Issue 34, Spring-Summer 1965
The hopes for a general literary revival in Russia, which were so strong in Moscow when I interviewed Boris Pasternak for The Paris Review in 1960, have not been fulfilled—the events following Khrushchev’s denunciation of modern art at the Manege show in late 1962* marked the end of these hopes. In 1965, the prevailing mood in Russian intellectual circles is a mixture of impatience and fatigue, yet it is not without a secret intensity. The literary scene is marked by a superficial calm, due to the oppressive (but not repressive) tactics of the authorities; beneath this calm there are men of talent and passion producing often unpublished, but fortunately not always unread, manuscripts.
In 1965, Yevtushenko tells me that he still believes that a renewed Marxism might be reconciled with literary integrity; that the present system is not incompatible with human and artistic growth. This is an uncomfortable position today in Moscow, where a stifling Socialist Realism is the only sanctioned aesthetic doctrine. To hold his own view requires a heroism which has become Yevtushenko’s trademark. He needs this heroism, for in the immediate post-Khrushchev era he has against him not only the official dogmatists, but many of his younger followers, who now criticize this leader of only a few years ago as not radical enough.
I first met Yevgeny Yevtushenko during that winter of 1960, when many new poetic voices were being heard in Moscow. Stalin had not yet been officially denounced; one still came upon his mask-like effigy here and there. However, people averted their eyes from his portraits and avoided mentioning his name. The existence of concentration camps under the Stalinist regime was unmentioned except in small circles of friends behind closed doors, yet one could sense that everyone was engaged in a kind of private probing, a secret sorting-out of fact from falsehood.
Intellectuals were becoming increasingly conscious of the vacuous climate in which they had been living for so long. In their meetings with me, my new acquaintances sometimes seemed to be breaking through some of their old fears for the first time: the fear of associating with a stranger, of evoking the past, of speaking one’s mind. It was a rather awesome atmosphere—but also one filled with an amorphous hopefulness.
At that time Yevgeny Yevtushenko was already well known in Moscow literary circles, but his face and personality were not yet familiar to millions of people in the USSR. and the West. Shortly before my trip, I had read some of his poems in Soviet literary magazines. They were outspoken and threw off a special aura of youthfulness—a kind of swinging, joyful poetic journalism, altogether free of the stock clichés about Soviet life.
Soon after my arrival in Moscow I took advantage of my father’s acquaintance with the poet and telephoned him. I invited him to have tea with me one afternoon and also mentioned that my father had requested an inscribed volume of his poems. Yevtushenko accepted my invitation and was very friendly on the telephone, but I gathered that he found my father’s request naïve. “Olga Vadimovna,” he said, “clearly you are a newcomer to Moscow. Printings of poetry are sold out at once in our country. The twenty thousand copies of my most recent book of selected poems disappeared in two days. Not a single copy left. But, I’ll recite some of my new verse to you,” he added with warmth.
I was staying in the center of Moscow, which was then buried under a particularly heavy snowfall. In the somber, enormous Hotel Metropole, I occupied a suite of rooms furnished in Victorian style. It was paneled and heavily curtained in a manner perfectly appropriate to the Metropole’s long-standing reputation as an establishment where foreigners and their guests were closely watched by the hotel’s personnel, and perhaps even spied upon. But on the late afternoon of Yevtushenko’s visit, no sooner had he arrived, removed his overcoat, shaken the snow flakes off his grey astrakhan fur hat and presented me with a large bunch of hothouse lilacs, than my dusky suite brightened noticeably.
Yevtushenko is a very tall, ash-blond young man with a small head atop a long athletic body, pale blue, humorous eyes, a slender nose in a round face, and an open manner that was startling in the Moscow of those days. Oblivious of the oppressive surroundings, he sat down and without preamble talked about Russian poetry. He talked of himself, of the great poet of the twenties, Mayakovsky, and, at length, of contemporary Soviet poets. His generosity toward his fellow poets struck me at once; he named many, praising their poems, quoting whole stanzas of some: “Voznesenky and Akhmadulina are our most promising poets,” he said. “Ahmadulina is in the great Russian tradition of women poets, of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. This is the tradition of high, unadulterated lyricism. She is my wife,” he said, smiling, “and you must meet her. Alas, I myself belong to a less exalted poetic tradition. My verse is usually dictated by contemporary events, by sudden emotions—but such is the nature of my talent … when I am deeply moved, I am prompted to pour my feelings out at once in verse.” As he spoke, Yevtushenko got up, moved around the room, sat in turn in every one of various overstuffed armchairs, settling eventually on the dark-blue velvet settee, his long legs, crossed, stretched far into the room. But soon he stood up again to recite a poem of his own, one of several dedicated to Mayakovsky:
What is it destroyed Mayakovsky,
Put a revolver in his hand?
To him with his great voice, his nobility,
If only there had been offered some tenderness.
—Living people are such a nuisance
Tenderness is for those safely dead.
In the large sitting room—lit only by a desk lamp—he was an eccentric presence whose every movement was magnified in a play of huge shadows on the walls. He recited, his pointed profile so curiously at odds with his round face and high cheekbones, his long hands punctuating the lines with occasional broad gestures. He recited with theatrical dash, and his sonorous voice gave life to the poems, disguising their occasional thinness under a wave of emotion. His voice filled the room as he looked over my head to an imaginary distance, creating in me an illusion of being in a vast auditorium among rows and rows of rapt listeners.
He recited from memory a long fragment of a poem he especially liked called, “An Ugly Girl,” by the older poet Zabolotsky. Like his own poem to Mayakovsky, it is a plea for greater kindness in everyday life. Yevtushenko sat down, there was silence, then he spoke again in a passionate crescendo of statements: “The need to restore warmth to people’s lives is our most imperative task. This alone can save us, save the whole planet. And, too, the Russian people have suffered too long. It is up to us to do something about this now. To create a climate of kindness, to let people open up and flower again. How will we ever make up for the injustice, the stupidity, and the blood if we don’t start now? There is nothing in our Communist society to prevent this flowering, quite the contrary; but first we must conquer our inner fears … Many poets have done this, there is nothing blocking their inspiration any longer: all the great themes of our times are theirs. The prose writers have a harder time. Russian prose has suffered from years of stifling censorship, which affected poetry less insofar that it circulates orally with the greatest of ease. However, there are several promising prose writers in my generation: Dudintsev’s New Year Tale shows clearly that he has matured since the days of Not by Bread Alone. Then there is Yury Kazakov whom you should read at once: in my opinion he is the best prose writer of the younger generation. He writes in a renewed, yet deeply Russian tradition, that of Anton Chekhov: compassion is his theme …”
Disdaining detailed explanations, Yevtushenko expected me to understand, perhaps to share his convictions, which he expressed in flowing sentences full of old-fashioned metaphors. Yet for all his rhetoric, he wasted no time on conversational amenities. He seemed possessed by an urge to get directly to the truth, and in this he reminded me a little of a New York beatnik. “We have entered a new age. In the name of communism we are looking for truth—in ourselves, in others. We often find it in simpler people,” he added, voicing a traditional Russian conviction. “Truth is as delicate as a tender plant. It has survived a harsh winter and now will grow.”
Yevtushenko was fascinated by the idea of the old Russian intelligentsia, particularly by its spirit of universality. “This spirit,” he said, “the world has to recapture if it is to survive.” He spoke of the birth of a new intelligentsia in the USSR: “It is like trying to catch a flow of water in the palm of your hand,” he said. “Most of it flows out but a little is retained in the cup of the hand. This is happening now. We and our children will eventually retain this little amount of water as against the mainstream—but of course the ever-increasing mainstream is our first concern. The fact that the Soviet government has been able to open the world of good books to the masses of people gives us faith in the future of Russia …”
Throughout our conversation—which at times seemed to me a sort of morality play—Yevtushenko speaking in the name of a dynamic and purified Soviet Union and I taking the part of the West—he would return to the problem of discovering unifying ideas which would ensure happiness and peace to Russia and the rest of the world. I had the feeling that through me, he wanted to be heard by Western intellectuals. He was intensely curious about Western intellectual life, the latest movements in painting and writing, and asked many questions about the Beat poets and the New York action painters.
Tea was brought and our conversation turned to the special role of poetry in present-day Russia. Yevtushenko spoke of the huge, spellbound crowds who listened to the young poets, of fifty thousand copies of printings of their works sold out in a day (not to be reprinted until the Plan, rather than the demand, dictated). I was never to hear him so eloquent about it as on this first tea-drinking meeting. At a moment of increasing political tolerance he was himself just sizing up the power of poetry—more specifically his own poems—and of his own personality. The force of verse expressing the long bottled-up emotions of a crowd was then a relatively new discovery to him. At that time, through an ever-growing number of public readings given by himself and other young poets, poetry was just beginning to carry a promise of honesty all over Russia: it was the first wedge to be driven into a monolithic system of stereotyped ideas and reactions.
Yevtushenko was in the process of becoming a national symbol: the denunciation of Stalinism was being initiated at the level of poetry. By the end of my long conversation with him, I knew I had heard a persuasive public voice, a spokesman for a whole generation. Here was someone bigger and brighter than life, but also a kind of conventional romantic hero: Yevtushenko imitated Mayakovsky, or rather an image coined by Mayakovsky—that of a flamboyant, proletarian young poet of the Revolution. The emphatic directness of his whole style gave great weight to whatever he said, even if the flamboyance was something of a pose, a deliberate game. For Yevtushenko has a special talent for improvisation in real life as in his poetry; when he chooses to, he can write a poem on a designated theme in one afternoon.