The Noise of Memory (Not a Book Review)

The Noise of Memory (Not a Book Review)

Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Photo from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yevgeny_Yevtushenko (By Cybersky – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7843853)

From Zima to Tulsa

This post is in remembrance of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He was a Russian poet who stirred the post-Stalin generation of Soviet intelligentsia and became its conscience. He was born in 1932 in a Siberian town of Zima (the name means winter) and died on April 1 of this year in Tulsa, OK, where he had taught at the university.

It was the earth-shattering poem Babi Yar that brought Yevtushenko world-wide acclaim – as George Orwell said, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” But outside the Soviet Union few comprehend the depth of his impact on his compatriots. Thus, a joke: “Question: How will a future encyclopedia describe Khrushchev? Answer: A mediocre statesman who lived in the time of Yevtushenko.”

Yevtushenko’s contemporaries grew up in families persecuted in the Gulag like his grandfathers. Or expecting a knock on the door every day. When Stalin died, they were young enough to shake off any lingering worship of him. And, more importantly, the fear that had defeated their elders. So, they burst out of the cage into the prison yard that felt as ultimate freedom.

A Poet in Russia is More than a Poet

The editor of the newspaper that published Babi Yar in 1961 lost his job. However, he remained free. The next explosive poem Stalin’s Heirs appeared in Pravda, no less. True, it never broke through censorship again until perestroika 25 years later but still… still, it was published!

Handwritten or typed poems we borrowed for the night to memorize, copy, and pass on magnified the euphoria. They were not quite forbidden but neither were arrests quite inevitable.

In 1962, I was in the young bright-eyed hopeful audience drinking in Yevtushenko’s every word and every freethinking nuance, real or wished for.

Next year, at the university entrance exam, a literature professor dead-set on flunking Jewish candidates focused on Yevtushenko. Should he have created Babi Yar and Stalin’s Heirs? Should those poems have seen the light of day? Did I agree with the author that anti-Semitism had a place in Soviet society? Considering that I earned a passing grade I must not have expressed my opinion.

It came as no surprise that Yevtushenko was among the few in the Soviet Union who publicly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. His poem Russian Tanks in Prague lived in Samizdat until its publication during perestroika.

The influence of his works was not limited to his generation. As late as the 1990s, the Soviet empire crumbling, young bright-eyed hopeful crowds, up to 200,000, filled huge concert halls, arenas and soccer stadiums clamoring to hear him. Yevtushenko begins one of his poems with “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” A poet in Russia must be a mensch.

A Composer in Russia is More than a Composer

Dmitri Shostakovich

It’s impossible to talk about Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the famous Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and not bring up their historic collaboration.

If you haven’t yet, read The Noise of Time and its review on this blog.

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

This book chronicles pivotal episodes in Shostakovich’s life that fell on the era of universal fear that warped and defeated souls.

But then Shostakovich set the first movement of his Symphony No. 13 to Babi Yar – only a year after the poem came out. That was not a defeated man. That was a hero and a mensch.

No pressure could make Shostakovich or Yevtushenko back down from performing the symphony. Though only a few performances took place they became as much a musical event as a show of defiance. Soon the symphony was banned but still… still, it was performed!

Tolstoy Award Nomination

And here is an additional incentive to read The Noise of Time: the novel is in the running for the 2017 Yasnaya Polyana award. Yasnaya Polyana was Leo Tolstoy’s family home, now a museum.

The Foreign Literature category of the award honors the most significant foreign books of this century translated into Russian and their translators. Here is the full list of the English-language nominees.

The jury will announce the winners in the fall. I’m rooting for The Noise of Time!

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