Books

Yevtushenko, the Poet Who Stole Apples

Yevtushenko cover cropped

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933 – 2017)

In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight, it goes with him…. Not people die but worlds die in them.

~ Yevgeny Yevtushenko, ‘People’

In A Precocious Autobiography, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who passed away on April 1, recounted the story of his visiting a bookstore after receiving the royalty of his first poetry collection. A middle-aged man was looking for poetry that would bring hope to a young woman’s life. When the storekeeper handed him Yevtushenko’s book, he browsed through it and found it incapable of lifting someone’s spirit. As Yevtushenko left the store and walked back home, he saw a couple kissing on the bridge and an old woman wailing. These scenes he thought deserved poetry, not the sheltered ideas in his head. The pang of this realisation weighed so heavily in his heart, he took out the bag of kopecks he was given as royalty and threw it into the river. He did not deserve money for writing poems that did not connect to people’s ordinary joys and sorrows. The poet was born.

In the same book, he questioned Lenin’s warning that communists should not criticise openly, as it would help their enemies pick them up for use like bread crumbs from under the table. Yevtushenko disagreed, writing, “A strong man is never afraid to show his weakness.” Apart from the telling Biblical (and feudal) reference to the bread crumb that originally speaks of the master and the dog, Lenin’s attitude towards criticism hardened under Stalin and anything critical about the Soviet regime was officially considered conspiracy. Yevtushenko lived that dark era of suspicion, arrests and prison-camps, turning protest into poetry. In the tradition of poetry readings in the Soviet Union, he often read to factory workers. For a poet whose grandparents had died in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, Yevtushenko was however careful in measuring his words and critics often complained that he deliberately allowed the slackening of his dissenting voice to not antagonise state officials, who granted him awards and freedom to write and travel. But Yevtushenko did oppose the banning of Vladimir Dudintsev’s novel, Not by Bread Alone, for which he was thrown out of the university. When Boris Pasternak was denounced by state authorities for his novel, Doctor Zhivago and later, for the Nobel Prize, Yevtushenko refused to be party to it. The poet also publicly spoke against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and later, Afghanistan.

Among Yevtushenko’s fellow travellers was his first wife, the poet Bella Akhmadulina. When she died in 2010 at the age of 73, Yevtushenko said, “”With Bella, Russia has lost another great poet who did justice to [Anna] Akhmatova and [Marina] Tsvetaeva as their artistic heir. Bella was not only an example of dedication to poetry, but also of remarkable civic integrity. She was fearless in raising her voice on behalf of those who fell into disfavour with the authorities”. Yevtushenko could never shrug off the poetic responsibilities of dissidents throughout the Stalinist regime and after. Paying his tribute to Akhmatova – the poet who was disparagingly referred to by Stalin as “half nun, half whore”, but whose poem, ‘Requiem’, the most lyrical cry against the Stalin era, outlasts the dictator – Yevtushenko wrote ‘In Memory of Akhmatova’:

Two ages ours – and gone. How could we weep?
The very thought was dry. Alive,
She was beyond belief.
How could she die?

He did leave a final word on Stalin, too. In the famous poem, ‘The Heirs of Stalin’, published in Pravda in 1962 long after Khrushchev came to power, Yevtushenko wrote:

I appeal to our government with the request:
to double
to treble
the guard at this tombstone,
So that Stalin may not rise.

The shadow of Stalin’s fear had made such deep, psychological inroads into people’s consciousness, even the news of his death triggered disbelief. Further in the poem. Yevtushenko wrote,

He left many an heir on the globe.
It seems to me,
as though a telephone has been installed in
his coffin

Does the telephone that suddenly rings in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker, and startles the protagonists hovering around the giant wreckage, also allude to the persistence of the past in the debris of the present? Is it the fear of the spectre of a tyrant, outliving him, suddenly summoning the people into his court of injustice, passing yet another judgment of death? In Tarkovsky’s film, no one speaks on the telephone from the other side. But for a moment there is an eerie expectancy that the voice of the dead might speak.

In his autobiography, Yevtushenko wrote about how communist power had put the communism of the people that existed in the Soviet Union into an oppressive stupor they both realised but found difficult to speak against: “Did the Russian people understand what was really happening? I think the broad masses did not. They sensed intuitively that something was wrong, but no one wanted to believe what he guessed at in his heart… The Russian people preferred to work rather than to think and to analyse. They worked in a furious desperation, drowning with the thunder of machines, tractors, and bulldozers the cries that might have reached them”. A brilliant description of how the noise of work kept the news of terror at bay.

In his most celebrated poem, ‘Babi Yar’, Yevtushenko refers to a ravine in the Ukraine where thousands of Jews were murdered and thrown into mass graves by the Nazi army during World War II. The Kremlin refused to build a memorial to their death, giving strange excuses, and the poet, asserting his Jewishness, wrote in a tone of despair reminiscent of Paul Celan:

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.

In his book, The Russian Century, Yevtushenko offers a startling poetic definition of history: “But history is that rare woman who doesn’t like to look at herself in the mirror.” Is it because she doesn’t believe in the mirror? Or she thinks the mirror will distort her face? It provokes us to think how history does not throw up believable mirrors, not of our face, not of the world. For, above all, history lies, and Yevtushenko witnessed that lie with others, as he writes here in ‘Ballad About False Beacons’:

We’ve have been bewitched by countless lies,
By azure images of ice,
By false promises of open sky and sea,
And rescued by a God we don’t believe.

Caught between a dictator one is forced to believe in, and a God that is out of sight, history becomes a faithless ground where labour does not rescue the conscience of the people. History and its tyrants seek to liquidate conscience itself, as Yevtushenko understood in a poem, ‘The Torment of Conscience’. ‘I talked with my footsteps — / unlike words, they do not lie’, he wrote in ‘New York Elegy’. Finally we are forced to look for clarities in our own life. If love is the name of one such clarity, Yevtushenko was very much willing to go back to his roots, as the naughty adolescent. In the poem, ‘Stolen Apples’ he proclaimed his devil-may-care intentions in love:

Let slander pursue me;
love isn’t for the feeble.
The odour of love is the scent
not of bought but of stolen apples.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee teaches poetry at Ambedkar University, New Delhi. He is a frequent contributor to The Wire and has written for The Hindu, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Outlook and other publications.