Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the 21st Century

Chris Ross over at Bookslut:

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was playing cards with his wife and mother when the phone rang. The year was 1961 and Yevtushenko had just published the controversial poem “Babi Yar,” which recounted the massacre of Kiev’s Jewish population, a topic conspicuously unacknowledged by Soviet officials. Believing Yevtushenko’s life to be in danger, members of the University of Moscow basketball team appointed themselves his personal bodyguards and slept on his stairs at night.

The poet’s wife returned from answering the phone, annoyed. Someone had just called introducing himself as the famous Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Then the phone ran again. Yevtushenko answered and a man with a soft voice introduced himself as Shostakovich and addressed the poet by his familiar patronymic. “Yevgeny Alexander,” said Shostakovich, “I’m sorry to interrupt, I know you must be very busy. I love your poem ‘Babi Yar,’ very much. I was wondering if you would permit me to compose some music inspired by the poem.” Nearly speechless, the young Yevtushenko replied that he would be honored. “Good,” said Shostakovich. “The piece is already written.” It was the legendary Symphony 13, and the poem catapulted Yevtushenko into worldwide literary celebrity. After touring throughout Russia and the United States, Yevtushenko was featured on the cover of Time in 1962 as the face of Soviet Russia’s newfound freedom of expression.

But today, Yevtushenko seems to regard the maturing of his legacy with a wary eye. Since the 1980s, critics have raised serious doubts about Yevtushenko’s dissident reputation. When he was elected as an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, fellow poet Joseph Brodsky resigned in protest, calling Yevtushenko a party yes-man and insisting, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Others have unfavorably compared his poetry, declamatory and at times childishly earnest, to the formal innovations of his contemporaries. But at 74, Yevtushenko has not abandoned his sincerity, nor does he appear prepared to check out quite yet. The title of his forthcoming collection of memoirs, Schestu Decatnik (Sixties Parachute Man) is a neologism likening Yevtushenko’s confrontation with the present to that of a Green Beret soldier parachuting into enemy territory — the surreal landscape of the 21st century.