West awakes to Yevtushenko

One of the greatest poets alive will perform at the Galway Arts Festival, but he is not without his critics, writes Daniel McLaughlin…

One of the greatest poets alive will perform at the Galway Arts Festival, but he is not without his critics, writes Daniel McLaughlin

The modest house in the forest says much about the life of Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko. His study swims with the work of hundreds of poets and writers, pouring from the shelves over the floor, beneath a small wooden cross that Yevtushenko brought back from Siberia, where it marked the grave of an unknown victim of Stalin's gulag.

Downstairs, Yevtushenko sips 18-year old Armenian brandy - "a paradise of the mouth" - amid gifts gathered from travels in 94 countries and spent with countless lovers and luminaries of the last century and this.

Hanging alongside original paintings by Georges Braque, Marc Chagall and Joan Miro, a Picasso lithograph sparks another memory from the extraordinary life of perhaps Russia's most famous living poet.

"Picasso said I could take any painting I wanted. But I declined, telling him I didn't think he was in his best period - I preferred his blue period," Yevtushenko recalls at his home outside Moscow.

"Pablo immediately called for champagne and said the spirit of Russia was still alive, seeing that I was willing to just throw money into the fire like that, and decline such an valuable gift. The next day he signed that lithograph and gave it to me." Names like Castro, Guevara, Neruda and Garcia Marquez pepper the recollections of Yevtushenko, who turns 71 tomorrow and who - at the suggestion of Seamus Heaney - performs at the Galway Arts Festival on Friday, July 23rd For Yevtushenko's critics, the richness of his life casts doubt on his sincerity, in a country where only death or imprisonment awaited many artists with an unquiet conscience.

For his admirers at home and abroad, he is a poet who, by luck or design, stayed alive long enough to chill the world with a piercing scream against the Soviet Union's crimes, and shatter the silence that so often shrouded them.

Along with Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it was Babi Yar - Yevtushenko's 1961 denunciation of both Nazi and Soviet anti-semitism - that alerted the West to the stirrings of Soviet dissident literature.

The poem, which takes its name from the site of a Nazi massacre in Ukraine, was published abroad and appeared in clandestine fashion in the Soviet Union, winning its author an unprecedented following at home.

Yevtushenko's poetry readings would attract thousands of fans, and the tall, charismatic Siberian became what some have called a Russian cross between Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman - a voice that, for a while, captured the true spirit of the nation and the times.

Operating in the uneven "thaw" that Nikita Krushchev allowed after Josef Stalin's death in 1955, Yevtushenko may sometimes have been on thin ice, but was never plunged into exile like Solzhenitsyn or the poet Josef Brodsky, both Nobel Prize-winners who found refuge in the United States.

Brodsky and others have condemned Yevtushenko for duplicity, alleging that he criticised what was acceptable to the Kremlin, when it was acceptable to the Kremlin, while soaking up adulation and honours as a fearless voice of dissent.

A stillness comes over Yevtushenko as he contemplates the charge of "sanctioned courage". Then his eyes flash again, his animation returns and there is steel in his voice.

"Who could sanction me to write Babi Yar, or my protests against the (1968 Soviet) invasion of Czechoslovakia? Only I criticised Khrushchev to his face, not even Solzhenitsyn did that," he says with uncharacteristic rancour.

"It is only the envy of people who couldn't stand against the propaganda machine, and they invented things about my generation, the artists of the '60s." Our generation was breaking the Iron Curtain," he says. "It was a generation crippled by history, and most of our dreams were doomed to be unfulfilled - but the fight for freedom was not in vain." Yevtushenko's generation was forged in the Second World War, and he credits his childhood experience of wartime evacuation - from Moscow back to his birthplace in Siberia - with inspiring his love of poetry and performance.

"When I was given an award recently, all the other recipients thanked the government and the president and so on, but I couldn't. Instead I thanked one woman who shared her bread with me on the train to Siberia in return for a song - that is the Russia that I work for, and that's why I feel the need to perform." War, and the bitter experience of Soviet communism, galvanised in Yevtushenko's poetry an indomitable hope, an optimism that outlasts pain.

"Even inside human cruelty and blood, a window of hope exists. Even in an apparently hopeless tragedy, if you can see someone who cares about it, that gives hope." He urges his reader to transform that hope into action, and rails against passivity and indifference, saying: "Too many people squeamish about politics, but apathy creates room for crooks to flourish. At the same time, politicians seem to have nothing to say. Politics should be transformed from the struggle between parties into competition of ideas. We must work for ideas.

"It's not enough to fight for freedom. We must also fight the misuse of freedom, and develop our idea of it. Most people don't care about freedom of speech because they don't have anything to say." Under Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist government, Yevtushenko stepped into politics and became a member of parliament. In 1991, he stood alongside Boris Yeltsin to defend parliament when a hardline coup sought to oust Gorbachev and reverse "perestroika".

Later, when Yeltsin sent tanks into restive Chechnya, Yevtushenko denounced his old ally and refused to accept an award from him. All this, the poet says, proves his lifelong commitment to freedom and human rights.

Gainsayers lambast him for refusing to criticise President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who continues to prosecute a dirty war in Chechnya and has overseen the emasculation of independent media in Russia.

Yevtushenko thinks Putin, like Russia, is struggling to find his way in a time when ideals have been shattered and expedience reigns.

"Russia is looking for new self-identification, and I don't think Putin knows exactly what to do; there is a fight in his heart, and like Russia itself he is in the process of becoming. Humans are animals that need ideals. We need people like [dissident Andrei] Sakharov, whose death left a big gap. He was a man in whose presence people could feel shame. We have to have those people, and there are not may of them around." Yevtushenko sees poetry, and other art, as a means of communication and reconciliation, of erasing the destructive extremism encouraged by politicians.

"I was a friend of [Chile's Socialist President] Salvador Allende and Pablo Neruda, but I was not a communist or an anti-communist. There is a Russian saying that 'one cannot sit between two chairs' - but you can when both are filthy." In Russia and beyond, Yevtushenko's appearances were accompanied by a lingering reputation for high living.

"I like to carouse, not to drink to smithereens," he says now. "That makes you lose your memory and that is most precious thing one has." He still wears a small gold crucifix that he was given by an Irish-American lover in Senegal, in the 1960s, and says his crisp, colourful English was not learned from textbooks, "but from some wonderful whispering dictionaries." Yevtushenko recalls with apparent pride the nickname one lover gave him of "beloved bastard", and has been married four times, once to Jan Butler, an Anglo-Irish translator of his poetry with whom he visited Ireland several times.

He has five children, all boys, and was once told that he "was a man that could only produce other womanisers". His current wife teaches Russian at Tulsa University in the United States, where Yevtushenko himself spends half the year, lecturing on poetry and European cinema.

Forever restless, he has been praised for his ventures into play-writing and fiction, aswell as photography and filmmaking.

He is now working on a three-volume collection of Russian poetry from the 11th-20th century, and plans a novel based on his time in Havana during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"I met Che Guevara in Cuba too, and talked to him from midnight until 4 a.m. every night for a week," Yevtushenko recalls. "I still have the tapes, but it is too early to publish them. He wrote romantic poetry too, although it wasn't very good." Yevtushenko shows no sign of slowing down in his eighth decade, of stopping travelling or toning down the intensity of his readings.

"Art and poetry understand no borders, and the world is the same, east and west - we were like divided twins for so many years," he says.

"I never feel foreign anywhere in the world. A poet should be like a tree. Only if he is deeply rooted can he embrace the whole air of humanity."