’ I asked him, ‘What’s the result?’ He laughed and said, ‘Pain in balls.’ ”
Newark Airport. Yevgeny Yevtushenko is now 52, and occasionally he feels a little of that pain himself. This afternoon, as he waits for his luggage to come in from St. Louis enroute to the sixth stop on his 17-city American tour, the thatch of dark blond hair is noticeably thinner than in his old newspaper photos with Robert Frost or Robert Kennedy. The trademark blue eyes, though still constantly in motion, hint now and then at the three marriages, the thousands of poetry readings, the innumerable late nights and the bitter political wrangles they have seen. They betray a touch of fatigue, a hint of sorrow. But now the man the New York Times recently called “possibly the world’s most famous poet”—without doubt its best-known Russian poet—is practicing his English, an activity he delights in. And when he is delighted, Yevgeny Yevtushenko is young. He is talking about some of his critics, rolling his R’s hard. “Conspiracy of Snobs,” he says, sampling the sound. Then, ebulliently, “Squeerrmish Conspirracy of Snobs!” Satisfied, he grins his toothy Siberian grin and heads off toward his next stop, Princeton, N.J.—to the fair.
The train from Newark. Yevtushenko did not like Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. He thought Kurosawa’s Ran was all right. His dragonfly mind has temporarily alighted on American movies, partly because his own film, The Kindergarten, about his childhood experiences during World War II, has just opened in the U.S., and partly because he saw three films a day during his recent stretch in New York. He enjoyed Murphy’s Romance, mostly because it starred Sally Field—”Greatest American actress. Her any little move is genius in art of exactitude.” He was appalled, predictably, by Rocky IV: “When I saw it, I did not see just two boxing fighters—I instinctively felt potential thunder of nuclear weapons.” And he was simply uncomprehending of White Nights: “I like very much Baryshnikov dance. I could not understand why great dancer allow self to be used for political crap.”
The question of great artists being used for political crap is indeed a fascinating one, and one with which the poet is all too familiar. If Yevtushenko were to name his tours as rock stars do—and in his homeland he has played to bigger crowds than any rocker—this one might be “Rehabilitation ’86.” It is America’s first chance to get a look at him since his headline-making speech protesting state censorship, national self-flattery and elitist privilege before a congress of Russian writers three months ago. It was a speech that convinced some who had long ago given him up as a sellout and “pet government poet” that he hadn’t lost all his old bite.
But Yevtushenko, who feels he does not need to be rehabilitated from anything, is not concerned with that just now. Instead, he is pondering a quality he feels most American films lack: “internal necessity.” The term was taught to him by his late friend Orson Welles. It denotes a private stimulus to create—work evolving from personal need. For Yevtushenko, whose lyric poetry has been critically praised but whose best-known works have tended to be either politico-moral manifestos or resounding statements of solidarity with just about everybody (“I would like to lie underneath the knives of all the surgeons in the world,” reads one verse), it means limiting himself more to those matters closest to his heart.
“Kindergarten,” he says. “It’s first film; it’s overloaded film, because I try to fit in everything. But at same time I feel very happy because I resurrected my childhood as I remembered it.
“When I was a young guy,” he continues, “I really wanted to be famous or something like that. I have less ambition now. I just want to write document of my own life…to live after my death. When we bury someone, we bury story of his life.”
When Yevegeny Yevtushenko was a young guy, as he puts it, he was just about the hottest thing out of Russia since the Molotov cocktail. There was no doo-wop in the Soviet Union in the ’50s—no Ed Sullivan or hula hoops or gray flannel suits. Instead there was a shaken nation that had just undergone one acknowledged ordeal, World War II, and another that hadn’t been acknowledged—the terrors of Joseph Stalin. For years after Stalin’s death in 1953, no public word of his crimes was spoken. Then in 1956, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, accused him in a spectacular but secret speech at a Communist Party Congress, which later became public knowledge. The bold speech was not the only sign of the ghastly era’s end; it found its parallel in the work of a group of young writers interested in reviving the decades-dormant Russian tradition of the poet as critic, prophet and national conscience.
In the vanguard of this group was a rangy Siberian with flashing eyes, a magnificent voice and an almost showboating independence of mind. The son of a geologist and a professional singer, “Zhenya” Yevtushenko had learned self-reliance early. Only eight years old during the wartime evacuation of Moscow, he had been sent alone on a journey across the continent to his grandmother’s home (and his own birthplace), Zima Junction, in the Irkutsk region of Siberia. A prodigy, he had become a published poet at 16, and at 19 put out an innocuous but well-received collection. But as the survivors limped back from the Gulag, and he realized that both his grandfathers had been victims of the terror, a sense of outrage began to build. “I began to discover the size of this tragedy,” he says. “It wasn’t purges. It was massacre. It was massacre.” Along with other young poets such as Andrei Voznesensky, Yevtushenko began to break out of the falsely inspirational Socialist Realism that Stalin had imposed on the arts. A hungry public responded. In 1955 a promotional reading by some of the younger generation in a Moscow bookstore turned into a huge outdoor rally. Six years later another poetry reading in Mayakovsky Square was interrupted when the audience spotted a familiar face in its midst and began shouting, “Yev-tu-shen-ko! Yev-tu-shen-ko!” Invited to the podium, the young phenom did not disappoint. “…I take a legitimate pride in my fate,” he read. “I will remain firm to the end and never become a licker of nailed boots.” The delighted crowd hoisted him aloft and carried him to a nearby statue of Pushkin, stopping traffic on Gorky Street, the busiest in Moscow. “It is the first time,” says Yevtushenko, “that I realized what kind of power poetry could have.”
It was power he wielded daringly. Officials and critics who had praised his first book began to pan him, calling his work “pygmy spittle” and “scum.” But buoyed by his public reception, he was probing even deeper toward taboo subjects. In The Heirs of Stalin he attacked the dead ruler, whose followers still wielded considerable power, and pleaded with bitter irony that the government “double, and treble, the sentries guarding [Stalin’s tomb] and stop [him] from ever rising again.” It was a brave statement, but by then no one had needed proof of his boldness. His international reputation had been secure since the fall day in Kiev, a year earlier, when he had seen the nearby, unmarked mass grave of Jews massacred by the Nazis in 1941. “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” he wrote, indicting Russia’s own anti-Semitism as well as the invaders’.
a drop sheer as a crude
I am each old man here shot dead
I am every child here shot dead…
The effect was electric. So moved was Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet composer, that he made the poem the centerpiece of his Thirteenth Symphony.
“Writing it was an incredibly gutsy thing for Yevtushenko to do,” says Jonathan Sanders, assistant director of the Harriman Institute for Soviet studies at Columbia University. “He didn’t know whether he’d be praised or persecuted.”
As it happened, Yevtushenko’s work brought him an improbable popularity both at home and abroad. Viewed by the Soviet people as the liberating voice of a new generation, he was read by millions, and he played nearly everywhere to packed halls and stadiums. The government, periodically hostile, nonetheless let him visit Europe and the United States and send dispatches—in verse—back from Cuba. In the West he was lionized as a sort of jet-set Solzhenitsyn by an American press that tended to emphasize his sense of outrage while soft-pedaling his commitment to socialism. He was young, angry and, once he’d visited the European boutiques, stylishly flamboyant. He read his poetry for Chet Huntley on TV, made celebrity friends including Warren Beatty and Norman Mailer and appeared with one pretty girl or another at beautiful-people functions. Says Queens College professor Albert Todd, who translates Yevtushenko’s poetry: “Zhenya was almost a golden figure. He could do no wrong.”
Outside one of the halls in which Yevtushenko is reading on this tour stand earnest young men, handing out leaflets. “A grain of salt,” says one cryptically, but his literature is more direct: “Does Yevtushenko Speak From the Heart,” it asks rhetorically, “or According to the Party Line?” The protests, most of them by Ukrainian nationalists, reflect the view that somewhere along the line everybody’s favorite Angry Young Man of the early ’60s became the Kremlin’s mouthpiece. Such suspicions date back to 1964, when Khrushchev was shoved aside and dissidents and daring writers were more harshly treated. Some of their leaders accused Yevtushenko of looking the other way as they were carted off to prison or psychiatric hospitals. (One, contacted today in exile, comments, “Yevtushenko? I really do not want to talk about him. Personally, he is a kind of bastard.”) Friends continue to maintain that he often came to the aid of imprisoned colleagues, not publicly, but by quiet phone calls to union and government officials. Inarguably, the poet prospered during the post-Khrushchev era, traveling seemingly at will and enjoying a house in Georgia and another in the writers’ colony at Peredelkino in addition to his Moscow flat. Voznesensky wrote a poem obliquely alluding to a Yevtu-shenko-like figure as a “prostitute” guilty of a “pornography of the spirit.”
Nor were his travels as triumphant as they had been. Ukrainian-American protesters stormed the podium at a 1972 reading in St. Paul and beat and kicked the poet. He fared little better with some U.S. journalists, who disapproved of a perceived Soviet boosterism in his work and were especially bitter about a series of poems he had written criticizing America’s prosecution of the Vietnam War. A Washington Post columnist asked, “Has success corrupted his talent? Or is he paying a debt for the permission to travel by advocating the Soviet propaganda line?”
Such questions hung in the air until last December, when Yevtushenko’s speech at the writer’s congress probably surprised as many of his defenders as it did his critics. “Yevtushenko Plays Rebel Again,” headlined the Times. The poet, with some asperity, maintains that he never betrayed his ideals and that those who think him inconsistent simply don’t understand. “I am convinced socialist,” he says. “I’m from Bolshevik family, so they are my roots. I make critical poems about my country. But this is kind of love for my country. Not blind love, but love with open eyes.” Not everyone is totally persuaded by this line. “Yevtushenko isn’t a saint,” says Sanders. “He’s a performer, he’s an artist. On some occasions, he let himself be used.” Then there is the slightly sodden blonde at a cocktail party who has trapped Yevtushenko in an escalating, unpleasant political conversation which he tries to end by saying, “Okay. We come to the point. I like my government. I believe in my government. In Russia we call it… ” “Stupid,” the woman breaks in.
At the same party an architect who is also an amateur palmist peruses the poet’s hand. “You are a simple man,” he declares. “You have one real marriage…one real love.” Yevtushenko’s reaction is a look of bleak and bottomless sorrow. His first marriage produced no children; his second, which likewise ended in divorce, brought him a son, Petya. His third wife, English translator Jan Butler, presented him with another son, Sasha, and then in 1980 with a third, who was frightfully brain-damaged. “He got in womb a virus,” says the father, “…so he had destroyed some parts of brain and didn’t suck very well mother’s milk.” The attending Soviet doctor said the child was “almost hopeless,” but Jan inquired in the West, says Yevtushenko, and learned of a therapy involving regular movement and stimulation of the baby. “It was kind of heroic feat on her side,” says Yevtushenko. “Each day from 10 o’clock in morning to 6 in the evening. Is endless work, you see.” But it was not in vain. Finally the baby, named Tosha, began to crawl and, some time later, to walk. In the last year, to the poet’s joy, the 6-year-old boy has begun to speak. Yevtushenko does not know if he will ever be normal. “I don’t want to be a false prophet,” he says. “But he’s a human being. He’s thinking. He understands.”
The marriage, unfortunately, did not grow correspondingly healthy. The couple is rumored to have separated; Yevtushenko is said to be crushed. Now he will say only, “Even if love looks like a dead body, we must not bury it. We must do everything for it, to save it. Because probably love is just sleeping, and we could bury something alive.” Age and natural death are subjects the great Russian poets have traditionally managed to avoid. The revered Pushkin died at 37 in a duel, as did his contemporary, Lermontov, at 26. Mayakovsky, a bard of the Revolution and a bitter social critic, committed suicide at 36, and Yesenin, another of Yevtushenko’s models, hanged himself at 30 after writing, says Yevgeny, “a beautiful poem, eight lines, in his own blood.” Yevtushenko has no such intention. “Life is criminally short,” he says. “If you are 75, it means you sleep 21 years. That terribly depresses me.” To make the most of the 20 or so years he feels he has left, he is “writing like a crazy chess player, 12 boards at once.” In addition to a seemingly involuntary stream of poems in progress, there are 12 unfinished novels waiting back at Peredelkino, and he hopes to follow up Kindergarten with two other films. Not surprisingly, given “internal necessity,” several of the projects deal with aging. Yevtushenko is in the process of trying to cast (“maybe Robert De Niro. Maybe Vittorio Gassman. Who knows, maybe even me”) a movie he has written about the Three Musketeers in their dotage: “Athos is blind,” he explains, “but he is still fencing. What for are they fencing, even being blind? What for are they killing people? They are trying to be young again. It’s almost hopeless. But sometimes it could give great results.”
That, however, is Yevtushenko’s future, filmic and perhaps otherwise. Tonight there is a poetry reading to give. The poet stops chain-smoking his Marlboros long enough to give each nostril a passage-clearing snort of his “Eucalyptus Zog” spray. He puts on his performance shirt, a ratty blue number with studs he says he bought years ago in a West German “jazzman’s shop.” And now he is onstage at Princeton’s McCosh Hall, in front of a crowd of 400, meager by his superstar standard. Still, he does not stint from giving his best show. During the lullaby “Sleep, My Beloved” his voice is the lapping of the sea, rueful and tender; for “Dwarf Birches” he becomes a proud cripple, rasping his allegorical defiance at the West: “Of course, you command more freedom. But, for all that, our roots are more strong.” He jumps suddenly from one microphone to another. He waves his arms in ways both alarming and funny, graceful and frightening. He regards the mike as Hamlet might Yorick’s skull. Declaiming “Babi Yar,” his words ring out like bells, cut like knives. The audience—professors, graduate students, fresh girls like those he loves to write about—rises to its feet. Somebody gives him a bouquet of chrysanthemums; he throws all but one into the crowd, his blue eyes flashing and laughing.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko is still going to the fair.