Russian poet, filmmaker, politican and activist Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a fourth-generation descendant of Ukrainians exiled to Siberia. He gained international fame in 1961 with “Babi Yar,” in which he denounced Nazi and Russian anti-Semitism. The classical composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, set his Symphony No. 13 to this poem. The 6-foot-3-inch Yevtushenko received a great deal of attention, especially in the United States.
Yevtushenko’s poem, “The Heirs of Stalin” (1961), published with Communist Party approval in Pravda, was not republished until 1987. The poem contained warnings that vestiges of Stalinism remained alive after the dictator’s death. Yevtushenko’s demands for greater artistic freedom, as well as his repeated attacks on Stalinism and bureaucracy in the late 1950s and ’60s made him a leader of Soviet youth. Still, he was allowed to travel widely in the West until 1963. That was when he published “A Precocious Autobiography” (in English); his travel privileges and favors were quickly withdrawn for two years. In 1972, Yevtushenko gained huge success with his play, “Under the Skin of the Statue of Liberty.”
Since the 1970s, Yevtushenko has been active in many areas of the arts. He has written novels, acted and directed films. He directed and acted in the film “Kindergarten.” In 1990, he directed the film, “Stalin’s Funeral.”
Yevtushenko remains at heart a social activist, both inside and outside “the establishment.” He was elected as a member of the first freely elected parliament of the U.S.S.R., the Congress of People’s Deputies, from 1988 to 1991. He raised public awareness of the pollution of Lake Baikal. When communism collapsed, Yevtushenko was instrumental in getting a monument to the victims of Stalinist repression placed opposite the headquarters of the KGB. Yevtushenko has served as Chubb fellow at Yale, as well as visiting professor at the University of Chicago, University of Tulsa, Carleton College, Queens College and other universities.
Bankrate: Tell me about some of your latest projects.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: For my 70th birthday, I had a performance at the Kremlin Palace Theater of Congress. It is a relatively new building constructed 25 years ago. Of course, it was a state auditorium. It is skillfully assembled, but at the time, it was a terrible building. It is the biggest political assembly hall, used for official concerts, big events. In 1961, my poem “Babi Yar” was very harshly criticized there. During the days of Khruschev, the watchdogs of our ideology criticized it. They accused me of ignoring the losses of Russia at Babi Yar. I narrowed the theme of WWII just to the problems of Jewish victims. I did not write about the Russians and Ukraines. It was absolute hypocrisy of them! The problem was, when Nazis killed between 40,000 and 70,000 Jews, the Russians and Ukrainians who were killed were trying to save the Jews, but they got killed together. This massacre was dedicated to Jews. I had to write about this. Why? Because I know about this massacre. I am not the first to write of this. When our Great Army entered Kiev in 1941, some officers wrote about their findings. I never heard of any subsequent investigation. There was a conspiracy of silence. I asked myself, “Why?” After the war, Stalin began to arrest people. The great Jewish actor, Solomon Mikhoels, was arrested. Babi Yar means “Ravine of the Woman.” In 1961, I was overwhelmed, ashamed. I went back there, and there was not one sign of what happened. They were using it as a garbage pit! Garbage! That very evening, within three hours, I wrote the poem. I wrote out of shame. Most of my poems are written out of shame or love. When Gorbachev was in power, I was a member of Parliament. I went to Kiev and found another Babi Yar. Thirty-five thousand women and children were buried there.
After democracy in Russia, for special symphonies and poems to be played, it is very rare. Only some pompous topics are heard. I was the only poet who made a performance in the Kremlin. Shostakovich wrote his symphony, in conjunction with my poem. The symphony, too, was criticized, but it didn’t work completely. In Parliament, I was against and spoke against censorship. I opened the way to the Kremlin Theater. The first time it was performed was in 1990. Since that time, we have democratization. Freedom, unfortunately, has many faces. They have concerts now, Elton John and Ray Charles, $1,500 a ticket. When I made my debut, very few people would have guessed that I’d be sold out. Now, ideological censorship has turned into commercial censorship. Paradoxically, the Kremlin is not really being used, just for pop concerts and some official gatherings. They play “Bolero,” what I call “bourgeoisie pomposity.” One music critic told me that if my concert sold out, he would devour his own hat. Now, for my birthday concert, it was the first pairing of “Babi Yar” with another poem of mine, “The Execution of Stephen Razin.” This is as I always intended it to be heard. Stephen Razin is a folk hero to us, like Robin Hood. He was executed in Red Square. He symbolized freedom of intellectuals. I said, “I want to introduce my best pieces together.” Folklore is very international. Many plots of fairy tales are the same.
So, OK. I wanted Franz Krager to perform these pieces for my birthday concert at the Kremlin. Why him? Why an American? He was the first conductor in the world, in Houston, to perform these pieces together. Every other conductor said, “It’s too heavy, too much.” They were scared to show my dream. When Franz Krager conducted it, it was a great discovery. They were students, so their voices were smaller, but he put up a lot of singers, 200. He not only conducted it, but he was like a stage director, too. He added things, sure. The singers were waving their fists, hissing. It was the absolute best performance of my work. Of course, for my birthday concert, it was impossible not to invite a Russian director, so a Russian director had to perform part of the performance. There is still a lot of chauvinism, Russian nationalism. But I like Americans! I was good friends with Carl Sandburg and Arthur Miller. I work with Americans and have American students.
Bankrate: What is a typical day like for you?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: I’m computing a giant anthology of Russian poetry from the 10th century. Poetry from a thousand years ago. I’m reading papers of my students. I will watch the English soccer game. I have two children and I’m teaching them Spanish. I’m fluent in Spanish, too. I have to write about Pasternak. At 10 p.m., there’s a soccer game. Then my wife and I are going to a little party.
Bankrate: Some people, such as gymnasts, were treated favorably under communist rule. Did you have any special privileges?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Absolutely no privileges. I am a self-made man. My grandfather was deemed one of the “enemies of the people.” So, they didn’t do anything special for me. Of course, I was a brainwashed child. I never left Russia and I was criticized. Since the age of 23, I have been a nationally famous poet. In 1972, I was performing in Madison Square Garden. Many of my books were stopped.
Bankrate: Didn’t you want to defect?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: No. It was my country. Why should I? I have a Russian passport. So, it’s not ideal, I would rather work on things here.
Bankrate: Russia’s biggest millionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is on trial. Do you think all of the international attention will make his trial more fair?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: I could say more, when I absolutely know the facts. Right now, the facts are very foggy. In my opinion, it was absolutely going too far to arrest him. He came back! Why should he be in prison? Is that necessary? All of the privatization in Russia is supposed to be according to law. Why? There are no laws! It’s almost impossible to find businessmen who are absolutely clean, according to the new rules. There is no clean capitalism, you can’t pretend there is. You see, the U.S. made a mistake, you can’t think your way of life is the best one. You have to have a diversity, a rainbow of styles.
Bankrate: Is there encouragement of investment for the general public in Russia? Or is it more common to hide cash under the bed?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Yes, we still have people with cash under the bed. We have many gifted people in many fields. Some have ideas. But, there’s no initial capital to realize it. We are not organized enough to have credit. I was a geologist. We have so many diamonds and minerals under Russia’s soil. We have projects frozen for lack of money. We have to build and improve giant roads. Moscow now has four times more cars than it did 10 years ago. It’s very difficult to get state credit. Most of our banks are monopolizations. There are people with billions and billions, grabbing for more. This is something new for us.
Bankrate: Do you have any investments?
Yevgeny Yevtushenko: No, I don’t play the investment game. I don’t know the rules of the game and I don’t expolit anyone. I don’t gamble, I only go to the casinos once every few years. I take $300 and I say, “I lost $300.” I never borrow money. If I give money to people, I forget that I give it to them. I tell myself I lost the money.