It was only later that I began to read his poetry, notably from a bilingual book with original and translation on facing pages. Even then what spurred me on was seeing that OSU performance I’d missed in a recording that had become part of the video collection of the Center for Slavic Studies. His interaction with grad students who’d been chosen to read parts of his poems in English and Russian. The loving look in his eyes that showed his appreciation for their involvement. The laughs and other spontaneous reactions of the audience. For Yevtushenko, poetry was theater.
The most moving was “Babi Yar,” his monument to the 1941 slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews by Nazi invaders of the Soviet Union at a location of that name in Ukraine. The poem was a daring attempt not just condemning the murder but also critiquing the regime, which until the piece’s publication in 1961, had consistently failed to mention the atrocity as part of the Holocaust. The poem also laments Russian and Soviet anti-Semitism, while Yevtushenko’s personal voice strives for a personal identity with the sufferings of the Jewish people. As he writes in the opening stanza, “Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people,” and in the final lines:
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
Yevtushenko is also remembered for his protests against the Soviet authorities’ 1956 trial of author Joseph Brodsky and the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He will be buried in the cemetery of the artist colony Peredelkino, outside of Moscow.