Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Published:  04:53 AM, 07 March 2020

His poetry engaged and enraged readers

His poetry engaged and enraged readers
Interview by Katrina vanden Huevel

Q: How is Mikhail Gorbachev changing Soviet society?

YEVTUSHENKO: He has changed the air over the soil. When I say "air," I mean first of all a fresh wind which penetrates or tries to penetrate to all levels of our society. And by soil, I mean objective reality. I mean the economic situation. I mean the psychology of a people.

The main change is a change of atmosphere. It's been seventy years since the Soviet Revolution, and seventy years from one point of view is a long time. But if you will remember how long the history of humanity is, it's a very short time. Our society is still very young, and I hope we are now entering the beginning of our maturity.

One of the signs of the maturity of a person or the maturity of a society is being tolerant of difference. We were many times not tolerant, and I hope what's now happening, with the release of Sakharov and some other people, is a symbol of the maturity of a society that could permit human tolerance.

And so we have big hopes now. We are living in a very promising time. I don't want to be a false prophet and idealize the future. But I have been working for this future, and I am working for this future, with my speeches, with my poetry.
Q: Do you think Gorbachev is an anti-Stalinist?

YEVTUSHENKO: It's difficult to give such a kind of definition for one politician.

Q: Is it too early to say?

YEVTUSHENKO: No, no, no. I'm not saying that. I think this is a man of anti-bureaucratization.

Q: How would you compare American cinema to Soviet cinema?

YEVTUSHENKO: Our new films are more rebellious than yours. They are sharper, not as conformist as American cinema. I'm not speaking about independent American cinema; that's different. But your mainstream commercial cinema is more conformist, even more Stalinist, than in Russia at this moment. There is some primitivization of Americans in Russian cinema, but in our films about international problems, we never show Americans like wild beasts, like animals.

We never create, in our cinema, an image of an enemy country or an enemy people, like your Rocky IV or Rambo. The creation of the image of the enemy is self-destructive. It's always connected with a kind of self-megalomania, self-exaggeration, gigantomania. And the mother of gigantomania is always an inferiority complex.

Q: What role did you and your fellow artists play in bringing about the changes that are under way in the Soviet Union?

YEVTUSHENKO: Who are these people who lead our country? They are people who were listeners of our poetry readings in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That's true. That's reality. Some people absorbed my message that bureaucracy is stifling them. We created a new generation with our poetry. We created people who now are recreating our country. For instance, there is a new openness in the Soviet Union. This is an echo of our poetry.

Q: Are you saying that writers and poets prepared the way for Gorbachev?

YEVTUSHENKO: Of course. Absolutely. I'm sure. They absorbed our spirits. They were students-some of them were students squeezing without tickets on the balcony of our poetry readings. I think my generation of poets did a lot of things to break the Iron Curtain. We wounded our hands breaking this Iron Curtain with our naked hands. We didn't work in gloves.

Sometimes there were victories, sometimes there were defeats. Some retreats were preparatory, and sometimes we sat under the ground after a hail of insults. But our literature, our art, didn't come as a gift from the so-called upstairs. We worked for it. We didn't get this as a gift. We forged this gift for ourselves and for future generations.

Of course, we didn't think that we would produce new kinds of people. But it's happened. We've produced a new kind of person, a new-minded person. Poetry plays a great role in the Soviet Union, and so I am very happy that we worked for it not in vain.

Q: What about the artists who have left the Soviet Union? Are you angry at them for not staying and fighting to change your country?

YEVTUSHENKO: I don't think I have any kind of moral right to be their judge. I understand only one thing: that it is a tragedy for a writer to be abroad, out of his own range. I couldn't imagine myself in exile. It would be the worst punishment to spend the rest of my life abroad.

Q: We get our image of the Soviet Union largely from people who have left. What about what those people say?

YEVTUSHENKO: You can't generalize about all émigrés; they're all very different. For instance, Joseph Brodsky I think is a good poet, the best Russian poet who lives abroad. And I helped him, and he knows it, when he was in exile. I wrote a letter defending him.

Then he came to the United States and began to say-not in the newspapers, but he began to say in so-called private circles-that I was one of the people who was guilty. He later asked for my forgiveness. You know, America, like Russia, is a big village. I asked him why he said such things. He told me, "I'm sorry, Yevgeny, when you are an émigré, sometimes you artificially force yourself to find someone to blame." That was a sincere answer.

Q: Why have you devoted so much of your writing to opposing the bureaucracy?

YEVTUSHENKO: Because bureaucracy is based on indifference and indifference is a kind of aggression. Indifference is a kind of war against your own people and against other people. One bureaucrat, for instance, who sits in his office and has the Picasso drawing with the dove of peace on the wall, he may be a pacifist, but at the same time he is in a permanent war with his people. He is an aggressor because he is indifferent.

But in my opinion, to accuse bureaucracy alone is too easy. To accuse governments is too easy a way out. I think all governments are far from perfection. But the rest of humanity is far from perfection, too. I disagree with the expression that every people has the government it deserves. No people deserve their government. In a way it's true. But when we accuse bureaucrats, sometimes we absolve ourselves. Sometimes we are responsible for the bureaucracy, the bureaucrats.

Q: What is your impression of young people in the Soviet Union?

YEVTUSHENKO: They're very different. When you ask me about them, I try to generalize. I see so many different faces; it's very difficult to generalize. But I think they are more informed about what is happening in the world. Most of them study foreign languages, unlike our generation.

But now they get so specialized; they have the same danger in Russia that you have in America. To be a really great specialist, you must read so much technical literature. And we have one danger with this younger generation that they will be locked in the knowledge of their specialization. Sometimes some of them don't know our own history, which is very dangerous. Dangerous.

Q: In one of your poems, you ask a sixteen-year-old, "How many people did Stalin kill?" And somebody says twenty or twenty-five, and then the highest estimate that you got was what?

YEVTUSHENKO: Two thousand. They have a lack of knowledge about history. As I said in my Writers Congress speech of December 1985, we must rewrite our books about history, because if you don't know your own history, you can repeat mistakes. But generally I like our young people. They want what most Americans, all human beings, want. They would like to have a good job, a comfortable life, a good family, to have children, and not to be frightened by the threat of nuclear war.

Q: How hopeful are you that Soviet-American relations will improve?

YEVTUSHENKO: Mr. Reagan has never been to Russia. I'm absolutely sure if, for instance, Mr. Reagan could sit down on the shores of Lake Baikal near a hunter's fire and drink vodka and speak with our fishermen, with workers, with others, he would be a different man, as would many other Americans. And many Russians would be different if they would come to America and sit near a hunter's fire in the Rocky Mountains and speak with Americans.

I'm absolutely sure that would change their minds. Both systems have some good features, some bad features. Probably if you find common mutual understanding, both societies, both structures could absorb the best features of each and we'll get an absolutely new structure in the future. But nobody knows. I don't know. I just want to be in my own place.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American
editor and publisher

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