Yevtushenko, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich (Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Gangnus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich (Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Gangnus)

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich (Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Gangnus) (1933- ) Russian poet

A warrior on behalf of artistic freedom during the cold war, Yevgeny Yevtushenko used verse as a weapon against Stalinism and Soviet atrocities. His heritage includes maternal and paternal grandfathers seized in 1937 during a state purge of some 170,000 dissidents. Born Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Gangnus (he later took his mother's surname), he was born of Russian, Tartar, and Ukrainian blood among exiles living at Zima Junction in Irkutsk in southeastern Siberia. After three years at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, the poet was expelled for defending a censored novel. He published antistate verse that championed individualism while deriding bureaucratic bumblers and obfuscators, the distorters of history that GEORGE ORWELL denounced in the dystopic PROPHECY novel 1984 (1949). The poet gained an international audience with his autobiographical poem Zima Junction (1956), named after the town where he was born. He counted among his contemporary admirers the novelists Norman Mailer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and John Steinbeck and the poets Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, BORIS PASTERNAK, and Carl Sandburg. The anti-Soviet novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (see PRISON LITERATURE) esteemed Yevtushenko for his energy and resilience under Community Party criticism.

Yevtushenko gained credence through the underground press. In 1961, he resisted Stalinist propaganda and, in Pravda, published “Babi Yar,” a poetic expose of the Nazi SS's slaughter of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews in a ravine at Kiev on September 29 and 30, 1941. The extermination, conducted by machine gunning 10 victims at a time, continued at Babi Yar, boosting the mass murder to more than 200,000 Jews, gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists, prisoners of war, and psychiatric patients. In fall 1961, when Yevtushenko visited the unadorned common grave, the city was recovering from a flood that brought bones to the surface. The official Soviet position claimed that the victims had been Russians and had hidden the fact that they were Jewish.

Within days, the poet committed his outrage to paper and urged the Kiev-born writer Anatoly Kuznetsov to write Babi Yar (1967), a documentary novel describing the massacre. In addition to marking the largest slaughter of the Holocaust, Yevtushenko's poem castigates Soviet authorities for anti-Semitism and for rewriting genocidal history to exonerate and glorify the Soviet Union. Grotesque sense impressions—the sound of slander, the fly of spittle, a coarse gash in the earth, the stench of onions and vodka—precede the assault by Nazi soldiers. The speaker, identifying with the “thousand thousand” (Yevtushenko 1962, 83) child and adult victims of the pogrom, envisions himself as the Dutch teen diarist Anne Frank and calls ironically for the singing of the Russian version of “The Internationale” (1918), the Communist Party anthem.

Yevtushenko took his fictional role as witness seriously. After his recitation of “Babi Yar” to 1,200 Moscow students on September 16, 1961, the response to the lament and to the vampire poem “The Heirs of Stalin” (1962) ranged to extremes. On December 17, 1962, Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev halted the poet's recitation of “Babi Yar” at a Communist Party gathering in Moscow; two days later, Literaturnaya Gazeta (Literary newspaper), the cultural journal of the Soviet Writers' Union, impugned the poet's patriotism and denounced his disrespect for Russian war veterans. A conservative-led smear campaign labeled Yevtushenko an elitist Gentile who grandstanded on behalf of Jews. The day after Khrushchev's action, the composer Dmitry Shostakovich performed “Babi Yar” to an adagio movement of his Symphony No. 13 in B Flat Minor (1962). Four subsequent movements in the piece decried the suppression of wit and whimsy depicted in the poem “Humor,” famine in “At the Store,” terrorism in “Fears,” and suppression of Russian creativity in “Careers.” Soviet officialdom banned performances of Shostakovich's symphony and forced the poet to tone down his denunciations. On April 2, 1963, an arts critic for a Minsk newspaper dismissed the episode of Jewish martyrdom at Babi Yar as a petty footnote of World War II.

To rouse interest in the full disclosure of Russian history, Yevtushenko evolved a flamboyant public presence. His lyrics spoke directly to Russia's miseries and sacrifices. With the skill of an apho- rist, he warns in “Lies” (1962): “Who never knew the price of happiness will not be happy” (52). His public readings drew thousands. In 1963, he came under KGB scrutiny for accusing the Soviets of “Judeo-phobia.” After publication of the allegorical “Ballad of False Beacons” (1964), Communist authorities recalled the poet, revoked his passport, and, until 1965, denied him travel privileges. He supported the cause of liberation through “The Torments of Conscience” and “The Execution of Stenka Razin,” published in the collection Bratsk Station (1966), an emblematic text depicting Siberia as the Soviet Union's official gulag.

Yevtushenko became the epitome of the modern PROTEST poet. In 1968, he lambasted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with the poem “Russian Tanks in Prague,” which the government withheld from readers for 22 years. In 1974, he demanded that Premier Leonid Brezhnev and KGB chief Yuri Andropov halt the harassment and censorship of Solzhenitsyn, whom officials had banished after the novelist won the Nobel Prize in literature for his searing depictions of Stalin's concentration camps. In another confrontation with Soviet intransigence, Yevtushenko insisted that the government restore Boris Pasternak's reputation as a premier Russian author and allow Pasternak's son to claim the late writer's Nobel Prize won in 1958. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 elicited a new outburst from the poet. In March 1986, he enjoyed hearing the actor Robert De Niro read “Babi Yar” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Another verbal salvo, Yevtushenko's “Half Measures” (1989), accused Premier Mikhail Gorbachev of only halfhearted support for civil liberties. While serving in the first freely elected Russian parliament in 1991, the poet resisted an attempted coup by reciting libertarian verses from a balcony to 200,000 marchers in the street. At age 60, the anti-imperialist author received a medal declaring him a Defender of Free Russia. In October 2007, as artist in residence at the University of Maryland, he performed “Babi Yar” to music played by the university symphony.


Kremer, S. Lillian. Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Specter, Robert Melvin. World without Civilization: Mass Murder and the Holocaust, History and Analysis. Lanham, Md.: University of America Press, 2005.

Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Early Poems. London: Marion Boyars, 1989.

----- . Selected Poems. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1962.