News of the passing of Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, probably the best-known Soviet poet among those who managed to outlive their native country, resonated deeply in both the literary community and the ordinary public across Russia. Much will be said as we near the day of his funeral in the iconic village of Peredelkino, close to Moscow, on April 12—at the day of Yuri Gagarin’s first space flight, which became the symbol of his beloved 1960s. And much of the commentary will rightly focus on his strong and long-lasting impact on Soviet society.
Mr. Yevtushenko, who died at age 84 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was first of all a Soviet man—hardly a typical one, but a man who was born and lived inside the system. That system allowed, and even encouraged, some freedom for artists, but only when the artist felt and understood the limits of that freedom. Yevtushenko’s talent manifested itself in the way he dealt with that situation. He suggested often, but with care, that an artist should oppose all the system’s vices, but he tried not to become too outspoken an opponent. Here was a man who became the youngest member of the USSR’s Union of Writers at the age of twenty, a kind of insider from the start. Yet he never sought a kind of collaboration with the government that would have provided favors; nor did he, to the other extreme, try to poke the hornets’ next. He knew, better than many others, the limits of what was permissible and sought to stay balanced on that line.
His early poems celebrated not just Lenin but also Stalin; in the early 1950s that was not so rare. Yet his acceptance of Communist ideas was in truth quite deep at the time, far more than one would think if one looked only at his more mature works. He was, again, a very Soviet person, but the sense of liberty in the Soviet Union at the time he gained real fame—the Khrushchev thaw of the early 1960s—consisted in advocating social progress and more humane relationships that were thought to pave the way for the true Communist future. Even those who opposed oppression and injustice—and Yevtushenko proved repeatedly that he was among these people—did so because they believed that the return of Stalinist practices was diverting the Soviet people from making the history they deserved. That sort of mindset is what led him to write perhaps his most famous poem, “Babi Yar,” which was an indictment not only of official Soviet misinformation about the Holocaust but also still pervasive Soviet anti-Semitism.
So it was the times that enabled Yevtushenko to produce more powerful poems like “Stalin’s Heirs” (1962) or “Tanks Marching Through Prague” (1968) while remaining an “official” Soviet writer, touring the world and receiving orders and prizes from the government even during the darkest times of post-Stalin history (like the Order of the Red Banner of Labor in 1983 and the State Prize of the USSR in 1984). His glory made it possible for him to raise his voice in support of the most famous Soviet literary dissidents like Yuly Daniel, Iosif Brodsky, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He welcomed Gorbachev’s perestroika with great enthusiasm, established the All-Union association of writers in support of perestroika in 1989, and later became its co-chairman. As a People’s Deputy of the USSR, elected in Kharkov with 74 percent of votes, he defended perestroika against detractors from right and left in the one and only freely elected Soviet parliament. Politically as well as artistically, he pushed to extend the limits of the permissible, but without breaking those limits in such a way as to lose his voice.
In December 1991, Yevtushenko was elected Secretary of the Board of the Commonwealth of Writers Union—an organization created to replace the USSR’s Union of Writers in the midst of the chaos that followed the Soviet Union’s demise. But his career in the post-Soviet Russia was not a long one. He fiercely opposed both the ultra-revolutionary reforms of the early 1990s and then the war in Chechnya. He returned the Order of Friendship of Peoples, which he was awarded in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, citing his opposition to the war (but he nevertheless accepted the Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” from President Putin in 2004). He lobbied for peace until the end, in recent times calling for the termination of the conflict in Ukraine (though never criticizing the annexation of Crimea). He was the only Russian poet admitted to address the State Duma, in 2014.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yevtushenko relocated to the United States, where he had been dozens of times before, even getting elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987. He went to accept a full-time professorship at the University of Tulsa, but he returned to Russia often, only to leave again. It was the right choice: It was one thing to struggle along in the Soviet style of muddling through different interest groups and of having multiple loyalties, and another to engage in the same type of activity that is so common in today’s Russia. In Soviet times an artist like Yevtushenko could at least persuade himself that things would get better and that nobility still crowned human aspirations. In today’s Russia thinking such thoughts is becoming fit only for a fool, for Russia is approaching a new period of authoritarian standstill, or zastoy, and everybody who is as experienced as was Yevtushenko knows it. Oddly enough then, this deeply Soviet personality felt far more at home in the United States, where justice and fairness still mean something, than in his native Russia.