Obituary: Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Poet who inspired generation of young Russians in fighting Stalinism dies at 83

Yevgeny Yevtushenko – born July 18th, 1933; died April 1st, 2017 – reciting his poems in New York in 2006. Photograph: Jennifer Taylor/New York Times

Yevgeny Yevtushenko – born July 18th, 1933; died April 1st, 2017 – reciting his poems in New York in 2006. Photograph: Jennifer Taylor/New York Times

 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, an internationally acclaimed poet with the charisma of an actor and the instincts of a politician whose defiant verse inspired a generation of young Russians in their fight against Stalinism during the cold war, died on Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been teaching for many years. He was 83.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by a close friend, Mikhail Morgulis, with the Tass news agency, Radio Free Europe reported. It said he had been admitted late Friday in a “serious condition”, but the cause of death was not specified. His wife, Maria Novikova, and their two sons, Dmitry and Yevgeny, were reportedly with him when he died.

Yevtushenko’s poems of protest, often declaimed with sweeping gestures to thousands of excited admirers in public squares, sports stadiums and lecture halls, captured the tangled emotions of Russia’s young – hope, fear, anger and euphoric anticipation – as the country struggled to free itself from repression during the tense, confused years after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1961 alone, Yevtushenko gave 250 poetry readings.

He became, as one writer described him, “a greying lion of Russian letters” in his later years, teaching and lecturing at US universities, including the University of Tulsa, and basking in the admiration of succeeding generations before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Poetic and political

But it was as a tall, athletic young Siberian with a spirit both hauntingly poetic and fiercely political that he established his name in 20th-century literature. He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots and timid bureaucrats. Among the others were Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina, Yevtushenko’s first wife.

But Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labour camps, Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

Some critics had doubts about his sincerity as a foe of tyranny. A few enemies even suggested that he was merely posing as a protester to serve the security police or the Communist authorities.

Yevtushenko’s defenders bristled at such attacks, pointing out how much he did to oppose the Stalin legacy, an animus fuelled by the knowledge that both of his grandfathers had perished in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s.

He was expelled from his university in 1956 for joining the defence of a banned novel, Vladimir Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone. He refused to join in the official campaign against Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago and the recipient of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yevtushenko denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; interceded with the KGB chief, Yuri V Andropov, on behalf of another Nobel laureate, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn; and opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gangnus was born on July 18th, 1933, in Zima Junction, a remote lumber station on the trans-Siberian Railway in the Irkutsk region of Siberia, near Lake Baikal. His father, Aleksander Rudolfovich Gangnus, was a geologist, as was his mother, Zinaida Ermolaevna Evtushenko, who became a singer. His parents divorced, and the boy took his mother’s surname. Yevgeny spent his early childhood years with his mother in Moscow. When German troops approached Moscow in late 1941, the family was evacuated to Zima and stayed there until 1944.

While growing up, Yevgeny accompanied his father on geology expeditions to wild regions of Kazakhstan and the Altai mountains, during which his father recited poetry to him. The boy learned to love nature and literature.

Sports

He was also drawn to sports. At 16 he was selected to join a professional soccer team. But sudden literary success compelled him to abandon that ambition. Soon his poems began appearing in newspapers, popular magazines and literary monthlies. The authorities praised his early poems, which he later called “hack work”, and he was admitted to the elite Gorky Literary Institute and to the Soviet Writers’ Union.

But after Stalin’s death – Yevtushenko was almost crushed to death in a funeral stampede in Moscow – his work began to run counter to Soviet realism, the officially sanctioned artistic style, reflecting instead new thinking about individual responsibility and the state.

In the mid-1980s, Yevtushenko championed the glasnost campaign of “openness” waged by Soviet leader Mikhail S Gorbachev. In a speech to the writers’ union, Yevtushenko assailed privilege, censorship and the distortion of history. He was a member of the first freely elected Supreme Soviet, the country’s standing parliament.

He went on to publicly defy the hardline conservative plotters of an attempt to seize power in 1991. The coup attempt, which temporarily deposed Gorbachev, sent a shock wave across Russia and around the world. Yevtushenko was later given a medal as a “Defender of Free Russia.” The upheaval became the backdrop for a novel, Don’t Die Before You’re Dead.

Yevtushenko had four marriages. He married Galina Semenova after he and Akhmadulina divorced. His third wife, Jan Butler, was an English translator of his poetry. His widow, Novikova, whom he married in 1986, has taught Russian at a preparatory school near the University of Tulsa. He had five sons Alexander, Dmitry,Yevgeny, Pyotr and Anton.