On this March 6th, a radio announcer begins, “Dearest Comrades and friends.” He begins knowing that the lives of all those who listened were about to be changed forever. And those poets who listened would somehow know their art could never be the same.
The relationship between the Soviet citizens and Stalin is one of intrigue. Stalin was, on one hand, a horrific leader who destroyed the lives and families of so many. On the other hand, he propelled the Soviet Union into a modernized society and had fostered between himself and the citizens a strong and personal tie: he was their provider, the successor of Lenin. He would bring forward the new era of socialism: a utopia. When he died, the state mourned his loss as they would a father. An eye-witness to the funeral, Evgenii Evtushenko, testified that “a sort of general paralysis came over the country.” His casket was something people sought out, they were desperate to see it, see him. People flooded the streets to catch a glimpse. To gain what, I suppose, would be confirmation that this leader was truly dead.
Evtushenko, the aforementioned eye-witness, was a Russian poet who would come to play a role in the de-Stalinization movement. Capitalizing on his fame and the freedom granted by the “Thaw,” he would write about the uncertainty, the abuse, and the ugliness that had been fostered by the Soviet climate. It was in the madness of this massacre in the procession of Stalin that he had a stark realization which would shape his life:
“I realized that there was no one to do our thinking for us now, if indeed there ever had been. I realized that we needed now to do some hard thinking… A feeling of responsibility, not only for myself but for our whole country, came upon me and I felt its crushing weight on my shoulders. I don’t mean that I instantly became aware of the full measure of Stalin’s guilt. I still continued to idealize him to some extent. Many of Stalin’s crimes were as yet unknown. One thing was clear to me — that a great number of problems had come to a head in Russia and to opt out of trying to solve them would itself be criminal. So I thought about poetry — both my own and Russian poetry in general.” (source.)
Before discussing the nature of Evtushenko’s poetry, it is important to understand the role literary artists played in the existing Russian culture. Similar to the expectations of cinematic art, literature was designed and expected to fit the narrative of the state. The historical themes of Russian poetry have strong ties to sympathetic views of the peasantry and the disavowment of corrupt political powers.
“Russian literature has traditionally been intertwined with politics, and often marked by a hostility toward authority and strong sympathy for the common people.” (source.)
Under Stalin’s Soviet State, however, there was his fear of the influence writers may have on the people and so it was declared in a court ruling that, “Any preaching of ideological emptiness, of an apolitical attitude, of ‘art for art’s sake,’ is foreign to Soviet literature, (and) harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State.” (Source.) And it was in this moment that poetry became its own source of rebellion. To write about the downfalls of Soviet society and the horrific things which occurred during the Second World War was to play a part in this tradition. But how Evtushenko contributed mirrors much more of a tightrope walk than a full free-fall.
After the death of Stalin and in the chaos of his funeral procession, Evtushenko feels both moved by the craving to write poetry about this horror and unworthy of contributing to the narrative. But, as he reflected, he explained: “the great Russian poets came to my help, their example making me believe that civic poetry can be more intimately lyrical than any other if it is written with single-minded generosity.” And so he wrote. As the truth about Stalin’s reign was exposed and prisoners of the various camps returned home, Evtushenko felt confronted with the ugliness of the lie. Although he had been a noteworthy writer prior to witnessing this event, this inspired him to become an active writer during “The Thaw.” Paying homage to the massacre of the Jews in Kiev with his poem “Babiyy Yar” and calling out the government, begging them to disavow the legacy of Stalin in Nasledniki Stalina (The Heirs of Stalin), Evtushenko took delicate topics and made them bold and unforgettably haunting.
In a New York Times article written about his death, the journalist describes Evtushenko: “He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots and timid bureaucrats.” But Evtushenko played an interesting role in his method of rebellion. Unlike other writers who were exiled due to their poetry, Evtushenko managed to appeal to both the citizens of repression and the state itself. Because of this, “he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.” (source.) But let this not unmove you from the contributions he gave to the cause. Evtushenko wrote about topics that most people shied away from. The uncertainty of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death? Evtushenko wrote about it in his narrative poem titled “Zima Junction.” He boldly went where others feared and did so in a way which ensured his safety without failing to drive home the point of his prose.
He led a career marked by controversy on both sides but the influence of his words cannot be discounted. Evtushenko played a careful role in the gray area between appeasing the political powers that may be and calling out the horrors and toxic potential of Soviet development. For this, he must be thanked. He bridged the gap between the truth and the deception and because of this, he must always be remembered.