I was just this evening thinking about Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The collaboration with Dmitri Shostakovich which, I think, will come to be seen as the defining moment of his career, happened early in his life. His poem Babi Yar, about the massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews by the Nazis in 1941, piqued the interest of the Russian composer, who selected a few more of
Yevtushenko’s poems and set them in his 13th Symphony. The 1962 premiere was beset with problems. First, the great conductor and frequent Shostakovich collaborator, Yevgeny Mravinsky, withdrew his cooperation and refused to perform the work’s premiere. Then, Shostakovich and replacement conductor Kirill Kondrashin had to contend with their first choice of bass soloist being removed from the performance by the authorities, and the premiere only went ahead because the understudy happened to have turned up unexpectedly at the final rehersal. Yevtushenko, whose reputation was made by Babi Yar, demonstrated tremendous bravery by refusing to be cowed by Nikita Khrushchev at a meeting the night before the premiere. Khrushchev angrily stated that the poem had no place in the Soviet Union; Yevtushenko retorted that challenging anti-Semitism could only “enhance the authority of our country”.
I was thinking about all of this because, as those who know me must be tiring of hearing, I’ve been working on a fictionalised version of this period of Shostakovich’s life, and it just so happened that I had been mulling over the scene in which Yevtushenko arrives at Shostakovich’s apartment to hear a run-through of the 13th Symphony. For both men, the moment of their collaboration marked their most overt acts of political dissention. Shostakovich had always toyed with dissent but, to the frustration of some contemporaries, often retreated from a principled anti-authority sentiment, or submerged it in irony and double meaning. Yevtushenko seemed to be the most courageous of a younger generation of brave Soviet artists, but the trajectory of his career frustrated many when he too moved away from outspoken criticism of the regime. The first signs of this came when Yevtushenko acquiesced to official demands by removing references to Judaism and the Jewish victims of Babi Yar in the poem, instead emphasising Russian suffering.
|Shostakovich, Kondrashin and Yevtushenko, in 1962|
For some, including the Russia soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, this was the beginning of the end of Yevtushenko’s dissident credentials. In her autobiography, she reacted to the revision of Babi Yar by saying:
“He quickly learned how to pander to any taste, how to keep his nose in the wind, how to know when to bow and when to straighten up. Thus he swung from side to side, from Babi Yar to the Bratsk GES or, even more exaggeratedly, to Kamaz, in which the toadyism is enough to make one nauseous.”
Bratsk GES and Kamaz were, respectively, poems in celebration of a hydroelectric power station and a car factory. Vishnevskaya goes on:
“And when no one expected anything good from him any longer, he suddenly appeared on the speaker’s platform at a meeting of the Komsomol aktiv in the Halls of the Columns of the Palace of Unions – a meeting dedicated to the memory of the poet Esenin – and flattened everyone with his remarkable poem:
“…Dear Enenin, old Russia has changed…
…When the ruddy Komosomol chief
Thundered at us poets with his fist
“The meeting was televised live and nationwide. Judging from how soon afterward the government sent him off to some construction project, he must have taken quite a drubbing.”
Vishnevskaya then describes Yevkushenko visiting the Paris apartment of her and her husband Rostropovich, after their defection. Vishnevskaya had by this time built up quite a head of steam over what she saw as the poet’s double standards, which she unleashed on him over dinner. How could he write what he did while ordinary people suffered in the Soviet Union? Yevtushenko seems to have been amused by her moral indignation, offering no real defence. Vishnevskaya was, ultaimtely, torn between her own outrage and an understanding of the powerlessness of the individual against the forces of ideology. She ends her account with this incredible passage:
“In this vast, monstrous theatre, with our faces twisted by underground jargon, we Soviets wriggle and squirm for one another. We are actors by compulsion, not by calling, in an amateur theatre run by no one. And all our lives, we perform our endless, pathetic comedy. There are no spectators, only participants. Nor is there a script, only improvisation. And knowing neither plot nor denouement, we act.”
There’s a long and fascinating biography to be written about Yevtushenko that would take in his film career and election to public office in 1989, but two final thoughts relate to education. Yevtushenko’s last years were spent teaching literature at the University of Tulsa and I wonder if some of his students really understood the magnitude of his achievements and the import of the events through which he lived. I stumbled across some reviews of his teaching on ratemyprofessors.com, which are amusing and unexpectedly revealing of a great man freed from previous strictures:
“YY's classes are probably the easiest classes you can take at TU. That said, he is very difficult to listen to. He goes off on tangents the majority of the class that don't seem related to the subject material. Also, he doesn't have a syllabus because he believes they are "too constraining" for his class. Easy class, but take with a grain of salt.”
“yevtushenko is the most hilarious man in Oklahoma and slightly subtracts from the redneck nature of this two-bit town. go see him on stage... history at your fingertips. Funniest thing is when he handed out a biography of himself before the class started, what a trip!!”
“If you can't get an A in this guy's class you are a total moron. furthermore he is a good guy and passionate about his work. One warning...if he likes your paper, you have to read in front of the whole class. Keep that in mind when you write your papers.”
“insane. likes to make fun of people, i.e. me every night. however, he is fun and a breath of fresh air at this odd school-- just take the class you will get an A and you will have stories to tell your grankiddies! He once turned on a projector with an umbrella he spent 19 minutes looking for in his car. whacko poet.”
And so on.
Lastly, as a teacher, I have taken genuine inspiration from this poem, called Lies.
Telling lies to young people is wrong.
Proving to them that lies are true is wrong.
Telling them that God’s in his heaven
and that all’s well with the world is wrong.
The young know what you mean. The young are people.
Tell them that the difficulties can’t be counted
and let them see not only what will be
but see with clarity these present times.
Say obstacles exist they must encounter
sorrow happens, hardship happens.
To hell with it. Who never knew
the price of happiness will not be happy.
Forgive no error you recognise,
It will repeat itself, increase,
and afterwards our pupils
will not forgive in us what we forgave.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1932-2017