Syria has committed a crime against humanity, an atrocity. At least 70 people have been killed, including at least 10 children, in one of the deadliest chemical attacks in Syria in years. Ghastly photos of gassed and dying children are being sent back to us to view as we browse the internet. I won’t look at them. Words fail on this occasion. And images fail, too. The headlines are hard to miss today.
Which brings me to the subject of this post. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was famous in his day, the rebellious, fiery young poet speaking truth to power. In the 1960s, his famous readings packed auditoriums. Yet his death at 84 on April 1 was dutifully covered by The New York Times, The Guardian, NPR, and others, but received surprisingly little comment and pickup in the social media and general buzz. One comment from the Guardian combox: “Sad to see so few comments here on such a major figure in 20th century history. And sad to read such a thin and begrudging obituary. In all my many contacts with ordinary [ie non-party] Soviet citizens over the years, it was very marked how often Yevtushenko’s name and his work crept into the conversation.” But hardly grudging, surely: the obituary was written by Robin Milner-Gulland, one of Yevtushenko’s important early translators.
Despite his grand oratorical style, Yevtushenko’s reputation faded over the years. The Guardian is too quick to dismiss the charges that he collaborated with the U.S.S.R. regime. Yevtushenko was able to travel freely, and dropped the names of the Soviet bigwigs he hobnobbed with. Those privileges came with a price, and Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky, for one, never forgave him. (Milner-Gulland notes “the fastidious Joseph Brodsky claimed to know several hundred lines of his by heart” – and that is also true.)
Since 2007, he divided his time between Russia and the University of Tulsa, where he taught poetry and world cinema.
So what does this death have to do with Syrian atrocities? This: Yevtushenko is best known for a poem on an atrocity that took place on his own Soviet soil. In 1961, the young poet visited a ravine just outside of Kiev known as Babi Yar. Twenty years earlier, on September 29-30, 1941, German troops had killed 33,771 Jews in that place. At spots like this there’s often a memorial or a plaque. But Yevtushenko didn’t find one, so he created his own.
“I was so ashamed that I wrote this poem very quickly,” he told NPR in 2000. “Probably it was three hours, four hours.”
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
Yet he wasn’t Jewish. But still he was ashamed. And perhaps that is something to be treasured in a world where there is so little of it. In the Soviet Union, the massacre was still contextualized within the “Great Patriotic War,” but Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem broke the code of silence about what the place and the occasion meant to Jews. The poem, as translated by Benjamin Okopnik, ends:
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
Postscript on 4/6: The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, a personal friend of the late poet, weighs in with a moving tribute here.