Yevtushenko - an unsolicited review


Unsolicited Book Review -- Stolen Apples, poetry by Evegeniy Yevtushenko

Yevtushenko is a Soviet-era poet who rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s.

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He is also a careerist, pandering to a western audience. He's received a lot of criticism from the likes of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, and Brodsky for his inability to be brave, stare into the face of adversity, and speak up. He has always been seen as a kind of 'safe poet' by Soviet standards. He was never imprisoned or exiled, and because of this (I know it sounds horrible), I feel like he's not authentically a rebel poet. His poetry has all the qualifications, but in the final moments, he backpedals and excuses himself from true revolutionary status.

Soviet poets are so popular because of the terrorism they faced on their own land. Many poets were imprisoned and then exiled upon their release. While this is certainly not necessary to criticize the Soviet regime, over time I find myself not taking seriously the poets who were never ostracized this way.

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Stolen Apples

Stolen Apples was written in Russian and English. On the back Yevtushenko wrote a nice letter to multiple Western poets asking them to translate his work. What poet worth his salt asks to be translated? Pushkin, Chekov (although not a poet) all wrote their work with such intricacies so as to make translation impossible.

I always feel that when I read a translated poem, I'm reading the translator's poem. I was excited to read John Updike's take on Yevtushenko. But after reading the poems in Russian, it became perfectly clear that Yevtushenko explained to Updike exactly what he wanted to say. Again, what poet worth his salt explains himself? The most beautiful poetry is beautiful for the meanings we assign it while reading.

His poems are for you. Yevtushenko's poems about Central Park, Chelsea Hotel, the Statue of Liberty, Kent State shooting, they're all for Americans. Soviet era Russians never possessed the same comprehension of freedom as Americans had. It wasn't until I came here that I understood how truly horrible violations of human rights are. In Russia it was just business as usual. Our upbringing was different, and for Yevtushenko, someone behind the iron curtain during his formative years, the differences must have been profound. What business does he have writing about these topics?

One perfect example comes to mind. In high school we studied the Kent State shootings. After our class, one of my Russian friends asked what the big deal was. 'Only four people died,' she said. Growing up in Russia like me, she never had the right to peacefully assemble. The police violating that right was foreign to her. Freedom was never part of our upbringing. Yevtushenko comes from the same stock. We had a very different definition of what it meant to be free.

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Babii Yar

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I remember one time at university there was a rally supporting gay rights. One guy had a picket sign, it said 'Love is Gay' in big letters, and underneath it 'or straight like me' in much smaller letters. I always wondered why he needed to add that to his sign. Why did he want to make sure everyone knows he's straight?

Babi Yar is Yevtushenko's most famous poem. It is truly beautiful. He speaks so eloquently of the horrors that happened during the Holocaust. But at the end of the poem he adds two lines, reminding the reader that he is not Jewish. Yes, he is hated by the anti-Semites as a Jew, but he is not Jewish. Why did he feel the need to add that?

That last line always brought me back to the student at the rally. Their reasons were the same: cowardice. Yevtushenko's last lines are there as if to say: 'I wrote this poem to speak about an injustice, but just in case anyone is checking, I am actually not part of that group.'

My mom would argue and say that the last lines were vital to Yevtushenko's safety, and she's right, but during the 1960s in Russia many poets threw safety to the wind and went for it. Yet he didn't. His most famous poem is pandering to Americans. He's not genuine or authentic.

Stolen Apples highlights his shortcomings beautifully. I recommend it to anyone who loves poetry. And if you love to hate Yevtushenko, like me, please leave me a comment so we can discuss this further ;))