On April 1 nature played a cruel trick on us by taking away Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Zhenya, as everybody called him, was Russia’s most famous living poet, and he had been teaching literature and cinema courses at TU for 25 years.
What a life he led! He was born in Siberia in 1932. This was the time of the nationalization of private farms in the Soviet Union and of a catastrophic famine, as the regime punished its most able farmers, known as kulaks. A few years later Stalin’s purges claimed both of Yevtushenko’s grandfathers as victims. After World War II, Yevtushenko moved to Moscow to study literature at an institute and began writing poetry. He became famous in the 1950s for poetry recitals in public squares and in soccer stadiums. He spoke to Russians, especially the young, desiring a breath of fresh air after the death of Stalin in 1953. To use the metaphor of the age, writers like Yevtushenko represented a “thaw,” a Russian spring, after the long winter of repression and terror. Yevtushenko was also a “child of the 20th Party Congress” in 1956, where Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous Secret Speech denouncing some of the crimes of the Stalin era. The speech and Khrushchev’s policy of “Destalinization” gave hope, especially to the younger generation, that the Communist Party would loosen its grip on Soviet life and allow greater freedom.
Yevtushenko took advantage of both “thaws,” the literary and the political, and tested the limits of the freedom of expression and the regime’s tolerance of public criticism. In the early 1960s he wrote two of his most famous poems. The first line of “Babi Yar” boldly stated that there was no monument at the site of the massacre of more than 30,000 Jews in Kiev during World War II. The poem exposed Soviet anti-Semitism and criticized the regime for ignoring the Holocaust. “Stalin’s Heirs” expressed the fear that mentality of Stalinism was still alive in the Kremlin. Other writers, most notably Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, went farther in their criticism of communism and the mendacity of the regime. Yevtushenko, however, was an “in-system” reformer in that he believed that the Soviet system was capable of reforming itself. He also believed that socialism expressed certain ideals of a just and equitable society that had been hijacked by revolutionaries and dictators and mocked by privileged Party bureaucrats. Already a celebrity in the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko became world famous, charming audiences in many lands with his poetry readings. Few are the major American college campuses that Yevtushenko did not visit at one time in his life.
Early in my career in Russian studies I had two Yevtushenko “moments,” long before I knew the man. In college I took a Russian literature course and wrote a paper on his Precocious Autobiography, in which the young writer declared himself the “Till Eulenspiegel of the atomic age,” that is, a gadfly tweaking the nose of the authorities or, as we might say today, speaking truth to power. Later, while a graduate student on an exchange program at Moscow State University, I took a trip to Kiev, where I found, with some difficulty, an almost unmarked Babi Yar. By then there was a small monument, but not to Jewish victims of the massacre.
When I created the Russian Studies program at TU in the 1980s, it was inconceivable that Yevgeny Yevtushenko would ever teach courses for us. (It was also inconceivable that the Soviet Union would collapse in a few years.) But former TU president Robert Donaldson, who had met Yevtushenko earlier, invited him to come to Tulsa for a visit, and the rest, as they say, is history. For a while we were tennis partners until injuries sidelined both of us. In his home near Utica Square he continued to write, and he returned to Russia every summer to give poetry readings. Although I did not see him often, whenever we got together we had long, far-ranging conversations back and forth about Russia and America, back and forth between English and Russian.
For a quarter of a century he shared his love of the human creative spirit in the classroom, while teasing out the creativity of TU students. Several of his poetry classes gave inspired staged readings of Russian poetry, often accompanied by music. Zhenya would read his poems in Russian, and then students would read the English translations. And poetry “reading” is hardly the word. Zhenya was a master performer, who knew how to work an audience. He would dash up and down the aisles of a theater, his voice booming one moment, barely audible another, to heighten the dramatic effect of the words, as he paused to charm unsuspecting members of the audience. His face expressed a full range of human emotions. But what I remember most were his magical eyes dancing across a room. If the eye is the window to the soul, then his zest for life was there for all to see.
Yevtushenko’s death is a loss for TU. It is even a greater loss for humanity.
Professor of History and Director of Russian Studies