A Precocious Autobiography
The photographs of Yevtushenko in his Precocious Autobiography show a slender young man, hair combed forward a la Bert Brecht, reciting poetry under spotlights, uninhibited by crowds and microphones. His gestures, hands on his breast as though to lay bare his heart, remind us that Diaghilev, Stanislavsky, Chaliapin did not issue from a void. Russian movements, Russian eloquence are still alive. Patricia Blake in Encounter describes Yevtushenko as “marvelously handsome and engaging. Dressed in a wildly patterned American sports shirt under a grey silk suit…he waved familiarly at the audience.” Yevtushenko is a star. Fans seek his autograph. The world press covers his activities. His autobiography appears in the Saturday Evening Post with an introduction by the retired head of the C.I.A., Mr. Allen Dulles. He is bad for Them, good for Us. Premier Khrushchev is annoyed. Comrade Ilychev, chief propagandist under Stalin, is furious. In the Soviet Union Yevtushenko has been described as “Russia’s chief juvenile delinquent.” In Miss Blake’s account he is shown leading the poet’s life, adored by the young, enthusiastic, drinking wine, and eating chocolates. Photographed with Gagarin or waving his arms with attractive recklessness, pressing his own pants, flaunting fur neckties, what Yevtushenko Satisfies, apparently, is the need of a large public, in Russia and abroad, for the figure of a Russian poet who speaks out boldly on matters of conscience, a civic poet of the kind as badly needed in the West as in the East, a symbol of the free spirit.
He must be a courageous young man. The world is such that to write a poem mourning the massacre of ten thousand Jews by the Nazis in the ravine of Babi Yar, near Kiev, is to earn a rebuke from the Premier of the U.S.S.R. At a special Kremlin meeting of intellectuals and artists on March 8, 1963, Khrushchev declared: “Events are depicted in the poem as if only the Jewish population fell victim to the fascist crime, while at the hands of the Hitlerite butchers there perished no few Russians, Ukrainians, and Soviet people of other nationalities. It is apparent that its author did not display political maturity and showed ignorance of the historical facts. For whom, and why, was it necessary to present the matter as if the population of Jewish nationality in our country were being harried?” There are certain common facts of the modern world which the mind does not readily accept; they have to be knocked into one’s head with a mallet. Why, eighteen years after the destruction of Hitler, should Russia continue to persecute Jews? And why should the Soviet Premier compel a poet to rewrite his lines? For Yevtushenko has since put into Babi Yar references to Russians and Ukaranians. A whole poem on a Jewish subject? That the Russian government cannot allow.
In their English version, Yevtushenko’s poems seem entirely inoffensive, made of milk, butter, arrowroot, eggs—the most innocent ingredients. Nor does Yevtushenko sound fiercely revolutionary in his autobiography. “Man is an idealist by nature…man has a need to dream…. The most important thing in life is human kindness.” It is no easy matter for an outsider (no Kremlinologist) to understand why anyone should risk censure for publishing such benevolent sentiments in L’Express of Paris. But the fact is that in the official Russian view this was an extraordinarily provocative act. Even the cosmonaut Gagarin rebuked Yevtushenko for saying “in the foreign press such things about our country and our people…I feel ashamed of you.”
Yevtushenko writes, “I love my fellow countrymen not only as a Russian but also as a revolutionary. I love them all the more because in spite of everything they have never lost their faith in the original purity of the revolutionary idea in spite of all the filth that has since desecrated it.” His rhetoric is in part derived from slogans. These slogan fragments he recombines to criticize Stalinism, bureaucracy, dogmatism, purges, concentration camps, all the while protesting the purity of his patriotism, his loyalty to Communist ideals. It is as though an American poet were to try to wrest Americanism from the Birch Society in the language of Fourth of July oratory. ” ‘Communist’ and ‘disinterested’ mean the same thing,” says Yevtushenko as the authorities scowl and he himself perhaps trembles. He must feel it necessary to press forward as far as he dares to secure the gains of the Russian Thaw or Spring. But his “autobiography” is a brief political act of 124 pages rather than a personal document. Yevtushenko himself remains no more than a phantom at the end of it. And the fact that Sargent Shriver has decided to provide copies to members of the Peace Corps indicates that this sort of political seltzer water is now as palatable in the West as in the East.
Yevtushenko’s followers in Russia are the young, the university students, and very probably his appeal is great among the intellectuals, the technical intelligentsia indispensable to the dictatorship—physicists, chemists, industrial designers. Odd fellows at poetry readings arise and identify themselves as “Engineer So-and-So.” In his autobiography Yevtushenko introduces his friend the physicist Tarasov with “the forehead of a Martian and the chessboard under his arms” who helps and encourages him. No modern society can function without these intellectual technicians, and it is probable that in the Soviet Union the Yevtushenkos express the demand of this new class for more freedom. To Communist leaders trained in the rugged, brutal school of Stalinism the mild defiance of a Yevtushenko and his insistence on a few elementary decencies must seem an outrage. Such “effrontery” twenty years ago would have been punished with a pistol shot in the head, under the Lubyanka prison. The party leaders apparently recognize that these days are now past. Yevtushenko himself is said to have reminded Khrushchev that the grave is not a perfect remedy for all evils. Let us hope the Premier can stand being sassed a bit. He cannot continue to terrorize the technical intellectuals in the old way, and these appear to be great patrons and lovers of poetry.