Remembering Yevgeny Yevtushenko & the world’s most famous poem

Est Reading Time: 8 min

[CN: Genocide]

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Yesterday the distinguished Soviet poet/dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko died. I’ve published before about him writing possibly the world’s most famous poem as well as an appalling piece of propaganda, in honour of his impact here’s a repost of the above with adaptations for the present day.

The world’s most famous poem

The poem has some interesting backstory especially since Yevtushenko gave a Russian-language interview in 2011 with some insider details.

The Nazi campaign of exterminating Jews was fought on two fronts. In Western Europe, they were more cagey about their antisemitism, with most of Jews being taken to concentration camps closer to Eastern Europe to be killed. This is the aspect of the Holocaust most known in the west.

Many more Jews were killed in Eastern Europe. There, the non-Jewish civilian population had [+has] a much higher level of antisemitism so the Nazis’ extermination program was seen as a feature not a bug. The Nazis proudly proclaimed it and got a very substantial percentage of the local population helping round up entire villages/towns and gunning them down into mass graves. This is less well known in the west.

On Sep 29-30 1941, 33771 Jews were murdered in a ravine near Kiev (Ukraine’s capital) called Babi Yar and placed in a mass grave. This was one of the biggest single-handed extermination operations of the Holocaust. The ravine was also used to bury other Jews, Roma, Soviet POWs, Ukrainian civilians and others — about 100,000-150,000 more.

Once WWII ended, the area returned to being the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Because of the extremely high level of antisemitism in the Soviet Union, the powers that be took the ethnic angle out of the Holocaust. According to official sources at the time, Babi Yar and similar massacres were examples of Nazi aggression against Soviet citizens, not against Jews, Roma, LGBT people and so on. Yep, the Politburo was pulling an #AllLivesMatter on Holocaust victims and this incident provides another great example of how crappy that approach is.

In 1961, Yevtushenko wrote a poem about Babi Yar, explicitly identifying it as a massacre of Jews and making it a stand-in for Europe’s entire history of antisemitism. He talked about the USSR’s marginalisation of the Jewish aspect of WWII history and the continuing institutional antisemitism.

The reaction, which was massive, was what made this a contender for the world’s most famous poem.

He wrote it shortly before he was due to give a recital in Ukraine. The recital was immediately cancelled, even before the poem was officially published. He managed to get the recital put on anyway by telling those in charge of the show that he will take the cancellation as an insult to Russian poetry and Russian culture and threatening to go public with even more criticism.

He read his poem. A minute’s shocked silence, broken by an old woman hobbling up to the stage. She told Yevtushenko that she was a survivor of Babi Yar, being the first to fall into the ditch, then crawling out from under the bodies when it was over. She thanked him for speaking up after decades of silence, prostrated herself and kissed his hand.

The editor responsible for the publication knew that he’d be fired. He told Yevtushenko that him and his wife had a family meeting and decided they were prepared for the consequences. In the publishing house, everyone was lining up to shake his hand. After publication, the outrage poured in, using some of the tactics you might be familiar with from being on the internet. The poem is against international brotherhood. Singling out a specific ethnicity is insulting. You’re the real racist. What about the non-Jewish WWII victims? Why are you providing a talking point to socialism’s enemies?

Actual readers loved it though. The poem spread faster than centralised printing would allow. There were no faxes but within days most of the country knew about it. People transmitted it by phone: they would ring their friends and read it out to be written down. In just the first week, he got 10,000 letters and it was translated into 72 languages. Due to concerns for his safety, a bunch of uni students kept watch over his apartment, in case They would show.

The most famous English translation of the poem by Ben Okopnik (details) is below. But it can’t capture the metre and rhyme of the original.

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

The appalling propaganda

In 1952, just 9 years before Baby Yar, Yevtushenko was younger, he loved Stalin. He published a very fawning poem that got him into the Soviet Writers Union. Given the magnitude of Stalin’s crimes that become public just a few years after the poem’s publication, it’s particularly chilling.

Even though he was embarrassed about this years later, and became a critic of the regime, it still needs to be acknowledged. (I’ve found something online denying he wrote this but it was from a website with a subtitle #SaveDonbassPeopleFromKievNazisArmy so yeah…) Original Russian is first, followed by my translation.

Я знаю:
Вождю
бесконечно близки
мысли
народа нашего.
Я верю:
здесь расцветут цветы,
сады
наполнятся светом.
Ведь об этом
мечтаем
и я
и ты,
значит
думает Сталин
об этом!

Я знаю:
грядущее видя вокруг,
склоняется
этой ночью
самый мой лучший на свете друг
в Кремле
над столом рабочим.
Весь мир перед ним —
необъятной ширью!
В бессонной ночной тишине
он думает
о стране,
о мире,
он думает
обо мне.
Подходит к окну.
Любуясь столицей,
тепло улыбается он.
А я засыпаю,
и мне приснится
очень
хороший
сон.

I’ve preserved it quite literally including the line breaks since they’re important to the fawning.

I know
the Leader
is unfathomably close
to the thoughts
of our nation.
I believe:
flowers will bloom here,
gardens
will fill with light.
See, of this
we dream
me
and you,
which means
Stalin also thinks
of this!

I know:
seeing the future that’s to come,
my best friend in the world
bends
over
his office desk
in the Kremlin.
The whole world if before him —
in its great breadth!
In the night’s sleepless quiet
he thinks
of the country
of the world
he thinks
of me.
Approaches the window.
Enthralled by the capital,
he smiles with warmth.
And I fall asleep,
and will have
the most
wonderful
dream.