ASKED to contrast the poet's role in Soviet and American society, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (whose nickname is Zhenia) bursts into anecdote. About 15 years ago, he recalls, he was driving the American poet Allen Ginsberg through Moscow. A policeman, stopping him for a traffic violation, recognized him - but said that, since the infraction was serious, he would have to take away Mr. Yevtushenko's license.
``So I said, `OK, is it better for you if I sign my new book of poetry for you?' '' The policeman accepted immediately, noting how difficult it was to buy his books.
``So I signed it and gave it to him. And Allen was laughing! He said to me, `Zhenia, in our country, if I would be stopped by the police, and if I would suggest giving as a kind of bribe my own book, he would think that I deserve to be in mental hospital - completely cuckoo - and he would make the penalty double.' ''
Such widespread recognition, however, has not come without a price. Accused by such 'emigr'e Russian writers as Irina Ratushinskaya and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky of complicity with the Soviet regime in the pre-glasnost days, he is sometimes dismissed as a poet of the ``official'' opposition.
``It's unfair and facile to judge him too severely,'' says David Bethea, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Wisconsin. He notes, however, that Yevtushenko is ``not considered to be all that serious or profound'' in literary circles, but rather as ``a talented user of words'' whose popularity is on the wane.
Tufts University Russian scholar David Sloane feels that Yevtushenko made ``a lot of compromises with the system'' and was rewarded with a lifestyle far more comfortable than that of more dissident writers. ``But he never compromised his conscience, and I've never heard a Russian say that he betrayed anyone.'' Prof. Sloane suggests that he compromised ``in order to remain a visible figure around whom criticism of the state could crystallize.''
Currently in the United States to promote his latest collection of poems and his new film, ``Stalin's Funeral,'' Yevtushenko will spend the spring term teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.