Seizing the moment to unlock Russia's soul
`IF you read history of Russia, you will find that all the political/social moments which changed our history began in poetry,'' says Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in a thick Siberian accent. In a land where poets have reigned as critics, prophets, and arbiters of the national conscience, Mr. Yevtushenko has been called the most influential and well-known.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Since the late '50s, he and poets like Andrei Voznesensky and Belle Akhmadulina have proclaimed their verse in mammoth public recitals where audiences 10,000- and 20,000-strong have no American counterpart, save, perhaps, the rock concert.
Now, the man who has swung in and out of official favor for three decades - a leading figure in the fight against Stalinism, anti-Semitism, and censorship in literature, drama, and film - is beating the drum at home and abroad for glasnost (openness). ``You American people don't understand it now, hearing only an echo of Russian glasnost and finding it very interesting - but this is truly a moment of history for the world,'' he says, on the porch of a friend's Beverly Hills house after a recent reading.
Yevtushenko has just completed a tour of one-night poetry readings from Alabama to Wyoming, in restaurants, libraries, and theaters that have become his populist venue here over the years. SRO crowds came to hear poetry on such typical themes as tyranny vs. freedom, rich against poor, and private integrity vs. public duty, as well as Yevtushenko's newly published opus, ``Fuku.''
This epic of poetry and prose includes numerous passages on previously forbidden subjects such as the resurgence of neo-Stalinism and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. When the poem was published, in 1985 - reportedly at the behest of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev himself - it was considered a milestone victory in the long history of Soviet censorship. Forty major writers, along with the editorial board of the literary journal Novy Mir, appealed over the head of the state central censorship board to the Politburo, which ruled that censorship must be loosened.
``In `Fuku!' which means `taboo,' I am cursing any kind of tyranny, from Hitler to Stalin - the evils wrought by great men, even the tyranny of petty things,'' the poet says. ``We have glorified too many people through history - Alexander the Great, Napoleon. For me a washerwoman who once broke bread for me was more deserving of reverence.''
It was in the same year ``Fuku'' was published (1985) that Yevtushenko further emboldened a conference of Russian writers toward glasnost. In a bold speech in Moscow designed to test the reforms called for by Mr. Gorbachev, he demanded that Soviet literature stop skirting such topics as distortions of past history, crimes of Stalin, bureaucracy, privilege, shortages, and censorship.
``Public silence is a hidden form of anarchy,'' he says; ``a self-censorship practiced in unfree situations.''
``It was quite a surprising and shocking speech in the fragile climate of glasnost's genesis,'' says James Ragan, professor of advanced poetry and playwriting at the University of Southern California.
More than a year has passed since the speech, and Yevtushenko and others are pointing to the fruits of glasnost - a resurgence in avant-garde film and theater; exhibitions by previously banned artists like Marc Chagall; rock stars moving up from the underground; and pro and con reviews in magazines.