Yevtushenko's 'Don't Die' -- 'faction' from the poet


"Don't Die Before You're Dead," by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis. Random House. 415 pages. $25 Yevgeny Yevtushenko first gained international fame at the height of the Cold War. An attractive, long-haired poet in a black turtleneck, critical of Soviet repression and concerned with constructive goals like world peace, the Russian writer seemed like the Eastern counterpart of the typical Western early 1960s "rebel": a sort of Soviet Bob Dylan. One imagines he may even have inspired the character of Ilya Kuriakin, the long-haired, turtleneck-clad Russian sidekick of the American agent Napoleon Solo on the television series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."

TV fantasy proved oddly prophetic, in part. The fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe ended the Cold War, leaving a considerable array of opportunistic "bad guys," but unfortunately, no concerted policy - let alone a streamlined international outfit like "U.N.C.L.E." - to deal with the mess of crime, corruption, virulent nationalism and ethnic strife still ravaging not only the former U.S.S.R., but other parts of the world.

Something of the confusion, fear, joy, and anxiety accompanying these historic transformations is captured in "Don't Die Before You're Dead," described by its now-sexagenarian author as an "autobiographical novel," a concept that readers inured to Capotean and Mailerish "faction" should have no trouble swallowing. The focal point of this sprawling, rather ungainly, but generally engaging book is the abortive coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that took place in August 1991.

Mr. Yevtushenko has assembled a motley cast of characters, who come together to play their parts, large and small, in the drama of this occasion. The focus shifts back and forth among the various characters, between their present (1991) circumstances and their diverse pasts. Mr. Yevtushenko himself is on hand, fearful yet determined like his compatriots to stand up for democracy. The besieged Gorbachev is portrayed as a "Peasant Son," ever mindful of the sufferings of his grandfathers under Stalin; the coarser-grained but courageous Yeltsin is a former "Barracks Boy," whose actions help save the day.

Viewed by some critics as a literary lightweight, Mr. Yevtushenko has also been accused of opportunism. Not surprisingly, he uses this book as a kind of mea ex-culps. His efforts to explain and perhaps justify his own past actions, however, are part of a larger pattern, in which nearly all of the characters, from president to soccer player, are shown to be divided souls, wanting to do right, but conditioned by fear to play the game.

By turns light-hearted, sober, ironic, sentimental, impassioned, sententious, self-justifying, tragi-comic, the tone of this book reflects the instability and ambiguity of the events it portrays. The peripatetic narrative can be heavy-handed and sometimes coy. Yet there is genuine pathos and humor as well as insight in this tribute to a brief, shining moment of idealism and hope in a country beset by division, violence and betrayal.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post, among others. She has a doctorate in English from University of Virginia.

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