Meeting Yevtushenko

I come here to speak poetry. It will always be in the grass. It will also be necessary to bend down to hear it. It will always be too simple to be discussed in assemblies.




Boris Pasternak


“Dmitry, can you tell me why composers these days stopped writing melodies?”

Have you ever felt that an event in your life was bound to happen, no matter what obstacles fate put in its path?

This was my personal experience in the run-up to Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s performance at Slee Hall, University of Buffalo. Despite knowing of Yevgeny Aleksandrovich’s poetry for many years, I have decided that cancelling my teaching schedule and making the trip from Toronto was too much – it meant another working Sunday added to my already busy calendar. Then I received an e-mail from Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of English. She was asking me to accompany on the piano Mr Yevtushenko in song. “He’s written words to the music for “Lara’s Theme” (from Dr Zhivago-the film, from 1965!) and wants both to sing it himself in Russian and have someone else sing it in English,” she is saying.

How could I say no? Lessons were rescheduled, timetables rearranged.

When I arrive around 3 in the afternoon to meet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich and rehearse that song, I have a pleasant surprise in store. Abigail Unger, a singer from Buffalo and also a director of the Expressive Therapies Department at Hospice Buffalo is going to sing Lara’s Song both in Russian and English. Miss Unger possesses such warmth and lyricism to her voice – I immediately know I am in for a treat as a collaborator. We rehearse briefly and then we go to meet Yevgeny Aleksandrovich. Surrounded by the students who are going to read the English translations of his poems that same evening, he is rehearsing himself, concentrated, nervous, and somewhat distant. Nevertheless we shake hands but I could see that his mind is elsewhere.

Yevtushenko look a little frail, supporting himself with a cane and I can feel a little incredulity rising among the people in the room. How would he perform his poetry?

All worries are in vain, I could tell them that. When we come back in the evening for the performance he greets me specifically with the words: “Dimitar, I have butterflies in my stomach, what should I do?” Again, I have an answer for that but it is not needed.

All questions, doubts, worries vanish the moment Yevtushenko sets foot on that stage. Transformed, full of energy, he is Yevtushenko the actor, Yevtushenko the director and yes, definitely Yevtushenko the poet.

He sings Lara’s Song, Miss Unger sings with him, I playe the piano for both of them and they finish off dancing a nostalgic waltz around the stage and the applause is deafening and deserved…

When the performance is over and while many people stay to talk, share and mingle, Yevgeny Aleksandrovich sits at a table in the UB Center for the Arts and for hour and a half signs books and talks to absolutely everybody that has the desire to do it.

I wait. Patiently. In the end we are the last ones to leave. We sit at a nearby bar and drink tea. My interview with the legendary Yevgeny Yevtushenko is about to begin.

D.P.: What do you say we do the interview in Russian?

Y.Y.: OK

D.P.: When you look at the past, was there a single event in your life that defined you as a person?

Y.Y.: Yes. The event is Stalin’s funeral. Going to the funeral, I had, like all children of my generation, very conflicting emotions. On one side, my aunt has already told me that Stalin was a murderer, something my mom never talked about. By the way, my mom never told me he was a nice person either.

The thing is that both my granddads were arrested in 1937, when I was 4. My mom wanted to find out what has happened to them, she prepared a small bundle of things for them and took me to the prison, on Sailor’s Silence Street. There was such a place. This is my earliest clear memory although I have a vague recollection of my grandfathers being arrested. One of them was a mathematician, intellectual. The other was a man in the mould of Chapaev, a Christian, a man awarded three St. George Crosses but nevertheless he joined the Red Army. He was a sincere believer. ..

They were both taken and my mom went to find out what happened to them. I begged her to take me with her and she did. We stood there a long time. I remember a huge crowd, mainly women and children. No men to be seen. I asked my mom why there were no men there.

‘Because they are afraid of being arrested.’

I asked: ‘Why you, women, are not afraid?’

‘We are different people,’ replied Mom.

Of that last statement I’ve had numerous confirmations throughout my life.

Going back to why my mother didn’t talk bad about Stalin – she didn’t want to unload such a big burden on the shoulders of a young boy. She thought:

‘What is this boy going to do with a story like that? If he starts telling his friends about that, I will be jailed and nothing would come out of that…’

Going back to your question, when I went to Stalin’s funeral, on the street there were these big trucks parked too close to the walls of the buildings. The crowd was moving like a river towards the square. Then they announced that there will be access to Stalin’s body, which was something unheard of. While he was alive, you could only ever see him from afar, standing on the mausoleum’s tribune. And suddenly they say everybody will be allowed to see him up close. They forgot how narrow the street has become because of those trucks. There were an immense number of people there. Schools were closed, factories, everybody was running. There were even actors from the circus, all kinds of people. In my film Stalin’s Funeral, there was a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin. I saw that. Everybody was running there. People had different reasons to be there.

On one side, from my perspective, Stalin achieved victory over Hitler as supreme commander of the Red Army and I admired him for that. On the other side, this was a man that ordered people arrested, people I knew, including my two grandfathers. I knew that people were being jailed for no reason.

The crowd on the street was squeezed very tight because of those trucks. There was a Georgian officer who tried to save people but he couldn’t do much. People were screaming:

‘Take away the trucks,’ because the street looked like a narrow riverbed. They were actually dying under the feet of the crowd. The officer’s reply was:

‘I can’t, I don’t have orders to remove them!’

The phrase ‘I don’t have orders to remove them’ was the whole Stalinist system in a nutshell.

Somebody gave orders to put the trucks there in the first place but who and why, nobody questioned. Somebody or ‘something’ was giving orders and as a result people were dying. Konchalovskiy made a film, Inner Circle, in which people going to the funeral were carrying portraits of Stalin. In fact, nobody was carrying Stalin’s portrait, not even a single one. It wasn’t clear what will happen with Stalin’s reputation. His portrait was only at the front of the Colonnade Hall where the casket lay. Anyway, we were getting squashed, so we had to save ourselves somehow. I realized that Stalin and the system he established will continue to kill people even after his death. At that moment me and my friends thought of something that saved many people. Imagine that – it was 1953, I was 19.

The crowd could also be a monster. Mob rule is equally scary when its instincts are let loose. I saw at that moment how scary it could be. People who are not inherently bad become beasts, uncontrollable. There is only an instinct of self-preservation left. So, few of us did something very simple. We held hands and “cut” the crowd into segments. The crowd became a tamed beast.

I realized then and there that human solidarity could tame even the scariest chaos. I understood many things at once at that moment. I understood what dictatorship is. One must not allow dictatorship of the chaos and one must not allow dictatorship of the Stalin’s type. Disciplinary. They are dangerous and they both kill.

So that became the most important event in my life.

When I got home my mom asked me whether I saw Stalin. I said: ‘No, Mom, I didn’t see Stalin but I now understand everything.’

D.P.: …in a way you “saw” him, didn’t you?

Y.Y.: …it was the moment when I understood everything. Our generation was young and it was easier for us to change our way of thinking. The previous one, the soldiers who went through the war with Stalin’s name on their lips couldn’t do it like that.

The political scene was empty after Stalin’s death. There was no Solzhenitsyn yet, he was in GULAG.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich wasn’t written yet. Sakharov was still veiled in secrecy as a state scientist, himself admitting later that he cried at the news of Stalin’s death. He confessed of being very naive at that time. Only later, when the first witnesses started coming back from the camps, the ‘first swallows’, so to speak, the truth started to emerge bit by bit. Then Sakharov started changing his thinking. He became a political activist and so forth and he played a very important role. In my opinion, there was something very important in Sakharov’s views. He was the only person that pointed to a certain path for the whole of humanity but humanity up to this day hasn’t understood that path. Part of the reason is because he was a great thinker and the most honest man but he was a bad populariser.  The word Convergence, which he came up with, was the idea of mixing the better of the two systems. It is a simple idea. He was of the opinion that both the so called ‘socialism’ and the capitalism were ‘unfit for purpose’. He thought that both systems in their current version were faulty because they were grounded in dictatorship. America is practically an empire. I am not demonizing the Americans, I love them. They are somewhat naïve in a sense. They think that everybody should love them because they want to build MacDonald’s’ and so on…And everybody would like that…And they don’t understand why they are not loved, why they are lied to. They even get offended by that. Isn’t this so?

But why? Well, imagine that you hear a quarrel from a house on your street and you get on your tractor and drive it there in order to settle things down when, in fact, nobody has asked you to go there and do that. The first thing that will happen is that your quarrelling neighbours will hate YOU. They will reconcile among themselves somehow but they will hate you. Right now Russia and the former USSR are no threat whatsoever to the Americans. But the Americans are weakening themselves by trying to control in some way a vast part of the globe at the same time as their education system is falling apart. They are closing schools in many states now. At the same time they are building schools in Afghanistan. They were also very happy about those ‘progressive’ movements in the Near East, Egypt and so on but who are those people? Mubarak’s secret service people are in power now. I see some naivety in that. There is no need to demonize Putin as well. The American press is doing it because they are afraid to do the same with Chinese leaders for the simple reason that America owes China quite a bit of money.

We need to go back to Sakharov and his idea of taking the best of all systems. We don’t need any kind of dictatorship, neither the chaotic one, neither by someone who sees themselves as ruler of the whole world. His idea is just lying there in the open and nobody has picked it up.

D.P.: So far you have done so many different creative things in your life. What do you think – did poetry chose you or you chose poetry?

Y.Y.: I don’t know. But even my films are poetic. Poetry is an attitude to life, not a genre.

In my opinion, writers like Camus or George Orwell who showed the dangers of the totalitarian rule, had a poetic approach. What is happening now is anti-poetry. All that vulgarity. Triumphant vulgarity, zombiefication of the people.  That’s why poetry is very important now, poetic attitude. More than in any other time, now we need idealists and philosophers. But nobody is supporting them, nobody is financing that. It is time to stop doing only what is profitable. Arms dealing, for example. The opposite – we now need people who can inspire, charge, give some kind of faith to young people.

There are historical moments of passion, of hope. Nobody has that right now – neither Americans, Russians, nobody. The only thing happening now is a kind of psychopathic nationalism. Internationalism, solidarity is vanishing.  What is substituted with, is nationalism, which is turning into tribal mentality and further into God knows what.

We need to return to a common idea for humanity. We can’t exist on the foundations of old philosophies. We still haven’t started using a summary of 20th century experience to guide us. Nobody has written it yet.

D.P.: Do you think that poets could write that summary?

Y.Y.: May be not poets but people with a poetical approach! Metaphorical approach. By the way, all scientific discoveries have an element of poetry. Every scientific discovery is a poetic metaphor. This is the reason poetry is so important. Poetry is the thing that inflames. I am not talking of poetry as a genre, as literature, but simply as an attitude to life.

Do we need a meaning in life apart from money and possessions? Are these things only enough? Does this mean that The Peter Principle  is the most correct book? Think about it. How could such a person as George W. Bush become a president of the United States? Not because he was bad, there is no need for demonizing him. But he relied on the power of incompetence. Nowadays, incompetence helps a person rise on the ladder and make a career.

Pasternak said that unprofessionalism is always immoral.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Cristanne Miller

D.P.:  You talked today of Russia as an open wound for you. What needs to happen for that wound to heal? Is it nostalgia of some kind?

Y.Y.: No, this is not nostalgia; I don’t want to turn back time. I am not idealizing the past. At the same time we shouldn’t throw out all that was good. Free health care and free education, which did exist, are wonderful ideas. Nowadays a student at school, for example, is ashamed if they are poor. The honest poverty is shameful now. Again. By the way, that sentiment is even stronger in the former socialist countries.

I talked about something today and I will repeat it. I think all heads of states should get together once a year and each one of them should talk about what his/her mistakes have been, as a person and as a country. Not only pointing fingers at one another like they do now: ‘It’s your fault…it’s your fault’.

Basically, we need radically different approaches to the situation in the world. We don’t need those invented conflicts. Russia is a capitalist country, just as the USA. It is now a competition between corporations, there is absolutely no ideology in it, that’s nonsense. These are big countries and the big countries should not allow the small ones to quarrel with each other and kill each other, for example, Bosnians killing Serbians and vice versa.

D.P.:  Are you an optimist?

Y.Y.: If I was occupying a very high government post, my chief advisor should be a sceptic. That’s all I could say.

Copyright © 2012 Dimitar Pentchev