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 …