`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.
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.
When not touring, Yevtushenko has stayed in the home fight on behalf of such banned classics as Boris Pasternak's ``Doctor Zhivago,'' many works of Vladimir Nabokov, and novels such as Anatoly Rybakov's ``Children of the Arbat.''
``Yevtushenko is important in this climate because of his ability to galvanize opinion,'' Mr. Ragan says. ``He wants to convince those with new freedoms that responsibility goes hand in hand.''
Such temperance has brought the poet criticism within and without the USSR. Detractors call him a vacillating opportunist who speaks liberally but pulls his punches to keep from being deported. Unlike exiled writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, who criticize the regime more stridently, critics say, Yevtushenko has diluted his artistic vision with too much prudence.
``He wants to stay in good graces with the Soviet Union, so they will allow him to emigrate and give recitals,'' says Mariamna Soudakoff, associate professor of Russian at Colorado College.
``In his early years, he was highly critical at a time when it was far more venturesome and dangerous,'' says David Finley, a Colorado College Soviet specialist. ``But to maintain the possibility of talking out within the system and not be victimized by the KGB, he's backed off.''
Aware of the criticisms of himself and of glasnost, Yevtushenko replies: ``A group of journalists in New York asked me, `What positive proof can you give us that glasnost is not propaganda, out-and-out deception?' they asked. My answer was simple: `Look at the films we've released, which were previously forbidden; look at the books we've published. You can't unpublish them later.'''
He mentions the books ``Chevengur'' and ``Foundation Pit,'' by Andrei Platonov - considered a pure Russian patriot whose books have not been published in 52 years. And he mentions the film ``Road Checks,'' directed by Alexei German. The film was recently released after 15 years of banishment.
Yevtushenko says most Americans have a myopic view of the Soviet Union, because they don't read the nation's literature. ``Even the Russian workers read novels by your best writers,'' he says.
Born in Stanzia Zima, Siberia, in 1933, Yevtushenko first rose to Soviet prominence in the 1950s with works such as ``Babi Yar,'' about the Nazi extermination of 96,000 Jews. Among works since translated into English are ``Winter Station'' (1964), ``The Bratsk Station and Other New Poems'' (1967), ``From Desire to Desire'' (1976), ``The Face Behind the Mask'' (1981), and ``A Dove in Santiago'' (1982).
``I am now what you might call a grandfather of glasnost,'' says the man who publicly rebuked Nikita Khrushchev for his treatment of sculptor Ernst Neizvestny and others in the the '50s.
``It has been 34 years since Stalin's death, and we learned the sad truth of his ways,'' Yevtushenko says. ``We have since seen many victories, some defeats, some attacks on us sitting in trenches. Now it is time to charge.''
`Requiem for Challenger,' by Yevgeny Yevtushenko Gagarin's brotherly shadow shuddered immortally crucified on the stars, and his widow began to walk over the ocean to her America sister-widows. The Statue of Liberty, crying the green tears of a mermaid, tried to reach the cosmos to save her children, but could not. Our life is a challenge. Our planet is our common Challenger. We humiliate her, frightening each other with bombs. But could we explode her? Even by mistake? Even by accident? That would be the final error never to be undone.
Excerpted from ``Almost at the End'' 1987, Henry Holt & Co.