Voznesensky’s heyday was in the 1960s, when he was, with Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the “officially left-wing” poet, allowed to tweak the Soviet masters, but only to a point. They were intended to be proof that the Soviet powers allowed “freedom of speech” — but again, only to a point. The two were famous for their theatrical readings to the masses, who filled sports stadiums to hear them.
The real star power, at that time, was meanwhile, shovelling manure in the far north — Archangelsk, near the Arctic Circle, where he was serving time after a show trial that described him a parasite on the state. Joseph Brodsky went on to get a Nobel prize. Of course, Voznesensky had the wisdom not to haul off and sock KGB agents, as Brodsky had … but still…
Brodsky’s umbrage against the dynamic duo of Voznesensky and Yevtushenko wavered in intensity over the years. As with all mentors who shape one’s tastes and sensibilities, I’ve inherited his prejudices along with his predilections. Death, as always, provides an opportunity to review both. Easy to judge others’ reactions to a totalitarian regime when one is sitting on one’s bed with a computer on one’s lap, the California sunshine streaming in through a window. Frankly, I don’t think I have Brodsky’s guts. Voznesensky knew how to negotiate his survival. It doesn’t always command respect, but it certainly commands my sympathy.
In Solomon Volkov’s questionable memoir, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, Volkov draws out Brodsky’s opinions (Brodsky offhandedly says he had memorized 200-300 lines of poetry from each, despite his distaste; his memory was phenomenal), and gets this comment:
These boys were throwing stones in the officially sanctioned direction, knowing they’d land half a step ahead of the ordinary guy, who went nuts over it! That’s their entire historical role. All this is very simple, banal even! Yevtushenko and Voznesensky had friends in the Central Committee of the Party all along the way — second, or third, or sixteenth secretaries — so they were always more or less in the know about which way the wind would blow tomorrow.
In Brodsky: A Personal Memoir (I reviewed it in the Kenyon Review here), Ludmila Shtern defends her friend Voznesensky against her other friend, Brodsky. She recalls Voznesensky insisting on meeting her in Italy, although “Soviet émigrés were considered ‘untouchable’ by the Soviet government and any contact between them and Soviet citizens while on business trips could destroy a citizen’s career … When people were getting their permissions to go abroad, they were always warned by the KGB about avoiding émigrés in no uncertain terms, and they took these warnings seriously.” Visits involved a great deal of risk and subterfuge:
Despite all these troubles he spent the evening with us, read his poetry, and even offered to take some letters and clothing back to our friends in Moscow. We went to the flea market and bought enough used clothes to fill a whole suitcase. To each piece I attached a note saying who was supposed to get what. The suitcase came with a broken zipper, and when Andrei took it from a luggage claim in Moscow, it opened and all these dresses, blouses and shirts fell on the floor. Andrei was crawling on the floor picking it up under the malignant cameras of journalists and reporters. The next day one of the Moscow papers ran a big picture of this scene with the following caption: ‘The poor famous Soviet poet bought half of Italy.’
The Stanford University Libraries, by the way have Voznesensky’s papers; they were acquired six years ago. They already have Yevtushenko’s papers — and Hoover has the papers Boris Pasternak, Abram Tertz (Sinyavsky), and others (I recently wrote about the extraordinary Pasternak collection here.)
Perhaps it’s the post-heyday years that say the most about the man. From the New York Times:
In 1986 he published “The Ditch: A Spiritual Trial,” a work of prose and poems that centered on a German massacre of Russians in the Crimea in 1941 and the plundering in the 1980s of their mass graves by Soviet citizens. Mr. Voznesensky, tackling a subject long suppressed by the authorities, made clear that most of the 12,000 victims were Jews and implied that the looting of their bodies was tolerated for that reason.
At a poetry reading two years later, he took written questions from the audience. “All of you are Jews or sold out to Jews,” one note said. Another said, simply, “We will kill you.” Mr. Voznesensky read the unsigned notes aloud and demanded that the authors identify themselves. His challenge was met with silence.
In the 1990s Mr. Voznesensky disclosed a reluctance to go abroad. “I cannot leave the country,” he said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune in 1996. “I belong to the people. Now that they are in terrible trouble, they need me.”
“Poetry is the only hope,” he added. “Even if you do not believe it, you have to do it.”
POSTSCRIPT: Tim Rutten writes the Los Angeles Times obituary here. Bestest quote: “We are born not to survive but to put our foot on the accelerator!”