Poetic Justice

Russia's Yevgeny Yevtushenko mined the depths of bigotry for the powerful poem that inspired a masterful symphony - `Babi Yar.'

June 22, 2000|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

One day in March 1962, the telephone rang at the Moscow apartment of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, wunderkind poet of the Soviet Union's post-Stalinist thaw.

It was someone claiming to be the famous composer Dmitri Shostakovich. So Yevtushenko's wife, Galya, hung up on the man, grumbling about stupid pranks.

Then the phone rang again, and the diffident voice of the same man explained that he really was Shostakovich, and if it was convenient, he'd like to have a word with Yevgeny.

And so began an extraordinary collaboration between a 29-year-old poet and a 56-year-old composer that produced one of the great choral symphonies of the 20th century. The 13th Symphony of Shostakovich uses Yevtushenko's "Babi Yar" and four other poems to build an artistic contemplation of the Holocaust and of the soil of bigotry and dictatorship from which mass murder grows.

"It was hard to believe Shostakovich was calling me. He's a great - absolutely - genius, and nobody knows who am I," says Yevtushenko in his rich, Russian-accented English by telephone from, of all places, Oklahoma. He teaches one semester each year at the University of Tulsa, and says he, his fourth wife, Maria, and their two young sons feel at home there.

Yevtushenko, who will read his poems at the Meyerhoff this week as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs Shostakovich's masterpiece, says he finds Oklahoma reminiscent of his native Siberia. He says he likes introducing "the sons and daughters of oil workers and cowboys" to the riches of Russian literature.

"I'm a provincial man, and I like provincial America," he says. "I like Okies."

But Yevtushenko, the best-known living Russian poet, was never a simple frontiersman. Nor is it true that nobody knew who he was in 1962, that being the year he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He enjoyed the considerable privileges of the Soviet literary elite. He roamed the world throughout the Soviet period, when permission to travel was rare, learning Spanish, French and Italian as well as English.

Today, gaunt, lanky and still youthful at 66, Yevtushenko divides his time among Tulsa, New York, Moscow and Peredelkino, a cozy writer's colony outside the Russian capital.

He embraces a political role, saying Russian poets have long been guardians of truth against tyranny.

"The best book of Russian history is Russian poetry," he says. "It was poets in hard times that witnessed everything that happened. In metaphorical form, Russian poets were publishing and saying much more than our prose."

Many poets have paid dearly for their political engagement. In the 1820s, the greatest of them all, Alexander Pushkin, was exiled and later personally edited by Czar Nicholas I. A century later, before dying in Stalin's Gulag, poet Osip Mandelshtam famously declared: "Only in our country is poetry respected - they'll kill you for it."

In this charged literary atmosphere, Yevtushenko has suffered from an ambiguous reputation. His very success under Communist rule made him suspect in the eyes of some Western critics and Russian M-imigrM-is who believed that being officially published - as opposed to, say, arrested or shot - was proof of some unsavory moral compromise.

And some experts on Russian literature consider his transparent, straightforward poetry quite uneven. He has been as prolific as he is topical: one poem denounces the neutron bomb; another mourns those killed on the space shuttle Challenger.

Yet Yevtushenko repeatedly risked his privileged status by taking stands. His intervention helped win freedom in 1964 for the imprisoned Leningrad poet Josef Brodsky, who went on to win the Nobel Prize and serve as U.S. poet laureate. In 1968, he publicly denounced his country's invasion of Czechoslovakia. More recently, he refused a prestigious medal to protest the war in Chechnya.

And he earned his eminence with certain courageous works of the 1960s that thundered against Stalinism and anti-Semitism. Such poems won him celebrity no American poet could dream of. For many years he could draw 10,000 or more people to a stadium to hear him declaim his poetry in the dramatic Russian style.

One such poem was "The Heirs of Stalin," a meditation over the dictator's grave:

I appeal to our government

To double, triple the guard on this slab

So that Stalin cannot rise again ...

His one-time henchmen

Don't like these times in which the prison camps are empty

And the halls where people hear poetry are overcrowded.

First published in 1962 in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, the poem served Khrushchev's goal of de-Stalinization. But it was heartfelt: Both his grandfathers had been arrested by Stalin's secret police.

Its publication was possible only because of the status Yevtushenko had gained the year before with his most famous poem, "Babi Yar."

It was "Babi Yar" that prompted the unexpected call from Shostakovich to Yevtushenko, asking permission to use the poem in a musical composition.

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