Working Within the System

Time Magazine Cover Story on Yevgeny Yevtushenko

There are two Yevtushenkos. Coming to light in the early 1960s was the young Siberian poet who gave poetry readings to huge crowds in the Soviet Union, like some kind of rock star. He was critical of Stalin, of Russian anti-Semitism, and the “blue envelopes” with extra pay given to writers who toed the official line. Yet he clearly worked within the system, considered himself a loyal Communist, and was allowed to visit foreign countries without fear of his escaping.

I have just finished reading the poet’s A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963, at the height of his fame—at a time when the Western press was touting him as a Communist they admired. It was a book that was at the same time critical of the government and eager to please it. According to an article in The Guardian:

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, 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 labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

As the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said about Yevtushenko: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Here we have the second Yevtushenko, a figure of controversy.

Where do I stand on the poet? I have read his poems, but don’t care for them. But then, I don’t know Russian, and he could be badly translated—or else he might be one of those poets whose works don’t translate well into other languages.

When the Soviet Union blinked out of existence around 1989-1990, the the poet moved to the United States, where he taught courses at colleges in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died in Tulsa in 2017.