Russian poet and novelist Yevgeny A. Yevtushenko died on 1 April 2017 aged 84.
Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko (1932-2017) died in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from cancer. Yevtushenko’s son, Yevgeny Y. Yevtushenko, said his father passed away peacefully, painlessly. He said family members and friends, including his widow, Maria Novikova, were with his father in his final hours. “I was holding his hand about the last hour or so,” he said. “He knew he was loved.”
Yevtushenko was born Yevgeny Aleksandrovich Gangnus on 18 July, and later took his mother’s last name, Yevtushenko. He was born in the Irkutsk region of Siberia in Zima Junction. He had Russian, Baltic German, Ukrainian, Polish, Belarusian and Tatar roots.
After World War II, Yevtushenko studied in Moscow, before studying at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow from 1951-1954. He dropped out of his studies.
He published his first poem in 1949 and his first book in 1952. In 1952 he joined the Union of Soviet Writers after publication of his first collection of poetry.
In 1955 Yevtushenko wrote a poem about the Soviet borders being an obstacle in his life. His first important publication was the poem Stantsiya Zima (Zima Station) in 1956. In 1957, he was expelled from the Literary Institute for “individualism.” He was banned from traveling, but gained wide popularity with the Russian public.
He gained notoriety with his poem “Babi Yar” in 1961 about the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews by the Nazis. It took him two hours to write the poem that begins, “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.” Yevtushenko said he wrote the poem after visiting the site of the mass killings in Kiev, Ukraine, finding no historical marker.
“I don’t call it political poetry, I call it human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value,” Yevtushenko said about his poetry. Dissident exile poet Joseph Brodsky was critical of him and resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when Yevtushenko was made an honorary member in 1987.
Yevtushenko contributed lyrics to several Soviet films. His acting career began with the leading role in Vzlyot (Take-Off ) in 1979, playing the leading role as Russian rocket scientist Tsiolkovsky.
At the height of his fame, he read his poetry in soccer stadiums to hundreds of thousands of people. “He’s more like a rock star than some sort of bespectacled, quiet poet,” said former University of Tulsa President Robert Donaldson, who specialized in Soviet policy during his academic years at Harvard. Donaldson invited Yevtushenko to teach at the university in 1992.
“I like very much the University of Tulsa,” Yevtushenko said in a 1995 interview with the Associated Press. “My students are sons of ranchers, even cowboys, oil engineers. They are different people, but they are very gifted. They are closer to Mother Nature than the big city. They are more sensitive.”
After October 2007 Yevtushenko divided his time between Russia and the United States, teaching Russian and European poetry and the history of world cinema at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma and at Queens College of the City University of New York.
His son said his father was first diagnosed with cancer about six years ago and underwent surgery to have part of his kidney removed, but the cancer had recently re-emerged.
Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev said on the Russian social media site Vkontakte after Yevtushenko’s death: “He knew how to find the key to the souls of people, to find surprisingly accurate words that were in harmony with many.” A spokesman for President Vladmir Putin said Yevtushenko’s legacy would remain “part of Russian culture.”
Natalia Solzhenitsyna, widow of the novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, said on Russian state television that Yevtushenko “lived by his own formula.” She said, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet. And he really was more than a poet – he was a citizen with a pronounced civic position.”
Yevtushenko’s son said his father was proud of the high regard in which he was held in his homeland, as well as internationally. “He was also proud of being a global citizen,” he said. “There’s more that unites us than there is that divides us.”